Jewish tradition has it that Abraham, through his renowned kindness, attracted thousands of devotees to Judaism. Yet, a full three generations later, by which time the world’s Jewish population ought to have reached large numbers, the Bible (Genesis 46) indicates a total Jewish population of merely 70 souls.
The great transmitters of the Oral Torah explain that Abraham had focused on the Almighty’s capacity for unrestrained love and compassion. Isaac, the icon of Rosh Hashanah, introduced an awareness of God’s firm hand into Jewish culture. Many of the disciples drawn by Abraham’s gentle nature were later repelled by Isaac’s unpopular emphasis on law, leaving a core following of only 70.
Yet it is precisely the structure of law that defines boundaries and allows humans to live with one another. In chapter three of Ethics of the Fathers, we are exhorted to “Pray for the welfare of legal authority – without it, men would destroy each other.” The origin of legal authority and its best validation is the model of Divine authority. For this reason, civil authorities like kings would often head the church. They were aware that their acceptance of God’s authority made it more logical for citizens to accept theirs.
In other words, my children are more likely to obey my rules and, later, society’s, if they grow up watching me accept God’s edicts. Children of parents whose vehicles sport bumper stickers that read “Question Authority” will grow up doing just that. They will also become rather hard to live with.
We humans are by nature reluctant to submit ourselves to a higher authority. The realization that a treasured human characteristic like laughter hinges on that submission helps persuade us that civilization depends on our accepting God’s judgment. That is the paramount message of the High Holy Days and accounts for its unexpected motif.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a radio and television talk show host, is president of Toward Tradition.