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So on Rosh Hashanah we live in the presence of this risk-laden proposition, that in goodness is the way of life. Knowing our failings, we come before God asking Him to find in us some act that we have done, or that we might yet do, for good. “Write us in the book of life.”
* * *
The ram’s horn, though, meant something else to Jewish tradition as well as the sound of judgment. It recalled one of the great trials of the Hebrew Bible: Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac for the love of God. This too is a mystery until we read the end. God tells Abraham to put down the knife. He does not desire the sacrifice of human life. Abraham looks around and sees a ram caught in a bush by its horn and offers it instead. This became a motif of Rosh Hashanah: “Rabbi Abbahu said: Why do we blow the ram‘s horn? The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Sound before Me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before me.’ ”
I sometimes wonder what lay behind this interpretation of Rabbi Abbahu, a great third-century sage. Was it merely the idea of ancestral merit, that God would forgive Israel as He had done in the days of Moses out of love for the patriarchs? Or was it a more recent memory of the Jews who had died as martyrs under Roman rule rather than give up practicing their faith and teaching Torah in public? For they had allowed themselves to be bound at the altar of self-sacrifice, and no word had come from heaven to end the trial.
I remember one of the first sermons I was called on to give. I was a student at the time, and the Torah portion of the week was the passage in Exodus that describes how the Israelites in the wilderness made the golden calf. After days of fruitless effort l turned to my teacher for advice. “I want,” I said, “to say something positive. But wherever I turn I find something dispiriting: the Israelites’ sin, Aaron’s weakness, and Moses’s anger.” My teacher replied with the following remarkable words:
“When Moses prayed for forgiveness for the Israelites, he said, ‘Because this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin and take us as Your inheritance’” (Exodus 34:9). Was this not a strange thing to say? Their obstinacy was surely a reason to be angry with them, not to forgive them. But the truth is that we are an obstinate people. When the Israelites saw God in the wilderness, they disobeyed Him. But when they could not see Him, throughout the many centuries when Jews were powerless and persecuted for their faith, they were tenaciously loyal to Him. They might have converted or assimilated, but they did not. They chose to suffer as Jews rather than find tranquility by relinquishing their Judaism. Their obstinacy, which was once their greatest vice, became their greatest virtue.
It was with that plea that Jews came before God on the days of judgment. They had known what it was to be Isaac bound on the altar. Already in the Middle Ages, as they wept for the victims of the blood libels and the Crusades, the authors of elegies recalled that earlier trial. In a penitential prayer once said on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, telling the story of massacre in Mainz in 1096 in which more than a thousand Jews died, many of them children, we read:
When were there ever a thousand and a hundred sacrifices in one day, each like the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham? Once at the binding of one on Mount Moriah, the Lord shook the world to its base … O heavens, why did you not go black, O stars, why did you not withdraw your light, O sun and moon, why did you not darken in your sky?
Long before the Holocaust, Jews knew the risk they took in remaining Jews. But Jews they remained. The ram’s horn spoke not only of the majesty of God. It spoke of the obstinate loyalty of the Jewish people, Abraham’s children.
* * *
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of Jewish spirituality. Born in Galicia in 1740, he became a disciple of the Maggid of Mezerich, himself a follower of the Baal Shem Tov. These were the early days of the chassidic movement when it was a revolutionary force in Jewish life. Chassidism belonged to the mystical tradition of Judaism. But unlike previous mystical groups, it was popular rather than esoteric. It emphasized devotion and prayer more than scholarship. It spoke to simple Jews rather than to the rabbinic elite. And it placed at the center of its world the charismatic leader – the tzaddik or rebbe – who watched over the destiny of his followers. Against the backdrop of medieval Jewish tradition with its emphasis on study and on the rabbi as scholar and teacher, it was a radical departure, and the movement had strong opponents – the mitnagdim. Levi Yitzchak found himself frequently embroiled in controversy and was forced to move from town to town. Eventually, in 1785, he came to Berdichev where, as a rabbi and communal leader, he won widespread respect. He served there until he died in 1810.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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This ability to remain calm under pressure and continue to see the situation clearly is a hallmark of Yehuda’s leadership.
It would have been understandable for these great warriors to become dispirited.
Yosef, in interpreting the first set of dreams, performed in a manner that was clearly miraculous to all.
Chazal teach us that we need to be “sur may’rah v’asei tov,”avoid bad and do good.
When we celebrate the completion of learning a section of Torah, we recite the Hadran.
‘The Fetus Is A Limb Of Its Mother’
Yosef proves he is a true leader; He is continually and fully engaged in the task of running Egypt
When the inability cannot be clearly attributed to either spouse, the halacha is the subject of debate among the Rishonim.
Those who reject our beliefs know in their souls Jewish power stems from our faith and our prayers.
He stepped outside, and, to his dismay, the menorah was missing. It had been stolen.
Though we Jews have deep obligations to all people our obligation to our fellow Jew is unique.
In a way that decision was the first in a series of miracles with which Hashem blessed us.
Question: If Abraham was commanded to circumcise his descendants on the eighth day, why do Arabs – who claim to descend from Abraham through Yishmael – wait until their children are 13 to circumcise them? I am aware that this is a matter of little consequence to our people. Nevertheless, this inconsistency is one that piques my curiosity.
Tamar’s conduct bears an uncanny resemblance to Ruth’s; virtuous outsiders at the margins of society
Simply too many cases of prayers being answered to deny it makes a difference to our fate. It does.
When Jacob was chosen, Esau was not rejected; G-d does not reject.
Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect as Abraham loved both his sons.
God wanted to establish the principle that children are not the property of their parents.
The Babel story is the 2nd in a 4-act drama that’s unmistakably a connecting thread of Bereishit
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