The akeidah, the binding of Isaac, has always been an enigmatic and intriguing narrative, a story with which Jewish scholars and thinkers have long grappled. We simply cannot make sense of the many ethical and moral questions raised therein, such as:
- How could God have ordered a man to murder his son, especially since there are so many dictates in the Torah condemning murder in general and child sacrifice in particular?
2. How could Avraham have been so sure that God had indeed commanded him to kill his innocent child – the very same child God had promised would be his progeny, and through which the message of monotheism would be carried for eternity?
- Even if Avraham was convinced that God had so commanded him, was it his duty to obey without even an argument or discussion? Avraham negotiated with God over the fate of Sodom; couldn’t he say even one word about Yitzchak?
- Is there a concept of a temporary suspension of the ethical due to the immediate imperative of listening to the voice of God? If so, this sounds like a dangerously slippery slope toward anarchy.
Throughout history there generally gave been three approaches to answering the questions raised above: (1) Stressing the “happy ending” and focusing on the fact that the whole episode was only a “test” and that Hashem never really meant for Avraham to kill Yitzchak, since it would go against Hashem’s very nature. (2) Noting Avraham’s absolute love and fear of God and that in fact Avraham was ready, able, and willing to sacrifice Yitzchak, in what Kierkegaard would say was a teleological suspension of the ethical. (3) Finding a middle ground by holding that it is impossible that God could ever be false to His own nature and command such a murder. Yet if he could, Avraham would be obligated to comply.
Rambam gives several approaches to understanding the akeidah, one of which is that man, out of love and fear of God, is obliged to go even as far as Avraham was prepared to go, and that the “test” was not given in order to provide God with information about Avraham’s readiness to comply with His directive but rather to provide a “test case” of the limits to which a man can and should go in his love and fear of God.
Rav Soloveitchick, in Ish HaHalachah, suggests that the man who follows halacha is to obey God’s revealed will, which transcends man’s merely rational aspirations for a happy and good life. The deeper aspects of religious faith are only to be found through man’s torment by God’s demands, both on his intelligence and on his conscience.
With all the philosophical angst and turmoil over the akeidah narrative, the question becomes more acute as to why akeidas Yitzchak is such a central and prominent narrative during the tefillah of Rosh Hashanah. Respectfully, I would like to suggest another approach to the akeidah narrative, one that perhaps ties the essence of the akeidah to Rosh Hashanah, and is alluded to within the tefillah itself.
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As to the centrality of the akeidah to Rosh Hashanah, we can start by asking why we need to hear the shofar. Among the reasons given for sounding the shofar is that it is reminiscent of the ram’s horn, the ram having been substituted for Yitzchak on the sacrificial altar. So we are reminded of the akeidah even on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and even without the akeidah being part of the Torah reading of that day.
Further, there is a logical sequence in the Torah readings of the two days of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading of the first day records the birth of Yitzchak while the Torah portion about the akeidah is read on the second day. Although Chazal make a connection and teach that Hashem remembered Sarah on this day of Rosh Hashanah and granted her conception of the son He had promised, I contend that the akeidah is the main theme of Rosh Hashanah, and the full impact of the akeidah narrative can only be appreciated if the birth of Yitzchak (Hashem pakad es Sarah, Bereishit 21: 1) is clearly articulated. Thus the Torah reading of Day One is preparation for the Torah reading of Day Two.
In addition, the akeidah theme is highlighted in the Zichronos section of the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah right before the blowing of the shofar. There we pray: “Zachrenu b’zicharon tov le’fanecha…Remember us with a favorable memory before You, and recall us with a recollection of salvation and mercy from the primeval loftiest heavens – mi’shmay sh’may kedem.”
The passage then explains these words as a reference to the oath Hashem swore to Avraham on Har Hamoriah at the akeidah. It continues, noting that Avraham suppressed his [natural] mercy [for his son] in order to do Hashem’s will wholeheartedly. Therefore, “So may Your mercy suppress Your anger from upon us, and in Your great good, may Your burning anger withdraw from Your people, from Your city and from Your heritage.”
Then this passage quotes a verse from the end of Parshas B’Chukosai, about Hashem remembering the covenant of the ancestors whom Hashem had brought out of Mitzrayim, and finally concludes with a recognition that it is Hashem Who eternally remembers all forgotten things, and specifically, “May You mercifully remember today the akeidah of Isaac for the sake of his offspring.”
What is interesting about this tefillah is that it is repeated daily in the liturgy of our morning prayers, bifurcated into two parts, one part said before the recitation of the akeidah and one part after its recitation.
Of further interest is that the tefillah said after the morning akeidah reading has a unique “middah k’neged middah” statement, a measure for measure request: “May it be Your will that You remember for our sake the covenant of our forefathers, and Just as Avraham suppressed his mercy for his only son and wished to slaughter him in order to do Your will, so may Your mercy suppress Your anger from upon us and may Your mercy overwhelm Your attributes…”
The tefillah ends with a verse from the end of Parshas B’Chukosai, slightly different from the verse quoted in the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf tefillah, stating that Hashem will remember his covenant with each of the three Avos/Patiarchs, and also with the Land of Israel.
Finally, the akeidah narrative, couched in terms of a plea for Hashem to suppress his anger and allow his attribute of Mercy (middas harachamim) to “overwhelm” his attribute of Justice (middas hadin), is highlighted in the private tefillah of the ba’al tokea, the one who sounds the shofar. The ba’al tokea recites two Yehi Ratzon tefillos between La’menatzeach and Min Ha’metzar immediately before shofar blowing. These Yehi Ratzons contain a plea that it should be Hashem’s will that “Your mercy suppress Your anger from upon us, and Your mercy should overwhelm Your attributes” and “May You have mercy on Your children and through their shofar blasts may You change from the middas hadin to the middas harachamim.”
It is evident, therefore, that the themes of the akeidah are clearly connected with the themes of shofar. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) teaches that the shofar should be sounded together with the verses of Malchuyos (kingship) and Zichronos (remembrances), so that “Your remembrance should rise before Me favorably.”
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What is the essence of the middah k’neged middah cited above? Stating that Avraham suppressed his mercy for Yitzchak in order to do Hashem’s will is suggesting that Avraham, consistent with the Kierkegaardian approach, was able to temporarily suspend his ethics and morality – i.e., his “will.” Are we then saying that, likewise, Hashem should temporarily “suspend” His ethics and morality – i.e., His “will” – on behalf of the Jewish People? What does that mean? What is God’s “will” that is being suspended? His anger? Is that Hashem’s “will”? And why is there an emphasis on His anger at the Jewish people? Can there somehow be a need for Hashem to control or hold back His anger and allow His mercy to overtake, or perhaps transform, His anger?
We began by looking at the context of the two psukim at the end of Parshas Bechukosai. Given the difficulty of this topic, we need to start with the uneasy recognition that Hashem’s “hiding His face from us, His hester panim, chas v’shalom, appears to be an expression of His “anger” at us due to our sins and other misdeeds. This “anger” appears to be manifested in Hashem’s middas hadin taking over the hashgacha of the Jewish people, which unfortunately results in the evils of the Tochachah. The quoted psukim at the end of the Tochachah are Hashem’s “remembrances” of his covenants, first the oath with Avraham at the akeidah and later the oath with Moshe as he exited Mitzrayim.
These foundational covenants appear to put the brakes on the evils of the Tochachah and somehow cause the “end” of the state of hester panim. The remembrances seem to transform Hashem’s anger into mercy, suppressing His anger at the Jewish people and causing a diminution or negation of hester panim. His anger is replaced with mercy. Hester panim is replaced with Hashem’s intervention and His protection of the Jewish people.
If God’s “will” in certain circumstances is to be “angry” at us, individually or collectively, presently or in the future, do we not wish to beseech Him to have that anger suppressed, negated, and/or transformed into rachamim/mercy? Perhaps that is what the shofar sounds and all the akeidah references are designed to achieve. Thus, the suspension of Hashem’s “will” may be analogous to Avraham’s suspension of his “will.”
With this approach, perhaps the akeidah narrative is an antidote that has the power to cause Hashem to suspend His anger, and to transform His “will” or “attribute” of anger/ka’as to mercy/rachamim.
Perhaps the akeidah really is a one-time event, not meant to be understood as representing any ordinary human behavior and not meant to serve as any kind of model for man’s behavior or religious devotion to God.
Perhaps, as an irrational, miraculous, one-time event, it has similarities to the compelling narrative of Moshe’s breaking the first luchos and contending with Hashem regarding whether the Jews should be destroyed right then and there.
It was Moshe’s intervention and pleading with Hashem at that time that resulted in Hashem’s revealing the Yud Gimel Middos, His Thirteen Attributes, as a formula for Jewish survival in times of distress – times when we beseech Hashem for mercy as we focus more intently on our teshuvah.
Perhaps the akeidah narrative has a similar effect. The juxtaposition of the akeidah narrative with Moshe’s role in taking us out of Egypt may allude to that connection.
Additionally, this understanding may correlate with another primary theme of Rosh Hashanah, that being the tense and often oscillating relationship of Hashem being both our Melech/King and our Av/Father. We invoke Avinu Malkeinu, recognizing that our relationship with God is both that of a child toward his father and a loyal subject to his king. The Talmudic passage from Maseches Rosh Hashanah quoted above reflects that the sounds of the shofar are tied together with both Malchuyos (Kingship, our role as loyal subjects) and Zichronos (remembrances, representing our role as children).
Understood in this manner, Hashem’s anger, manifested via the Tochachah, is representative more of the Kingship relationship while His mercy, manifested via his loving hashgacha, is representative more of the parent-child relationship. In that case, the shofar and the tefillos cited above serve to beseech Hashem to maintain and preserve his hashgacha over us, as a parent does over his or her children.
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Thus, perhaps through the akeidah, through the irrational and “miraculous” deeds of Avraham (the word for test, nisah, can also be used to mean nes, miracle or banner), Hashem created the refuah (the healing or cure) before the makah (the malady). By choreographing the events of our history so that the binding of Yitzchak by his father Avraham would be a seminal event at the very birth of our nation, both Hashem and the Jewish people can draw upon the power of the akeidah as a refuah, especially on Rosh Hashanah, when we are so highly sensitive to our sense of fragility.
As we proclaim Hashem King of the world, our seemingly meaningless lives come into clear focus. We recognize our unworthiness – certainly in our role as loyal subjects who from time to time have not been so loyal – to stand before Hashem and plead our case alone. We can’t help but recall our own sins and shortcomings, and we are reconciled to a sense that Hashem may be “justified” in being “angry” at us. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize we need help in our path toward teshuvah. We need help from our parents, our grandparents, our forefathers and foremothers, to draw the strength to proceed on the right path. We also beseech help from God, especially in his role as our Av, through shofar and tefillos, to remember us for good, and to turn His anger into mercy. Isn’t that really what we are davening for on Rosh Hashanah?
How it works, why it works, when it works, we’ll never really know. The intrigue of the akeidah, with its miraculous effects, continues.