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.”
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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.
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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.