The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16a) relates: “Rebi Abahu says: ‘Why do we blow a ram’s horn (on Rosh Hashana)?’ Hashem said ‘Blow before Me a ram’s horn so that I will remember the Binding of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, and I will consider it as if you bound yourselves before me.'”
The Binding of Yitzchak is an underlying principle behind Rosh Hashana, which I would like to explore here and learn from it a fundamental lesson regarding our service of Hashem.
Bereshit (chapter 22) describes how Avraham was commanded by Hashem to offer up his son Yitzchak as an olah (burnt offering) on one of the mountains that Hashem would show him in the land of Moriah. The text and the commentaries go into great detail about the preparation for this.
Avraham woke early and cut down trees for wood. He prepared the ma’achelet (knife) and the tools to make fire. He concocted a whole ruse with Sarah that he was taking Yitzchak to Shem’s yeshiva in Hevron. He took Eliezer and Yishmael with him as part of this ruse. Avraham and Yitzchak were yachdav (in “sync”) throughout. The yetzer hara tried to trip Avraham up repeatedly but failed. Avraham built the Mizbeach himself, while hiding Yitzchak in a box so that he would not be injured in any way and develop a blemish that would disqualify himself as a korban.
Then we get to the nitty-gritty. Avraham places the wood on top of the Mizbeach, ties up Yitzchak, places him on top of the wood, takes the knife, and gets ready to slaughter him.
I just want to ask a simple question. Who said anything about tying Yitzchak up? Hashem certainly didn’t tell Avraham to tie Yitzchak up; He told him to offer Yitzchak as an olah. If you examine the halachot of Korban Olah (and shechita in general), nowhere does it say you have to tie the animal up before slaughtering it. In fact, until the time of Yohanan Kohen Gadol in the Second Beit HaMikdash, animals were never tied up before shechita. Yohanan Kohen Gadol instituted a statute to install rings on the floor of the Azara (courtyard) to restrain the animals, to make shechita easier (Sota 48a), but this is not obligatory! Don’t you find it a little strange that this whole episode is called Akeidat Yitzchak – the Binding of Yitzchak, when no command was given to tie him up?
What did Avraham use to tie Yitzchak up? Nobody knows, because it doesn’t say – anywhere. Avraham meticulously prepared all the components for the commandment – he cut the wood, readied the knife and the fire. If the central purpose of the exercise was to tie Yitzchak up (Akeida) why doesn’t the Torah (or the Sages, or any of the commentaries) tell us what was used to tie him up?
The horns from the ram that was sacrificed in Yitzchak’s stead have tremendous symbolic significance (as the shofar blown at Har Sinai and the shofar that will be blown in the time of Mashiach). Our Sages say that no part of the ram went unused – each tiny bit had some intricate symbolism. What about the “rope,” twine, leather or whatever was used to tie Yitzchak up? Doesn’t that have any significance? Didn’t that also survive for millennia and will one day be used for something momentous? What more symbolizes the “Akeida – the Binding” than the material used to tie Yitzchak up? The whole episode of Akeida is silent about the very title of the Akeida.
The only elaboration of the actual binding is in the Midrash Tanchuma (22:23), Targum Yonatan (22:9) and Vayikra Raba (30:10). Avraham tied Yitzchak’s hands behind his back and also his feet, and then tied his hands to his feet and placed him face down on the wood. However, the initiative to do so came from Yitzchak. Yitzchak said to Avraham “Tie me up well so that I will not kick you by mistake and will then be liable for the death penalty.”
Can you possibly imagine that? Avraham is just about to cut Yitzchak’s throat with the knife and all Yitzchak is worried about is that he will accidentally do something to his father that would invoke the death penalty?
From these midrashim it now becomes clear why Avraham did not prepare anything special to tie Yitzchak up with; it was not part of his original plan. Had it been, it would most likely have been prepared with the same meticulous dedication as the wood, the knife and the fire. Tying up was not commanded by Hashem, it was a surprise initiative from Yitzchak. The cord, rope or whatever was used in the end to tie him up has no symbolic significance, like the rams’ horns, because the significance was not in the material but in the initiative.
The entire episode was subsequently named because of that initiative. It is remembered for all eternity as Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Yitzchak.
We tend to regard the Akeida primarily as a trial of Avraham (the tenth trial), but what about Yitzchak? By naming the incident after Yitzchak and his initiative, the Torah is teaching us that the essence here was Yitzchak and not Avraham. Yitzchak was not commanded to sacrifice his life – it was Avraham’s commandment to sacrifice him. The fact that Yitzchak did not resist but he also performed a hiddur mitzvah, a beautification of the mitzvah that was never originally intended.
This is the kind of devotion Hashem expects from us on Rosh Hashana. H does not want us simply to follow the law to the letter, but to go the extra step, to take the initiative and beautify our service of Hashem in everything we do.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Did Avraham know that the Akeida was going to have a happy end, even before the outcome?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Hashem says “I have given you the choice between life and death … and you shall choose life!” (Devarim 30:19). How does one choose life? According to the Ba’al HaTurim, the word BaChayim in gematria is seventy. One chooses “life” by spending the seventy years of his life studying the various aspects of the Torah.