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Rosh ha-Shanah 2009 / 5770 - The Binding of Isaac: Morality and Commandment

02.11.2009 by

One of the central themes of Rosh ha-Shanah is, of course, the blowing of the shofar. Although the Torah is not that clear about what instrument we are actually meant to  use to sound a blast on this day, tradition mandates a ram's horn. The reason for this is that we are thereby reminded, and, at the same time, we remind God, of the akedah - the binding of Isaac - in which Abraham fulfills God's commandment to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice, only to be stopped at the last moment, and have a  ram substituted in his son's stead. For this reason, we not only blow the shofar, but also read the story of the akedah in the synagogue: Rosh ha-Shanah, the Day of Judgment, is when we want to focus on Abraham's loyalty and dedication, both as a kind of plea to God for our sakes, as well as a model for us of religious devotion.  
The akedah is, famously, one of the most difficult stories of the Torah. Why did God demand this horrific sacrifice? Did He really mean it at first, and then changed His mind? Was it all just a test, and never really meant to happen? Why did Abraham acquiesce? What was Isaac thinking? The medieval commentator on the Bible, Rashi, tries to solve at least one of these problems. In his commentary, he tells us - twice, once at the beginning of the story and once at the end - that God never meant for Abraham to actually kill Isaac. If you read the Biblical text carefully, Rashi claims, you will see that all God said was to "raise him up there as an offering". He never actually says to slaughter  him. Once you take him up to Mount Moriah, bind him, and place him on the altar, you have done what  I commanded you to, "raise him up as an offering", and not kill him; you've done that, now bring him down.
This clever reading is all well and good, in as much as it saves God from being a liar, or inconsistent: he always meant one thing, offer Isaac, don't slaughter him. But what about Abraham? What was he meant to be thinking? Clearly, if he had been as clever as Rashi, and read God's commandment as ending with just raising Isaac up, the entire exercise would have been a bit of a joke: Abraham, with a nod and a wink, going through the motions of sacrificing his son, while knowing full well how it would all end. Surely, for the akedah to have any meaning, he must have read the commandment incorrectly (from Rashi's point of view), and thought that he was really meant to slaughter Isaac. What then, is the point of Rashi's clever reading of the mitzvah? Is it just to get God off the hook from the charge of being false and inconsistent with Abraham, on a technicality (no,no, pay attention, look at the text more carefully, I didn't really say that)? Is Rashi like some clever lawyer, trying to wriggle his client out of a bad contract (sorry, lawyers)?
It seems to me that we, and not God, are the actual focus, and the beneficiaries, of Rashi's tricky literal reading of the text. Rashi shows us that once we know the whole akedah story, including how it ends, with God teaching Abraham that He does not want this human sacrifice, we then can go back and see that, if read carefully, the happy ending was clearly there from the beginning, in the words of God, if we only know how to read His words properly. This going back and re-reading the original divine commandment, based on the story's denouement, teaches me, the reader, that if I know that something in the Torah can NOT be so, can NOT be what God is really saying to or demanding of me - just as the slaughter of Isaac, we learn at the end of the story,  could not possibly have been what God really wanted - then I must find a way to read the Torah accordingly. I must find a way to read the words of God so that they match what I know to be moral, decent, and true. Just as Rashi, at the end of the story, learns a lesson in morality, and then goes back and finds that lesson embedded in the initial commandment -"I said raise him up, I never said to slaughter him" - we, too, must read the Torah so that it contains the moral positions we know to be true. Any other reading of the Torah would be as wrong as Abraham's initial misunderstand of God's commandment, when he thought, impossibly, that God could really ask him to kill his son.
I'd like to wish you all, with your families and loved ones, a happy and healthy new year, l'shana tova tikatevu v'taychatemu - may you be written and sealed for a good year.

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rosh ha-Shanah Summary

ראש השנה

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, has contradictory characteristics and elements. We have the custom, at the holiday meal, of eating apples and honey, along with other special, symbolic foods, as we wish one another a sweet new year. On the other hand, it is a day of judgement, when, on the day the world was created, the creator judges all of his creation. The liturgy for the day contains many beautiful prayers, along with the blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn, all meant to arouse us to examine and improve ourselves and the way we live, as we begin a ten-day process of repentance, leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when, hopefully, our sins and shortcomings will be forgiven.

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