The premier Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is the Birth of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 21). The story of the birth of Isaac evokes new beginnings, promises fulfilled, continuity of the Jewish people, God’s covenant -- all appropriate themes for Rosh Hashanah. It is thought that the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac, chapter 22) is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah because that’s where the Torah is rolled to when we arrive in shul that morning. Yet the Akedah has come to be associated so tightly with Rosh Hashanah that in the Reform movement’s machzor, Gates of Repentance, it is the first morning reading, and Genesis, chapter 1 (Creation, since Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the birth of the world) is offered for the second morning.
Why does the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, loom so large in the Jewish psyche on Rosh Hashanah? At a time when we are engaged in the (often painful) self-evaluative process of teshuvah (repentance), striving to improve ourselves, and praying for life and blessing in the coming year, the Akedah is a stark reminder that everything in life is up in the air, even God’s “plan.” Now, I don’t personally subscribe to a theology that affirms a God who micromanages or even intervenes in the physics of the universe, but I am as keenly aware as you are that life has no guarantees and tragedy can befall us in an instant. In our lives, day can become night, light can give way to darkness, truth can become falsehood, love can become hatred or indifference, and blessings can give way to curses. However well we understand and appreciate the laws of physics that govern the universe, and chaos theory aside, from a human standpoint, the nature of nature is capricious. Perhaps that is the gripping power of the Akedah: the sheer terror it evokes, and the theological challenge it presents. When tragedy strikes, even those of us whose theology does not lend itself to the question “Why?” cannot help but ask it.
Our Sages asked that question as well. Why would a good and loving God require his loyal follower to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice? Torah tells us it was a test: V'ha'Elohim nisa et Avraham / God put Abraham to the test (Genesis 22:1). To what purpose? Abraham has already proven his loyalty. He left Haran -- everyone and everything he had known -- to obey God’s call. He circumcised himself and all the males in his household as a sign of his covenant with God. What more does God need to know? The test is cruel and damaging. How can Isaac ever trust his father again? According to the Sages, Sarah dies when she hears what happened.
The Rabbis struggle with the “Why?” In this drash I want to share with you two of their speculative responses, midrashim that attempt to explain how it came to be that God instructed Abraham to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah.
The first midrash hypothesizes that the idea for the Akedah comes about because of a conversation between God and Satan, the adversary in heaven. Satan’s job is to serve as prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court, bringing evidence of people’s guilt before the throne of heaven. Apparently, he often brings his work home, as this conversation, from the imagination of the Rabbis, suggests:
And it came to pass after these things that God tried Abraham (Genesis 22:1). After what things? According to R. Yochanan, citing R. Yosi ben Zimra, after the things Satan had to say. [Following the feast given] upon the child’s having grown and being weaned (Genesis 21:8), Satan spoke up to the Holy One, “Master of the universe, out of the entire feast that this old man, upon whom You bestowed fruit of the womb at the age of one hundred, out of the entire feast he prepared, could he not have spared, say, one turtledove, one fledgling, as an offering to You?” The Holy One replied, “Is it not true that Abraham prepared the feast in honor of his son? Still, if I say to him, ‘Sacrifice your son to Me,’ he will sacrifice him at once.” Satan said, “Try him.” At once “God tried Abraham.” (b Sanhedrin 89b)If you’re thinking of the Book of Job, you’re on the right track. Job is composed of two parts. The main body is a long, complex theological poem. A two-part narrative (the first and last chapters) frames the poem and casts its drama in a certain theological light. Chapter 1 tells us that Job’s trials and tribulations come about because Satan makes a bet with God that were Job not prosperous and blessed in every way a man would wish, he would not be loyal to God. The purpose of the bet is to test Satan’s theory. Here we see the same motif, now a familiar trop.
This is why God commands Abraham? The Akedah comes about because of an offhand bet in heaven? God doesn’t doubt Abraham will comply. Abraham certainly doesn’t need the trauma of the test. But God wants to prove something to a mere angel, Satan? God’s caprice -- as the Rabbis imagine it -- is disturbing. If this doesn’t summon theological nausea, I cannot imagine what would.
Here’s another rabbinic attempt to explain why:
…take your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moria and offer him up (והעלהו ve’ha’aleihu) there. They recited a mashal (parable): It is like a king who said to his admirer, “Offer up (חעלה ha’alei) your son on my table.” The admirer, a knife in his hand, brought his son. The king said, “Did I tell you to offer him so as to eat him? I said, ‘Raise him up [exalt him] in love!’” Nimshal (application of the parable): this is what is written: …it never occurred (lo alah alay) to Me (Jeremiah 19:5) – this verse refers to Isaac. (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)This midrash turns on two possible interpretations of והעלהו ve’ha’leihu. Every translation you will find of Genesis 22:1 will say something like this: “offer him up,” “offer him as a sacrifice,” “bring him as an offering,” etc. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that God wants Abraham to sacrifice his own son, a ritual that requires that Abraham slaughter Isaac and burn him on a pyre. The Rabbis, however, point out that this is not the only way to parse the term. It could also mean “raise him up,” meaning exalt him or lift him up in love. In case you haven’t yet understood this midrash, it’s probably because the Rabbi’s suggestion is so outside the box, your mind cannot make sense of it. They are suggesting that God never asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac at all! Quite to the contrary: God told Abraham to exalt Isaac in love, and Abraham completely misinterpreted God’s instruction. This explanation, while exonerating God from the charge of extremely cruelty, doesn’t exactly let God off the hook. Doesn’t God see how Abraham interprets the instruction? It took three days to get to Moriah. Abraham is not equipped with utensils for making s’mores; he carries wood and a slaughtering knife. And how is it that a God who creates the very universe with words cannot communicate clearly with his loyal follower? (While this is going off in another direction entirely, if God told Abraham to exalt his son in love, and Abraham understood this as a requirement to slaughter him as a sacrifice, we have to wonder what kind of lunatic fanatic Abraham is.)
In the first midrash, the Rabbis posit that God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice due to bar bet with Satan. In the second midrash, the Rabbis suggest that it is a big misunderstanding, a case of poor communication. These two attempts to explain why God tests Abraham in this way are deeply unsatisfying if we presume God is a Being with will, agency, and emotions (foremost mercy and compassion, both of which are severely violated by the Akedah) and the capacity to intervene in the physical processes of the universe.
But if you don’t hold that God is a Being, if instead you subscribe to a theology that says that the universe is in God, and God is in everything in the universe -- which is to say that God is the entire universe and also beyond the universe -- then the very capriciousness and inexplicability of the Akedah makes perfect sense: this is how we experience life in this universe. Terrible and frightening and unexpected things happen. They come out of nowhere. Our attempts to explain “why” only beget more troubling questions and rarely provide comfort. It is Rosh Hashanah and a new year is beginning. We would hope and pray for the blessings of health, peace, love, contentment, and prosperity in the coming year -- may you know all these blessings and more! -- yet we know deep down that the coming year might deal us a curve ball, or worse.
“Why?” is then not the question to ask. Strictly speaking, physics and biology explain why. What we really want and need to know is what an event -- and particularly a painful or tragic event -- means. And here asking the right question is crucial. We should not ask why, but rather “Now what?” In the face of pain and tragedy, either in my life or in the life of another, how will I respond? What will I do? How can I conjure within myself hope and strength? How can I bring comfort to others? If we can respond with compassion, love, patience, and commitment in the face of another’s pain, if we can accept the same from others when we are in pain, we will have responded to, “What now?” and we will have the answer we need.
May the new year bring you and yours, and indeed our entire world, peace and prosperity, health and humanity. Shanah tovah u’metukah!
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman