by: Cheryl Pedersen
The second day of Rosh Hashanah was yesterday and once again the rabbis and sages seem to have blown it with the chosen scripture for the day. We read the Akedah, that horrific account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his long-awaited son, Isaac. Consequently, I’m left puzzling over why they thought this was an appropriate passage to read on Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, the birthday of the world, The Judgment Day.
Was it a judgment made by God in regards to Abraham? Here is this righteous man who left home and country at age 75 to go to some unnamed place because God ordered it. He lived his life in compliance with God’s word. He waited patiently for his long-awaited heir. Okay, yes, he allowed Sarah to bring Hagar into the mix and he fathered a son with her. But who wouldn’t be frustrated that God kept saying his progeny would outnumber the stars when his wife was past the days of child-bearing and no son appeared?
When his son finally arrived, Abraham was thrilled, but even that was tempered with bitterness. When Isaac was just a small child, Sarah said she wanted Hagar and her son gone. She seemed to forget that Ishmael was Abraham’s son as well. God told Abraham to do as Sarah asked and so he sent them away.
Years later, when Isaac was a grown man, God came to Abraham again. Abraham answered “Hineni [Here I am].” Then God told him to “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.” (Genesis 22:2). Again, Abraham did as he was told. He loaded a donkey with everything needed for a sacrifice, summoned Isaac, and off they went.
So here’s the question that has burned in the soul of every man who’s ever read this account: Why? Why did God order Abraham to sacrifice the one thing he had prayed for most earnestly and for whom he had patiently waited? What kind of God would ask Abraham, the one that He had chosen based on his righteousness, to go through such an agonizing thing?
Of course, Abraham did exactly as he was told. Perhaps more miraculously, Isaac went along with it. According to the story, he was not some young boy. He was 37 years old. I guess his father raised him right. He followed orders just like dear old dad. When they reached the top of the mountain, it suddenly occurred to Isaac that they had no lamb for the sacrifice. Isaac called to his father and Abraham answered, “Hineni [Here I am].” Then Isaac asked where the lamb was for the sacrifice. “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham replied.
Then things get hairy as they get to where the sacrifice was to take place. Abraham, who was one hundred years older than his strapping son in the prime of life, apparently got no fight when he bound Isaac and laid him upon the wood on the the altar. So whose faith was greater? Abraham’s for having done as God asked, or Isaac’s who apparently complied? More importantly, why is this story part of Rosh Hashanah?
Maybe we first need to ask why a supposedly loving God asked his main man to do such a terrible thing as sacrifice his only son, the one God had presumably provided that Abraham’s progeny would be greater than the stars in heaven or grains of sand on the beach. The sages tell us it was commonplace among the peoples in that area to practice human sacrifice. Most often it was children or young people in their prime. They did this to ensure a better harvest or to appease angry gods or just to prove their complete devotion to their god. The sages say that God wanted all the nations around Abraham, who was uniquely monotheistic, to know that Abraham was as singularly devoted to Him as they were to their gods. God wanted Abraham to show his willingness to sacrifice and then, because God abhors human sacrifice, He sent an angel to stop him just as he raised the knife. It seems like a cruel way to make a point.
Maybe we need to look at it from a different perspective. What if God just told Abraham to start preaching to those around him about how terrible the practice of human sacrifice was? What would their response have been? Likely it would not have deterred them. They would have considered Abraham a wimp. They would have said that his “life-affirming” faith was really just a cover for not being as committed as they were. You know, sort of like those “limousine politicians” who do a great job of telling you what to do, but then live by their own set of rules.
God needed to make a very clear point and He never had any intention of allowing Abraham to go through with it, only to show that Abraham was willing. Isaac was willing too! He was ready to give up his own life. Abraham answered “Hineni” when called upon by both his Father in Heaven and his son.
It’s a little like Hezbollah and many of the other extremist Arab nations who say they will win the fight against Israel “because the Jews want to live, and they [the Arabs] are willing to die.” The Akedah story is given to show that the Jews are committed to life in a far more powerful way than those who give up their own lives not to save others, but in an effort to kill as many as possible.
Okay. We have that sorted out, but still, why this story on Rosh Hashanah? Think about it. This is the head of the year. It’s a time for reflection on how things went in the past year. Were you as devoted as you intended to be? Were you focused on giving all you have to God’s glory? Was your life a powerful example of commitment? Did you answer both God’s and man’s call with “Hineni,” “Here I am”?
Perhaps that’s the message that we are to take away from this troubling story. It’s a story of absolute devotion. It’s a story of trust. Abraham trusted in God and Isaac, a grown man, trusted in his earthly father. As I’ve mentioned here before, Judaism is not focused on heaven, the life hereafter, or your reincarnation from some ancient person from long ago. It’s not even a story about someone dying for you so you can be forgiven. It’s about personal commitment and stopping regularly to ask the One who forgives to help you get things back on track. It’s the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer said on Rosh Hashanah which includes these words:
"You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately.”