“And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham.” And he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Please, take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac; and get yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a sacrifice, on one of the mountains that I will tell you.”
What would you do?
You are Abraham. When you were 75 years old, the voice of God came to you and told you, “Get out from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house and go to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and it will be for a blessing.” You left behind everything because of your faith in this God, because of your trust in this God’s word. God told you that you would become a nation—that you would have land, and that you would have children.
And after many years of waiting, you finally did have a child with your wife Sarah—miraculously so: She was 90, you were 100! You waited for years. You may have started to doubt God’s promise, but then the promise was fulfilled. You have been given everything because you sacrificed everything—you left it all behind, and you got a complete life in return.
And now, this. Now this same God in whose word you placed your entire existence, your entire future, asks you to give it all up again. This same God, who promised you land and children and blessing and who delivered—this same God asks you to sacrifice that which you love more than anything in the world. More than that, this same God, who you yourself humbled with the words, “Will the judge of the all the earth not do justice,” this same God asks you to take the life an innocent child, a being created in God’s own image.
What would you do?
Traditionally, this is how we read the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah. From the Talmud through the great medieval commentator Ramban, up through Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in the twentieth, this has been the essential question: What would you do? Would you have the faith of Abraham? Would you do as he does? Would you speak up? Would you say no?
We read this story on Rosh Hashanah because today is a day to take stock of our faith. Today is a day to examine our relationship with God. It is a day, as the Talmud says and as the Machzor echoes, when all the creatures of the earth walk past God for review. Are we up to the challenge that Abraham poses? Would we do as Abraham does? That is our question on Rosh Hashanah.
But there is another way to read the Akedah. Rather than read the story from the point of view of Abraham, we can read it from the point of view of Isaac: “And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham,” my father. And He said to my father, “Abraham.” And my father said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Please, take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac”—please, take me!; and get yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a sacrifice (offer ME up there as a sacrifice), on one of the mountains that I will tell you.”
My father did not consult my mother. He did not ask me how I felt about this. But we went along. And after a while, I noticed there was no animal for the sacrifice, and so I said to him, “Abba,” and he said, “Here I am.” And I asked him, “I see that we have the fire and the wood—where’s the lamb for the sacrifice?” And my father said, “God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.” And we walked on together. And when we arrived at the place, my father took me and tied me up, and put me on top of the altar. And then my father took the knife and raised his arm. The knife was over my throat.
You are Isaac. Your father has led you through the wilderness for three days. When you ask him what it’s all about, he misleads you. You climbed a mountain with him, and now he has tied you up and placed you atop an altar, and at this moment he has a knife extended over your throat.
The question is not, What do you do? Physically, you are bound. You can’t do anything. Rather the question is an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual one: How do you respond? How do you feel? Confused? Terrified? Angry? Resigned? At peace? Accepting?
When we take the traditional view, and read the story from Abraham’s perspective, we start from the standpoint of freedom. Abraham’s Akedah is a story about choices. Abraham is not forced to do this. He is asked, as Rashi, the greatest of Torah commentators, reminds us in his comment on the tiny word נא. Note in verse 2 that God says קח נא את בנך—Please, take your son… Rashi focuses on the word נא, please, and says, “The word נא connotes a request. God said to Abraham, ‘Please take this test for me.’” Abraham performs the Akedah of his own free will. He freely chooses to listen to God’s call.
This approach resonates with us because, as my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has said, today we are all, in effect, Jews by choice, just as Abraham was. Even if we are not converts, all of us today have the option of engaging Judaism on our own terms. There is no one forcing us to live Jewishly, or to identify as Jews at all. And so on Rosh Hashanah we ask ourselves, Will we choose this path? Will we listen to God’s voice?
But as we have seen, there is another side to the story. When we approach the Akedah from Isaac’s point of view, our questions change. Isaac’s story is not a story about choices. It does not start from the standpoint of freedom. Rather, Isaac’s story is a story about powerlessness. It is, as the very name Akedah suggests, a story about being bound. The Akedah, from Isaac’s point of view, reminds us of this truth: that we are all inheritors of our parents’ choices. We are all born into a context. We are all born into a history. We are all born into a situation over which we have no control.
Remember my friends: Abraham left everything behind! He was a new Adam. He left his father’s house, his country, his homeland, to found something new. And so Abraham is a man of freedom, the first Jew and the first convert to Judaism. But Isaac—Isaac is very much a part of his father’s house. He is the inheritor of that house, the inheritor of his father’s new land, the inheritor of his father’s covenant with God. Abraham’s legacy has been placed on Isaac’s shoulders. Isaac is the third Jew, after Abraham and Sarah, and the first Jew by birth.
And so the question that Isaac asks us on this Rosh Hashanah is, How will we respond? Will we go along? Will we participate? Will we take up the mantel of our forebears? Will we accept the history into which we have been born?
D. Renewing the Covenant
Today, Rosh Hashanah, is the day when we renew our Covenant with God, the day when we bless God as זוכר הברית, the One who remembers the Covenant. The Covenant is a two-sided commitment, a commitment between us individually and collectively with God, to bring justice, righteousness, and holiness to the world. As partners in the Covenant, both we and God limit our choices. For His part, God agrees to sustain the world, to be a partner with humanity and with the Jewish people, to love us and to be patient with us.
By embracing the Covenant, we commit ourselves to live by a set of moral, ethical and religious principles that acknowledge the fundamental dignity of every human being, every image of God.
To live as Covenantal people means curbing our desire for power, by resting on Shabbat.
It means limiting our appetite for food, by eating certain foods and not others.
It means restraining our sexual impulses, and elevating sex to an act of love, intimacy, and dignity.
To live as Covenantal people means seeing the poor in our midst as images of God, deserving of our respect and our sustenance.
It means caring for our young, tending to our old, and taking care of those who are alone.
It means speaking out against injustice and taking action to liberate the oppressed.
On a global and communal level, to live as people of the Covenant is to make the world a more just place and to correct its wrongs. On a personal level, it means binding ourselves to a promise—a promise to restrain ourselves from our worst, and to inspire ourselves to our best.
Today, as we read the Akedah story and as we recommit ourselves to our Covenant, we are both Abraham and Isaac. We are Abraham because we are free to make our choice. God is asking you, God is asking us, to be God’s partner. And we are free to choose. And so we are Abraham.
But we are also Isaac. We come here today as children of our parents and grandparents, the product of their choices and the history they created for us. We—you and I—have been burdened with a history and blessed with a birthright at the same time, just like Isaac.
We are the next link in a chain that extends back to Elie Wiesel and Hannah Senesh, to Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.
It extends further back, to Moses Mendelssohn in the nineteenth century and the Ba’al Shem Tov in the eighteenth;
To Baruch Spinoza in seventeenth century Amsterdam and to Joseph Karo in sixteenth century Palestine.
And it keeps going, back a thousand years to Maimonides and Rashi, and to Rabbi Akiba and to Hillel a thousand years before them;
To Ezra and Daniel, to Mordechai and Esther,
To Isaiah, King Solomon and King David in Jerusalem;
To Joshua in Canaan and Moses at Sinai;
To Jacob wrestling with the angel at the River Yabbok,
And to Isaac and to Abraham, there atop Mount Moriah on that awful silent day, this day, this Rosh Hashanah, this very moment.
Today we are all Abraham, and we are all Isaac. Today we ask ourselves, “What am I bound to? What are my commitments? Are my commitments the right ones? How can I recommit myself to the things that are really important, to myself, my family, my community, our people, our values, our Torah, our God?”
For some of us, today truly is the start of life beyond our parents’ house, away from our hometowns, away from our native lands. It is a day of Abraham. But today is also a day of Isaac, a day when we do not start afresh—but rather a day on which we begin again, conscious of the burden of our people’s history and the profundity of its millennia of wisdom. We are both powerful and powerless at the same time.
And so the question stands. Or, I should say, the questions. To the Abrahams in us: What will you do? God is not asking you to sacrifice your child. But the implications of your choices will have an effect on your children, and on the world all our children will inherit. What will you do? What kind of world will you build for them? What classes will you take, what activities will you be involved with, what places will you go and who will you befriend—and what picture will all those strokes ultimately paint? To the Abrahams in us, today is a day to reckon with the choices we have before us.
And to the Isaacs in us: How will you play the hand you’ve been dealt? How will you respond? How will you make time to be a responsible custodian of this amazing and unparalleled 4 millenia-old tradition? Will you make time for Torah study? Will you make time for social justice? Will you make time for prayer? Will you make time for family? As the campus rabbi, I welcome you to make time for all these things through Hillel. You are always welcome, and I and the rest of the Hillel staff, are always available to you to be a companion and a guide on your Jewish journey. How will you engage this birthright of yours? To the Isaacs in us, today is a day to reckon with the choices that have been made for us—and to respond by making our own choices.
I bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with the courage of Abraham, to be a trailblazer and a visionary; and with the passion of Isaac, to know your people’s story, and to make it your own.
לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו