Rabbi Rene’s Rosh Hashanah sermon
What is there left to say about the Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, the story we read on the morning of Rosh Hashanah? It is one of the most commented passage in Torah. If it were simply the story of an old man who hears voices and travels to a nearby mountain with his son to sacrifice him there, and who, at the last moment sees a ram and kills it instead, we wouldn’t be fascinated by it still to this day.
And yet, even today, people turn to this story and try to make sense of it, because its teachings transcend time and space.
A modern reader can only be shocked by Abraham’s absence of reaction to God’s command to kill his son. How can a father sacrifice his son? Abraham acquiesces with God without protest, Isaac goes along with his father knowing very well what is going to happen, and Sarah, poor Sarah, she is not even mentioned in the story.
Why did Abraham not simply refuse? For our ancestors, the problem was not that God asked too much, but that Abraham did not do enough. The Talmud relates the story of a woman whose seven sons were all martyred, tortured and killed in front of her (Gittin 57b). The Romans had asked her to kiss an idol, and she refused. When her sons were about to die, she said to them, “Go and say to your father Abraham, you bound one son on the altar, but I bound seven altars”. Dying for ultimate values was seen as the highest form of sacrifice one could make.
As modern readers, we can understand how previous generations reacted to a text as they did, and at the same time, we are able to develop our own relationship with the tradition.
The characters of this story are engaged in a strange and hierarchical dynamic. God is the ultimate being. Abraham, his earthly representative, is the conduit of God’s will. The young men, Isaac, and the servants, have no other choice than follow what Abraham commands them to do. Ishmael, Abraham’s eldest son, is simply erased from the narrative. And the mother, Sarah, is silenced and completely absent. As for the ram, it is used as an accessory in this drama.
Let us explore some of these perplexing silences in the story.
The ram, caught by its horns in a thicket, has no other function than becoming a substitute for Isaac’s death. The ram’s horns are turned into Shofarot, and our tradition says that, when we hear the Shofar blasts, we are reminded of the Akedah. What are these blasts telling us? Are they the cry of the animal kingdom that is used for our selfish purposes? Is the Shofar the voice of the damned of the earth?
Abraham’s subservient obedience, and his lack of questions leave us with a sour taste in the mouth. Where is the Abraham who argued with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah? He did not question God’s command when asked to kill his son, he rose up in the morning, saddled up his donkey, prepared all what was needed for the sacrifice, and set off on his journey towards Mount Moriah. The Torah says that Abraham and Isaac journeyed for three days before arriving at the mountain, but no information is given about what was said between them. Abraham’s faith was clearly tested by God, and yet, he was ready to do everything he was asked to.
Some commentators have tried to imagine what went through Abraham’s mind the night before the party left to Mount Moriah, and during the three long days of their journey. Maybe the Torah decided to remain because Abraham and God were in conversation, to preserve their intimacy? What do you really want me to do, may have asked Abraham? Do you really want me to sacrifice my son who is supposed to be my heir and successor? You forbade child’s sacrifices, and yet, You are asking this from me? How will I be judged by future generations?
Abraham knew that God would listen, as He did when Abraham tried to save Sodom and Gomorrah from fire, even though the answer was not what he expected. We don’t always get the answer we wish.
Let’s go deeper and ask the question, where is the key to this text? Abraham’s faith in God was tested. God is asking him to do something that goes against the ethics that God is teaching humankind. Is Abraham misreading God’s word? Abraham remembers the command, lech-lecha el-Eretz ha-Moriah, ve’a’ahelu sham le’ola. Go forth towards the land of Moriah and elevate him as an elevation (Gn. 22: 2). Most Biblical translations render these three Hebrew words by, “sacrifice him as a burnt-offering”, which is coherent with the vocabulary of Temple sacrifice in other parts of Torah. But did God really want Abraham to burn his son as a sacrifice?
Abraham realized that God wanted for his son another type of elevation: not by fire, but by fame for a purpose, the future of God’s people. Isaac is to be the link between Abraham and the next generation of the Children of Israel: he is the father of Jacob-Israel who engendered the twelve tribes. Without Isaac, the story ends with Abraham.
At that very point, the test was reversed. Abraham thought, I will stay on this course until God reveals to me if my reading of the situation is correct. When he is about to plunge his knife into Isaac, an angel tells him, “Do not raise your hand against the boy”. Instead of God testing Abraham’s faith, the story becomes one of a God who is asked to live up to his words.
Abraham’s silences in the Akedah resound with questions about what the Divine is really asking from him. In a story where faith could be easily brought up against ethics, ‘why would God ask to sacrifice a child?’ ethics becomes the norm even for God. God cannot ask his people to do something that goes against the ethical teachings of Torah. Anytime we think that our faith requires to break moral conduct, it means that we have misunderstood God’s words. Zealotry, violence, persecutions, and abuses made in the name of God are a betrayal of God’s fundamental message to us. Ethics always takes precedence over faith.
Let us turn now to an even more puzzling silence, a deafening silence, the absence of the mother’s voice, Sarah. Chapters 21 to 23 of the book of Genesis form a sequence. In chapter 21, God “remembers” Sarah and the promise of a child, and she gives birth to Isaac. In chapter 22, Sarah is entirely forgotten, and she dies at the beginning of chapter 23. What happened? What are the missing words?
When Sarah finds out what happened at Mount Moriah – some say Isaac told her, others say that Satan himself broke the bad news to her – she is so heartbroken that she dies. The thought that, unbeknownst to her, something so awful might have happened to her son was too much to bear for her. Maybe Sarah felt betrayed by her lifelong partner. He didn’t tell her what he was about to do. A Midrash explains what went through Abraham’s mind, and why he didn’t confide in her.
At that very moment, Abraham thought, “If I inform Sarah, women are light-headed about little things, all the more so about such a big thing. But if I don’t tell her and steal him away, when she doesn’t see him, she’ll kill herself”. He said to her, “Prepare us some food and drink, and we’ll celebrate today”. She said to him, “What is the reason for this celebration?” He said to her, “Old people like us give birth to a son, so we should celebrate that!… I’ll take him and educate him there”. She said, “Go in peace”. Without further ado, “He arose early in the morning”. Why so early in the morning? He thought, “Sarah may change her mind and not let me go. I’ll get up early, before she does”.
Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22.
When Isaac returned to his mother, says another Midrash, she asked him, where have you been? “My father took me up to the mountain, says Isaac. He built an altar, arranged the wood, and took a knife to slaughter me. But an angel called out to stop him”. At that moment, says the Midrash, she screamed six times, corresponding to six blasts of the Shofar.
Leviticus Rabbah 20: 2.
Sarah is stripped of her role as mother. Her life partner lies to her, and she weeps to her death. Silence dehumanizes. Silence kills. The substitute for Isaac, the ram, has no name. It has even no purpose other than being a replacement to please a blood loving Deity. And yet, the main liturgical object of Rosh Hashanah, the Shofar, is its horn, the part that was stuck in a thicket.
When we heard deep into our bodies the heart-breaking and primeval sounds of the Shofar, we hear the voices of the forgotten, the voices of the silenced ones. We are told, do not turn a deaf ear to the pleas of the living creatures. Do not accept injustice, suffering and violence. Stand up, speak up, and let the blasts of the Shofar resound throughout the entire world.
Ken Yehi Ratzon
Rabbi Rene Pfertzel
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