Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Twenty-Sixth Day of Elul 5780
The Torah reading that we most associate with Rosh Hashanah is the story of the Binding of Isaac, called the Akeidah in Hebrew. (In traditional practice, it is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but most Reform congregations read it on the first day). It is one of the most difficult stories in the entire Torah. It tells how God told Abraham, his first and most faithful follower, to sacrifice Isaac, the son Abraham had prayed to have for many years. People often ask: Of all the stories in the Torah, why do we read this one on Rosh Hashanah?
To the rabbis of the Talmud, the Akeida was, above all, a story about self-sacrifice and divine forgiveness. According to a midrash, Abraham followed God’s command to prepare Isaac as a sacrifice, but he did so with anger toward God. After God commanded Abraham to release Isaac unharmed, the midrash says that Abraham said to God, “Just as I suppressed my anger and did not talk back to You when You asked me to sacrifice Isaac, in the future, when Isaac’s descendants sin, You, too, must suppress Your anger. When they come to You in sorrow for their sins, You must remember the Binding of Isaac and forgive them!”
In the midrash, God responded to Abraham, saying, “Your children will sin and they will come to Me on Rosh Hashanah in sorrow and I will judge them. If they ask Me for forgiveness and blow on this ram’s horn, I will forgive them.”
To this, Abraham asked, “What ram’s horn?” and God said, “Turn around.” Immediately, Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13). Abraham sacrificed the ram in place of Isaac and its horns became the source of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Vayera 46:12).
We can respond to this story in a number of ways. We can (and should) continue to ask why God would be so cruel as to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. However, the story also teaches us about forgiveness. God recognizes that terrible things happen to us in life and we are not expected to just accept them quietly. We can be angry with God. We are, though, asked to put aside our anger enough to humbly recognize our own responsibility.
When we do things that are wrong, we still have to ask forgiveness no matter how bad our situation may be. God responds to the difficulties we all face in life with compassion and with the invitation to make t’shuvah. That invitation is always open, but it is up to us to do it.
Practice for this day:
Reflect on what the Akeida says to you about releasing anger and seeking forgiveness.