On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read from Genesis, chapter 22. This is the story known as the Akeidah, or the binding of Isaac. Our modern day attempts to understand and decipher this Parsha make it no less comprehensible. Even the commentaries provided by our Sages frequently contradict each other and rarely help us make sense of a situation that is so far beyond our mind’s grasp.
It is exactly that – our inability to comprehend - that is the first point to remember when pondering the binding of Isaac. Contemporary thought does not permit us the ability to understand and draw lessons from the Akeidah without shuddering at the thought of what took place.
I turned to my eleven-year old son to try to make sense of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. I asked him – “What is it you know about the binding of Isaac?” Here is my son’s recount (not word for word):
G-d told Abraham to take his son Isaac to the top of the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice.
Abraham did as G-d said. He laid Isaac on the table.
Just as he was about to sacrifice him, an Angel came and told him to stop.
They used a ram instead and that is why the shofar is made from a ram’s horn.
“What was Abraham thinking?” I asked.
“He was sad”, was the reply.
“He wasn’t angry?”
“No”, my son answered, “he was sad about what he had to do to Isaac. But, G-d told him to do it and he did not question G-d’s commands”.
This – Abraham’s solid faith and even my son’s nonchalant acceptance of Abraham’s faith despite the scary stuff that is attached to that - is the epitome of faith. To know it is the right thing to do simply because G-d asked you to do it is something that many of us cannot relate to. While we have the Torah and G-d’s commandments within the texts of Judaism, many people struggle with man’s interpretation that comes along with those edicts. The G-d who spoke to Abraham no longer speaks directly to us, so – perhaps – we are unable to truly comprehend what it was like to be in Abraham’s shoes. Could our horror be overrated?
“What about Isaac?” I wanted to know. He continued to walk with his father even after he had noticed that they did not bring an animal sacrifice.
My overly sensitive and slightly phobic son would freak out if I gave him an inappropriate ‘let’s go’. I can hear the panicked “no mommy’s” ringing in my ear just thinking about it.
But, that’s the point. It wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – happen today. My son believes that Isaac had faith in – both – his father and in G-d. He did not know what was going on, but he believed that everything would be all right.
“Why, then,” my final question, “did G-d have to do this? G-d knew already that Abraham was faithful. He also knew what Abraham was going to do, didn’t He?”
My son did not skip a beat with his answer. “He did it for us.”
The story of the binding of Isaac is beyond present-day interpretation. Though we do our best, sometimes it is best to stay in the mind of an eleven-year old in order to try and gleam the wisdom from this Parsha.
Throughout history, we have stories of individuals and groups who are willing to give up everything for the sake of Jewish living. Is the Akeidah a reminder to, not only examine our faith, but to contemplate our relationship with G-d?
When Abraham and Isaac came down from the mountain, Isaac was not mentioned. There are many thoughts as to why – including that he was actually killed on the mountaintop. Perhaps it is because we are not to focus on Isaac but, rather, we are to focus on Abraham and the strength of his faith, his ability to do anything for G-d, and how his whole life was lived based upon that faith.
Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of creation. It is the beginning of life. It is also known as Yom Teru’ah, the Day of Sounding the Shofar. It is time for us to wake up. Finally, Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Our year is up for review, and the agenda for the upcoming year is in the process of being written. The recounting of the binding of Isaac calls upon us to honor our Jewish lives, to reconnect with the important parts of that life, and to remember that our lives are in the hands of G-d.