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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II


The Torah reading for today is surely one of the most familiar of the entire year. No obscure passage for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but one whose centrality to our collective history places it with the accounts of creation, the flood, Joseph and his brothers, the exodus at the core of the ready biblical knowledge of everyone in this room and many, many others in the world at large. And no matter how many times we hear it, the narrative has the capacity to touch and move us: Abraham the patriarch called to sacrifice his beloved only son, the offspring of his old age, and his obedient journey up the mountain to his personal encounter with divine intervention and the covenant.

Scholars have traditionally emphasized three elements of this passage. First, they have recognized its anthropological role as a condemnation of child sacrifice. This text may well represent the repudiation of child sacrifice, a common practice among contemporaneous cults, in our past. If this is indeed the deeper meaning of the subtext, we have every reason to be thrilled by it, for it represents a remarkable step forward in human history as well as our own history. Second, rabbis and scholars have recognized the importance of obedience as the underlying moral concept exemplified in this narrative. Abraham obeys the most trying of divine commands thereby passing God’s test. Third, a major symbol is presented—the revelation by God in the presence of the ram whose horn, the shofar, is the symbol of this holiday and of God’s redemption of us. It is these three elements (repudiation of child sacrifice, obedience, and the shofar) about which I would like to speak today.

Child Sacrifice

There are times in the liturgy for the High Holy Days when we feel out of touch. I think of the Avodah service, the ceremony of the Kohen Gadol, read on Yom Kippur. Animal sacrifice is physically and psychologically remote from us, alien and alienating to us. Child sacrifice is even worse, but, thank heavens, here we are faced with the repudiation of child sacrifice, and we are relieved and reassured to remember that there is no record of child sacrifice in our archives. We, the People of the Book, are more sophisticated than that, and we are justifiably proud of this evidence of values of such long standing in our tradition. And, our record in this area is good and of long, long standing. Why then have I chosen it for the d’var? Because, I submit, we are living, once again, in a culture of child sacrifice, and across the years, this story calls out to us to stand firmly and strongly against this horrible, repugnant practice. It is true that children are not physically sacrificed to idols, but it is also true that children regularly suffer and die because of neglect, because of abuse, because of carelessness, because of cruelty, because of institutional and individual abandonment. It is time for us to set our minds and our hearts, to renew the covenant, to protect, nurture, and help the children.

Yesterday, Marcia spoke eloquently about the importance of raising Jewish children and the role of this congregation in offering a supportive setting in which to do so. Today, I am speaking much more broadly, for this is a matter not only for parents. I, like other members of this congregation, have no children, but I must take on the responsibility of repudiating child sacrifice as it occurs in the world around me. The ways to do this are many, from direct contributions to charitable projects, advocacy of systematic governmental and institutional programs, awareness and solicitude for the children we see regularly and occasionally, and support for the parents and caregivers so often overwhelmed by fatigue, demands of daily problems, and uncertainty about how to handle grueling schedules and complicated issues. Most of all, it involves opening our eyes, recognizing the tidal wave of carelessness and neglect that is creating such havoc and mayhem around us. The African proverb is appropriate here: It takes a village to raise a child. Not just a KI child, any child. Insofar as possible, we are called to take every child seriously, not merely our own. This parashah calls upon us, today, to repudiate and condemn child sacrifice.

Obedience

The topic of obedience is much more troubling for any citizen of the twentieth century. Because of our searing experiences with blind obedience to orders, this aspect of the Akedah narrative is two-edged for us. We acknowledge the supremacy of God and the appropriate submission by biblical patriarchs to God’s direct commands, and we balk at Abraham’s silence and apparent compliance in this death-dealing circumstance. We feel perplexed and alienated and we turn away.

As I re-read the text in preparation for today’s d’var, I noted at least one narrative cue I had missed in earlier readings. First of all, before the story even begins, the author writes that this is a test, not an everyday occurrence. And in this room there are many test-takers and test-givers. As any student can tell us, there is a protocol for tests. First you get the paper and read the directions carefully. Then you set to work. After all your work is done, after you have reviewed your performance, you check one more time and then turn in the test for evaluation. And at that moment, you are still taking the test.

When Abraham hears the command, packs up the animals, walks for three days, binds Isaac, and lifts the knife, the test isn’t over yet. It is only when Abraham continues to exercise his self-control by lowering the knife that the test is over. Have we been so busy looking at the first part that we failed to see the more important final question on the test? Putting down the knife? Here again, I find that Abraham’s moment in history resonates with our own. First of all, we are so ready to rush to judgment. When Abraham heard the directions, he didn’t throw down the paper and run out of the room or simply give up. We often judge circumstances and people prematurely. Second, we are living in violent times and here two we are failing as a culture. It is time to exercise self-control, to put down the knife. I would suggest that perhaps we should hear this story as an exemplum of steadfastness and self-control, rather than mindless obedience. In America today we live in a culture which exalts personal freedom, individuality, self-expression, doing one’s own thing, doing everything “my” way, and instant gratification. Maybe it’s time to reconsider self-control, over the long haul, for the benefit of all and the ultimate survival of the individual.

The Shofar

Finally, a word about the shofar, the symbol of Abraham’s passing of the test and the redemption of his descendants. What a joy it is to hear the shofar each day of the High Holy Days. For each one of us, the sound of the shofar echoes year after year—God remembers and we too remember.

Do you recall the first time, the very first time you ever heard the shofar? Do you remember where that was, in what room? Do you remember the various settings when you have heard the shofar sounded? Do you remember any High Holy Days when you didn’t hear the shofar, for some reason, except in your heart and memory? I can remember hearing the shofar in KI’s first locus on Grove Street, and in the Methodist Church hall on Harrison Road, and now here. I can remember hearing the shofar in sabbatical leave settings in New Mexico and California. And I would suggest that this year, whether these memories be many or few, it is important for each of us to gather them, to review them, to recount them. God remembers, and it is important for us to take the time to remember as well. Sometimes we are so busy making our future that we don’t take time to remember our past.

Conclusion

The text today suggests a busy agenda for the year to come: turning away from twentieth century child sacrifice; practicing self-control; remembering the shofar. These are the three questions on our test this year. May we all do well!

—Ann Harrison
September 7, 1994





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