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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we get down to business, and things begin to get serious. We have experienced the joyous reunion of Erev Rosh Hashanah, seeing old friends, noting how the young people have suddenly all begun to stand on boxes and tower over their parents and younger siblings, feeling a nostalgic warmth about being together as a community again. Then comes the first day, when we re-live Sarah’s laughter, the joy of Isaac’s birth, and remember the majesty and dignity of the liturgical rhythms of the High Holy Days. We stay home from work and school, we wear our new clothes, and we taste the sweetness of the New Year, the apples and honey of fall.

Then comes the second day, and everything is more serious, not exactly more ominous, but more solemn. What is the message, what is the tone of this second day?

As one would logically expect, the second day sustains, develops and compliments the first. Just as our Ark has not one door but two, and our sanctuary has not one entrance but two, so the Torah portions have two portals—the patience of the first day and the faith of the second. The first day, we are reminded that God keeps His word, honors his pledge, gives to Sarah and Abraham, even in their old age, the miracle child Isaac, from whom the nation shall spring. The long years without issue, the apparent emptiness of their future, Sarah’s decision to turn to Hagar—these are not the primary lesson of the first day. The primary lesson is God’s faithfulness and the couple’s patience, which is rewarded.

Then comes the second day, and the tremendous, extraordinary test of faith that is the Binding of Isaac. Patience is not the whole story: patience must be complimented by faith.

Let us turn to the text itself. The opening line is ideal for a congregation of teachers and students. “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.” Teachers read this and immediately identify with God! We teachers all know that this fall, some time afterward, we will put our students to the test. And, by the same token, all the students here sigh and know why their parents said they had to come today—another example of power to the parents and teachers. Ho hum.

Well, we have made our first mistake of the New Year, for this portion wasn’t written only for teachers, and the test is for all of us to take, not to give. Someone else is holding the grade book this time around.

The theme of being tested, measured, judged is a solemn, serious one, and these are concepts that point our minds in the right direction for the days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, This is the time of evaluation, stock-taking, self-measurement, when we must recognize and acknowledge where we fell short, how to make amends and change our patterns of behavior in the year to come.

Abraham’s test involves people other than Abraham: Sarah, Isaac, of course, and the two servants. The Torah does not tell us what Sarah thought about all this. Certainly she was wise in the ways of the Lord and experienced in dealing with her spouse, at her age, after all, but she is absent from this story completely. Her husband, her son, and two servants went camping in the land of Moriah, for a few days—is that what she thought? And was it because the Covenant was to be between God and Abraham that she was not present?

I like to interpret her silence differently, along more general human lines. There are times when our loved ones set about tests in their lives and when the best we know how to do is to stand by silently, to hope against hope that all will turn out for the best. This, for me, is Sarah’s silence. The Torah says nothing because Sarah, in her wisdom, would have said nothing. This was one of those times when she kept quiet.

What about the other participants in the drama? The servants, faceless and nameless, obey their master, for Abraham tells them quite plausibly that he and Isaac are going up to worship. The statement is, in fact, true, no matter what happens. As for Isaac, he seems cheerful, energetic, obedient, and even observant. Finally he is the one who asks, “Where is the sheep?” And it is in response to this question, the naive question so heavy with meaning for Abraham and for us, that the real truth of the Akedah will be exposed. Abraham answers, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” The answer expresses Abraham’s public attitude, his hope based on experience, and his faith. Abraham essentially tells Isaac that they are fulfilling the commandment of the Lord and that it is the Lord’s business they are about. To the boy, the answer is plausible, and the story proceeds.

But, eventually the moment of agony arrives, and here, in the text, there is no human speech to relieve the starkness of the actions. The wood must be piled on the altar, Isaac must be bound, the knife must be unsheathed. These are physical acts, presented without commentary, with nothing to mitigate the awfulness of what is happening before our very eyes. As we hear this, as we imagine the scene, even as we remember that this story represents a turning away from child sacrifice, nonetheless, the moment when all is still and all is ready for the sacrifice, that moment is a terrible one. We shake our heads, our twentieth-century heads so full of facts and figures and formulae, and we shiver in the presence of Abraham’s calm faith. He did not argue, he did not go about his independent way. Those reactions are reserved for other biblical figures. Abraham simply walked through the test with a poise that is awesome.

This is pure faith, unsullied by ulterior motives or certainty that there would be a make-up on Monday or a chance to drop your lowest score when the final average was computed at the end of the term. And, faith is an awkward word for many of us. It has been preempted by groups of people with whom we feel no spiritual affinity. It has been displaced by scientific laws. It has been put in the same basket with superstition. And we are justifiably skeptical of unexamined obedience, whatever the circumstances.

But as others, wiser in the ways of life than are we, have always known, each of us in our lives faces moments of testing, and we need role models for those times. There will be problems for each of us that we can only hope to live through! They will not go away of themselves, and understanding how they work will not make them easier to bear. At best, we may follow Abraham, remembering that he did not know what God had in mind when he sent Abraham to Moriah. Or Sarah, who was silent.

And how did the test come out? Gloriously, not because all tests of times of testing turn out that way; no, we know better than that. But because this is a divine test. And as the haftarah tells us, in today’s passages, “Is not Ephraim My precious son, My darling child? Even when I speak against him, I remember him with affection. Therefore my heart yearns for him. Surely I will show him compassion, says the Lord.”

The musaf service, with its three major additions, is a tacit reminder of the Binding of Isaac. The Malkhuyot section tells us that God is the test-giver; Abraham, like us, is in Divine hands; we do not control these tests. The Zikhronot section speaks not only of the remembrance of the Lord, but at that point of the service we also read, “Blessed is the man who forgets You not, who draws courage from You.” Abraham remembered, and we too must remember. And finally when we sound the shofar, the Shofarot section, we remember what Abraham told his sons, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Each sound of the shofar is a physical reminder of the ram whose horn was caught in a thicket, an echo of the Binding of Isaac, and a reminder of the Covenant forged in the heroic test of faith.

—Ann Tukey Harrison
September 13, 1988

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