Written by Nolan Siegel, NFTY Internal Structures Committee Member 5776- 5778 and NFTY-SAR Co-Head Groupleader 5776- 5778
Taught to Nolan June 2017 by Danny Stein, a teacher from Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and September 2017 by Rabbi Ed Harwitz, Head of School at The Weber School
We typically treat Rosh Hashanah the same every year: as a time to set goals for the coming year, a time to right our wrongs of the past year through t’shuvah (repentance), and a time to eat some yummy apples and honey. Not to say that our normal treatment of the holiday is over-simplified and therefore wrong, but there is more to the holiday than most of us may know, especially when it comes to the Torah parashiyot we read.
Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, and commemorates the creation of the world. The holiday is not mentioned in the Torah; it first appears in the Mishna (part of the Talmud). Rosh Hashanah was definitely established by the sixth century BCE, and today, it is celebrated for one or two days (depending on your denomination).
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read Genesis 21, detailing Isaac’s birth, Ishmael’s expulsion from Abraham’s house because of the negative influence he was on Isaac, and the treaty formed between Abraham and Abimelech, the king of the Philistines (a non-Semitic people from southern Palestine who came into conflict with us during the eleventh and twelfth centuries BCE). Our Parasha for the second day is Genesis 22, and it is about the Binding of Isaac (the Akedah–עֲקֵידַת יִצְחַק) and birth of Rebecca, Isaac’s destined soulmate.
The Akedah (Binding of Isaac) is a story most of us know, but knowing its context can add way more meaning than we probably thought possible when we first learned about it.
When G-d told Abraham to leave Mesopotamia–his home that he didn’t enjoy living in–and go to Israel, Abraham packed his things and hit the road. He and Sarah travelled on the Derech Hayam (“Via Maris”), the biggest Middle East trade route at the time, to reach the soon-to-be Holy Land.
It’s believed that once he arrived in Israel, Abraham stopped at Tel Gezer, a (now ancient) Canaanite city.
It’s believed that Abraham attended a ceremony on the Gezer High Point, the place for child sacrifices and fertility rituals.
Part of the ceremony was a child sacrifice, and Abraham hated what he saw taking place, so he left. Just like he did in Mesopotamia, Abraham despised the practice of child sacrifice. Doesn’t this make his actions in the story of the Binding of Isaac story even crazier?
I’d like to point out two specific verses from the Akedah that in my opinion are the two most important verses of all, Genesis 22:11 and Genesis 22:12. The verses are probably the most well-known part of the story:
“Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear G-d, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.’”
I believe that every word in the Torah is there for a reason; if a word didn’t have a purpose, why would it be included in our holiest book? When examining the Akedah looking through the lens of every word having a purpose, you may notice how just as Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac (whom the rabbis agree was between the ages of seventeen and thirty-four at the time of the Akedah), the angel told him to stop: “‘Abraham! Abraham!’ … ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy,’” Genesis 21:11-12. Instead of yelling, “STOP!” or even, “Abraham, STOP!” the angel yells Abraham’s name two times. Assuming that both of the“‘Abraham!’s” are there for a reason, Abraham’s arm must not have been swinging quickly down toward Isaac as the angel called out his name, sharply contrasting with what is traditionally taught in synagogues’ religious schools (Abraham barely stopping before sacrificing his son). This leads us to understand that Abraham hesitated, as if he were waiting for something to happen… as if he were waiting for G-d to tell him not to sacrifice his beloved son.
We believe G-d was testing Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac–especially knowing the context of the Akedah. But, because the angel had enough time to yell Abraham’s name twice, we can come to understand a whole new side of the story, one that raises serious questions.
When it comes down to it, it’s up to us as individuals to decide what we believe. Do you think every word in the Torah is there for a reason? Was Abraham testing G-d at the same time he was being tested by G-d? Do you think there’s a reason that the rabbis who organized our service chose to place a Parasha about the merit of our first patriarch and his willingness to sacrifice everything for G‑d on the first day of a new year, the day we’re judged by G‑d? Maybe to show us the importance of having faith in G-d for the coming year? Does anything you’ve just read affect your beliefs about or relationship with Judaism and/ or G-d? It’s all up to you to decide.
Gemar chatimah tovah (גמר חתימה טובה); may you have a good final sealing. 🙂