ROSH HASHANAH 5769 (2008),
BERNARD KLIONSKY

Bernard Klionsky

Bernard Klionsky

THE CENTRAL STORY OF THE TRADITIONAL TORAH READING FOR THE 2ND DAY OF ROSH HASHANAH IS THAT OF THE AKEDA, THE BINDING, OF ISAAC.  THIS TELLS OF THE TEST OF ABRAHAM’S WILLINGNESS TO FOLLOW GOD’S DIRECTIVE–EVEN TO THE POINT OF SACRIFICING HIS SON ISAAC—

THIS STORY CAN BE INTERPRETED IN MANY WAYS AND AT THIS TIME, I MEAN TO PUT THE STORY INTO AN HISTORICAL AND BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE AND TO INTRODUCE NEW HYPOTHESES AND MY OWN NEW INTERPRETATIONS. I BEGAN THIS LINE OF THINKING WHEN I GAVE THE CLASS ON CHUMASH, RASHI AND COMMENTARY FOR PARSHA BERESHIT SEVERAL YEARS AGO.

BEGINNINGS ARE IMPORTANT TO THE CONCLUSION OF ANY ENTERPRISE. THOSE WHO BEGIN WITHOUT A CLEAR PLAN OF WHERE THEY ARE HEADED MAY FLOUNDER. WHILE IN ISRAEL ON SABBATICAL, I LEARNED THE LESSON OF BEGINNING A PROJECT WITH A CLEAR VISION OF THE GOALS.  I HAD NOT FULLY UNDERSTOOD THEODORE HERZL’S ADMONITION IN HIS BOOK ALTNEULAND “IM TIRZU EIN ZO AGADAH”. BASICALLY IF YOU DREAM A DREAM IT WILL NOT BE A LEGEND.  YOU CAN MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE. WHILE WORKING ON THE PROPOSED CURRICULUM FOR THE NEW MEDICAL SCHOOL IN BEER SHEVA WE FIRST FORMULATED THE DREAM OF AN IDEAL MEDICAL SCHOOL WITH ALL THE RESOURCES IN PEOPLE AND FACILITIES THAT WOULD BE REQUIRED.  WE QUICKLY DISCOVERED THAT WE COULD NOT POSSIBLY ACHIEVE THE IDEAL. BUT WE NEVER LOST SIGHT OF THE ULTIMATE GOAL AND MADE TEMPORARY ACCOMMODATIONS TO THE EXISTING REALITY.

THE WHOLE STATE OF ISRAEL EXISTS ONLY BECAUSE IT HAS LIVED BY HIS RULE.  IF THE STATE AND ITS MANY ACCOMPLISHMENTS HAD WAITED FOR A FEASIBILITY STUDY, FOR A COST ESTIMATE, AND FOR STOCKPILING OF THE NECESSARY RESOURCES, NOTHING WOULD HAVE HAPPENED. THEY BEGAN WITH A CLEAR IMAGE OF THE DREAM AND IMPROVISED AS NEEDED, BUT NEVER FALTERED.

I SEE AN IMPORTANT EXAMPLE OF THIS PROCESS OF DEFINITION OF A GOAL IN BERESHIT. HASHEM DEFINES THE ROLE OF MAN, AS DISTINGUISHED FROM OTHER LIVING CREATURES AND DEFINES THE ROLE OF HUMANKIND. KNOWING AS WE DO, THE FULL STORY OF THE CHUMASH, IT IS CLEAR THAT EVE’S DECISION TO EAT FROM THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN WAS NO SURPRISE TO HASHEM. HE MUST HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR ONE OF HIS CREATURES TO HAVE CURIOSITY AND THE DESIRE FOR KNOWLEDGE. UNLIKE CHRISTIANITY WHICH REGARDS EVE’S EATING OF THE APPLE AS “THE FALL”, WE DO NOT REGARD HER ACTION AS A SIN AND I EXPECT THAT HASHEM APPROVED AND THAT SHE WAS THE FIRST TO PASS HIS TEST.

UNFORTUNATELY ALL OF MANKIND DIDN’T PERFORM AS WELL. CAIN KILLED ABEL. THE EVIL GENERATIONS THAT FOLLOWED, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF NOACH AND HIS FAMILY, WERE DESTROYED IN THE FLOOD. THE FOLLOWING GENERATIONS BUILT THE TOWER OF BABEL AND FAILED TO WIN HASHEM’S APPROVAL.

ABRAHAM RECOGNIZED HASHEM AND BECAME THE HEIR APPARENT FOR THE CIVILIZATION THAT HASHEM HAD IN MIND. ABRAHAM LEFT HIS NATIVE LAND AT THE DIRECTION OF HASHEM.  HASHEM MADE A COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM THAT HE WOULD BECOME A GREAT NATION AND THAT HE WOULD INHERIT THE LAND OF CANAAN.

THE REST OF THE CHUMASH AND CENTURIES OF JEWISH AND WORLDLY SCHOLARSHIP WOULD HAVE BEEN IMPOSSIBLE WITH A SPECIES OF MAN THAT DID NOT KNOW RIGHT FROM WRONG AND THAT WAS NOT WILLING TO MAKE SACRIFICES FOR THE SAKE OF KNOWLEDGE AND TRUTH.

IT SEEMS THAT HASHEM’S LONG RANGE PLAN WAS TO DEVELOP A WORKING COVENANT, A PARTNERSHIP WITH A HUMANITY THAT ACCEPTED THE MORAL AND ETHICAL CODES OF CONDUCT THAT ARE PRESENTED IN THE FOLLOWING SEDRAS OF THE CHUMASH. FROM THE BEGINNING, HASHEMS’S GOALS ARE MEANT TO BE ACHIEVED THROUGH THE ACTIONS OF MANKIND.  THIS REQUIRES A THINKING AND ANALYTIC PEOPLE WHO ACCEPT THE LEADERSHIP OF HASHEM AND WHO USE THEIR FREE WILL AND INTELLIGENCE TO ADVANCE THE MUTUAL AND SHARED OBJECTIVE.

THE STORY OF THE GARDEN OF EDEN IS THE FIRST EXAMPLE OF A HUMAN PASSING GOD’S TEST. THE STORY OF THE AKEDA IS THE CRITICAL TEST TO CONFIRM ABRAHAM AND ISAAC AS SUITABLE LEADERS; TO BE PARTNERS WITH HASHEM IN THE BUILDING A HOLY NATION.

ACCORDING TO THE LATE RABBI PELI, THE STORY OF THE AKEDA IS “THE OUTSTANDING MILESTONE OF JEWISH THOUGHT, LITURGY AND CREATIVE IMAGINATION FROM THE DAY IT WAS WRITTEN TO OUR OWN DAY”.

ON ITS FACE IT IS AN ACCOUNT OF COMPLETE UNCONDITIONAL FAITH AND TRUST AND OBEDIENCE OF ABRAHAM TO THE COMMAND AND WILL OF HASHEM.

ACCORDING TO THE TEXT “AND IT CAME TO PASS AFTER THESE THINGS THAT GOD PUT ABRAHAM TO THE TEST AND CALLED TO HIM: “ABRAHAM!”  HE ANSWERED: “HERE I AM”  THEN HE SAID: TAKE YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY SON, ISAAC, WHOM YOU LOVE; GO TO THE LAND OF MORIAH AND OFFER HIM THERE AS A BURNT OFFERING ON ONE OF THE MOUNTAINS THAT I WILL TELL YOU”

ABRAHAM COMPLETES HIS TRAVEL TO THE APPOINTED PLACE AND SEEMS TO BE ABOUT TO EXECUTE THE DREAD COMMAND WHEN AN ANGEL OF THE LORD ORDERS HIM TO STOP AND PROVIDES A RAM AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE HUMAN SACRIFICE.

I WAS PLEASED TO DISCOVER THAT I WAS NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO HAD SOME EMOTIONAL DISQUIET BECAUSE OF THIS STORY WHICH, AS RABBI PELI PUT IT “WAS NOT ALWAYS RECEIVED WITH PIETISTIC EQUANIMITY.”

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES FOR CONCERN?  FOREMOST OF COURSE IS OUR CURRENT ABHORENCE AT EVEN CONSIDERING THE CONCEPT OF HUMAN SACRIFICE.  MAJOR RABBINICAL CONCERN WAS WITH THE NATURE OF, THE REASONS FOR, AND THE RESPONSE TO THE TEST THAT GOD POSED TO ABRAHAM.

LET US CONSIDER WHAT WERE THE CRITERIA FOR THE PASSING OF THE TEST? JUST A FEW MOMENTS OF THOUGHT SHOULD MAKE IT CLEAR THAT HASHEM DID NOT WANT OR EXPECT THE DEATH OF ISAAC AND THE END OF THE LINEAGE OF ABRAHAM WITH WHOM HE HAD MADE A COVENANT.  BOTH HASHEM AND ABRAHAM WERE AWARE OF THE NOACHIC LAWS, APPLICABLE TO ALL PEOPLES, FORBIDDING MURDER. WE KNOW, FROM THE TEXT, THAT AT THE LAST SUSPENSEFUL MOMENT AN ANGEL CALLED TO ABRAHAM FROM THE HEAVENS SAYING “DO NOT LAY YOUR HAND UPON THE BOY, AND DO NOTHING TO HIM; FOR I NOW KNOW THAT YOU REVERE GOD, SEEING THAT YOU HAVE NOT REFUSED ME YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY SON.”

WHAT THEN DID HASHEM EXPECT?  NECHAMA LEIBOWITZ STATES “THE TRIAL IS NOT MEANT TO PROVE ANYTHING TO THE ALMIGHTY- WHO IS ALL KNOWING”.  RATHER “THE PURPOSE OF THE TRIAL IS TO IMPROVE THE CHARACTER OF THE SUBJECT (ABRAHAM AND ISAAAC) AND TRAIN HIM IN DOING POSITIVE GOOD AND IN REALIZING TO THE FULL HIS OWN SPIRITUAL POTENTIALITY”.

WHAT RESPONSE MIGHT WE HAVE EXPECTED FROM ABRAHAM? RABBI PELI STATES “THE TEST WAS TO SEE WHETHER ABRAHAM UNDERSTOOD THE TRUE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HUMANS AND GOD.  WAS NOT ABRAHAM THE ONE WHO NEGOTIATED WITH GOD IN THE MATTER OF THE POTENTIAL SALVATION OF SODOM AND GEMORRAH?   ACCORDING TO THIS REASONING, ABRAHAM FAILED THE TEST.  HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN EXPECTED NOT ONLY TO SAY HINENI, BUT TO CHALLENGE THE ORDER, TO VOICE HIS OPPOSITION AND TO QUESTION ITS JUSTIFICATION.  HE HAD NOT YET LEARNED WHAT WE KNOW, NAMELY “THAT WE DO NOT HAVE TO SACRIFICE OUR HUMANITY TO SERVE GOD.”

I HAVE WONDERED WHETHER ABRAHAM, THE SUCCESSFUL AND RESOURCEFUL MILITARY COMMANDER, MIGHT HAVE BROUGHT HIS OWN RAM FOR A SACRIFICE. COULD IT BE THAT THE MAIN OBJECTIVE OF THE WHOLE EPISODE WAS TO IMPRESS UPON ISAAC THE DEPTH OF HIS FATHER’S COMMITMENT TO HASHEM AND THAT SUCH COMMITMENT WAS TO BE EXPECTED OF HIM AS THE SUCCESSOR TO THE COVENANT.  ISAAC ALSO LEARNED THAT HE COULD COUNT ON THE MERCY OF HASHEM.

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN TROUBLED BY THIS STORY AND HAVE EXPLAINED IT TO MYSELF AS AN EXAMPLE OF GOD’S AND THE TORAH’S EDUCATIONAL STRATEGY.  AN OMNIPOTENT GOD HAD THE POWER TO REVEAL–FROM THE VERY ONSET OF HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS PEOPLE– A COMPLETED DOCUMENT AND A FULLY DEVELOPED SET OF RULES AND ORDERS FOR THE HIGHEST POSSIBLE MORAL AND ETHICAL STANDARDS.  SUCH A PERFECT BLUEPRINT WOULD NEED NO FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OR MODIFICATION.  IT WOULD REQUIRE ONLY PERFECT ADHERENCE TO ITS PRESCRIPTION. THIS OF COURSE WAS THE PROBLEM—-TO FIND AND DEVELOP THE NATION THAT WOULD HAVE THE WILL, THE INTELLIGENCE AND THE COMMITMENT TO SUBSCRIBE TO AND EXECUTE THE PLAN, THAT IS, TO BECOME PARTNERS IN THE COVENANT WITH HASHEM.

RABBI RISKIN RFEMINDS US THAT A CONTRACT CAN BE BROKEN,BUT THAT A COVENANT IS IRREVOCABLE. REMEMBER THAT THE COVENANT WAS ORIGINALLY BETWEEN HASHEM AND ABRAHAM. IN PARSHA NITZAVIM, WHICH WE JUST READ ON SATURDAY THE COVENANT WAS EXTENDED TO ALL OF US.  RABBI RISKIN EXPLAINS WHY THIS THIRD ITERATION OF THE COVENANT, IN THE FINAL ORATION OF MOSES, WAS NECESSARY. IT INTRODUCES A DEMOCRATIC ELEMENT.  EVERY ISRAELITE IS INCLUDED, THE COVENANT IS NOW EXTENDED TO EVERY ISRAELITE IN WORDS THAT ARE APPROPRIATE FOR TODAY.

“YOU ARE STANDING THIS DAY ALL OF YOU BEFORE THE LORD YOUR GOD; YOUR TRIBES, YOUR ELDERS, AND YOUR OFFICERS, EVEN ALL THE MEN OF ISRAEL. YOUR LITTLE ONES, YOUR WIVES, THAT THOU SHOULDEST ENTER INTO THE COVENANT OF THE LORD THY GOD- AND INTO HIS OATH WHICH THE LORD THY GOD MAKETH WITH THEE THIS DAY.”

THIS INCLUDES ALL, THE RICH AND THE POOR, THE GREAT AND THE HUMBLE.  THIS CONCEPT OF THE COVENANT IS EXTENDED TO INCLUDE ALL FUTURE GENERATIONS.  IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO LIVE ACCORDING TO THIS COVENANT AND TO PASS THE TRADITIONS AND OBLIGATIONS AND BENEFITS TO OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN. THIS COVENANT BINDS US NOT ONLY TO HASHEM, BUT ALSO TO EACH OTHER.

WE ARE NOW RESPONSIBLE FOR EACH OTHER.  THIS IS REFLECTED IN THE RECITAL OF OUR SINS.  EACH INDIVIDUAL SAYS “ASHAMNU, BOGADNU.” WE SINNED.

THIS SPECIAL COVENANTAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND HIS PEOPLE ALWAYS SUGGESTS ITSELF TO ME AS THAT OF PARENT AND CHILD AND AS THAT OF TEACHER AND STUDENT.  OUR HOLY BOOKS HAVE CHRONICLED THE PROGRESSION TO EVER HIGHER STANDARDS.  HASHEM HAS CHOSEN TO REVEAL HIMSELF TO HIS PEOPLE AND TO TEACH THEM AT A RATE AT WHICH THEY ARE CAPABLE OF LEARNING AND DISCOVERING.  A PARENT CANNOT DIVULGE TO AN INFANT IN A SECOND ALL THE KNOWLEDGE, ALL THE WISDOM AND ALL OF THE ETHICAL AND MORAL RULES THAT CONSTITUTE THE WAY OF LIFE THAT WE HOPE THE CHILD WILL ULTIMATELY FOLLOW.  RATHER THE CHILD MUST BE TAUGHT, AND ALLOWED TO LEARN, AT THE RATE AT WHICH IT IS CAPABLE.  THE PARENT PROVIDES THE GUIDANCE AND THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE LOVE IN A RELATIONSHIP THAT ENCOURAGES THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE CHILD, THAT STIMULATES THE CRITICAL, THE ANALYTIC AND QUESTIONING FACILITIES OF THE CHILD.  PARENTAL GUIDANCE SETS GOALS AND LIMITS AND SERVES AS AN EXAMPLE.

OUR RELIGIOUS LITERATURE PROVIDES DOCUMENTATION OF THE PROGRESSIVE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ETHICAL AND MORAL STANDARDS OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL.  WE BEGIN WITH A SIMPLE SHEPHERD WHO HAS THE PROFOUND CONCEPTION AND REVELATION OF ONE LIVING GOD TO REPLACE THE PANTHEON OF IDOLS.  THE TORAH AND OUR SUBSEQUENT PROPHETIC AND RABBINICAL COMMENTARIES AND TEACHINGS REPRESENT A CONTINUUM. THERE HAS BEEN A PROGRESSIVE AND STILL CONTINUING EFFORT TO LEAD US TO A MORE PERFECT MORAL SOCIETY AND TO PERMIT US TO ADAPT TO THE CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES OF CHANGING TIMES AND OF OUR OWN MATURITY AS INDIVIDUALS AND AS A PEOPLE. THAT, IT SEEMS TO ME, IS THE OBJECTIVE THAT HASHEM HAS PURSUED FROM THE FIRST CHAPTER OF BERESHIT.

THE IMAGERY OF GOD AS FATHER TO HIS FAVORITE SON EPHRAIM IS CONTINUED IN THE HAFTORAH WHICH WE READ FROM JEREMIAH. EVEN WHEN A CHILD MUST BE PUNISHED, THE PARENT REMAINS LOVING AND CONCERNED. JEREMIAH PROMISES THE SURVIVAL OF A REMNANT OF THE PEOPLE IN JUDAH AND FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD.  GRIEF WILL BE CHANGED TO GLADNESS AND THE BLESSINGS PROMISED TO ABRAHAM IN THIS SEDRA WILL BE HONORED.

THE TORAH IS OUR GUIDE, OUR CONSTITUTION.  THE GENERATIONS OF PROPHETIC VISION AND RABBINIC DISCUSSION AND COMMENTARY; AND OUR OWN CONTINUING EFFORTS ARE PART OF A PROCESS OF WHICH THE STORY OF THE AKEDA WAS AN EARLY EXAMPLE.  IN MY READING THIS WAS THE LESSON OF GOD TO ABRAHAM - THAT THE THEN COMMONLY PRACTICED RITE OF HUMAN SACRIFICE WAS PROHIBITED FROM THAT TIME AND FOR EVERMORE.

AS ISAAC WAS BOUND, SO TOO WE ARE BOUND TO THIS ONGOING COVENANT.  A COVENANT IS A PARTNERSHIP AND WE ARE PARTNERS IN AND RESPONSIBLE FOR THE EFFORTS TO ACHIEVE ITS GOALS. WE HAVE A PERFECT AND PATIENT TEACHER. MAY WE BE WORTHY STUDENTS AND CONTINUE TO LEARN AND TO ASSUME OUR SHARE OF THE TASK.

L’SHANA TOVAH TIKA TEVU