For what purpose do we read the Akedah on Rosh Hashana, and do we begin discussing it all through Elul?

Rabbi Amitai Adler
September 28, 2011
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For what purpose do we read the Akedah on Rosh Hashana, and do we begin discussing it all through Elul?

A midrash, and then a thought on the matter.

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And it came to pass after these things that God put Avraham to the test. [Bereshit 22:1] Said Hashem Yitbarach, “I will test my servant Avraham, who has followed me always and refused me nothing, except to save the lives of others. I will give to Avraham a command that should never be obeyed, and if he refuses and chooses rightly, I will know that even as he loves Me, he is not blind to the plight of others.”

And [God] called to him: “Avraham!” He answered: “Here I am.” Then He said: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love– Yitzchak– and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” [22:1-2] The Holy One Blessed Be He finished telling Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak his beloved son, and remembering fondly the strength of the patriarch when he argued with Heaven over the fate of Sedom and ’Amorah, He waited for Avraham to begin arguing. Very much was He dismayed when Avraham said nothing, but rose up, gathered what he needed for the journey, and set forth. The Angels of the Presence worried exceedingly, and said before Him, “Master of the World, will you not stop your servant Avraham, since he has not had the strength to disobey this unholy and unlawful command, but goes forth to commit murder in Your Holy Name?”  But the Holy One Blessed Be He said, “Wait. He may yet find the strength, turn aside, and refuse.”

Then Yitzchak spoke to Avraham his father and said: ‘My father;’ and he answered: ‘Here I am, my son.’  And he said: ‘Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for a burnt-offering?’  Avraham answered: ‘God will provide Himself with the sheep for a burnt offering, my son.’  So the two of them went on together. [22:7-8] When the Holy One Blessed Be He heard this He was greatly dismayed, for it seemed plain that Avraham would not turn aside, but would follow through with the terrible command. Yet when the angels said before Him, “Surely now You will stop him, for he will sacrifice his own son.  He is the patriarch of his people, and if he should kill his own son, he will set it as an example for the people.” The Holy One Blessed Be He said, “Wait. Still he may turn aside at the last moment.”

They came to the place of which God had told him, and Avraham built the altar there, arranged the wood, bound his son Yitzchak, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood.  [22:9] Seeing this, all the angels cried out in fear, and said before the Omnipresent, “Surely now you will stop him, for Yitzchak is near death.”  And the Holy One Blessed Be He was dismayed, seeing the terrified face of Yitzchak bound on his father’s altar.  But He said, “My servant Avraham may yet turn aside and refuse.”

Then Avraham put out his hand and took up the knife to kill his son. [22:10] Seeing this, the Holy One Blessed Be He wept, for He knew Avraham had failed the test, and as the angels turned away so they might not see the unholy sight, He said to them, “Go, one of you, stop my servant Avraham from what he is about to do.” Immediately one of the angels leapt down from the heavens, crying out to Avraham.

But the angel of Hashem called to him from the heavens: “Avraham, Avraham!” and he answered: “Here I am.” [22:11] And when Avraham had stopped, the angel asked Hashem Yitbarach, “Master of the World, shall I rebuke him in Your Name? What reprimand or punishment shall I give to him?” But The Merciful One sighed, knowing that the days of Avraham were numbered, and said to the angel, “Do not rebuke or reprimand him. He is old, and in his long life this is the only test he has truly failed. The shame he will feel of his own will when his soul comes to me and learns the truth is punishment enough. But when that happens, he will be with me, and I can then comfort him when he learns of his failure. Let his last days on earth be peaceful, unwearied and unmarred by shame and regret. Someday I shall make this test again, to a different servant, and that will serve as the example to all B’nai Yisrael. For now, say this to my servant Avraham….”

He said: ‘Do not lay hand on the boy– do nothing to him; for I know now that you revere Hashem, seeing that you have not refused Me your son, your only son…I will indeed bless you, and will surely make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or as the sands on the seashore….”  [22:12-18] The Merciful One saw that Avraham was comforted by the repetition of the promises of covenant between them, and He sighed again, and said, “Much and even more have I learned from this disaster with my faithful servant Avraham. I blame his failure on Myself, for I see now I did not make the test plain enough.” The Holy One Blessed Be He sent word to Avraham in Beersheva that he make no boast of the test, and that he order that no one try to copy the deed. And so it was that the Omnipresent indeed learned a harsh lesson from the failure of Avraham, and many years later when he tested his greatest servant, he remembered Avraham and Yitzchak, and made the test plainer, as it is shown.

And Hashem spoke to Moshe: “Go, get down [the mountain]; for your people, that you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly; they have turned aside quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf; and they have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said: ‘This is your god, oh Yisrael, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” And Hashem said to Moshe: “I have seen this people–, behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation.” [Shemot 32:7-10] When the Holy One Blessed Be He said this, Moses perceived that He would not turn loose the destroyer if he could persuade Him otherwise. Rabbi El’azar taught[1] that he realized that the fate of the people was in his hands, and straightway he stood up and prayed vigorously and begged for mercy. [Said Rabbi El’azar:] To what does the matter resemble? It is like the case of a mortal king who became angry with his son and began beating him severely. His friend was sitting before him but was afraid to say a word until the king said, ‘Were it not for my friend who is sitting before me I would kill you.’ [The friend] said to himself, ‘This depends on me,’ and immediately he stood up and rescued him.

But Moshe implored Hashem his God, and said: “Hashem, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people, that You brought up out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say: ‘For evil did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’  Turn from Your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Your people.  Remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them: ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised will I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And Hashem repented of the evil that He said He would do to His people. [32:11-14] Rabbi Abahu taught: “Were it not explicitly written, it would be impossible to say such a thing: for this [verse] means that Moshe took the Holy One Blessed Be He like a man who seizes his fellow by the garment and said before Him: ‘Master of the World, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them!’”  Hashem Yitbarach, remembering well the failure of Avraham, was now greatly pleased at the eloquence of Moses, and at his strength in being able to argue with Heaven, and to name His stated intentions as evil. And so, God having learned from Avraham’s failure, Moses was able to pass the test.  And God told Moses to let word of the argument spread, and so he set an example for the people.

***

Reading the Akedah, using it as a focus for the Yamim Nora’im, makes sense to me if we understand the story is of Avraham failing the test. If only we read the above portion of parashat Ki Tissa alongside the Akedah on Yom Kippur.

I think that, davka on Yom Kippur, the day where we engage most deeply with God as Judge, where we constantly remind ourselves of our sins, constantly remind ourselves that we mortal and destined to transgress, yet God is perfect, and does no wrong…the story may not always be as simple as that. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when God makes demands of us, it is good and proper that we know it to be incumbent upon ourselves to meet those demands. But one percent of the time, the good and proper thing to do may be to debate the demand. In a sense, the entirety of the Rabbinic enterprise is founded on this notion, embodied in the Tanur Shel Achnai sugiya (Bava Metzia 59a et seq.), where the astounding thesis is produced, that the jurisdiction to determine what is and is not halakhah lies not with God, source of Torah, but with mortals– the Rabbis, who have inherited the gift of that jurisdiction given at Sinai (and the inheritors of the Rabbis, to whom it shall be passed on).

God may be perfect, but that’s not always the hand He plays. Sometimes, when we are faced with a God who seems insurmountably intrusive or incomprehensibly tyrannical, we may actually be facing a God who is simply expecting us to step up and debate the point. We often speak of the covenantal partnership between God and Israel in terms of lovers, or parent and child, or king and servant. But I would argue there is another aspect: God and Israel are each other’s chavruta and bar palugta, partners not only in study, but in debate and argument for the sake of Torah study (and other relevant philosophy).

These are partners in debate and study who teach one another, who learn from one another, who spend time together in every part of life, who challenge one another in the best and most productive ways. And they also are those best suited to give one another tochechah.

As such, I think it helps to envision the entire process of the Yamim Nora’im as giving ourselves tochechah on God’s behalf. And this is healthy: everyone needs tochechah, and it is good to remember sometimes (especially in this age of so much discovery, so many marvels of human invention) that we are flawed, and filled with negative proclivities to match our positive attributes, and we often do wrong, or fail to do right, full of pride and arrogance waiting to be humbled.

But the rest of the year, it is perhaps just as important that we not forget to give God tochechah as well. For remaining silent when voices cry out that ought to be inescapably due answers. For letting His Torah be twisted, sometimes, into a tool to do wrong to others. For a thousand things– perhaps not least of which was telling a guy who’s hovering in the neighborhood of a hundred and twenty years old to go out and sacrifice his last remaining son, after he kicked out the other son on His say-so.

There’s a story told about the Berditchever Rebbe, that he asked a certain uneducated man, who was unable to read and understand the liturgy, what that man said to his Creator on Yom Kippur. The man told the Rebbe, “I say to him, Master of the World, I have sinned, it’s true. I am a poor man, and sometimes I have to work on Shabbos. Sometimes, in travelling, I can’t find kosher meat, and I eat treyf. I never found much time to learn Torah, and when I do have time, I am so tired, I usually just sleep. But You– You take children from their parents, and parents from their children; You permit wars to be fought and blood to be shed; You permit sickness and misfortune of all kinds; and Your treasured people, Your zisse yidn, that You swore to protect– You permit them to be abused and robbed and killed by non-Jews. So I’ll make you a deal, Master of the World: you forgive my sins, and I will forgive Yours.”

To which Reb Levi Yitzchak is said to have replied,

“Why would you let Him off so easily? With that argument, you could bring about the coming of the Moshiach.”

This story tells us not to take our sins lightly, or to devalue the humility of the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah by relativizing our flaws, but to recall that we and God are in this together. The Yamim Nora’im is our turn to be the introspector, the listener to tochechah being given us (even if we are having to say the words as God’s proxies). But the other part of the process, the rest of the year, is also important. And we prepare for it by reminding ourselves, amidst the introspection and soul-searching and teshuvah, that God also has things to answer for, and we must not fail to bring them up to Him, even if that failure comes, like Avraham Avinu’s failure, from something otherwise admirable, like a well-ingrained desire to obey and serve our Creator. And by reminding ourselves that God may not always really be wrathful and demanding, but may really be giving us an opening, waiting for us to take up our part of the relationship, and debate Him.


[1] Berachot 32a

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