On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading recounts the story of the Binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham, “take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.”
Abraham obliges. He builds an altar, ties Isaac to it and is ready to slaughter him when, at the very last moment, an angel of God intervenes. “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him,” it hurriedly calls out, “for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.” Lifting his eyes, Abraham sees a ram, its horns caught in a bush, and offers it as the sacrifice instead.
The Akeida, as it is referred to in Hebrew, is one of the best-known stories in Jewish history, but why is it specifically tied to the New Year? The simple answer is that it depicts the purest form of relationship between man and God: God commands, and Abraham acts, without even a word of dissent. This formula seems especially worthy of consideration during the High Holidays, when we are contemplating our relationship with, and obligations to, the Almighty. And, the ram offers a neat callback to the shofar we blow, made from its horns.
Reading the story, though, you can’t help but ask yourself some troubling questions. Why didn’t Abraham protest God’s decree? How could he not think of the pain it would cause his wife, Sara? Why wouldn’t Isaac, who must have wondered just what the heck was going on, question his father’s bizarre actions? And perhaps most of all: why would God pose such a drastic test of his most loyal follower in the first place?
A classic midrash offers an alternative narrative of the Akeida that answers these questions. In this version God never tells Abraham to kill Isaac, only to take him on a journey to offer a sacrifice at Moriah. Abraham, in his zealousness, misinterprets the directive, and God is forced to intervene before he can go ahead with it. Reading the Akeida this way, Abraham ultimately fails God’s test – effectively, he is too devoted to ha-Shem, and not attentive enough to his own family. God saves Isaac because Abraham won’t, and the lesson is to never lose sight of our humanity.
Personally, I prefer this more generous interpretation, which plays out like a game of broken telephone (albeit with a dark twist), compared to the basic reading, where no one really comes out looking all that decent. But at this time of year, both analyses are necessary. During the Days of Awe, we are compelled to review our connection with God, and with each other. It is tempting to focus on one or the other, but the story of the Binding of Isaac, in all its convoluted glory, reminds us why the two must go hand in hand.
May the coming year bless you with health and happiness.