Finding meaning in the ram
No story in our culture is more enigmatic and iconic than the Binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. The akedah, or “binding,” is found in the 22nd chapter of Genesis and is only 19 verses long, containing just over 300 words. Yet this very short story has compelled writers from Maimonides to Wilfred Owen, from St. Augustine to Bob Dylan.
Throughout history, thinkers and writers focused on the varying characters of the story. In the medieval period, philosophers focused mainly on God and free will with questions such as, “What could God learn from Abraham’s test, if the all-knowing God knew that Isaac would not be killed?” During the crusades, the focused shifted to Isaac, who was widely viewed in that time period as a model for martyrdom. In the modern period, the shift of focus was to Abraham with questions such as, “How does someone like Abraham live with a God who commands such terrible things?” Later, the feminists finally give voice to the silenced Sarah by asking, “How would Sarah respond to God’s wish?”
But the most unsung hero of the akedah is not Abraham, or God, or Sarah. It’s the ram.
The basic narrative of the akedah is that God asks Abraham to take his son, Isaac, up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him to God. Abraham and Isaac climb the mountain together. At the peak, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and unsheathes the knife. As he lifts the blade into the heavens, the Angel of God appears and stays his hand. A ram caught in the brambles by its horns — which Abraham sees for the first time — becomes the substitute sacrifice for Isaac.
The ram is the only character mentioned in the story that doesn’t speak, that doesn’t choose to be there and finds itself drawn into events of the akedah simply because it was in the right place at the right time. More than any other character in the story, the ram is the truest reflection of the spiritual moment that we live in today. Perhaps that’s what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had in mind when he wrote of the ram, “He had human eyes.”
Each of us is just like the ram. There is much in our lives we don’t choose and in truth cannot control. Our parents’ dreams for us began months before we were born. They chose our clothes, our schools, even our friends, when we are young. As adults, we have the opportunity to craft life for ourselves, but we have moments in which we hear our mother’s or father’s words come out of our mouths.
As we grow up, many of us become workaholics and believe that we can control every facet of life by dint of our own powers. We convince ourselves that we can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle if we just work harder and do more. We think we can control every aspect, every moment, as if everyday living is a filtered Instagram image.
Then, at some moment not of our own choosing, the enormity of life catches us unaware. We lose a job, or someone we love becomes terminally ill. We hear the cries of a new baby for the first time, or that child comes home to tell you he’s getting married. These are the moments when we have unwittingly climbed Moriah and life catches us in its thorns, and, like the ram, we have no control over them. We wake up to a world that cannot be designed or curated; it is life in its most unpolished truth, and, like the ram, many of us just don’t have the right language to respond.
The religious energy of the ram saturates the High Holy Days. We begin with the new moon of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Every morning we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, as a symbolic wakeup call to attune ourselves to the spiritual drama that unfolds around us every day. The shofar gives shape and tone to our experience of life’s most precious moments and reminds us that there is so much in life we cannot control. We are told to calibrate our lives to the shofar’s call as we prepare for the spiritual encounter of Rosh Hashanah. In the ram’s song, its soulful blast vibrates in the chambers of our hearts, waking us up to the fragility of life and teaching us to respond with love and awe in each other.
As the holiday season falls upon us, we begin the journey, like the ram, up the winding paths to Moriah, where each of us allows ourselves the space to break down life to its most basic elements. How will I be in the coming year, and where will life take me? In the Unetaneh Tokef, we encounter God at the peak of the mountain. The author imagines us passing before the open gates of heaven like the sheep of the herd to be counted by God. As we take our turn before God, like the ram, we become our most vulnerable selves by laying bare our successes and failures. We look at our lives and see that that we don’t own them outright because we are entangled in the lives of other people. We look again and see that there are so many things over which we don’t have control. In that Moriah moment, we give ourselves over, like the ram, to the flow of the world.
At Moriah’s peak, we are the ram, giving ourselves over to a higher purpose. This act of giving over is a sacrifice where we draw nearer to both God and the world. In the Torah, the ritual of sacrifice is an act of substitution. The idea of substitution typically moves us away from the realness of life. Most of us have a hard time saying, “I’m sorry that your mother died.” Instead, we substitute, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The substitution makes the experience of death palatable by backing away from the harshness of death.
In the akedah, however, as with other sacrificial rituals, the move is exactly the opposite. In Hebrew, the word korban, which means sacrifice, shares the Hebrew root with the word karov, which means to draw close. This act of substitution in the akedah draws us nearer to, not further from, life’s most powerful truth. Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today, when we commit an act of sacrificial prayer, through our meditations and rituals, we say that we are willing to engage with the realness of life. We come to know that our lives, like the ram’s, are enriched when we view our days on earth as an offering — a gift — to be shared with the universe.
Which leads us to the last crucial point about who we are and who we should be. It was the ram who went to the altar to spare Isaac’s life. An act of substitution such as this is what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says is an act of taking ethical responsibility. The ram in this light took responsibility for the entire endeavor of the akedah, for faith and for the covenant. The final teaching of the ram is that it is not enough to climb the mountain on the High Holy Days and realize that our lives are embedded in an awesome universe that we cannot entirely control. We must take responsibility for the world and make it more just and loving. As we draw close to God through the ram’s korban, our joy becomes God’s joy. Our pain becomes God’s pain. In our closeness to God, we become God’s partner, sharing in the task of the global responsibility for justice. To take up the shofar’s call is not only to feel the wonder of the world, but to feel its pain. The babes of others, even those we consider our enemies, deserve our tears as much as do our own children. To understand what it means to be the ram is to understand that we as Jews have a global responsibility to leave our sacred enclaves and go out in the world and stand in the breach of injustice.
This is the secret of the akedah. Today we are all the ram, caught up with one another, tangled in one another’s horns. We need each other, we need to be together, and we need to believe that our togetherness can craft a world worthy of our highest aspirations. The akedah is not simply a test of Abraham’s irrational faith, but a call to partnership with God in the messiness of life.
In one last midrash, the rabbis say that the ram’s two horns were of different sizes. The first is smaller and was blown at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people. The second is larger and more powerful, heralding the coming of the messianic times. Thousands of years ago, we heard the first blast of the ram’s shofar. As we take our journey up to Mount Moriah on this High Holy Days season, it is time to wake up to the spiritual drama around us, realize that we are all bound together in life, and focus our minds and hearts on hearing the messianic call of a better tomorrow.
Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.