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Slow Down and Trust the Love on Rosh Hashanah

I'm thinking a lot about the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which centers on Avraham bringing Yitzchak up to the point of sacrifice.
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September 22, 2022
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I’m thinking a lot about the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which centers on Avraham bringing Yitzchak up to the point of sacrifice. In school and beyond, we are told that this is appropriate for Rosh Hashanah because it shows that Avraham was so loyal to G-d, that even when asked to do something as horrific and abhorrent as sacrifice a child, Avraham put aside his own feelings and understanding and obeyed Hashem’s request. The Rosh Hashanah tie-in is that we should learn from this example and take it upon ourselves to be more G-d fearing and more obedient in the coming year. And the implication is that maybe, by taking on such a commitment, we can tip the scales of judgement and earn ourselves a better decree.     

I consider myself to be a person of faith — deep faith. Deep enough that I don’t remember a time when I’ve questioned G-d’s existence or the love. And I’ve always had a problem with this interpretation of the Akeida. I can’t actually imagine that Avraham believed he was being asked to kill his son. Obviously it looks that way to us, reading the account. But we need to read the story from Avraham’s point of view. Avraham already had a long, personal, intimate relationship with G-d and had experienced multiple blessings and miracles. Every one of these experiences had revealed G-d to be kind and protective. In modern parlance, G-d always had Avraham’s back. It seems incongruent then for Avraham to believe the worst was happening, although this is what we often read into the narrative.

G-d indeed tells Avraham to take his beloved son and get to a mountain where he will be offered as a sacrifice. Significantly, in the parts of the text in which sacrificial procedures are discussed, the Torah includes specific words to instruct the slaughter; here there is no mention of actual killing, only offering. After three days in the mountains, Avraham sees the place G-d intends for the offering to take place. Notably, Avraham tells his companions that he and his son will go to that place, worship, and return. While Rashi explains this as a prophecy, we might also read the promise of return as an indication that Avraham knows in his heart that the worst is not what’s going to happen.

It’s also possible that Avraham’s understanding of Hashem’s ways told him to just go along with the process, that somehow whatever he is fearing will not actually come to pass.

Avraham and Yitzchak set off with kindling wood and a knife. When Yitzchak asks his father where is the lamb to sacrifice, Avraham answers that G-d will provide the lamb. Upon arrival, Avraham builds an altar, lays down the wood, and then binds Yitzchak to it. This part is obviously problematic for the everyday person to comprehend. The sages teach that Avraham was prepared to kill Yitzchak in service to Hashem. But it’s also possible that Avraham’s understanding of Hashem’s ways told him to just go along with the process, that somehow whatever he is fearing will not actually come to pass.  

When the knife is raised in Avraham’s hand, a heavenly voice calls out to Avraham, directing him not to continue. He is told not to lay a hand on Yitzchak, because now it is known he is a G-d fearing man. At this point, the ram is revealed in the thicket and sacrificed in place of Yitzchak, and we blow the shofar in remembrance. Returning to the heavenly voice, the Hebrew word for fear of G-d is “yirah.” This word has the same root (shoresh) as the w8ord for sight “roeh.” We could therefore read the heavenly voice as saying, “Now it is known you are a G-d SEEING man.” In other words, the heavenly voice is saying “OK, we can stop the experiment at this point; you’ve shown that you can push past your darkest fears and take actions that seem to be unthinkable, because your vision of G-d’s ultimate goodness is so clear.”

In those moments, rather than believe those fears, we have the choice, like Avraham, to slow down, take things step by step, and trust the love.

Not only is such a reading easier (for me) to reconcile with everything I know both of Avraham and of Hashem, but also it offers a beautiful instruction for Rosh Hashanah. So often in our daily lives and especially in personal relationships, something comes up that links immediately to our deepest fears. In those moments, rather than believe those fears, we have the choice, like Avraham, to slow down, take things step by step, and trust the love. If we can do that, even once, we have the chance to be people who see rather than fear. That type of connection is what I pray for on Rosh Hashanah.


Denise Berger is a writer, thinker and social justice advocate. 

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