After these things, God tested Abraham, saying to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." [God] said, "Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt-offering, on one of the mountains that I will show you." (Genesis 22:1?2)
They came to the place that God had shown him. There Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Abraham now reached out and took the knife to slay his son. (Genesis 22:9?10)
When I was in college, the Hillel rabbi blasted Abraham for his near sacrifice of his son Isaac. He adduced proof texts to show that Abraham was wrong to obey God's command to slaughter Isaac. Since that time I have come across many other essays and sermons that claim that Abraham failed this awful test-that in this instance he lacked moral courage and true faith. Nowadays we struggle to shoehorn this narrative into our twenty-first-century understandings of right and wrong, good and bad, but this riveting and compact story resists all our efforts to domesticate it. No matter how we explain this tale, it scandalizes us.
We cannot know ultimately what our ancestors had in mind when they assigned this perplexing reading to Rosh HaShanah, and in fairness we must remember that they actually relegated this reading to the second day of Rosh HaShanah. (Traditional congregations read the equally troubling story of Abraham's expulsion of Hagar on the first day.) What we can know is how we respond to this story, especially on one of the holiest days of our year.
My own response to this terrifying story is one of profound awe at Abraham's willingness to sacrifice on God's behalf. I don't mean just his willingness to sacrifice his son; I mean his willingness to sacrifice himself. His being was at stake as much as Isaac's. After all, what would Abraham's life have been like if he had gone through with the killing? Would he have experienced miserable self-torture, bottomless guilt, spiritual and emotional collapse?
It is Abraham's capacity for self-sacrifice that flabbergasts me. It is not just his embrace of nonrational ethics (Kierkegaard); it is his embrace of nonrational religion that overwhelms me. Abraham's Judaism is not an easy, sensible path; his Judaism is treacherous. Yet he assents to it, moving beyond the conventions and aesthetics of his day.
Abraham epitomizes the human capacity for self-transcendence, for knowing that it is not his needs and wants that are preeminent, but God's. Chasidic thought calls this m'sirat nefesh, the "surrendering of one's self." Sometimes it refers to martyrdom; recently it has taken on a polemical connotation, as opponents of the Gaza disengagement, like Gush Katif, adopted the phrase as a slogan of their resistance.
M'sirat nefesh has to do with a willingness to give up the things that you hold dear to bring about something better. It encompasses the ordinary self-sacrifice that parents practice for the sake of their children, as well as the extraordinary courage that Israeli soldiers demonstrate for the sake of their comrades.
We American Jews want our Judaism comfortable and familiar like my well-worn pair of Hush Puppies. We kvetch when someone introduces a new musical setting for the Sh'ma; we complain when the rabbi's sermon criticizes us for ignoring the poor. The notion that Judaism might make demands on us, might call us to m'sirat nefesh, is off-putting.
In fact, much in Judaism is opposed to our lifestyle and culture. Much in Judaism challenges American culture and insists that we abandon some cherished aspects of our lives. The Akedah reminds us that the Torah of Abraham disputes the torah of complacency, ease, and self-satisfaction. Our religion is often countercultural, critiquing American norms and mores, even those we find congenial.
This, then, is the power of the Akedah and, for me, the reason for its association with Rosh HaShanah. Just as Rosh HaShanah summons us to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, "self-examination," the Akedah summons us to engage in m'sirat nefesh, to relinquish cherished parts of our selves in order to serve God.
May this Rosh HaShanah be for you a time of insight, reflection, and soul searching, and may the new year be one of blessing, good health, and fulfillment.
BY THE WAY
- It was Abraham who first burst the bounds of universal human bondage-the bondage of man to the forces of his own nature. Not everyone is Abraham, and not everyone is put to so terrible a test as that of the Aqedah. Nonetheless the daily performance of the Mitzvoth, which is not directed by man's natural inclinations or drives but by his intention of serving God, represents the motivation animating the Aqedah. From such a standpoint, the question, "what does religion offer me?" must be completely dismissed. The only proper question is: "what am I obligated to offer for the sake of religion?" (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State [Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992], pp. 14?15)
- "Offer your sacrifice!" That is the main command given to the person of religion. . . . The Holy One, Blessed be He, says to Abraham, "Take your son, your only one, Isaac, etc." In other words, I demand of you the supreme sacrifice. . . . Don't fool yourself that after you heed my voice I will give you another son in place of Isaac. . . . You will think about him every day. I want your son whom you loved and whom you will love for ever. . . . Your life will turn into a long chain of suffering of your soul. All of this notwithstanding, I demand this sacrifice. (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Pinchas Peli, ed., BeSod haYachid ve-haYachad [Jerusalem: Orot Press, 1975], pp. 427?28)
- The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn't know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory-
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy. . . .
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram.
(Yehuda Amichai, The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996], pp. 156?57)
- Is Leibowitz's radically theocentric view compatible with the Reform Judaism that you practice? Does the Reform Judaism of your synagogue ask you to put aside your personal needs in order to serve God?
- Is Soloveitchik right that the sacrificial act is the paradigm for the religious personality? Is religion, including Judaism, premised on self-sacrifice, on m'sirat nefesh?
- Amichai belittles the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac altogether and underscores the supreme sacrifice of the anonymous ram. Is he right in suggesting that self-sacrifice can be self-serving and someone else has to bear the burden of our selflessness?
- During these High Holy Days of 5767, is there any m'sirat nefesh that you might practice?
Yom Rishon shel Rosh HaShanah, Genesis 22:1‒19
The Torah, A Modern Commentary, pp. 146‒147; Revised Edition, pp. 135 ‒136;
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 101–103