Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"
One principle that remains reliably true throughout the Bible is that the fruitful production of children is evidence of God's love and providence for favored and faithful humans. The birth of healthy children-especially to mothers and fathers who had despaired of their fertility or potency-is proof positive of God's attention and care. The child's arrival shows his parents that God desires to grant them a future, lengthening their legacy and their name long into the future.
Certainly, the conception and birth of our forefather Isaac is a prime example of this phenomenon; the annunciation of his birth to his withered and barren parents Abraham and Sarah is so preposterous that it evokes more laughter than gratitude. Nevertheless, the miracle baby is born, weaned, and raised, and we share his parents' delight that through Isaac the line of Abraham and Sarah will be perpetuated, giving life to the entire future of the Jewish people.
All of this is fine, of course, until Abraham receives the bloodcurdling order from God to offer his beloved son as a burnt offering atop Mount Moriah. Even more baffling is Abraham's quiet acceptance of the order and the agonizing, methodical steps he takes in preparation to take Isaac's life as a sign of his own faith.
Adding insult to (Isaac's) injury is the fact that our sages of blessed memory decreed that this Torah portion (known as the Akeidah, the account of Isaac's binding) should be read on Rosh HaShanah, our commemoration of the New Year and the symbolic coronation of God as Israel's benevolent sovereign. How are we to make sense of this tradition?
Every year we ask ourselves: why must we read this portion, and not any of the possible alternatives? Why should we recount this heartbreaking episode during the sanctity of Rosh HaShanah? It is possible that we should try to emulate Abraham's example as a model of faith in God. But strictly speaking, repentance (which is, after all, the mandate of this season) cannot be brought about simply through piety and obedience. Perhaps a different reading of the Akeidah can yield a new way to find its relevance to the personal work of t'shuvah that we undertake at this sacred time of the year.
The birth of Isaac comes to Abraham and Sarah as God's assurance that their family and its religious covenant will endure. This is the reason that the Akeidah is so wrenching for its own characters as well as for us, its readers who live millennia after its original composition. If God's word is to be trusted, and if Abraham can be relied upon to obey it, then the sacrifice of Isaac will mean the end of the covenant. For Abraham, obeying this commandment will mean agreeing to the ultimate act of self-negation.
But he does agree, and strangely enough, his assent shows him the abundance within himself. Abraham's awed obedience earns the reinforcement of God's covenant; God is moved by Abraham's willingness to destroy his own future. And here we discover the Akeidah's connection with Rosh HaShanah. True t'shuvah requires our willingness to shatter our perceptions of who we are and what we think we must continue to be. In an extraordinary moment on top of a mountain, Abraham has glimpsed the potential embodied in himself-not in his family or clan, not even in his most-beloved son. He has seen, in the words of Walt Whitman, that his own self contains multitudes.
Abraham has shown himself willing to sacrifice his faith in the future and his certainty that things will turn out as God has promised. But he does so in exchange for the potential of even greater growth. Real t'shuvah is frightening because it requires of us the same attitude demonstrated by Abraham: painful humility and a brazen willingness to sacrifice our confidence that the future will resemble the present. We must be willing to give up our visions of life going on as planned. We must be willing to subjugate our own selfish priorities to God's, believing that the future will be different but may, perhaps, be better than we previously believed. Annie Dillard writes that, "[t]he religious idea sooner or later challenges the notion of the individual" (For the Time Being [New York: Random House, Inc., 2000] p. 119); the Akeidah's message is that on Rosh HaShanah we take the paradoxical first step of focusing on the self in order, ultimately, to transcend it.
The midrash Yalkut Shimoni imagines Isaac, moments before receiving the expected mortal blow on the altar, reaching out in love and concern to his father:
Isaac said to [Abraham]: "Father, hurry! Do the will of your Creator; incinerate me completely. Send my ashes to my mother and leave them with her. Every time she sees them, she will say, 'This is my son, whom his father slaughtered!' Father, what will you do in your old age?" [Abraham] said to him: "My son, we know that we will die soon. The One who has comforted us until now will comfort us until the day of our death."
-Yalkut Shimoni , Perek 22, Remez 101
It is a strange and jarring retelling of the scene. Still, within the midrash Isaac's outpouring of sympathy has the same effect on Abraham as the vision of a fiery restraining angel. Isaac points out correctly that his parents will be forced to confront a future violently different from the one they had envisioned for themselves. Nevertheless, God will continue to offer them guidance, comfort, and an unwavering presence.
This, finally, is the promise of the High Holy Days. This is a time of deeply personal-and, often, deeply painful-sacrifice. We bind expectation and ego to the altar and contemplate (often for the only time during the year) how our lives and our relationships might be improved in the future by thoughtful changes in our attitudes and our actions. Invariably, our repentance involves a sense of loss -of social standing, pride, or other personal gain. But we keep at it because we are encouraged and accompanied by the presence of a God who assures us that goodness and growth are always, in the end, worthwhile.
The Akeidah will most likely always be a difficult text for us to read on Rosh HaShanah. The God it depicts, and the human qualities it lionizes, are often far removed from our religious lives today. Nevertheless, when we do our own t'shuvah, we still can be inspired by our forefather Abraham. His name, meaning "father of multitudes," reminds us of the potential within each of us. Thankfully, none of us have to face a grisly mountaintop choice like Abraham did. But we may yet be privileged to see that we, too, contain staggering potential. We all indeed contain multitudes, and, with God's help, our brave t'shuvah can unlock the awesome power of transformation within.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel in Seattle, Washington. He serves on the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Rabbi Hayon gives us the insightful interpretation that Abraham is willing to sacrifice his future as a means of turning to God and of continuing his own personal growth. And while Abraham does grow from this experience, in truth, it is not his future he is willing to sacrifice but that of his son Isaac. It is instructive that Abraham argues for the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah but not for his own son, just as we have the occasional tendency to treat complete strangers better than our own loved ones. In the passages we read, it is God who stops the action before it becomes a slaughter; and it is God, not Abraham, who points out that Isaac is Abraham's "beloved one."
The Akeidah is a statement not only on what we may be willing to do with our own lives for a higher purpose, but also on what we are not authorized to do with someone else's life. Perhaps child sacrifice was a cultural norm, even playing a role in early Israelite society; but we can see this episode as a mandate on the Deity's part that such action is unacceptable. And we can relate this to Rosh HaShanah by letting it serve as a reminder that all we can control is our own behavior and our own lives; and even those are not entirely within our control. If during these Days of Awe we recognize our struggle to control ourselves, how can we possibly control others? We must accept the limited extent of our abilities to determine the future for those we love.
As we look ahead to a new year and imagine for ourselves the perfect world, all we can do is pledge to accomplish our respective parts of the ideal. We cannot decide what type of t'shuvah is done by those around us or those in our lives. As a father of four it pains me to say this, but we do not even have this control over our children. It is common, during the weeks leading up to the holidays, for parents to mediate children's arguments by reminding (scolding) them that this is the time we should be trying to become better people. However, while we may guide them and try to influence them through our own example, as soon as they can truly understand the concept of repentance, the responsibility of t'shuvah passes from us to them.
On Rosh HaShanah we can choose to envision ourselves as Abraham, wondering how faithfully we would follow God's command. But we can also choose to envision ourselves as Isaac, wondering if we will have the courage to be accountable for our own lives.
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