Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, as this passage is known, is traditionally read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. In most Reform congregations, however (even in some that observe two days of Rosh HaShanah), the passage is read on the first day. The story's literary power and the challenges it presents to our understanding of God, morality and faith make this narrative one of the Bible's most resonant, the subject of countless inquiries and commentaries in midrash and scholarly literature. The plot is well-known: God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. They proceed to Mount Moriah where Abraham binds his son to the altar. Only when he stands with knife raised, ready to plunge, does a messenger of God cry out for him to halt the sacrifice. Abraham is deemed meritorious for his mere willingness to fulfill God's will.
And then we read:
Abraham lifted his eyes: he could now see a ram [just] after it was caught by its horns in a thicket. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. (22:13)
In the hands of the Rabbis, the ram caught in the thicket becomes a metaphor for the Jewish people. "Rabbi Abba son of Rabbi Pappi and Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin said in Rabbi Levi's name: 'Because the Patriarch Abraham saw the ram extricate itself from one thicket and go and become entangled in another, the Holy One of Blessing said to him, "So will your children be entangled in countries, changing from Babylon to Media, from Media to Greece, and from Greece to Edom [Rome]"'" (Bereshit Rabbah 56:9). The early Rabbis, who lived in Diaspora under Roman rule, understood well how it felt to be trapped in a thicket. Like the poor sacrificial ram, the Jewish people have suffered a seemingly endless string of captivities, subjugations, humiliations and martyrdoms at the hands of one conquering empire after another. Later commentators would extend the roster to include the nations of Medieval Christian Europe, the Czars, the Nazis, the Soviets and the hostile Arab states that surround present-day Israel.
Some would look at the headlines and see the same image, the ram of the Jewish people entangled in a thicket of global anti-Semitism. We are entering a new year, but an age-old specter haunts us, and we must confront it. On the other hand, let us not lose perspective. We could compellingly argue that, at least in North America, there has never been a better time to be Jewish. This generation's school-age children feel far more acceptance, far more security in their own Jewish identity, than did the generation of my parents or grandparents. People of my parents' generation regularly share stories of harassment at the hands of school bullies, enduring anti-Semitic slurs and even physical intimidation and violence. And my grandparents lived through the era of immigration quotas, right here in America. Today's young people take for granted that they will enjoy friendships with representatives of all religions and races; they have never thought about anti-Semitism impeding their professional options, and I have yet to meet a high-school student-even the grandchild of Holocaust survivors-who believes that anti-Semitic bias will have any real impact on his or her life. It is disingenuous for us to liken ourselves to the ram in the thicket. We are not victims. It is good to be a Jew in America in the twenty-first century.
While global anti-Semitism persists in all of its historical ugliness-a genuine menace that we must confront-we should not make the mistake of letting anti-Semitism define our Jewish identity. Rabbi Harold Schulweis said, "The Holocaust is our tragedy, not our rationale," a declaration framed by Rabbi Jack Stern, z"l, who wrote, "We should take our children back beyond Auschwitz to Sinai. We should take our children forward beyond a system of life defense to a system of life value; beyond a sense of Jewish foreboding to a sense of Jewish commitment, and ultimately to the Shabbat and the Torah that some of our forebears left behind, which, in the final analysis, may be the best way of all to combat anti-Semitism" (The Right Not To Remain Silent, 177).
I pray that in the new year we will find a way out of the thicket of confining outlooks, to the vista that allows us to see a bright Jewish future for us and our children. L'shanah tovah!
1. Can you think of a time in your life when you personally experienced anti-Semitism? Ask members of your family or circle of friends if they have experienced anti-Semitism. Can you identify any trends from the ages and experiences of the people who share their anti-Semitic encounters?
2. A hypothetical exercise: If you could give a charitable donation either to a new Holocaust Museum in your community or to a new interdenominational Jewish day school, which would you choose and why?
3. What other reports of anti-Semitism have you encountered lately? How do you know if they're true?
For Further Learning
In Yehuda Amichai's poem "The Real Hero," he writes, "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" (Bloch and Mitchell, trans., The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai). What do these lines suggest about how Amichai uses the imagery of Akedat Yitzhak to construct an alternative narrative?
Watch this Bimbam video to learn more:
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