"Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, 'Abraham,' and he answered, 'Here I am." (Genesis 22:1)
This week's text is the opening verse of the story of the Akeidah - the binding of Isaac. God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. While Isaac is bound to the sacrificial altar, Abraham is stopped and Isaac is not sacrificed. A ram caught in a thorny bush nearby was sacrificed in place of Isaac.
The story of the Akeidah is troubling. Why would a loving, compassionate God ask a parent to sacrifice a child? That is a question that has puzzled generations of Jewish teachers and sages. One possible explanation for the incident of the Akeidah was to teach the early Hebrews that God did not desire child sacrifice. Among some ancient peoples child sacrifice was part of their worship tradition. Telling a story in which it was not allowed taught the people not to engage in this form of worship.
The reader of the Torah knows before Abraham that God intends to test him. God calls to Abraham, and Abraham responds, "Hineni - here I am." The Hebrew word hineni implies not only being physically present but also being emotionally and spiritually present. Hineni means being prepared and ready to take on tasks and challenges. When we begin a new Jewish year, each of us is called upon to answer hineni - I am prepared for the New Year.
Besides getting ourselves physically ready for Rosh HaShanah we also prepare our minds, hearts, and attitudes. On Rosh HaShanah we are to think over our behavior from the past year and ask forgiveness from those we have hurt. We should be aware of our behavior at all times, and be prepared to apologize for inappropriate behavior whenever it happens, Rosh HaShanah is the special time set aside in the Jewish calendar to do these things.
A shofar is a ram's horn and as mentioned, a ram was sacrificed in place of Isaac. When we hear the sounding of the shofar we are reminded of Abraham's display of faith and ability to say hineni - I am here, prepared and ready even if it meant sacrificing his son.
According to a midrash, God told Abraham that whenever his descendents were in danger of punishment because of sin, they were to blow the shofar - a symbol of the ram sacrificed in place of Isaac. Doing this would "remind God" of the merits of the people and thus the people would be forgiven of wrongdoing. In a sense, God would respond, "Hineni - I am here, prepared and ready" to forgive the people. (See Entering the High Holy Days by Reuven Hammer, p. 70)
Rosh HaShanah is our opportunity to prepare ourselves for the tasks and challenges of a new year.
THE TORAH AND YOU
Questions and/or activities for families:
- With older children (10+)
- Have you ever felt that you were being tested by circumstances in your life? Was there a time or situation when you were called upon to answer, "Hineni - I am here, prepared and ready?" Share and explain.
- When you have a test or quiz in school how do you prepare? What kind of homework and review do you feel called upon to do for Rosh HaShanah - the Jewish New Year?
- Take a look in a newspaper or newsmagazine and find a situation that calls upon humanity to respond, "Hineni - I (we) am (are) here, prepared and ready." Share the ways in which you feel humanity could respond to the situation.
- What is your reaction when you hear the sounds of the shofar? What do you think the shofar calls us to do?
- With younger children (6-9)
- Along with new clothes for the school year, many children get special clothes to wear for the Jewish New Year. Many families also write New Year greeting cards and cook and bake special foods. What are some of the things your family does to get ready for Rosh HaShanah - the Jewish New Year?
- Jewish tradition teaches that Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world. Yosef Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman have written, "As we do with any birthday, we take stock of the past year, have a party, eat sweet foods, and look forward to a better year." (Jewish Family and Life, p. 142) What are your hopes and dreams for yourself, your family, and the world in this New Year?
- Draw a picture of the present you would like to give to the world and explain why you chose that gift.
- What do you think and how do you feel when you hear the sound of the shofar?
Yom Sheini shel Rosh HaShanah, Genesis 1:1‒2:3
The Torah, A Modern Commentary, pp. 16-25; Revised Edition, pp. 17‒22;
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 3‒9