Shanna Tova! May we all enjoy a good year, a year of good health, joy and most important a year of shalom, peace and wholeness and wellness. May we see everyone who is living in the land of Israel enjoying shalom and prosperity this year.
Every Rosh Hashanah, we take part in ritualized ceremonies that are intended to help us repent and become better and more worthy people. Every year we read during the holiday the story of the binding of Isaac. Why does this reading appear in Rosh Hashanah service? What is the connection to the message of Rosh Hashanah? How can this story help us become better people?
Jewish tradition sees Abraham as the first believer and as the greatest believer. One reason is the way he coped with the terrible trial of binding his own son, Isaac. We refer to Abraham as Avinu – our Father Abraham, since he is the father of our nation.
We are all familiar with the outline of the story. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son, born after many years of infertility. God promised Abraham that he would have a son, yet now God commands: “Take now your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.”
The text could have simply stated “take Isaac” or “take your son,” or “take your only one.” By repeating the same idea four times, the Torah is emphasizing the importance of this message.
A change can be seen in the way this phrase appears on two occasions later in the text. The wording of the Holy Torah is never a coincidence, so it is interesting to reflect on the fact that the later references omit the expression “the one you love, Isaac.”
The most important element in the relationship between father and son is love. This is the first time that the concept of love appears in the Torah. The Biblical narrator felt compelled to emphasize the love that existed between Abraham and Isaac. The reason for this is to emphasize that paternal love is not merely a genetic impulse. The Torah wishes us to know that Abraham’s love for his son was not a parental obligation.
After the binding, however, the reference to love disappears. What is left in the text is the factual statement that Isaac is Abraham’s son. Once Abraham has reached out to take the knife, it is no longer appropriate to use the expression ‘the one you love” to describe his feelings for Isaac. As a father who picked up a knife with the intention of slaughtering his own son, Abraham may not actually have gone ahead and slaughtered Isaac, but he certainly slaughtered his love for his son.
Through this subtle yet powerful criticism, the Torah tells us that while the binding of Isaac leaves Abraham as a great believer, perhaps the greatest believer, his love for his son must now be gravely questioned. For the Torah, this paternal love is a supreme value. This, then, seems to be the greatest message of the whole story. Great belief in God is wonderful, as long as it does not come at the expense of love for humans – and particularly, love for those who depend on you.
This is where Abraham’s mistake lies from the standpoint of religious tradition. God seeks to explain to Abraham that religious life not only does not require a father to slaughter his love for his son, but actually demands the full realization of merciful love between father and son, and indeed between all people – otherwise belief in God is hollow and empty.
Here lies the true significance of reading this story on Rosh Hashanah. True holiness cannot be found on Mount Moriah (the temple mount where Abraham bonded Isaac) or in any physical location. It lies in the relations among us all. If we treat other people with love and care, then this is the truest form of religious faith.
This is the Jewish message to the world. If there is anything we can learn from this story, it is that the one most important thing in life is us – human beings. We are blessed with so much.
Let this be a year when we will cherish the love in our life, when we will learn to respect and love each other.
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Candles should be lit for Shabbat on Fridays, September 4 at 7:50 p.m. and September 11 at 7:30 p.m.; For Rosh Hashanah on Sunday, September 13 at 7:36 p.m. and Monday, September 14 after 8:32 p.m.; for Shabbat on Friday, September 18, at 7:28 p.m.; for Yom Kippur on Tuesday, September 22, at 7:22 p.m.; for Shabbat on Friday, September 25, at 7:17 p.m.; and for Sukkot on Sunday, September 27 at 7:14 p.m. and Monday, September 28 after 8:10 p.m.
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Editor’s note: Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, a rabbi of The Temple – Adath Israel Brith Shalom (Reform), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.