In Judaism, there is no seeing God. Ours is a religion of hearing, listening to and contemplating the divine. “If you listen to/obey God…all these blessings will come upon you…but if you do not listen to/obey God…all these curses will come to bear on you.” Always try to hear with our inner ear and to understand the inner ethical message from God, as embodied in His Torah and mitzvas.
This reality, reinforced often in the Torah, (Shema Yisroel—"Hear oh Israel”) becomes especially relevant now as we stand ready for what may be the most important part of Rosh Hashana [and the only Biblical commandment of the day]-- the listening to/the hearing the sounds of the Shofar. The sounds inspire, perhaps frighten, but most importantly link us both to our history and to the first time Shofar soundings are mentioned in the Torah: The Mt. Sinai experience that defined us as a nation and created our everlasting, unbreakable Covenant with God. [It has been noted, most recently in modern times by Rav Soloveitchik, that to understand the profound importance of a word in the Torah, look for the first time it appears in the Torah.] Shofar on Rosh Hashana is inextricably intertwined with the majesty of God as He revealed himself to us on Mt. Sinai.
The blessing that is recited before the blowing of the shofar is not to “blow the shofar” but “to listen to/understand the sound of the shofar” [“lishmoa kol shofar”].
The words "Shofar" and "Shofar blast" first appear in the Torah during the theophany [manifestation or appearance of God] at Mt. Sinai. At that time, the Israelites experienced an encounter with God that gave them/us feelings of being loved, of independence and of spiritual elevation. The only other time the Torah men¬tions the Shofar is during its description of Yovail (50th year in the Jewish calendar) when, among other things, Hebrew slaves regain their freedom. "And ye shall pro¬claim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants" says the Torah. The Shofar is associated with those times that the Israelites experi¬enced lofty feelings of physical, emotional, religious and spiritual freedom.
The laws and obligations regarding Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana are derived by using a series of hermeneutic principles of Torah analysis that focus on the proximity of the details of Rosh Hashana and Yovail, and on the repetition of key words and phrases in the text of both commandments.
Shofar (commonly referred to as "ram's horn”), one of the earliest wind instruments known to man, and the most spoken of instrument in the Torah, comes from a root that means “beauty” or “splendor” or "the choicest". It also is related to a root that means "to improve" or "to be improved."
Some think that it represents the windpipe, a spiritual part of the body. The shofar possesses connotations that are supernatural in nature, symbolisms which extend far beyond the limited human experience and the temporal context. Its visceral, primordial sounds deeply penetrate a person’s soul and spirit in a powerful way.
Normally, during the entire year, we pray for our physical needs with our physical being: our throat, tongue, teeth, and lips. But on Rosh Hashanah we use our breath, our spiritual es¬sence, and blow into the Shofar. This special instrument that recalls the Mt. Sinai and Yovail freedom experi¬ences inspires us to change, to improve — to be all that we can be.
The three types of Sho¬far blasts are:
Tekiah, the one long, straight, powerful blast stems from a
root that can mean sealing (an agreement) or pitching (a
tent) or sticking to/bringing into contact with. The Tekiah
sound can bring us into contact with the power of God, enabling us to adhere to and dwell within His presence. It offers us the opportunity to reach an "agreement for life".
Shevarim consists of three wailing sounds. The root relates to shattering, breaking, and interrupting. In modern Hebrew, the word "Shever" is paired with other words that form phrases meaning either deep sorrow or heartbreak or separation. We listen to the broken, moaning sounds and we become saddened as we reflect on our past behavior that has distanced us from one another and from God.
The nine, quick staccato blasts of Teruah convey the speed with which we will rush to mend our ways, now that we have confronted the reality of our misguided behavior. The root of Teruah relates to "shouting" and to "cries of tri¬umph". It is as if we hear an alarm clock rousing us from our spiritual slumber, goading us to achieve the ultimate personal triumph of emotional rebirth and strength — as embodied in the Tekiah blast, which follows immediately.
The Shevarim and Teruah sounds are preceded by and then followed by the sounding of a Tekiah, which represent the stability and consistency values we need to live our lives. It awakens us from our spiritual slumber and prepares us for what is coming next.
To the mystical Rav Kook, the Shofar blasts represent the course of history: In the beginning of time, God’s sovereignty was firmly established and stable, like the Tekiah sound. However, after the sin of Man, our lives became filled with crises and cries, the Shevarim and the Teruah (sounding like ra, Hebrew word for evil). At the time of the redemption, God’s reign will again be firmly established and will endure forever (the long Tekiah blown at the end).
To the Breslov, the shofar is like the heart. Just as the heart is embedded in the narrow depths of the body, and when a person prays from his heart he is expressing his inner most true feelings, so too the shofar. Like the heart, it is blown from the narrowest part and the lowest end of the Shofar, from the depths. In this way, the Shofar and the heart are synonymous and both express truth.
Rav Nathan Lopes Cardozo perceives that the blowing of the Shofar proves that we can surpass ourselves. The Shofar soundings create “a terrifying, penetrating resonance” that carries us to places unreachable by the human word. But the Shofar will not blow on its own. It demands our participation, our picking it up and our breathing life into it if it is to become something that can move us forward to reach our potential, to propel us to places we thought unattainable.
A Shofar can be the horn of any kosher animal or beast, although the horn of a cow or ox is avoid¬ed because of their association with the sin of the Golden Calf.
The horn of a ram is used because it reminds us of the Akeidah, the story of which is read on Rosh Hashana, when Avraham nearly sacrificed his beloved son Isaac. The sudden appearance of a ram whose horns were caught in a thorn bush provided a non-human substitute sacrifice. The ancients considered the head and horns of the ram to be symbolic of activity and creative energy. The ram also was one of the animals widely used for offerings in the Holy Temple.
The Sages debated whether the Shofar should be straight or twisted (curved). One school of thought maintains that the STRAIGHTER a person's thought, the better, while the other opinion is that it is best to be more BENT OVER in prayer on Rosh Hashanah.
The Shofar is more a ceremonial instrument than a musical one. Its uses have permeated, and continue to be a part of, many facets of Jewish communal life:
o Announcing the New Year and the New Moon
o Introducing the arrival of Shabbat
o Calling mourners to a funeral
o Publicizing fast days
o Alerting the community to an individual's excommunication
o Part of the prayer/fasting ceremony to relieve droughts
• Secular –
o Coronation of a king
o Inauguration of the President in modern Israel
• Military –
o Assembling troops to attack
o Frightening, then defeating, the enemy
o Proclaiming victory
• Liturgical - part of the Temple service and now a highlight of the Rosh Hashanah service
Explanations for the Mitzvah of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana:
Anthropologists studying the society of early Man point to the animal horn as a symbol of power and as a tool to drive away evil forces and demons. (Perhaps to the primitive mind, blowing of a horn represented use of one's critical life force, breathing, to sur¬vive and flourish. A person is giving over his entire essence, his entire life force in reaching out to the divine. This theme about living is especially appropriate for Rosh Hashana.)
Rambam focuses on the piercing sound of the Shofar blasts that rouse us from our lethargy. “Sleeping ones! Awaken from your sleep! Slumbering ones! Awaken from your slumber! Examine your deeds. Remember your Creator and do teshuva…”
Rav Sadya Gaon compiled a list of 10 subjects that the Shofar is associated with:
• BIRTH of the world (and nation)
• URGENCY of observing the Ten Days of Repentance
• SACRIFICE made by the parent at the Akeidah
• FORMATION OF THE JEWS AS GOD’S PEOPLE at Mt. Sinai
• CALLS OF THE PROPHETS to repent
• DESTRUCTION OF THE HOLY TEMPLE
• Insignificance of man next to THE AWESOMENESS OF GOD
• Reminder of the ULTIMATE DAY OF RECKONING
• INGATHERING OF THE DIASPORA TO ERETZ YISROEL
• Ultimate TCHIYAS HAMAYSIM
The Shofar provides this link through Jewish history that con¬nects the important stages of our birth and maturation both as a nation and as individuals. Seen in this light, the Shofar soundings enable our mind's eye to see our entire lives flashing before us -- a certain catalyst for positive change and for Teshuva.
Rosh Hashanah is the festival when we remind ourselves that God is our King and Judge. The ceremony for the accession of an earthly king to his throne is typically marked by majestic music. On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of Creation, God renews the creative energy that sustains our world. Once again, He is crowned as King of the universe. Just as trumpets are sounded at a coronation, the Shofar announces God’s continued kingship.
In the words of Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, “The shofar symbolizes the obligation incumbent on all human beings to wake up from their spiritual coma. We have to be spiritually awake and not sink in a spiritual and moral slumber. That is why the shofar should be blown from the right side of the mouth [because the right side represents that which is regular] - to symbolize we should be on guard every minute of the day and every minute of the night” ... Rosh Hashana doesn't only mean first day of the year, it means “mind of the year” … on Rosh Hashana we must regain spiritual and moral consciousness in our minds, the source of consciousness. The mind is the coordinating factor in the human organism so our lives must be in accordance with the moral order instituted by Hashem. And the mind, in order to function properly, must not sink into depression. If one sinks into depression, he's like a vegetable.”
Why is Rosh Hashana Considered both the Day of Judgement and the Beginning of the New Year?
The Torah explicitly states that the month of Nisan is the first month of the Jewish calendar and that the holiday “for remembrance and sounding the ram’s horn” [which we call Rosh Hashana] is to take place on the first day of the seventh month. There is no reference to creation or to judgement in the text. There is no hint that Rosh Hashana is the beginning of a New Year. The text merely characterizes the day as “a day of teruah” and “a remembrance of teruah”.
But by the time of the Mishna in the second century Rosh Hashana gained status as a day of judgment when three “books” are open before God, and a time when “all human beings pass before Him in a single file…” The Mishna states that Rosh Hashana is considered one of the four New Years in the Hebrew calendar:
First of Tishrei is the New Year for…
Measuring the reigns of foreign kings, necessary because legal documents were dated by the current year of a monarch’s reign. It served as a standard anniversary marking the end of a full year of rule, even if that “year” had only been part of a year
Beginning of shmittah and yovail years
Planting and for tithing vegetables and grains
Fifteenth of Shevat is the New Year for trees
First of Nisan…
Corresponds to the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Israelite nation
For calculating the reign of Israelite kings
For the renting of houses
For the counting involved in the prohibition against delaying the fulfillment of vows
Is the due date for the half-shekel contribution described to purchase communal sacrifices for the Temple
First of Elul begins the fiscal year for tithing of animals
Later, the Mishna lists the four times during the year that are considered periods of divine decisions:
On Passover, the world is judged regarding grain
On Shavuoth the world is judged regarding fruit of the tree
On Rosh Hashana all who enter the world pass before Him as a military unit (alternately, as sheep)
On Succoth, the world is judged regarding water
Biblical scholar Rabbi Dr. Arthur Walfish notes the textual difference between the way products of the natural world are judged and the judgement of people on Rosh Hashana. The former focus on immediate agricultural outcomes while in the latter Mankind experiences God’s exacting and careful examination. The Mishna evokes the imagery of soldiers “who know that their live hangs balance and are entirely dependent upon their obedience to their commander. The shofar blasts express people’s awareness of their precariousness in the face of the divine judging gaze, and this awareness in turn may serve as a way of achieving divine favor.”
Regarding when the universe was created there is a debate in the Talmud between Rabbi Yehoshua who thinks it happened on the first day of Nisan and Rabbi Eliezer who thinks it happened on the first day in Tishrei.
Ramban reasons that when the month of Nisan is called “first” and Tishrei “seventh,” the meaning is: the first from the redemption from Egypt and the seventh month after the redemption. And this is the meaning of the Torah phrase “the beginning-one let it be for you.” It is not the beginning of the year, but the beginning for you, so-called in memory of our redemption. Nisan is first month of national focus for the Jewish people but Tishrei is when Adam was created and sinned and brings to mind universal ideas about sinning and repenting and forgiveness.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s analysis is that the month of Tishrei is when the current agricultural year ends and the new one begins. It is that critical time in the cycle when farmers plow and sow their fields to catch the winter rains. Unlike Egypt whose water supply needs are filled year-round from the Nile River, the land of Israel is dependent on rains during the autumn and winter months. If there is insufficient rain, crops will fail; famine and drought will prevail—and fighting will break out among the people over the limited availability of food and water.
A major theme in the Torah is the acknowledgement that the creation of Nature was a willful, conscious decision by God, and that He continues to control it. If God does not direct Nature to send rain, death and war could result.
The long steady sound of the two golden trumpets’ tekiah was an “all clear” signal. The teruah sound, however, signals impending danger and the need to travel in military formation and prepare for war. The listener becomes fearful of terrible war and destruction.
In Rabbi Leibtag’ s view, the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is meant to “create an atmosphere that simulates the tension and fear of war…to create an atmosphere of a day of judgement to help us feel that our lives are truly on the line …in anticipation of the forthcoming agricultural year—to remind ourselves that its outcome is in God’s hands”. Rosh Hashana is not only a day of teruah but also of zichron teruah when we all “remember our God…proclaim His kingdom over all mankind in recognition of His mastery over nature and our destiny.”
The words "Shofar" and "Shofar blast" first appear in the Torah during the theophany at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Nathan Laufer focuses on how the blowing of the shofar creates of a link between Rosh Hashana and the Mt. Sinai experience. “Since Rosh Hashana is a remembrance of trumpeting and the revelation at Sinai is the only previous reference to a trumpeting of any sort, it stands to reason that this is the historical event that Rosh Hashana is meant to commemorate.” At Sinai the word kol (voice, sound) means not only the sound of the shofar but also refers to…
The voice of [God]
The demands placed on the Israelites by God
Just as the Israelites trembled before God on that day, we too experience Rosh Hashana as a day of fear and trepidation that inaugurates ten days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur. Just as at Sinai “Moses would speak and God would respond with a voice [kol]” our custom in the synagogue is for two individuals to participate in the shofar blowing, one to call out the notes and the other to blow the shofar. That the word kol appears in the Torah before the word Shofar explains why the blessing recited prior to blowing the shofar is “lishmoa kol shofar”.
Rabbi Laufer continues to trace the link between Sinai and Rosh Hashana in the day’s Musaf service:
The first section [malchios] is about God’s kingship and recalls His words at Sinai “…then you will be to Me a kingdom of priests” over whom God will be our sovereign king.
The second section about remembering divine covenants [zichronons] culminates with the covenant at Sinai.
The third section, shofaros, starts with the revelation at Sinai. The root-word kol appears ten times, perhaps alluding to the ten verses that comprise each of the three sections or alluding to the Ten Commandments uttered at Sinai.
Understanding Rosh Hashana as a re-enactment of the Israelites’ experience at Sinai may explain two of the holiday customs. The custom for men to go to the mikvah [ritual bath] before the holiday may echo the tradition that the Israelites underwent ritual immersion prior to receiving the Ten Commandments. Dipping of apple and bread in honey on the holiday may mirror the manna bread that the Israelites began receiving some 21 days before the revelation at Sinai that is described in the Torah as “wafers dipped in honey”.
Rabbi Laufer speculates that the Rabbis’ linking of Rosh Hashana to creation was aimed at countering the grave threat posed to Judaism by early Christianity. The idea was to conceal the true meaning of the holiday--the story of the Israelites and their unique covenant with God--with a more universal association. Changing the holiday name to Rosh Hashana created the impression that it was a commemoration of the birthday of the entire world.
Perhaps the adoption of Rosh Hashana as the beginning of the year reflects the idea that spiritual renewal is of utmost importance in our lives. On the holiday, we read tragic and transforming stories of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Hagar and Yishmael reminding us that there is hope for all of us to create a new life for ourselves. We engage in Teshuva in preparation for Yom Kippur-- praying for a wiping away of the slate, and an opportunity to change for the better…a new beginning…a new “year”.
Unesaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom… (“Let us validate and acknowledge the holiness of the day…the great shofar is sounded; the still voice is heard") begins what is probably the most powerful and moving piyut (liturgical poem) of the entire High Holy Day service. But it is the closing words of this piyut that, in my opinion, give us strength and optimism as we stand in judgment on Yom HaDin.
According to the halachic work Or Zarua (“Light is sown") written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna in the 13th century, Unesaneh Tokef was composed by a Rav Amnon of Mainz, Germany, in the eleventh century. The Bishop of that city insisted that his good friend the Rabbi convert to Christianity. Rav Amnon asked for and received three days to decide. Rav Amnon suffered from a deep depression, despair and self-doubt for having intimated that he would entertain the idea of converting. When Rav Amnon failed to appear at the appointed time, the Bishop had him brought and had his hands and feet amputated. A few days later the dying Rav Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue. As the Congregation reached the Rosh Hashana Kedusha, Rav Amnon was inspired to create and chant the poignant piyut before dying. According to the legend, a few nights later Rav Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam, taught him this moving hymn and asked him to communicate it to world Jewry for inclusion in the liturgy. *
The poem is replete with frightening imagery of the life (or death) that may await us in the coming year. Unesaneh Tokef is designed not so much to terrify but to shake us out of our complacency and put us in a mindset of self-examination. We remind ourselves of the many ways in which our life may end and focus on the ways to cope with the inevitability of death. We recognize our vulnerability and search for the behavior that will give our lives meaning and purpose.
The climactic phrase Ut’shuva, U’tfillah U’tzedaka Ma’averen Es Roa Hagezayra is conventionally translated into English as follows: "But repentance, prayer and charity cancel the stern decree."**.
Some scholars employing a linguistic analysis conclude that the words mean what they say. Namely, that “U’tshuva, U’tfillah U’tzedaka Maaveren Es Roa Hagezayra” means that repentance, prayer and charity cancel the decree. But how can we pray a line that contradicts our daily reality? Dr. Rabbi Jeff Hoffman proposes that we not take this prayer literally as a theological reality but do take it seriously as a dramatic goad. “Whether or not pious acts prolong our lives, Rosh Hashana is a perfect time for introspection and to resolve to act more pious.”
But can one's Fate be reversed once it has already been decided? An analysis of the words themselves with their multitude of, and sometimes contradictory, meanings may provide a measure of understanding:
T’shuva, the keynote theme, means repenting/returning. We are called upon to…
o Examine our lives and our behavior
o Verbalize our sins
o Pledge to not repeat our past unsavory behavior
o Commit ourselves to investigate and then return to our essential core goodness
The mechanism of T’shuva is transformational: by our changed behavior we regenerate and we become new individuals. Like the snake that sheds its skin and gains an almost-new identity, the person who has done t’shuva sheds his old self and is spared from the punishment that was to be inflicted on the old self that no longer exists.
T’fila means prayer. It is an activity that calls upon us to reach outside ourselves; to acknowledge that we are part of a universe, rather than its center. Egocentricity, either conscious or unconscious, can be a source of grandiosity and iniquity. The experience of reaching outside ourselves to praise, to thank, to confess and to plea acknowledges the existence, and the importance, of God Who "listens," Who pays attention, and Who cares. It is good to be loved and feel cared about. T’filah is the step in the transformational process that creates the interface between the human and the Divine.
Tzedaka is usually associated with Charity — the giving of money to the needy. However, whenever the word appears in the Torah, it never has a monetary connotation. It is better understood as the pursuit of things like…
It is a description of how we perceive God’s interaction with us and, more importantly, a formula for how we are to interact with our fellow humans. Utilizing this Biblical definition, Tzedaka becomes the defining character trait(s) in our communal lives. It is the culminating transformational step that Rav Amnon considered to be so critical, of which the giving charity is but one part.
The words Ma’averen Es Roa Ha’gezayra are enigmatic and complicated. Ma’aveeren has a multiplicity of meanings including…
Ironically, the root also relates to sin (avera). The word captures the oft-repeated image of our comparison to sheep passing in front of a shepherd. It can also mean to stroke gently.
The root also relates to positive images of friendship and of pastoral scenes. Roa can also mean crush or break.
Hagezayra refers to the Divine decree, though it also has a variety of other meanings, including a precipice, a narrow place and to cut off.
Unesaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom describes how…
Humanity passes before God like a flock before the shepherd
Divine decisions on Life and Death are made-- who will live and who will die
Divine decisions regarding the living are made-- who will wander, who will suffer, who will be enriched
It is following this idea about the living that Rav Amnon pronounces “U’tshuva, U’tfillah U’tzedaka Maaveren Es Roa Hagezayra”. He does not say that the Divine Decree itself can be changed; only that “Roa Hagezayra” can be influenced.
My interpretation is that Rav Amnon wants the living to know that in addition to Life itself that is being granted there are mechanisms to soften (maaver) the crushing blow (roa) of what life sometimes holds in store for us (hagezayra). In the real world, we witness tragedy that does not get reversed or changed by any of our actions. Evil exists in the world but we have the ability to transcend the evil and prevent it from enduring. The actions that change us and help us cope are…
T’shuva --internal change
T'fila-- improving our relationship with God by reaching out to Him
Tzedaka -developing integrity in our inter-personal behavior and speech: being sincere, honest, empathic, caring and straightforward
We pray for Life. If granted, we are given the additional opportunity to change for the better at any time in order to live our life to the fullest. Carpe Diem: Let us seize the day!
Jonathan Elkoubi offers another approach. The “vav” prefix –OOt’shuva, OOt’fila, and OOtzedaka -- can be translated as “and” meaning one needs to do all three. But it can also mean “or”, requiring that only one of the three be done. One may achieve change by doing either T’shuva or T’fila or Tzedaka, depending on one’s life situation.
T’shuva is necessary for the vast majority of us who have made mistakes and are capable of not only identifying our behavior but also have the ability to correct. In a sense, we are like the chacham in the Haggadah, in that we have the wisdom to realize and then do the required:
T’fila is for those people who (like the tam among the Four Sons in the Hagaddah) lack the ability to see any wrongdoing. For them, prayer becomes the prime vehicle for achieving forgiveness and change.
Tzedaka is for those who know they are wrongdoers (like the rasha) but want, nonetheless, to achieve some degree of redemption (out of guilt perhaps) without being hypocritical. The professional assassin/burglar/mugger/cheater/charlatan may not have the capacity to honestly and sincerely do T’shuva and T'fila. The most appropriate behavior for him is to change his ways, to mend fences with fellow man and with Society.
Although "Maaveren" is plural, "Roa Hagezayra" is in the singular suggesting, perhaps, that doing the one form of change that best suits one’s personality is enough to modify the Gezayra.
Change is difficult. But each of us can approach the awe-inspiring High Holy Days optimistically, confident of our ability to break through our shell, reach upward and achieve Regeneration.
*Scholars have discussed the authenticity and authorship of the story. Some suggest that the text antedates the time in which Rav Amnon was believed to have lived. Indeed, a number of versions of the piyut were found in the Cairo Geniza. Their language, structure and design suggest that the original source is in the Middle East, not Germany. One opinion is that this piyut was written either by an author of sacred poems named Yanai who lived in Israel during the Byzantine Era or by his student Elazar Hakalir.
**Philip Birnbaum, High Holy Day Prayer Book
Torah reading-- The Akeida (binding/tying) of Yitzchak
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz views the Akeida story as “the opening of the age-long warfare of Israel against the abominations of child sacrifice which was rife among the Semitic peoples as well as their Egyptian and Aryan neighbors … God abhorred human sacrifice.” In that age, he continues, “it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice not that He should have asked for it…The valley of Ge-Hinnom, where these abominable rituals were practiced became a synonym for Hell.”
Alternatively, the Akeida story may be a saga of the extraordinary man named Avraham whose God-given conscience ultimately prevails and stops him from slaughtering his own son. It is a story about Avraham’s internal struggle and its resolution. It is a tale that draws our attention to the very human and natural conflicts in life that get resolved without resorting to miraculous divine intervention. God exists in the world through the medium of Nature.
The “calling” to slay his son does not come from God Himself but from an entity named Ha’elokim, an unusual word which, according to Rav Sadya Gaon, means “an angel of God” (when it appears earlier in the story of Avimelech and Avraham). I understand the concept of “an angel of God” to mean a specific internal force or human emotion ultimately emanating from God (like Yayetzer Harah, Satan). Elokim is the Divine name used to refer to Midas HaDin, strict and harsh judgment aspect of God that also exists in all of us. On his own, Avraham concluded that Monotheism exists but Polytheism does not. Nevertheless, it’s possible that he might have had the idea that human sacrifice was an acceptable way of worshiping God based on what he saw around him. Thus the “harsh calling” to offer up his son as a sacrifice.
God Himself never appears in the story, only His messengers, i.e., the emotional forces that drive our behavior. Benno Jacob notes that in the first nine verses the appellation used to describe God’s directives is elokim, the harsh force in the world. But from the time Avraham decides not to slaughter his son, not to engage in child sacrifice the text switches to describe the messenger as being of the Tetragrammaton name of God, the powerful positive force encapsulated in the four letters (yud, hay, …). To me, it is an indication that universal goodness only exists when human sacrifice does not.
At the end of the story the angel blesses Avraham because he “did not ‘chasachtah’ your son, your only one.” The word “chasachtah” is traditionally translated as withhold. Avraham is being praised for not withholding Yitzchak when God directed him to offer up his son, as painful as it was.
But “chasachtah” has the same three letter root as the Hebrew root word for darkness (choshech) which can be used as a euphemism for death or dying. Understood this way, Avraham is being praised for his having resisted the original calling by deciding on his own to not slaughter his son (“Lo chasachtah”) from before God. For this he is blessed.
This interpretation, which focuses on the internal emotional dynamics of a person and not on a miraculous divine intervention, is predicated on…
An alternate translation of some of the words in the text, as indicated
The fact that it is only forces emanating from God (called malachim, angels/agents of God) that appear in the story, but never God Himself
Rambam’s observations that “the sages did not believe that God miraculously alters Nature on a regular basis”
The opinion of many scholars including the Netziv that the discovery of new phenomena in the natural world in every generation enhances the truth of the Torah and its Creator
Rav J.B. Soloveitchik’ s opinion that one may come to a recognition of God when realizing “the wondrous and miraculous quality of the very laws of Nature themselves”. The workings of natural law are no less miraculous than the negation of these laws that we call miracles.
A willingness to accept a non-literal interpretation of the Torah words, a point of view expressed by many traditional great Torah scholars including the Rashba, Ralbag, and Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Hertzog
When Avraham receives this calling from Ha’elokim (force/agent of God) to immediately take his son, the one he loves, Yitzchak, and to go away to Moriah (Jerusalem) area where his son will be brought as an offering, he does not seem surprised (possibly because child sacrifice was widespread), and voices no objection. [Alternatively, he is shocked to a point of speechlessness both because this was a complete reversal of God’s promise of offspring and nation and because Avraham had already come to the realization of the evil of child sacrifice.] He remains silent because of his mental turmoil, disappointment and possibly depression. The next morning, he wakes up early and keeps busy (nervous energy?) by saddling his donkey by himself and by chopping wood by himself for the offering. With two young men to accompany him, he sets out on his journey.
Father and son travel together silently for three days during which only one brief conversation takes place, when Yitzchak inquiries about a lamb for the offering and his father assures him that “God will provide”.
Upon arriving at their destination, Avraham behaves as if in a robotic-like state. In quick order, he builds an altar; arranges the wood on it; binds his son; places him on top of the wood; reaches for a cleaver [more frightening and deadlier than a mere knife because it “eats through”] to slit his son’s throat. At the last moment, a malach Hashem calls to him not to harm the boy because God knew all along that Avraham would never take his own son’s life (my translation). This victory of conscience was meant to be a lesson and message for all Mankind. Avraham sees a ram behind him, offers it up on the altar and then is blessed again by a Heavenly messenger/force, malach Hashem.
The Akeida is referred to as Yitzchak’s experience (and not Avraham’s test) because his was the more frightening, traumatic near-death experience. On the High Holy Days, we plead for God to recall the Akeidas Yitzchak with compassion. I think that with this we are reminding God that just as Avraham was capable of reversing his initial behavior we, too, have the ability and the desire to overcome temptation and to change for the better.
Each of us could be inspired by the Avraham who had the strength of character to withstand the pressures of the surrounding pagan world. Child sacrifice is a powerful, insidious Evil in the world that must be eradicated if nations and families are to flourish. Sandra Gottesman notes that child-sacrifice is rampant even today in the Arab world where mothers sacrifice their sons in the name of religion (Allah). Members of these poverty-stricken societies misdirect their energy and talent away from productive endeavors by embracing a religion that encourages fanatical, violent and counter-productive behavior.
Yehuda Valladares thinks that, in psychological terms, Avraham may be experiencing an unconscious desire to dominate and/or eliminate his emotional competitor, his son Yitzchak. He is the dominant father of a submissive son whom he needs to “sacrifice” to his own parental plans and hopes. But God is there to rein in this urge. Yitzchak, 37 years old at the time of the Akeida, and in awe of his well-known and respected father, may never have been given the chance to act independently by what most likely were doting and protective parents. The Akeida, the first time we hear Yitzchak speak, may have been a painful but necessary first step in his path to maturity as he experienced parental separation. On the negative side, the trauma (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of his near-death experience affected his behavior and hurt his inter-personal relationships later in life.
Jonathan Elkoubi offers a completely different approach. Beneath Avraham’s seemingly calm appearance, he is angry and just wants to be done with the trials, tests and psychological challenges he has experienced throughout his life. Maybe binding Yitzchak on the altar was his way of showing that he would go so far as doing the unthinkable rather than experience more challenges because the nine previous tests had drained him physically, mentally, financially and mostly psychologically. Perhaps the reason it is angels that communicate with him and not God Himself is because they are closer to Man and understand Avraham’s pain and frustration. In fact, the Akeida turns out to be the final "challenge" of faith that Avraham undergoes.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that ancient civilizations considered the family to be the fundamental social and religious unit. The head of the family had absolute authority. Children were considered property rather than human beings in their own right. In Rabbi Sacks’ view, God’s commanding Avraham to give up his son was an expression of His desire that Avraham renounce ownership of his son, establishing the non-negotiable principle of Judaism that children are not the property of their parents. “The test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice his son but whether he would give him over to God”, concludes Rabbi Sacks. As long as the parents believed they owned their children, the “concept of the individual could not be born.” Parenthood is guardianship, not ownership. As soon as children reach the age of maturity they “become independent moral agents with their own dignity and freedom”. Kayin’s name is based on Eve’s statement “with the help of God I have acquired [kaneti] a man”. If one seeks to own one’s children, they may rebel and turn violent. Moreover, elaborates Rabbi Sacks, the Akedah story makes clear that the reason that Jews condemn child sacrifice is not because they lack courage because Avraham demonstrated they he did not lack courage. “The reason that they do not do so is because God is the God of life, not death”. Death is not sacred. Death defiles.
The Torah wants us to know that having children is an act of Divine Will beyond a natural outcome of a biological process. [Three of the four matriarchs required a miracle to conceive.]
Rabbi David Friedman thinks the most important take away from the Akeida story is that sacrifice will always be part of the Jewish nation’s historic experience much as it was for Avraham. “Maasey Avos Siman Lebanim”— “the experiences of the Patriarchs are a preview of what their offspring can expect”.
1 And it happened after these things that God “Nisa” Abraham and said to him, "Abraham," and he replied, "Here I am."
2 And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love — Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you."
3 So Abraham woke up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey; he took his two young men with him and Isaac, his son; he split the wood for the offering, and stood up and went to the place of which God had spoken to him.
4 On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and perceived the place from afar.
5 And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship and we will return to you."
6 And Abraham took the wood for the offering, and placed it on Isaac, his son. He took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together.
7 Then Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "Father —” And he said, "Here I am, my son. “And he said, "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?"
8 And Abraham said, "God will seek out for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son." And the two of them went together.
9 They arrived at the place of which God had spoken to him; Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood; he bound Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the altar atop the wood.
10 Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the cleaver to slaughter his son.
11 And an angel of HASHEM called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham! Abraham!"
And he said, "Here I am."
12 And he said, "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me."
13 And Abraham raised his eyes and saw — behold a ram! — afterwards, caught in the thicket by its horns; so, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son.
14 And Abraham called the name of that site "HASHEM Yireh, “as it is said this day, on the mountain HASHEM will be seen.
15 The angel of HASHEM called to Abraham a second time from heaven.
16 And he said, "By Myself I swear — the word of HASHEM — that because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one,
17 that / shall surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy.
18 And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you have listened to My voice."
19 Abraham returned to his young men, and they stood up and went together to Beer-sheba, and Abraham stayed at Beer-sheba.
Benno Jacob notes that use of the phrase “And it happened after these things” indicates a surprising turn of events.
Translating the word Nisa is critical in understanding the unfolding drama. There exists a wide range of possible definitions for what God did to or for Avraham including some of the following cited by Rabbi B.J. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah:
• God wanted him to experience. Sforno sees this as experiential, a Divine desire to permit the actualization of Avraham’s ability to imitate God’s Goodness
• God tested. Ramban observes that the test is for the benefit of the one tested and not the tester. Avraham would accrue additional merits by his good and righteous behavior.
• God made him witness to an idea. Rambam thinks the word means “sign”. Avraham would become an attestation to the entire world of “the indubitable validity of prophetic truth”.
• God attested. Abravanel, too, maintains that the word Nasa is related to the root NS—lifting, raising—and is a testimonial for the nations of the world to see.
• God reproved. Rashbam, who had an ardent love for Eretz Yisroel, thinks Avraham is being punished for yielding a part of the Promised Land to Avimelech as part of a mutual non-aggression pact, as described in a preceding story.
• God tested his reaction. Benno Jacob notes that the expression “And it happened after these things” always indicates a surprising turn of events. Like Job whose domestic bliss was suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted, Avraham is learning by experience that there is no permanence in worldly matters. God wanted to show the world what Avraham’s reaction would be.
• God performed a miracle in creating all Mankind with an enormous reservoir of strength of character when confronting moral and ethical issues.
• God tempted. Mendy Saidlower reasons that although God's order to Avraham seems to us to be cruel and bizarre, we can never know what God’s thinking is. Perhaps He is interested in evoking Avraham’s uncomprehending but blind faith and total obedience. Franz Rosenzweig, cited by Rabbi Günter Plaut, proposes a similar approach. In his view, the only way one can truly believe, is if one has no clue or understanding of God’s actions. Only then can one experience sincere and true faith and trust. Some have speculated that God wanted Avraham to challenge Him about child sacrifice just as he wanted him to change His mind about destroying the community of Sodom. Rabbi Plaut concludes that what is being “tested” is Avraham’s faith in God’s not going back on his word (for Avraham to have offspring) and Avraham’s total submission to Divine will.
The Daas Mikrah commentary notes that Avraham is the first person to be summoned by name to fulfill a Divine command.
Professor Uriel Simon reasons that by letting us the readers (but not Avraham) know that what is about to happen is only a test, “we intuit that all will end happily”.
"Please take your son, your only one, whom you love — Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah”. The Hebrew for “go to” is Lech Lecha, the same phrase appearing in (and naming) the previous Parsha. Then Avraham was asked to abandon family, geography and familiar environment. Now he is being directed to “go outside of himself”, to separate himself from his fatherly love, and sacrifice his child. Both are bitter separations, first from familiar surroundings and now from his son.
Some interpret the phrase “bring him up there as an offering” to mean “along with an offering”, or “in lieu of an offering” meaning that Yitzchak was never meant to be offered up, only to be there with his father. God did not command that Yitzchak be slaughtered, only that he be brought up the mountain. Had the intention been for Yitzchak to be sacrificed, God would have said something like “bring him up there as an offering for Me”. Furthermore, the Hebrew word employed is L’olah,” for an offering”. But in a section when the Torah discusses donation of animals to the Temple, the “L” prefix communicates that one need not bring the specific animal pointed to, but can bring another in its place. The ambiguity here may mean that by bringing Yitzchak to Mt. Moriah it would be as if a burnt offering was presented. “Bring him up” means that Yitzchak should physically go up on the mountain and to be “elevated” spiritually by a willingness to surrender himself to God. A Midrash cites one view that Avraham misunderstood what was being asked of him.
The destination Moriah sounds like the Hebrew word r’ay to see, and to perceive. This Hebrew root recurs often pointing to insight, enlightenment and understanding about the evil of human sacrifice as the key theme permeating this Parsha.
Unlike in the previous story of Sodom, when he argued with God about the unfairness of what He was about to do, here where his beloved son’s life is imperiled Avraham remains silent. In the earlier incident, when God had explained His rationale for destroying Sodom, Avraham found an opening to argue with His decision. But here, theorizes Rabbi Telushkin, because He offered no rationale for the command Avraham must have felt that there was nothing he could say to change God’s decision. Or perhaps Avraham saw nothing unusual in God’s request since the surrounding nations exhibited their religious belief by sacrificing their children. Or perhaps the text is giving us a peak into Avraham’s psyche. He assumed and/or imagined that God was asking him if he was as devoted to his God as were his neighbors.
Avraham gets up early (to avoid waking and telling his wife Sarah about what he was about to do?) and rather than leaving it to his servants, he himself cuts the wood and saddles the donkey. “AHHava mekalkeles es hashura”— intense love (like hate) disregards dignity and alters behavior.
There must be no rash action. A three-day period for meditation and deliberation often precedes important decisions.
“And Abraham said to his young men… we will worship and we will return to you” suggests that Avraham’s plan (or wish) was that his son would not die.
Yitzchak carrying the wood conjures up the image of a convicted prisoner having to “bear his own cross”—carry the wood that was be used in his hanging. Suspense builds as father and son journey together physically yet appear to be worlds apart emotionally, each wrapped up in his own thoughts and not saying a word. Anxiety and dread fill the air. Father and son walk together without speaking.
Verses 7 & 8
The silence is broken when Yitzchak has a question to ask his father, to which Avraham answers “here I am” ready to respond. Yitzchak asks where the lamb to be slaughtered is, to which Avraham replies “God will see to a lamb for an offering, my son”. This is a poignant scene in which they are referred to one another as father and son. Earlier, Avraham had referred to his son as “the lad”, perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from the agony he felt by denying that it was his son that he was commanded to slaughter.
The staccato description of his behavior suggests that when Avraham arrived at the mountain he robot-like rapidly and anxiously attacked the tasks of building the altar, of laying out the wood, of binding his son, of laying out his son, and of picking up the cleaver to slaughter. Others interpret this to mean that he calmly went about his tasks. The speed reflected his desire to fulfill his mission as expeditiously as possible.
Every word breathes terror: Slaughter…Cleaver. The Hebrew word used here for a knife is maacheles, not the more familiar sakin. Maacheles contains the root word “eat”. Slaughter with a maacheles involves a powerful thrust that “eats through” anything in its way-- layers of skin, muscle and bones. Despite the terror he must have felt, Yitzchak offers no resistance to his aging farther.
The voice heard comes from an entity, or force or Avraham’s conscience, deriving from God and His four-letter name of Mercy. David Gleitman thinks that it was necessary to call Avraham’s name twice to snap him out of what seemed to be a hypnotic state and to “bring him back down to earth”.
“Atah yadati”, writes Rav Sadya Gaon, means God always knew Avraham was faithful and moral but now, He is asserting that it also will be obvious to all.
As pointed out earlier, the word chasachtah has the same three letter root as the Hebrew root word for darkness (choshech) which can be used as a euphemism for death or dying. Understood this way, Avraham is being praised for resisting the original calling by deciding on his own to not take his son’s life (“Lo chasachtah”) from before God.
Some maintain that Avraham did, in fact, slaughter his son who then was immediately and miraculously revived.
An altar should not be built in vain. A ram is offered in place of Yitzchak; every animal offering is a substitute for a human. The message is repeated that only animals-- and not humans--are suitable for offerings to God. Replacing the raysh in Hebrew achar (behind) with the similar-looking daled changes the word’s pronunciation to echad (one); i.e., Avraham saw one ram. The entangled ram’s horns links to the reading of the Akedah story on Rosh Hashana —the Holy Day when we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) and pray to God to remember us for good, just as Yitzchak was saved from death. [Note: It is possible that Avraham saw the ram roaming around, but did not take it immediately, out of concern that it belonged to somebody. It was only afterwards, when he saw the ram become trapped by its horns, that he understood this odd occurrence as a sign that he should bring it as an offering.]
Hashem yireh—God, who will select this place to “live” (temple Mount in Jerusalem) and to rule His universe, always will be omniscient. The Vilna Gaon thinks that because of his actions, Avraham was able to begin the process of God’s Presence “descending” to the universe, for us to interact with and to form a relationship with Him.
B’har hashem yaraeh—on this mountain a major religious epiphany took place: permanent elimination of child sacrifice in Judaism. On this mountain, where the Holy Temple will be located, future generations will be seen by God (i.e., appear before Him) during the Three Festivals of Pilgrimage. Rabbi Aaron Fruchter A”H pointed out that the additional separation between the pagan world and the deepening faith of Avraham and his followers now will be elevated for all to see.
“/ shall surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore…” This repetition of blessings God already gave to Avraham earlier is re-enforced now that Yitzchak’s life has been saved. [If this is a peek into Avraham’s mind, it means that he again realizes that his decision to not slaughter his son was the correct one, since God had previously promised an “increase in your offspring”.]
Sand presents a completely different imagery than stars. Each grain of sand is surrounded by and in contact with enormous number of other grains of sand which creates tremendous closeness. Stars stand alone and separate from one another. Rabbi Marc Angel sees in this double imagery the tension that exists between one’s yearning to be part of a crowd (like the sand) and the desire to retain one’s own unique and personal ideas, ideals, values and ethics (stars). When God promises that Avraham would father a new, large nation He also assures him that his offspring will include individuals who will have the wisdom and courage to not succumb to the power of the crowd. They will have the ability to resist when the mob starts committing atrocities, murdering innocents and spewing hatred. They will have the power to heal and to bring harmony and mutual respect to a nation being torn apart. They will be the ones to create consensus and unity.
The verse makes no mention of Yitzchak returning with his father Avraham possibly because…
o The focus is entirely on Avraham
o After this traumatic experience Yitzchak avoided his father and chose an alternate route home
o The Torah is underscoring that Yitzchak had finally “cut the apron strings” and became his own independent man, no longer dominated by his father
Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed (Excerpts)
By Ambassador (retired) Yoram Ettinger
1. Rosh Hashanah is a universal, stock-taking, renewal and hopeful holiday, celebrated on the 6th day of The Creation, which produced the first human being, Adam.
2. Rosh means, in Hebrew, "beginning," "first," "head," "chief." The Hebrew spelling of Rosh (ראש) is the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis (בראשית), which is the first word in the Bible. Just like The Creation, so should the New Year and our own actions, be a thoughtful -- and not a hasty-- process.
3. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which means beginning/Genesis in ancient Akkadian. The Hebrew spelling of Tishrei (תשרי) is included in the spelling of Genesis (בראשית).
4. Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as "Ha'rat Olam" (the pregnancy of the world), and its prayers highlight motherhood, optimism and the pregnancies of Sarah and Rachel, the Matriarchs, and Hannah, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph & Benjamin and the Prophet Samuel respectively. Sarah (שרה, the root of the Hebrew word, Israel, ישראל) and Hannah (חנה, the root of the Hebrew words Pardon, Amnesty and Merciful, חנינה, חנון) were two of the seven Jewish Prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, Esther. Hannah's prayer has become a role-model for God-heeded-prayers which are recited by the "non-privileged".
Noah – who led the rebirth of humanity/world – also features in Rosh Hashanah prayers.
5. Rosh Hashanah underlines human fallibility, humility, soul-searching, responsibility (as a precondition to the realization of opportunity), renewal/rebirth, memory (lessons of history) and the need for systematic education.
6. The Shofar (ritual horn) is blown on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call to mend human behavior. Rosh Hashanah is also called "Yom Te'roo'ah" (the day of blowing the Shofar). Shofar (שופר) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for enhancement/improvement (שפור), which is constantly expected of human beings. It requires humility, symbolized by the Shofar, which is bent and is not supposed to be decorated.
The Shofar is the epitome of peace-through-strength: it is made from the horn of a ram, which is a peaceful animal equipped with strong horns, in order to fend off wild animals.
While the blowing of the Shofar is a major virtue, listening to the Shofar is at least as pertinent a virtue. The Hebrew root of "listening" (מאזין) is אוזן, ear, which contains the balancing mechanism in our body. אוזן is also the root of "scale", (מאזניים), which is the zodiac sign of the month of Tishrei. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when people balance/examine their virtuous deeds vs. bad deeds) are observed during the month of Tishrei.