By Rav Reuven Tradburks
The Torah reading for the first day is Genesis, Chapter 21, v. 1-34. This chapter describes the birth of Yitzchak, the insistence of Sarah to send Yishmael away, and Hagar and Yishmael’s near death in the desert before being saved. It concludes with a pact made between Avraham and Avimelech in Beer Sheva.
Aliya 1. The promise made to Avraham and Sarah is granted and Yitzchak is born. In describing the birth, the phrase “as He said” appears 3 times in the first 2 verses. That is the reason this is read on Rosh Hashana. The theme Zichronot is not just that G-d remembers, but that He does what He promises, acts on what He says. He granted to Sarah the child that He promised.
Aliya 2. Sarah says “all who hear of this birth will laugh”. Hence Yitzchak. Jewish history begins with the incredulous. A laugh expressing how incredulous this birth is. Sarah knew not how incredulous our history would truly be.
Sarah demands that Hagar and Yishmael be sent off, for Yitzchak alone is our future. While Avraham does not like this, Hashem tells him that Sarah is correct, for Yitzchak is the Jewish future. While we value all people, Jewish destiny is different, our people are different and our covenant with G-d is different.
Aliya 3. Avraham awakens early to send Hagar and Yishmael away. They go to Beersheva. She cannot bear to see the death of her son. An angel calls to her that her son is saved as G-d heard the voice of the child; he too will be a great nation. She opens her eyes and sees water and they drink. He grows and becomes an archer.
This is a parallel story to the Akeda we will read tomorrow. Early in the morning, journey off, with a son, near death, the angel calls, her eyes are open.
There is a universal theme of Rosh Hashana, of all of G-d’s creation. There are great nations. Like Yishmael. But the parallel to the story of Yitzchak and the Akeda is to highlight the difference. There are many great nations. Yishmael becomes a great warrior archer. But Yitzchak will carry on the covenant. There is only one Jewish people.
Aliya 4. Avimelech makes a pact with Avraham because “G-d is with you in all you do”. This too is a promise fulfilled. Avraham was promised he would have a great name. His fame has come to be. G-d promises and fulfills those promises.
Aliya 5. They call the name of the location Beersheva from the word oath, or pact. Theirs is an earthly pact, ours a Divine one.
The Torah reading is the 24 verses of Genesis, Chapter 22. This story, Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac is the most dramatic expression of how far man is willing to go in his allegiance to G-d. While it is a complex story of conflicted commands, the narrative is beautiful in its simplicity. Amidst the simplicity of the story, the deep and unswerving commitment of Avraham is majestic. The story concludes with the ram, caught in the thicket by its horn; the shofar we use for Rosh Hashana.
Aliya 1. G-d tests Avraham: Take your beloved son and offer him as an offering. Avraham awakens early, gets up and goes with his assistants, with Yitzchak and with the wood.
The drama of the story is belied by the strikingly simple wording: hineni, here I am, he woke up early, got up and went to do what G-d requested. The absence of any dialogue, of any questions, of challenge to G-d, of discussion with Sarah, of explanation to Yitzchak is striking. This simplicity drives the message of the simplicity of Avraham’s loyalty to G-d. For this terribly complex story is at its root quite simple. This simplicity is a Rosh Hashana theme. We live in a terribly complicated world; we have many unanswered questions, theological questions, many challenges and confusion. But at some very deep and profound level we are simple in our devotion. Like the shofar – no words, just a simple call from way deep in our souls.
Aliya 2. They arrive at the place. The assistants stay back. Avraham and Yitzchak walk, together. Yitzchak inquires as to where the offering is. Avraham responds that G-d will provide the offering. And they walk together.
They walk together. This togetherness is ironic – for Avraham knows he is to sacrifice Yitzchak, while Yitzchak does not know this. Or perhaps he does. Maybe he really is together with Avraham. While Avraham is tested, Yitzchak is too. Yitzchak’s role as the willing offering is dramatic. And as the father of the Jewish people, he expresses the image of the Jew as nearly destroyed, but surviving.
Aliya 3. Avraham builds the altar, arranges the wood, places Yitzchak on the altar and takes the knife to slaughter his son. The angel interrupts; instructing him not to slaughter his son, or do a thing, for now we know you would not withhold even your son from Me. Avraham sees the ram and offers it in place of his son. He calls the place “G-d will see, yireh” and it is called the mountain in which G-d is seen (Har Hamoriah).
What more can be said of this powerful and dramatic moment. The mountain is named. He sees. And He is seen. The story told Him a lot about Avraham. He saw Avraham not just profess faith, but be faithful. And the story tells us a lot about Him. What we see in Him is the mystery – why did He do this, and how little we know of His ways. While at the same time His mercy and His faithfulness to us was clear to see. He saved Yitzchak and He saved Avraham from a treacherous moment.
Aliya 4. The angel calls to Avraham a second time. He is told that G-d swore that if Avraham did not withhold his child, that he and his children would be blessed, would be a blessing and would be a great people.
This too is a Rosh Hashana theme. The Creation of the world was an expression of Divine desire for a partner in man. The choosing of Avraham was a more intimate expression of Divine desire for a specific partner in man. And the expression of blessing to the Jewish people is a further expression of our unique covenant. Rosh Hashana is not only the majesty of G-d but the majesty of man. We are partners with the King. He reaches to us, creates us, chooses us, instructs us, blesses us. What a majestic mandate – the partners, the intimate partner of the King.
Aliya 5. Avraham is told that his brother has a full family of descendants including Rivka.
The next generation is now ready to pick up this great covenant and take its place in Jewish history.