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An Offering of Oneself on Rosh Hashana, Part 2

September 21, 2015

(Part 1 here)

The sages declared that the Almighty tested Abraham through ten trials, but they never explicitly stated which incidents in his life were counted. Only one of those is unanimously agreed upon by the various medieval authorities: the Binding of Isaac, which scripture explicitly introduces with  “the Lord tested Abraham.” Some would figure that God did not already know how Abraham would respond to the test, but then they would be confronted with the problem of God’s knowledge of the future, and the explicit verse a few chapters previous, wherein God Himself testifies concerning Abraham and his progeny’s faithfulness (Genesis 18:19):

“For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.”

Maimonides writes:

The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired: it is but an example for our instruction and guidance. Hence the word “to know (la-da’at) whether ye love,” etc., do not mean that God desires to know whether they loved God; for He already knows it; but la-da’at,” to know,” has here the same meaning as in the phrase” to know (la-da’at) that I am the Lord that sanctifieth you” (Exod. xxxi. 13), i.e., that all nations shall know that I am the Lord who sanctifieth you. In a similar manner Scripture says: If a man should rise, pretend to be a prophet, and show you his signs by which he desired to convince you that his words are true, know that God intends thereby to prove to the nations how firmly you believe in the truth of God’s word, and how well you have comprehended the true Essence of God; that you cannot be misled by any tempter to corrupt your faith in God….

The account of Abraham our father binding his son, includes two great ideas or principles of our faith. First, it shows us the extent and limit of the fear of God. Abraham is commanded to perform a certain act, which is not equalled by any surrender of property or by any sacrifice of life, for it surpasses everything that can be done, and belongs to the class of actions which are believed to be contrary to human feelings…. Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man’s duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment. We have repeatedly explained this. The angel, therefore, says to him, “For now I know,” etc. (ibid. ver. 12), that is, from this action, for which you deserve to be truly called a God-fearing man, all people shall learn how far we must go in the fear of God. This idea is confirmed in Scripture: it is distinctly stated that one sole thing, fear of God, is the object of the whole Law with its affirmative and negative precepts, its promises and its historical examples, for it is said, “If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this Law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God,” etc. (Deut. xxviii. 58). This is one of the two purposes of the Binding of Isaac).

Now, many are familiar with the what is considered by some to be the first of Abraham’s ten trials, his being thrown into the furnace at the hands of Nimrod upon refusing to worship idols. Granted, not all of the rishonim, including Maimonides, counted this as one of the trials. After all, it is not actually mentioned in scripture, and it is suspiciously similar to the ultimate trial. Both times, a patriarch was called upon to give up his own life for God’s name. But they are also radically different. Firstly, it would be right to stress that Isaac, not Abraham, was the one who was actually put to the test. This point can be addressed by Maimonides above: Isaac was tested, Abraham was made an example. But hadn’t Abraham already made such a great, historical spectacle and example of his willingness to give everything for God? Wasn’t the miracle of the furnace sufficient?

We may propose that in the former incident, Abraham and only Abraham was the hero, while in the latter, God brought about that the son also was shown to be possessed of exemplary faith. Secondly, and more importantly, the Binding of Isaac allowed the fathers to demonstrate their faith even when not put under duress by an oppressor. The incident with Nimrod would serve as a template for thousands of Abraham’s descendants, who, when given the chance to abandon their God, would be willing give their lives not to. The sanctification of God’s name would become an unfortunate but shining hallmark of Jewish history, and although most perished, many like Abraham and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah would be miraculously saved. However, no external threat preceded the binding of Isaac. This case was a purer example. God himself asked for Isaac’s life for no other reason and without anyone else knowing, and they consented, purely out commitment to the ultimate truth.

It is this commitment, the willingness to declare that we are ready to do what God says because He is the King, that is the meaning behind making God our King on Rosh Hashana. Just like God all along did not intend for Isaac to be immolated, but rather to have his mind purified so that he could be considered as though an he were an unblemished offering, so too, are we to strive to purify and sanctify our own minds to His service, and thus we are capable of giving a sacrifice of ourselves on Rosh Hashana.

When we consider the sacrifices unique to the holidays (the omer, the bikkurim and the water libation mentioned by Rabbi Akiba), we see that in the absence of the Temple, all we can do is study the laws relevant to them, as we alluded to in the musaf prayer. However, when we recite the verses of Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofaroth along with the sounding of the shofar, we are fulfilling the percept exactly as it was in Temple. Yes, the rams, bulls, lambs, and goats are no longer, but offering unique to Rosh Hashana is still brought today exactly as it was when the Temple stood. This should help us understand why the order of the verses is separated from the section of the prayers that bemoans the absence of the Temple service. This is one service we can still do ourselves.

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