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PENITENCE IN PRAYER

by S. David Ram    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Repentance and outcry in prayer are always proper, but between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they are especially proper, as it is written, "Seek Hashem when he is found" (Isaiah 55:6).

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Repentance and outcry in prayer are always proper, but between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they are especially proper, as it is written, "Seek Hashem when he is found" (Isaiah 55:6). This time of year, before the days of awe and the ten days of repentance, prayer becomes fundamental in our daily lives. We all pray for communal and universal desires, and each of us have personal prayers that we wish to be answered by Hashem. During this time, we recite selichot (penitential supplications), prayers that express the longings and contemplations of each Jew on a communal level, as well as on an individual level.

Towards the end of the selichot prayers there is a section which we recite that is a series of supplications that all contain the phrase "He who answered. . .may He answer us." The first of the series reads, "He who answered our father Abraham on Mt. Moriah, may He answer us." Mt. Moriah is the place where Hashem sent Abraham to bind his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. After Abraham bound his son to the altar, he was told by a heavenly voice to stop the sacrifice, and sacrifice a ram in Isaac's stead. The section of the Torah which records the story of the binding of Isaac is also read as the Torah portion on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, quotes a Midrash which expresses Abraham's state of mind during the episode. "Abraham said to Hashem, 'I will lay my thoughts before You. Yesterday You told me that through Isaac will offspring be considered yours; then You said take your son (as a sacrifice); yet now You tell me, do not stretch out your hand against the lad (meaning, Abraham could not understand all of Hashem's requests. It seems that Hashem is either changing His mind, or speaking idle words; and we know that neither can be true). Hashem then answered him, 'I will not profane My covenant, nor alter that which has gone out of My lips (Psalms 89:35). When I told you to take your son, I did not alter what had gone out of My lips; (namely, that you would have descendents through Isaac). I did not tell you to slay him, but to bring him up on the mountain. You have brought him up, now bring him down'." (Rashi commenting on Genesis 22:12). Seemingly, Hashem used a play on words to Abraham when He requested Abraham to bring up Isaac. The Torah uses the word "veha'alehu," which literally means "bring him up," but can also mean "sacrifice him."

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, a leading Torah scholar at the turn of the century, asks a very obvious question on this Midrash. We know from Ethics of Our Fathers (5:3) that Abraham received ten tests from Hashem to demonstrate his faith in Hashem's oneness. Most commentaries agree that the 10th and final test given to Abraham was this episode on Mt. Moriah. So, how can this occurrence be considered the last and most important test if it seems that the test came about through a misunderstanding on Abraham's part? Furthermore, how is it possible to say that Abraham misinterpreted a prophecy? As a prophet, by definition, he does not have that option! Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that when Hashem told Abraham to bring up (veha'alehu) his son Isaac, at first glance, the word means to sacrifice his son. However, when Hashem told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, it was not a contradiction of His original statement, rather Hashem was defining what He meant by veha'alehu. He did not mean to slaughter him as a sacrifice, rather to bring him up as a sacrifice.

A proof for this can be found in the Rambam's (Maimonides) commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers (5:3) where it states that Hashem gave Abraham ten tests. The Rambam contends that the 10th test was Abraham bringing up Isaac as a sacrifice (to bind him) and not to actually slaughter him. From this explanation of the Rambam we see that the goal of the test never changed, rather it was clarified after Abraham had already bound Isaac.

Rabbi Soloveitchik asks further: Why was this test of Abraham considered to be such a big deal? We view this act of binding Isaac on the altar as a defining moment of belief in Hashem. This act is used as the example of the epitome of faith, in more than just the Jewish religion. Soren Kierkegaard, in his famous philosophical examination of the binding of Isaac, explains this act to be the single definition of true faith in G-d in history. However, many Jews throughout history gave up their lives and sacrificed all that they had, simply to sanctify the name of Hashem! What stands out in this particular episode?

Rabbi Soloveitchik answers that Hashem told Abraham that Isaac was going to be his single offspring whose children, through Jacob, would carry on the nation of Israel, receive the Torah, and settle in the land of Israel. All of this was promised and set aside by Hashem solely for the seed of Abraham, through Isaac. Now Hashem comes to Abraham in a prophecy and tells him to bring up his sole heir of the Torah and of the land of Israel as a sacrifice. This would be throwing all of Abraham's dreams and aspirations away. He would lose everything that he had worked for during his entire, long life. This single act would end the possibility of Abraham's offspring being the chosen people of Hashem. This great test was to fulfill the wishes of Hashem without a thought and without a question. If Abraham were to have questioned Hashem's unusual request or prayed for a retraction of this request, Abraham would have consequently failed the test.

From this explanation of the 10th test of Abraham, a question must be asked. As was mentioned above, every day during the ten days of repentance, we recite the line in our selichot prayers, "He who answered our father Abraham on Mt. Moriah, may He answer us." How can we say that Hashem answered Abraham's prayers on Mt. Moriah? That would be saying that Abraham actually prayed for Hashem to retract His original request of sacrificing his eternal heir, Isaac! If this would be true, then Abraham in fact failed his final test of faith. The Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Ta'anit 2:4) points out that although Abraham did not ask for Isaac to be spared, Hashem addressed Abraham's situation favorably without his asking. Abraham was only considered to have been answered by Hashem. Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik, rosh yeshiva (dean) of the famous Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the grandson of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, clarifies that Hashem can answer one's prayers without the person praying at all. As the verse in Isaiah reads, "And it shall be, when they have not yet called, that I will respond; when they are still speaking, that I will hearken" (65:24). So we see that Hashem acts and gives to Man what he needs, without Man's request.

Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik continues with an explanation of the words of his grandfather. He explains that when Hashem said, "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad," this discontinued Abraham's act to sacrifice his son, and labeled the act of binding Isaac on the altar as the completion of Abraham's final test from Hashem. From this, we see that Hashem answered Abraham's "prayers" twofold: firstly, that Abraham fulfilled the commandment of Hashem - the 10th and final test - by bringing up Isaac on the mountain; secondly, that Hashem would still be able to fulfill His promise of continuing the seed of Abraham through Isaac, to give the Torah to his future descendants, and to have Abraham's nation settle in the land of Israel, the land that Hashem promised to Abraham's offspring. These two answered prayers were never actually prayed for by Abraham, as explained in the Talmud. The Ran, a 14th century Talmudic commentator, explains that although Isaac was the one who was saved, and since he was the progenitor of Israel, it was as though all of Israel had been redeemed on Mt. Moriah (Talmud Tractate Ta'anit 15a).

When we read in the selichot prayers, "He who answered our father Abraham on Mt. Moriah, may He answer us," all of us should realize that Hashem answers those people whose request is asked truthfully and sincerely. As Rambam states in his classic work on repentance, when we seek out Hashem during this time of year, He can be found. With proper prayer and repentance, Hashem will answer us immediately.

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S. David Ram, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, is studying in the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem.

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