Rabbi Michael Broyde
It is now seven weeks from Rosh Hashanah, and the memories of our promises to repent have long since slipped from our agenda. Not that they were deliberately abandoned - it is just that all difficult tasks are placed on the bottom of the pile until they eventually disappear.
It is now seven weeks from Rosh Hashanah, and the memories of our promises to repent have long since slipped from our agenda. Not that they were deliberately abandoned - it is just that all difficult tasks are placed on the bottom of the pile until they eventually disappear. This week's Torah portion returns us to the yamim nora'im, the Days of Awe. The birth of Isaac and his attempted sacrifice by Abraham at G-d's request years later, are both focal points of the readings for Rosh Hashanah.
The question is why? Why did the sages decree that we read about the birth of Isaac and his attempted sacrifice on one of the holiest days of the year? One could imagine many Torah readings that appear to be related to the New Year. We could have read about the creation of the world, as by tradition Rosh Hashanah is the earth's birthday. So too, we could have read about the holidays themselves, as we do on other holidays. Indeed, the relationship between the holiday Torah reading and the holiday is typically obvious. On Passover we read about leaving Egypt, on Shavuot about receiving the Torah, on Purim about Amalek. Why then is the reading on Rosh Hashanah not directly related to the holiday itself?
This issue is addressed with some clarity by the early Aramaic translations of the Torah. Both the translations of Yonatan ben Uziel and the Targum Yerushalmi, each of which is more than two thousand years old, relate that Abraham, at the conclusion of the attempted sacrifice, addresses G-d and recounts that the sacrifices of His people are going to be enormous throughout history, and that the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and of Isaac to be sacrificed, represents the willingness of the Jewish people to serve the Almighty above. So too, Yonatan ben Uziel notes, whenever the Jewish people are in need of mercy from the One above, they will point to the conduct of Abraham and Isaac, each willing to sacrifice, as they beseech G-d for mercy. This is why we read this portion on Rosh Hashanah.
Pointing to role models in the distant past is easy. The questions we need to ask ourselves are harder. Are we prepared to sacrifice for our faith? Are we prepared to accept the will of the One above? Are we genuinely prepared to engage in the introspection needed for real teshuvah, repentance? Seven weeks have past since Rosh Hashanah, and the Torah reading of this week forces us to revisit these issues.
Rabbi Michael Broyde is the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta, and the Senior Lecturer in Law at Emory University School of Law.
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