Posted by: Subway Conductor | September 22, 2020

Rosh Hashanah Second Day

The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the Akeidat Yitzchak – the story of the binding of Isaac. We are told right at the outset that this is a test. The Torah says, “And G-d tested Abraham.” G-d tells him to take his beloved son up on Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. It takes three days for them to reach the place and one can only imagine the agony that accompanied Abraham as he took his son to be killed. When they arrive at the place, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and just as Abraham raises his hand with the knife in it to slaughter his son, an angel calls out “Abraham Abraham” Don’t kill him, don’t lay a hand on him. Abraham offers up a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, hence a connection to Rosh Hashanah – a ram’s horn. Abraham then goes back down the mountain and returns to his wife Sarah who has already died. But what happened to Isaac? There is no mention of Isaac returning with his father from Mount Moriah although we do encounter him again in the Torah.

In a 12th century piyyut written by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn entitled “The Akeida”, it is stated explicitly that Isaac was actually killed on Mount Moriah by his father Abraham and then was brought back to life. The angel calls out a second time in order to prevent Abraham from slaughtering Isaac once again.  

Where did this augmentation of the story come from?  This same Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn was the author of a work entitled “Sefer Zechirah” – the Book of Memory – which chronicled among many other atrocities during the second crusade in the Rhineland, the massacre of the Jewish community of Mainz.  Like many other holy communities, they chose to be slain rather than convert. Their children too were among the slain. There are chronicles from this same period that report that fathers killed their own sons and daughters along with themselves in a desperate final act rather than abandon their faith.

For the Jews living in the Middle Ages, Abraham’s test must have seemed pretty weak medicine. What do you mean, he only had to bind Isaac? He only had to almost kill his son? We have been forced to actually sacrifice our children. Choosing to remain Jews we have watched as our children were slaughtered.  It was unthinkable that their test was so much greater than Abraham’s. And therefore, they intensified the biblical account, claiming that Isaac was killed and brought back to life.

In the zichronot section of the Musaf we will say today, we ask that G-d remember the binding of Isaac so that it should serve as a source of merit for us. As we read through these verses, we should remember that generations of Jews made the ultimate sacrifice that they might remain Jews. We would not be here today, if our foremothers and forefathers had not been willing to meet the test that was required to preserve Judaism. As we remember the Akeida and all the sacrifices that former generations of Jews made, it should serve as a source of strength for us that we will commit to not allowing ourselves to become the last link in the chain that connects us back to them. In the long tradition that started with Abraham and goes through countless generations that persevered despite expulsions, persecutions, pogroms, and massacres, we are the continuation of that tradition. We must not let the flame go out.

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