“Happy are the people that knows the shofar’s sound, they walk in God’s light.”
What does it mean to “know the shofar’s sound? How can we walk in God’s light? What is a worthy life? These are among the questions we face today.
In rabbinic literature, the sounds of the shofar and today’s Torah reading are connected to each other in two, nearly opposite ways. The best known connection is that of Abraham:
Abraham said: “Yesterday, you told me that ‘Isaac will be your seed.’ Now you are telling me ‘Sacrifice him on one of the mountains.’ I conquered my natural desires and did what You said. Now, when Isaac’s descendants sin or get into trouble, I want you to remember the binding of Isaac, forgive their sins and save them from trouble.”
God replied: “You have said your piece and now I will say mine. In the future, when Isaac’s descendants sin, I will judge them on Rosh Hashanah, unless they ask that I credit them by remembering the binding of Isaac when they blow on the shofar.” (Midrash Tanhuma)
This midrash emphasizes the strength of Abraham who conquered his desires and knows how to negotiate with God in order to get a good “deal” for his descendents. It corresponds to the “tekiah” sound of the shofar - long and steady - symbolizing the hope inherent in repentance and all new beginnings.
The less well-know connection between the shofar and this morning’s reading is from Sarah’s side. Although she does not appear actively in the story, Sarah is very involved in the Binding of Isaac:
Know that this is true. When Isaac returned to his mother, she asked him where he had been. He replied, “Father took me up mountains and down valleys. Up on one of the mountains, he built an altar, arranged the wood and took the knife to slaughter me. If an angel had not come to stop him, I would have been slaughtered.”
Sarah asked, “Oy! Do you mean that if hadn’t been for the angel, you would already have been slaughtered?” Isaac, “Yes.”
At that Sarah screamed six times, paralleling the six tekiah sounds. There are those who say that before she finished, she died. (V’yikra Rabbah)
In other version, Sarah’s screams are compared to a “teruah” sound. Indeed, Maimonides compares the teruah to a “wail” or “groan.”
Here there is no power, no hope, no new beginning; there is weakness, despair and death.
I have been contemplating the Binding of Isaac and the messages that are delivered by the choice to read this passage on Rosh Hashanah. If this chapter is read in isolation, the messages are almost unbearable. Abraham is willing to surrender his beloved son, the fulfillment of the covenant and his independent sense of justice. Isaac is willing to surrender his life and Sarah collapses in the face of all this surrender and her loss of control over Isaac.
However, there is no reason to read the chapter in isolation. It is part of a much larger context in which our ancestors do provide varied and positive examples that are relevant to our lives. There is so much material that I cannot consider it all today. Therefore, I have selected a few examples from the lives of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac that can still guide us on our way today.
From the life of Abraham, I have selected two examples that relate to the inescapable necessity to choose, not only between good and bad but also between good and good, in those situations where limited resources or other conditions make it impossible to choose both.
In Genesis 18, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent and God appears to him for no apparent reason. From the juxtaposition of texts, the Rabbis learned and taught that God has come to visit the sick, three days after Abraham’s circumcision. “Sick,” hurting and hot, Abraham merits a special spiritual experience. Suddenly, he sees three “men” in the distance. He gets up and runs to them. Nothing, good or bad, can prevent him from personally extending hospitality to them.
This story emphasizes the importance deeds of loving-kindness. God visits the sick and Abraham overcomes obstacles and gives up personal pleasure, in order to welcome guests.
- An important element in a worthy life is giving to others and being attentive to their needs.
Another situation in which Abraham must make a decision is at the end of the Binding of Isaac. At the beginning of the chapter, God commands him to sacrifice his son. Later, an angel commands him “Do not touch the boy.” The free, human Abraham must make an independent decision. He makes the choice that must seem to him to be more humane and more just. He sacrifices the ram instead of his son. By doing this, Rabbi Michael Graetz teaches that he “establishes an autonomous realm of righteousness by which God’s commands can be judged. Commands, which offend the autonomous realm of righteousness, can be turned into symbolic ones. “
- Additional important elements in a worthy life are human standards and independent moral judgment.
In the Torah, Sarah does not have the same close connection with God that Abraham does but her life is effected by his connections, the covenant and God’s promises. But Sarah does not trust in promises. She takes initiative in order to ensure that Abraham has offspring and the covenant can be fulfilled. Unlike Abraham who was apparently so certain that everything would turn out okay that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah lives in a world of reality, If she cannot have children, she looks for an alternative solution. The unfortunate part is that she does not anticipate the outcome of her initiative and does not handle them well. Instead she treats Hagar most unfairly.
Even Sarah’s famous laugh is rooted in her clear vision of reality. Sarah knows that she is too old to give birth; miracles simply are not part of her plan. Even when Isaac is born, she does everything in her power to protect him, even at the price of further injustice to Hagar and Ishmael.
In the end, Sarah will pay with her own life for her deep involvement in Isaac’s life. Even in the above version of the midrash, where Isaac himself returns alive and tells his mother what has happened, the shocking news has a fatal affect. How much more so in the version in which Satan comes alone and never gets to the “happy” end of the story.
- From Sarah’s life we can learn about the importance of a clear understanding of reality and the need for human initiative. Her example also warns of the need to anticipate the results of our actions and to distinguish between those things which we can control and those which we cannot.
Isaac is often portrayed as passive, an essential but boring link between Abraham and Jacob. However, a close reading of Genesis 36 reveals a totally different personality. Despite the fact that he is not a colorful, charismatic figure, Isaac’s example is very important for anyone who was born Jewish since he was the first born into Abraham’s covenant and the first to continue the tradition, despite the trauma of his youth.
During a famine in Israel, God appears to Isaac and commands him “Do not go down to Egypt. Stay in this land and I will be with you.” Like his father, Isaac listens and obeys. Like his mother, he takes initiative in order to ensure success – he plants a crop. God keeps his promise through the agency of Isaac’s initiative: Isaac is blessed with a record-breaking crop.
- It is also important for us to understand that God’s blessing do not just “fall out of the sky.” They come in response to human initiative and in accordance with the laws of nature.
During the conflict with Avimelech regarding the wells, Isaac also takes action to ensure himself adequate water and living space. His success and the blessing that follows impress Avimelech who offers a peace agreement. Isaac is hesitant but accepts, thereby ensuring tranquility.
The Torah does not tell us about Isaac coming down the mountain and the midrash does not add much. In my mind’s eye, I see him coming down the mountain with the ram’s horn as a reminder. Just a ram’s horn, not a shofar. He keeps the horn until the end of the year of mourning for his mother. The he makes a shofar out of it. He takes the raw material of his life and creates a useful tool. Isaac’s sound is the “sh’varim” broken pieces that together equal the “tekiah” in value,
Isaac blows: “Tekiah, sh’varim, teruah, tekiah.”
Tekiah: In honor of his father Abraham: his strong faith and his contributions to others.
Sh’varim: To remind himself that even the ordinary initiatives of daily life can bring blessing.
Teruah: In memory of his mother, her initiative and clear vision.
Another Tekiah, a long one: to encourage future generations to continue, to continue in the path of their ancestors.
Congregation Hod v’Hadar, 2000