“Caught in the Thicket”

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

Abraham lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. (Gen. 22:13)

After the angel calls to Abraham and tells him, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do anything to him, for now I know that you are one who fears God,” Abraham lifts his eyes. This is the third time that we find Abraham “lifting his eyes.” The first was in Elonei Mamrei: “And he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him” (18:2). Then, on the way to the Akeda: “On the third day, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar” (22:4). After the test of the Akeda, where does he lift his eyes? What is Abraham seeking now that the difficult experience is over?

Chazal explain that Abraham questioned the manner in which the Akeda concluded. Rashi quotes the Midrash:

“Do not stretch forth” – to slaughter. He said to [the angel], “If so, then I came here for nothing! Let me inflict some wound on him and cause a small amount of blood to flow!”

[Therefore] he said to him, “nor do anything to him” – do not inflict any blemish on him.

This exchange reflects the presumption that proving one’s faith in God’s unity requires some tangible action. In Sefer HaKuzari, the rabbi explains to the king of the Khazars that in the ancient world, such tangible evidence was essential:

All nations were given to idolatry at that time. Even had philosophers come to the wise men of one nation, bringing proofs to the unity and sovereignty of God, those wise men would have been unable to dispense with images toward which they would address their prayers, and would have continued to teach the masses that the Divine Influence inheres in this image, which was distinguished by some miraculous feature. (Kuzari I:97)

Thus, Abraham sought to draw a drop of blood from Isaac in order to create the sort of impression that arises from a tangible action, and thereby publicize belief in the one God. To this the angel of God responds, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do anything to him.”

This command, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do anything to him,” also greatly improved Abraham’s inner confidence and resolve. The angel banished all the questions and visions which Satan had employed in his efforts to impede the journey to the Akeda – appearing, according to the Midrash, first as an old man, then as a young man, and then as a river. Abraham has now earned a new title: “for now I know that you are one who fears God.”

This raises the question, what is unique about one who “fears God”? When he comes to Gerar, Abraham is shaken by the lack of “fear of God in this place,” as if fear of God is something trivial and taken for granted. If Abraham had now been declared a man who “loves God,” this would seem a great compliment, but what is the meaning of this “fear of God” that is recognized in the wake of the Akeda?

The Akeda demonstrates that fear of God can be achieved not only through tangible, physical actions, but also through abstract, spiritual service. Abraham demonstrated his self-sacrifice for his generation and for future generations, even though he did not raise his hand against the lad nor do anything to him. Rav Kook clarifies this idea further:

When the divine illumination had to appear in its purity, it revealed itself via the powerful religious enthusiasm made manifest in the trial of the Akeda, which clearly demonstrated that passion and devotion to the divine reality need not be based on a knowledge of God clothed in the degrading garments of pagan- ism in which the spark of divine goodness completely lost its way, but can be based on a pure apprehension of God. (Iggerot HaReiya 379)

The story of the Akeda teaches that we can make God King over the entire world in a manner that is pure and free of crude imagery.

The Akeda stands at the heart of Rosh HaShana, and it is mentioned during the Torah reading, the prayers, and in the liturgy surrounding the sounding of the shofar. The Akeda also alludes to another theme of Rosh HaShana – Malkhuyot. The halakha is that a blessing that makes no mention of God’s sovereignty – i.e., one that omits the phrase “King of the universe” – is not considered a blessing. At the same time, the Tosafot rule that in the Amida prayer we do not expressly mention His sovereignty, but use a substitute:

The Eighteen Blessings do not mention [divine] sovereignty…. Nevertheless, our invoking “the God of Abraham” corresponds to Malkhuyot, since Abraham made God King over the entire world, by making known His sovereignty. (Tosafot, Berakhot 40b).

Abraham’s goal was to make God King over the entire world, and there- fore the very mention of his name alludes to the expression “King of the universe.” Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idol Worship 1:3) similarly explains that Abraham’s aim was to establish a nation that knows God and reveals His sovereignty in the world.

The ram that replaces Isaac is caught by its horns in a thicket. Rashbam explains that Abraham understood that the reason the ram was entangled there was so that it could be sacrificed instead of Isaac. However, Chazal give this state of entanglement a symbolic interpretation:

“Abraham lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by its horns” – This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Abraham the ram freeing itself from one thicket only to become entangled in the next. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham, “In the same way, your descendants are destined to become entangled in their sins and caught up in troubles, and ultimately they will be redeemed through the horns of a ram, as it is written, ‘And the Lord God will sound the shofar…’”

Rav Huna b. Rav Yitzchak taught that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Abraham the ram freeing itself from one thicket only to become entangled in the next. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham, “In the same way, your descendants are destined to become entangled among the nations and caught up in troubles and dragged from one empire to the next – from Babylonia to Media, from Media to Greece, and from Greece to Edom. Ultimately, they will be redeemed through the horns of a ram, as it is written, ‘And the Lord will be seen over them, and His arrow will go forth like lightning.’” (Leviticus Rabba, 29:10)

The Sages teach that we are still a long way from the complete fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “And the Lord will be King over all the world.” International and domestic “entanglements” still await us. The horn of the ram caught in the thicket reflects that even Israel, the nation chosen by God and the glory of creation, can become entangled. The shofar, made from a ram’s horn and sounding the call of redemption, teaches that the process is not simple. Nevertheless, in the end, Israel will be redeemed through the ram’s horn:

And the Lord will be seen over them, and His arrow will go forth like lightning, and the Lord God shall blow the shofar, and shall move in the storm-winds of the south. The Lord of hosts shall defend them.” (Zech. 9:14–15)

[This sicha is excerpted from Rav Amital’s book, When God Is Near: On the High Holidays (Maggid, 2015).]