"Purify our Hearts to Serve You in Truth"
Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital
Adapted by Aviad Hacohen
Translated by Kaeren Fish
In a manuscript version of Avot De-Rabbi Natan, we read the following depiction of the akeida:
Yitzchak asked Avraham, "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the sacrifice?"
He said, "My son – you will be the sacrifice."
At that moment Avraham's face changed. He said, "I am old, while he is young. Perhaps he will flee – what will then become of me?"
Yitzchak said to him, "Father, have no fear! May it be God's will that my blood be accepted favorably – but bind me well, that I should not have to hold myself still.
And when you return to Sara, my mother, do not tell her suddenly, so that she will not harm herself: if she is standing on the roof – that she may not fall and die; if she is standing by the well – that she may not throw herself into it; or if she is holding a knife in her hand – that she may not kill herself with it."
At that moment, Yitzchak assented verbally to his father's wishes, but in his heart he thought: "Who will save me from my father? I have no one to help me but God, as it is written – 'My aid is from God, Maker of the heavens and the earth.'"
And the ministering angels said: "Come and see these two righteous ones: the father about to slay his son, and the son about to be slain – and they do not prevent each other." (quoted in Torah Sheleima, Vayera 92)
Chazal here seek to emphasize the humanity of Avraham. The dialogue between father and son brings the situation to life and makes it relevant to the world of human psychology.
The Sages teach an important principle here. Neither Avraham nor Yitzchak was an angel. The Mishna in Ta'anit (2:4) cites a prayer that supports the midrash's reading of this event:
"He Who answered Avraham at Mt. Moriah – may He answer you and listen to your cry on this day. Blessed are You, Redeemer of Israel."
Immediately we ask: was it really Avraham's prayer that brought about the turning point in the akeida? Do we not believe that from the beginning God's intention was merely to test him, that there was never the slightest possibility that Avraham would sacrifice his son?
However, the Men of the Great Assembly, who composed the above prayer, knew that this story represents not only the realization of the Divine will, but also the response to Avraham's HUMAN cry. Even had the Divine plan not been to prevent the slaying, Yitzchak would have been saved from the decree of the akeida by virtue of Avraham's prayer.
In contrast to the story of Sedom, where Avraham "argues" with God, the emphasis here is on Avraham's PRAYER. And if there existed no tradition in this regard, our Sages would not emphasize it. Avraham instituted a genuine "prayer service" here – for the moment, and for all generations.
The Yalkut Shimoni brings midrashim that elaborate on this theme and depict Avraham's prayer most dramatically:
"'He placed him upon the altar' – Avraham's eyes gazing into Yitzchak's eyes, and Yitzchak's eyes gazing towards heaven. And tears fell from Avraham's eyes until he was swimming in tears.
He said to him, "My son – since you have already expressed your readiness to relinquish your blood, your Creator will find a different sacrifice in your place."
At that moment his mouth opened with a great weeping and he sighed a great sigh, and his eyes wandered and looked for the Shekhina. He lifted his voice and said, "I shall lift my eyes towards the hills, from whence my aid shall come. My aid is from God, Maker of the heavens and the earth."
Despite God's instruction to bind his son, Avraham could not resign himself to this fate; he prayed for his son. This midrash reveals to us Avraham's ambivalent attitude towards the command. On the one hand, he was a loyal servant, eager to fulfill his Creator's word; on the other hand, he was a loving and compassionate father who could not overcome his emotions, and prayed for his son, pleading for his life to be spared.
We are familiar with the phenomenon of the suppression of any human, parental feelings while in the throes of religious ecstasy. In biblical times this found expression in the worship of Molekh, and in our times we see the same attitude in the response of our neighbors to the death of a "shahid."
Had Avraham's test lacked this human dimension, the akeida would not only be greatly diminished in its power, but perhaps the whole episode would have been illegitimate and invalid.
The Gemara (Yoma 69b) teaches:
"Moshe said, 'The great, mighty and awesome God.'
Yirmiyahu said, 'Gentiles crow in His Sanctuary – where is His awesomeness?' Therefore he omitted the word 'awesome.'
Daniel said, 'Gentiles are subjugating His children – where is His might?' Therefore he omitted the word 'mighty.'
[The Men of the Great Assembly] came and said: 'On the contrary – that is His might: that He conquers His inclination and is long-suffering towards the evil ones. And that is His awesomeness: were it not for fear of God, how could this one nation survive among the nations?'
And how could [Yirmiyahu and Daniel] change the wording of the prayer instituted by Moshe?
R. Elazar said, 'Because they knew that God is truthful – therefore they did not lie about Him.'"
"Where is His awesomeness? Where is His might?" Truth bursts forth with a shout, strong enough to change the wording of prayer.
The truth, and honest human emotions – these themselves are God's seal, and we are commanded to emulate Him in this regard.
It is with this same attitude in mind that the Sages described Avraham's paternal feelings towards his other son, Yishmael. Even after God promises, "Your seed shall be called after Yitzchak," the Midrash (as quoted by Rashi) teaches:
"'Take your son, your only one, whom you love – Yitzchak':
Avraham said to God: 'I have two sons.'
God said to him: 'Your only one.'
He said: 'This one is the only son of his mother, and the other one is the only son of his mother.'
God said: 'Whom you love.'
Avraham said: 'I love both.'
He said to him: 'Yitzchak.'"
Avraham stands and haggles with God; he wants some role for his other son, too – for Yishmael. He is fully aware that God has decided that "Your seed shall be called after Yitzchak," while Yishmael is the son of the handmaid. But he never forgets for a moment that Yishmael, too, is his son, and that he must take care of him and his needs.
Avraham's humanity and humaneness, climaxing in the story of Sedom, are not absent from the parasha of the akeida.
Truth is the crux of our Rosh Ha-shana prayers. On this day we emphasize this quality over and over: "For You are a God of truth, and Your word is true and stands forever;" "purify our hearts to serve You in truth."
It is clear, then, why it is specifically the shofar that we sound on this day. The call of the shofar is a genuine sound – a simple sound, a cry emanating from the depths of the human heart. It is an honest and accurate expression of his hidden recesses. The sound of the shofar emanates from a natural horn – not from an artificial musical instrument, made by mortal hands. For this reason it is forbidden even to coat the shofar with gold or silver: so that the sound will be heard just as it is, with no "covering" or pretense.
As explained by the Kuzari, the advantage of the shofar is that it expresses itself without words. Too many words cover up the truth.
According to tradition, one hundred shofar blasts are sounded on Rosh Ha-shana, "corresponding to the hundred sighs of the mother of Sisera," as we read (Shoftim 5:28), "The mother of Sisera gazes out of the window and wails."
This seems quite surprising: on Rosh Ha-Shana, the Day of Judgment, a holy and awesome day, surely we have other events and images to focus on! Why specifically this memorial to the mother of Sisera?
Indeed, there is nothing more genuine, more painful, than a mother crying over the death of her child. This is the symbol, the epitome.
On Rosh Ha-shana we pray that our prayers will not be uttered from our mouths outwards, as empty utterances, but rather as expressions of an inner truth, emerging from the innermost recesses of our heart.
This applies not only to our prayers on this day, but in fact to all of our Divine service.
Indeed, "Truth is the essence of Your word, and all Your righteous judgments are eternal" (Tehillim 119:160).
[This sicha was delivered on Rosh Ha-shana 5759 (1998).]