SALT - Thursday, 18 Shevat 5780 - February 13, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in Parashat Yitro of God’s instructions to Benei Yisrael in advance of the Revelation at Mount Sinai.  God emphasized in particular the need to make a boundary line around the mountain to ensure that nobody among the nation would approach the mountain during the event.  He informed the people that “bi-mshokh ha-yoveil heima ya’alu va-har” – “when the sound of the horn is extended, then they may ascend to the mountain” (19:13).  Rashi explains that an extended shofar sound would be blown to signify “siluk Shekhina” – the departure of God’s presence from the mountain, at which point the people would again be permitted on the mountain. 
Citing from Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (31), Rashi then writes that the horn sounded at Mount Sinai was none other than the horn of “eilo shel Yitzchak” – the ram which Avraham offered in Yitzchak’s place.  After Avraham complied with God’s command to sacrifice his son, placing Yitzchak on the altar and lifting the knife, God then told Avraham to desist, that the command to sacrifice Yitzchak was merely a test of his faith and devotion, whereupon Avraham proceeded to sacrifice a ram, instead (Bereishit 22:13).  According to the Midrash, the horn of this ram was the horn which produced the extended blast at the conclusion of the Revelation at Sinai.
            Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer also comments that the ram’s other horn will be sounded in the future, at the time of the final redemption.  The prophet Yeshayahu (27:13) foresees the time when “a great shofar will be blown,” whereupon the dispersed Jews will return to the Land of Israel “and they shall prostrate to the Lord on the sacred mountain.”  Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer teaches that this shofar will be the second horn of the ram offered in Yitzchak’s place.
            The Ramban, commenting on this verse, cites this Midrashic passage, and writes, “Yeish lah sod” – “It contains a secret.”  He then explains that the Midrash’s intent is to associate the sounding of the shofar at Mount Sinai with “pachad Yitzchak” – Yitzchak’s unique level of fear of God, which led him to offer his life in fulfillment of God’s will.  This point is articulated a bit more clearly by Rabbeinu Bechayei (a disciple of the Ramban), who, after citing the passage from Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, writes, “This shofar sound is the ‘fear of Yitzchak’ which they attained at Mount Sinai…”  This seems to mean that the Midrash associated the event of the Revelation with akeidat Yitzchak (the offering of Yitzchak as a sacrifice) to teach that at the time of the Revelation, Benei Yisrael attained a level of clarity and devotion resembling that displayed by Yitzchak at the time of the akeida.  This experience, of beholding God in as direct a manner as humanly possible, brought them absolute certainty and perfect clarity regarding God’s existence and the value of serving Him.  They thus reached the level of Yitzchak, who recognized so clearly the importance of fulfilling the divine will that he allowed himself to be sacrificed in compliance with God’s command.  Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer teaches that in the future, too, at the time of the final redemption, we will regain this level of clarity, and it will become obvious and evident to us that we must unhesitatingly and unconditionally fulfill every command of the Almighty.
            The greatness of Yitzchak (and Avraham), of course, was in the display of absolute fealty to God’s will without the benefit of revelation.  The Torah tells that as Avraham and Yitzchak made their way to the chosen site of the akeida, Avraham “saw the site from afar” (Bereishit 22:4), and Rashi, based on the Midrash, comments, “He saw a cloud bound upon the mountain.”  The site of the akeida is depicted as having been enveloped by fog, perhaps alluding to the darkness and confusion that surrounded this event.  Avraham and Yitzchak had no explanation for why God would issue such a command; this was the furthest thing from everything they understood about His expectations of mankind.  And yet, they proceeded, trusting in God’s goodness even when it was impossible to see, when it was engulfed by a “cloud.” 
            Already before the Revelation, in presenting His instructions to Benei Yisrael, God made a point of informing them that this event was temporary, that when they would hear an extended sounding of the shofar – representing akeidat Yitzchak – God’s presence would no longer be seen on the mountain.  He emphasized to them that the perfect clarity and faith they would attain during those moments would not last, that God’s presence will not always be felt, and His ways will not always be understood.  The shofar of the “eilo shel Yitzchak” is associated with the Revelation to emphasize that we must devote ourselves to God unquestioningly and unconditionally even in times of confusion, when we do not have the benefit of the clarity experienced by our ancestors at Mount Sinai.  We must follow the example set by Avraham and Yitzchak, whose faith did not waver even in the darkest moment, and whose loyalty to God’s command remained firm and unflinching even when it seemed utterly inexplicable.