Rosh HaShanah: <I>Akeidat</I> Yitzchak

The central lesson of Rosh HaShanah seems to have no relevance to the individual Jew as he prays for hours on the Jewish New Year.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch,

Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch
The story of the binding of Yitzchak, Akeidat Yitzchak, is the Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah, and is a theme that is repeated throughout the Rosh HaShanah prayers. That Avraham Avinu was commanded by the Almighty to bring Yitzchak Avinu, his own son, upon an altar, and later was told to bring Yitzchak down and not sacrifice him, gives us a genetic, familial character lesson in self-sacrifice to the point of giving up one's life al Kiddush HaShem (for the sanctification of God's name).

For thousands of years, Jews have followed Yitzchak's lead and courageously been martyred (mesirat nefesh) with "Sh'ma Yisrael" on their lips. But one really has to ask: "What does this have to do with my life ? I certainly don't want to share such a fate." The central lesson of Rosh HaShanah thus seems to have no relevance to the individual Jew as he prays for hours on the Jewish New Year.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote a commentary on the Siddur called Olat R'iya. Unfortunately, this unfinished masterpiece only covers until "Ashrei", but it still runs for hundreds of pages. And it does include the section of the Akeida, which is the opening of the daily recitation of sacrifices (Korbanot).

This introduction to our prayers "plants the greatness of the Almighty, as it was manifest in His great and holy House, into the depths of our souls; the seeds of longing for the fulfillment of this Nation in all her spiritual qualities thereby grow and produce their fruit in the furrows of the Jewish heart," according to Rabbi Kook.

This is "so that our whole value system changes, giving our outlooks and perspectives a different, more substantial set of priorities," according to a commentary by Rabbi Tzvi Y. Tau (Emunat Iteinu, volume 5, page 159). Rabbi Tau says that the following story illustrates how Avraham Avinu's sacrifice of the ram instead of his son brings his and Yitzchak's spirit of mesirat nefesh into our own lives.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) was not only a Halachic expert for all times, but one of the Tzfat mystics of the late 16th century. He wrote another book, called Magid Meisharim, which details thousands of divrei Torah told to him by his Magid, a heavenly being who relayed divine messages to Rabbi Karo. One such message was that Rabbi Karo would die al Kiddush HaShem, a martyr.

As it turned out, Rabbi Karo passed away peacefully at the ripe old age of 87. But he did die al Kiddush HaShem, having lived that way, according to "the spiritual-internal intentions by which he conducted all his thoughts and actions, that were entirely given to the ideal of ideals, Kiddush HaShem (the sanctification of God's name), on this earth.
And this is how to understand two Gemaras. One, Berachot 63b, that the words of Torah are fulfilled only in someone who kills himself over them. For the intent is not actual death, but the fine-tuning of a whole approach to life and Torah, so that if, Heaven forbid, he would face the awesome fate of actually having to sacrifice his life for his faith, he would be prepared for that, too. And this is the way to understand the famous Mishnah in Avot (6:4): "This is the way of Torah, eat bread dipped in salt, and drink water by the measure, sleep on the ground and live a life of pain, and toil in the Torah." Not that we Jews are obligated to live a life of suffering, but we are instructed to a spiritual level so absolutely dedicated to the Godly that we are prepared for even the possibility of an actual life of pain, and yet to continue a Torah life. (Rabbi Tau, ibid., page 166)
Rabbi Kook further explains that when God told Avraham not to sacrifice Yitzchak, all of Avraham's being was focused on such Kiddush HaShem, and this focus was immediately transferred to the ram he sacrificed. Rabbi Tau says that this explains how, with no command from God, all twelve princes of the Tribes of Israel brought the identical offering at the dedication of the Tabernacle (Bamidbar, chapter 7). The Midrash says that they did this "meihen ivahen", of their own will. Rabbi Tau explains that this occurred because with the presence of the Almighty at the dedication of the Mishkan: "They had an uplifting of the spirit until the inner will of the soul was revealed.... The Divine law thus reveals itself as both delight and obligation (Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto, Mesilat Yesharim). Obligation as law, but delightful because it accords with our inner longings, the will of our Divine souls."

When the actuality of our lives is in tune with the potentiality within, then we are living the life of Akeidat Yitzchak. And the teshuva (repentance) of Rosh HaShanah is our return to our inner selves, to release our souls to become manifest in the everyday world. Rabbi Matis Weinberg addresses this paradox of the often frustrating pettiness of our actual lives with the lofty ideal of Adam at Creation (the first Rosh HaShanah) in his monumental work Frameworks: Rosh HaShanah. In shul, we will pray the Musaf service, with its structure of Malchiot, Zichronot and Shofrot.

Malchut is the recognition that all the myriad elements of this Creation have a self-organization, with the Almighty, ultimately, being the organizer, the King. Zichronot provides to us separated (from God ), created (by God) details of creation - a self, an identity; not only because of our individual memory, but because zikaron
transforms each detail from an isolated, unconnected event into a member of totality. Zikaron is the only escape from an infinity of small deaths (the ticks of the clock)... the link between becoming and being. Zikaron is our contact with the world of wholeness, where each alive instant lives forever as part of a single picture of unfragmented Creation. (Frameworks, page 179)
This zikaron is how to live memorably, and is the mechanism of Rabbi Kook's link to our inner desires and soul, uniting potential to actual.

And Shofrot. The shofar raises all this consciousness to a new level: the Divine plan of History. Shofrot links the Creation, the "Hayom Harat Olam" of Ma'asei Breishit, to all history past, and to the history of the End of Days. As we blow the shofar "in this world, aiming upward, the physical shofar's shape projects a point to infinity, and, sounded from above (at Sinai, the coming of Moshiach, etc.), it projects infinity to each moment." (ibid., page 228)

And how does the shofar do this in our particular lives? Through the Akeida of the "laugher", Yitzchak. How does the suffering of one forefather (at the Akeida) provide us both lesson and genetic Jewish character to face Creation and History, to face the deen of Rosh HaShanah, "the incongruities in the human condition, and the surprising fact of existence itself?"
The laughter of Yitzchak. This laughter is the comfort to a man with his mind in the heavens and his body sunk in a morass of needs; his soul telling him that he lives eternally, and encroaching mortality claiming each moment, dragging him helpless to a futile end.... The lesson that Yitzchak teaches us from his vantage point on the Altar is that life cannot, and need not, be justified. Suffering does not diminish life, for as we share life as God's partners in Creation, there is no futility. Angels on high see only the futility, vainness and suffering of Man, but Yitzchak provides the Jew with humor, a laughter that makes it possible to see the harmony of paradox, to go beyond abstract explanations to true perspective. If man has no innate dignity and meaning, then there is nothing funny in his slipping on the banana peel - it would be no more funny than a beetle on its back. And if man's value were only in his moment, the banana peel would be tragedy, as great an embarrassment as death. Laughter, Yitzchak, is the balance, the hairsbreadth difference between the sobbing over our heartache and the rejoicing in our madcap adventure of living."(ibid., pages 226-229)
All this is good Torah for the individual, but what about the nation? In his long manifesto (Neshama Am Aleha) on the issue of the mission of religious Zionism, Rabbi Tau quotes from letters of Rabbi Kook to the Mizrachi leaders of his day. The goal is to spark a national teshuva, a return to our National Soul. Here again, Rabbi Kook speaks of the very same idea of uniting soul to daily life, and uniting all individuals to the whole, so that not only one segment of the Nation, but all its segments is affected and vivified: The idea is to unite the "koach hamaamin" ("the believing force"), which is the heart of the nation, with the actuality of the return to Zion. Although in other nations simple nationalism, an expression of the lower, human soul of man, is seen ("and even that is under attack by the proponents of the 'global village', causing secular Zionism's trauma and collapse," according to Rabbi Tau), in Israel, "the longing for national life springs from a source that is the Holy of Holies, the National Soul."

On the practical level, Rabbi Kook speaks of a national, person-to-person educational campaign, as well as a total boycott of the typical negative attacks that typify the political scene. Certainly, this directs us to bloodless attacks on our adversaries on the Left, such as we saw waged by religious Zionism against the Disengagement (as horrible and evil as the attack on Gush Katif was, at least no one was killed).

The Left is collapsing, with no ideas remaining. Even astute men are left clutching at straws already proven to be of no use. For example, Ari Shavit, no one's fool, has said that now that all options for peace have failed us, we have to turn to diplomacy. This, despite the fact that he sees the last two foreign embassies retreating from Jerusalem and the US State Department declaring that it will give in to Iranian nuclear blackmail, and make Israel the fall guy in the diplomatic game to be played. Events will wake Jews up, and with the rate of historical changes at breakneck speed, "believing" Zionists will find much more receptive ears and hearts than in the past.

This Rosh HaShanah, may the Almighty bless the Jews with a return to our roots, so that peace, health, prosperity and brotherhood return to the land of Israel.

More Arutz Sheva videos: