Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

Look at the story of the "Akedah", the Binding of Isaac, which we solemnly read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is not merely a narrative but a dialogue with a number of speakers.

God speaks and tells Abraham to take his son Isaac as an offering. Isaac himself apparently does not hear the command, but realises there is to be a sacrifice and asks about an animal for the offering. Abraham says God will provide the animal, hinting that Isaac will be that animal. An angel speaks and tells Abraham to leave Isaac unscathed.

We know that the first speaker is God but I think we can also say that the voice of the angel is also the voice of God, since angels are God’s agents. If so, then God is saying two things: "Offer up Isaac" and "Don’t offer up Isaac". Which is the real voice of God? Probably both. How perplexing!

There is a Midrash which quotes the view of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat who said, "Though Isaac did not die, the Torah regards him as though he had died." Other sages said that Isaac died but was revived, though Ibn Ezra disputes this notion.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that something in Isaac did die: "Perhaps Isaac was so traumatised by the Akedah that a specific aspect of him did die. After all, he became the most ethereal and passive of the patriarchs".

If Rabbi Riskin is right, what God wanted was psychological: a part of Isaac’s personality had to be sacrificed, but not his entire being.

Whenever I feel afraid

Julie Andrews made it into a famous song – the notion that whenever I feel afraid I make out that I don’t fear the future.

In "The Sound of Music", Julie’s response to fear was to hold her head erect and whistle a happy tune so that no-one would suspect she was afraid…

In my case, there hasn’t ever been a Rosh Hashanah when I didn’t feel afraid and uncertain about what to do. You probably always felt as afraid as I did.

This Rosh Hashanah is no exception. How can we not feel afraid when health crises have not been overcome, the war in Eastern Europe shows no signs of abating, the cost of living is skyrocketing and inflation is rampant, the climate is zigzagging, crime is surging, racist attitudes abound, Israel is menaced, and the earth alternates between fire and flood?

When the air is anguished, and the clouds are dark, when we feel it is Un’tanneh Tokef all over again? When we wonder who will live, and who will die? Who will be born into the world, and who will not reach old age? When even the sheep are distressed, even the ministering angels are ill at ease, and God probably shakes His head in anxiety about the state of His creation.

What did Julie Andrews do when things were not going well? She pretended. She put on a show. She wanted people to get the impression that all was well. She whistled a happy tune.

How wonderful, but how unrealistic. Surely it is better to face facts. The Midrash (Pir’kei d’Rabbi Eliezer 31) suggests how. It says the world’s problems need the shofar. The ram which Abraham found in the thicket and sacrificed in place of Isaac yielded two ram’s-horn shofarot.

One shofar was for the here and now, resounding at Mount Sinai to arouse hearts to the Torah. The second horn is for the future, resounding to announce the day of redemption.

We blow the first shofar to know how to build a moral society, seeing in the other person the face of a brother or sister and looking after each other and dealing with the world’s problems one by one in a constructive way.

We blow the second shofar to say that human redemption will come through faith, and not fear; hope, and not hatred; forgiveness, and not folly; practical effort, and not pretence.…