altar
altar Yonatan Shtoubi

“I want one moment in time

When I’m more than I thought I could be

When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away

And the answers are all up to me

Give me one moment in time

When I’m racing with destiny

Then in that one moment of time I will feel

I will feel eternity" (Whitney Houston)

It is early morning, and the sky is gray, in anticipation of autumn’s dawn. The period of atonement of introspection and repentance has ended, the time of renewal of our daily lives has begun.

I am listening to the sparkling drizzle of the season’s first rain.

Apparently, our prayers have been answered. May the new year be blessed with waters of life, of plenty, of joy. May strife be replaced with peace, struggle with serenity. May we rise into who we are meant to be, who we are capable of becoming.

In the distance, thunder may be heard, or is it the echo of a shofar? A reminder, of the ram that was substituted for Isaac on Har Moriah. A reminder, of Life’s blessings which we receive anew each morning upon reawakening.

May we approach each day with the faith of our forefathers.

“I place my soul within His palm

Before I sleep as when I wake,

And though my body I forsake,

Rest in the Lord in fearless calm.” (morning prayer)

We will soon read again, as on Rosh Hashana, the story of Akedat Yitchak.

This text has been revered through the ages as the supreme expression of faith, an account of ultimate self-sacrifice in obedience to the will of God.

Seventy faces has the Torah. Seventy perspectives, lessons, levels of understanding. And questions arise. What was the greatness of Abraham? What was Abraham being asked to do, and what happened on Har Moriah? What is the legacy to us today?

And so, I read the words in awe and wonderment.

“And it came to pass, after these things, that God tested Abraham, and He said to him “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.” And He said “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and raise him up there for a burnt offering on one or the mountains, of which I will tell you.” (Genesis 22:1-2)

As we read the narrative, the nature of events defies description, and reality begins to shift. We enter a world where belief and disbelief are as one, we try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Abraham is being asked to fulfill a calling that does not align with our understanding of ethics, of morality. A command that is also inherently a contradiction.

On the one hand, Abraham is being called upon to offer his beloved son as a burnt offering.

And yet, Abraham has been promised that ”through Isaac shall your seed be called.”(Genesis 21:12) He has been promised “And I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you and make your name great…and through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham is being asked to go to an unknown destination to sacrifice his son, while knowing at the same time that this son is the future father of generations.

And Abraham apparently accepts the situation, and makes preparations for this mission. “And he saddled his donkey…and he took two of his young men with him and Isaac, his son, and he broke up the wood for the burnt offering.” (Genesis 22:3)

We are presented here with life's duality, with a reality in which two contradictions are united in the same thought, in the same action. As it is thought which actually creates our actions, so it is also thought which defines the meaning of our actions.

Does Abraham intend to sacrifice his son on an altar? Or on the contrary, is he proceeding with the sublime knowledge, as he explains to his son Isaac, that ”God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8)

And perhaps, for Abraham, there was no contradiction. This required of him a ‘leap of faith’ into the certainty of Divine Goodness. An exit from this earthly situation of the apparently linear causality of our actions, and an entrance into a different realm. Where logic is set aside and ultimate faith and belief take its place, where a paradox is no longer paradoxical.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard presents a view of Abraham as “the knight of faith”. “All that time he believed that God would not require Isaac of him, whereas he was willing nevertheless to sacrifice him if it was required. He believed by virtue of the absurd, for there could be no question of human calculation…. He climbed the mountain, even at the instant when the knife glittered he believed…that God would not require Isaac.” (Fear and Trembling, Princeton University Press, p.46-47)

Perhaps at the moment of challenge, Abraham entered the world of the spiritual, the place of unswerving faith, where all is possible. Where duality exits as Oneness. Where darkness and light coexist, and there is only God. And we understand, without trying anymore to understand.

The sky is brighter now. I can hear the song of the birds who are singing their morning praise.

“O my soul, praise the Lord; He is very great.

He is clothed in glory and in majesty;
He is veiled in light as in a garment:
He unfolds the heavens as a curtain.
”(Psalm 104)

In the morning prayers, as the curtains of night draw apart, we are reminded of what happened on Har Moriah. A unique event, for this is the only time that the word “Vayaakod “ is found in the Bible. It is also the first time that the word “love” appears in the Bible. And we ask, what actually happened?

A reading of the events described has a sort of surrealistic quality to it. We can feel time progressing in slow motion, at times almost momentarily suspended.

We read the description, almost in disbelief “…and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar upon the wood.”(Genesis 22:9)

‘Akedat Yitzhak’ is translated into English as ‘the Binding of Isaac’.

By what was Isaac bound? Did he remonstrate with his father? Was there a rope involved? We are told only that he was bound.

Apparently willingly, for he was a strong young man, carrying wood upon his shoulders for the burnt offering.

“Rabbi Yitchak said…Could he really tie up a man of thirty seven? Rather, it was with his agreement. Immediately.” (Genesis Rabbah)

Was the binding physical, or spiritual? Perhaps he was bound by obligation, by respect for his father? Trusting his father, even as a hand reaches for a knife.

Was he bound by an inner voice? Did Isaac, the son, have the same faith as his father? Perhaps he, as well, understood at a level which requires no explanation, at a level where there is no discourse between him and his father other than a reassurance that “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son. “And the two walked on together.” (Genesis 22:8)

And so, perhaps Abraham’s greatness was also in that he succeeded to impart his faith to his son. A total, unquestioning belief in God’s goodness. An unswerving faith in which the comprehensible and incomprehensible coexist.

“For now I know…You have not withheld your son, your only son.”
(Genesis 22:16)

‘Akedat Yitzhak’ is also translated into English as “the Sacrifice of Isaac”. What was sacrificed? Was Isaac sacrificed? We are told that a ram was offered as a burnt offering in his stead. In what manner was Isaac sacrificed? Perhaps his relationship to this material world. Perhaps what was sacrificed were the limits of rational logic, replaced by a great devotion. In one moment, he fully grasped. That understanding can be suspended and replaced by faith. Perhaps despair and redemption occurred at the same moment.

Perhaps some inner element was sacrificed, as Isaac was bound upon the alter? Annihilation of his own dreams, aspirations, desires. A complete surrender of his self. Lying upon a pile of wood, in suspension of time, of belief in reality as we know it in this physical world, trusting his fate to God.

At the close of the parsha, Abraham returns to his lads, and there is no mention of Isaac. Perhaps Isaac is now on his own, joyous in his freedom and life. Perhaps he is even laughing, as his name ‘Yitzhak’, which means ‘will laugh’. Isaac too has now passed a test and is going forward, towards life. Towards his life and that of the nation which he will father, for the next time we hear of him will be of his marriage to Rivka. Within him now is a memory, a knowledge, sublime faith and wisdom.

The warm autumn rain is falling, increasing in strength, the sound of thunder comes closer. Echoes of the sound of a ram’s horn are loud and insistent. What is the message, what is the call?

According to the Rav Elimech of Lyzhansk, Abraham and Isaac actually knew that God did not intend for Isaac to be slaughtered. Abraham, whose attribute is mercy, was sure that they would both return, as he said, “We will prostrate ourselves and return to you.” (Genesis 22:5)

However, if one sets his heart to do God’s will with full intent, it is as if it was already done. (Noam Elimelich on Vayera)

And we?

Each of us, as we face the test of our own individual lives, as we face the test of our lives together as a nation. May we rise to the challenge, when one day we are faced with our moment in time.

When I was a young girl, I used to wonder what it would be like to be the girl sitting next to me. What is it like inside of her? What is she feeling?
Now, I wonder sometimes, what it would be like to be Me. To truly let go, for just one moment, into the arms of potential, of heights, of God-given destiny.

Perhaps that requires surrender? Into a moment of pure faith, where all fears dissolve and, as a caterpillar, we become the butterfly. Free now to fly.

We are told that Abraham returned to his lads.

And where did Isaac go, now?

A Psalm of David:
“When I felt secure, I said,

‘I will never be shaken’.

Favor me, and I am a mountain of strength;

Hide Your face, O Lord, and I am terrified….”

(Psalm 30:6-7)

May we be worthy.