For the New Year, the Rabbis have the entire Torah from which to choose their theme. Five books are here and the stunning poetry of the prophets: warning, consolation. Why, of all of them, did they choose the problematic and paradoxical tangle of the Akeda? A man, a favored man, has been promised ﬁve separate times that his seed, the issue of a barren wife, would inherit and would send that heritage out to the entire world. That promise has been fulﬁlled. Abraham of Ur has become Abraham of Ohio and Springﬁeld, Illinois, and all places in between. In a revered place in a city an ocean and a continent and another ocean away and 3,000 years later, there will be inscribed on a revered bell, a cry from a prophet of that seed.
But what about the Akeda itself? Has it been put here, on the New Year to demonstrate, as some rabbis tell us, that such a sacriﬁce is the ultimate test of faith and that Abraham’s acceptance of it made him worthy to be offered the covenant for Israel? Remember that every gift in the Tanach entails a sacriﬁce. Why not this ultimate one?
I’m aware that in these times that we decry so loudly, wars, terrorism, and everything from global warming to obesity, the deaths of children are so rare as to constitute a unique loss, an ultimate. When I was growing up, women asked how many children they had, would always answer with a roster: “Five, three living”; “four, two living”; “four–all living,” and then, congratulations would be in order, the mother a model of luck and skill. My great-great-grandmother had thirteen children, twelve of whom died before the age of six. We forget hat ancient reality changes the meaning of the Akeda for us. The catastrophe for Abraham might not have been as personal as we might think. The catastrophe might have been the horror of God going back on a promise, which, of course, did not happen.
As though there weren’t paradox enough, there’s this word, only. Take your son, your only son. Isaac wasn’t the only son Abraham had, but the only son meant by the promise, to inherit.
Henry the Eighth, who saw himself as God Anointed, was unable to get that necessary male heir, which caused him to go through wives like latkes on ihaviiros, and with the appropriate heartburn. Henry had sons also, but only one son who counted, and he died. Abraham was classier than Henry, and for that we should be grateful.
So, it looks like the Rosh Hashanah D’var Torah should be about gratitude.