Rosh HaShannah – Akeda [Jacques]

The story of the Akedah:

Be kind to your soul

by Jacques Abourbih

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, I thought I would revisit the story of the Akedah with reference to the significance of Torah Mitzvot and their relevance in contemporary life.

On the second day of Rosh Hashana, the Torah reading is the story of the akedah, or the binding of Isaac. One of the most famous and challenging stories in the whole TaNaCh, it goes something like this, at least if you have my subject in mind: God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. So what did Abraham do? He did not reply, “But I’m not the kind of father who is able to sacrifice his son. Maybe you should give that mitzvah to one of the Molech worshipers down the street. Every bone in my body resists your commandment that I sacrifice Isaac. I’m not ‘oriented’ toward child sacrifice. In fact, I think it’s a mitzvah not to kill one’s own child. No?”

Nor did Abraham protest: “I have no other heir. Preparing Isaac to be a forefather is my entire life’s work. You’re asking me to cancel everything I thought my life was about.” He didn’t say that either. He obeyed G-d’s ultimate Mitzvah, no matter how terrible performing the Mitzvah of the Akedah would be for him.

Instead, Abraham replies, “Hineini,” which means, “Here I am,” and he brings Isaac up the mountain, prepares to sacrifice him, and in the end G-d makes it all okay. I marvel at that story every morning as I recite this passage during Shachrit prayers, just as if I read it for the first time.

Now, over the centuries there has been a tremendous amount of commentary, creativity, energy and debate over just what the Akedah means.

Let us take as a starting point this statement by Rabbi Strassfeld: “The clearest place where the tradition’s voice is overruled is when we have concluded that the tradition is out of step with contemporary moral values.” The idea that we should avoid following one of God’s Mitzvoth because society is not oriented that way is inconsistent with my understanding of Torah beliefs.

One example is the laws of divorce. A Jewish woman is not considered divorced unless her husband hands her a Get (bill of divorce).  Without the Get she becomes an Aguna. The term translates literally to mean ‘anchored or chained’. It is a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage because her husband’s whereabouts are unknown or a husband maliciously refuses to grant her a get. Admittedly, this is an untenable situation for a Jewish woman who wants to remain Torah-true. Yet the Torah has no exception for them. However, our Rabbis did not remain insensitive to her plight. They went to extraordinary lengths to get around the stringencies of this Torah law, including permitting beating up a recalcitrant husband. Today in Ontario, by law, a husband who refuses to give his wife a Get cannot obtain his half of the couple’s assets. There are myriads of other examples relating to help an agunah.

The Judaism I believe in – and Abraham believed also when he obeyed G-d – is that life is primarily about G-d and what G-d wants, not what I want. As I see it people who choose to overrule Torah commandments simply because these commandments do not conveniently fit contemporary norms have lost their connectivity with G-d. Are they still truly part of the twosome described so poignantly in verse 6:3 of Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li – “I belong to my beloved and my beloved in mine” -?

Shanah Tova.