Everyone has a story that they tell themselves that serves as the foundation of their outlook on the world and their place in it. For Jews our story begins with Torah, aka the Hebrew Scriptures.
Here we read about the creation of the world, the origins of Judaism, our holidays and their seasons, and the people who inhabited that world and carried out God’s instructions.
Now is the season for our High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the New Year (5780 for those who are counting), and Yom Kippur is a fast day of reflection and repentance. Every Jewish holiday is accompanied by a reading in Torah, and the surprise for Rosh Hashanah is that we do not read about the creation of the world on the holiday that celebrates the creation of the world; instead we read about Abraham and Isaac in a story that is called the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.
In the story we are told that God tested Abraham ten times in order to judge his devotion, and that the last was the Akedah. In this test God instructed Abraham to “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. For over a thousand years Jews have examined and debated the meaning of the Akedah, and we have not yet arrived at an answer that satisfies us completely. There are those who say that the test was about Abraham’s obedience to God’s word, while other’s claim it was God’s test of Abraham’s obedience to Gods’ ethics. Should Abraham have obeyed God no matter what, or should Abraham have been so attached to God’s teachings that he would reject a divine command that went against it. There are those who commend Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son, and those who condemn him for the same reason.
On Rosh Hashanah we are still debating how we understand the Akedah, and the in process of the debate we share what is most important to us. Is it the relationship between a father and son, or perhaps the relationship between husband and wife (Abraham never shared his plan with his wife Sarah). Is it a call against child sacrifice, a reminder that child sacrifice is permitted, or a commentary on the many ways we sacrifice our children on the alters of poverty, abuse, hunger, and homelessness. Overall, the commentary reflects on how we want to influence the world around us, and how to respond to the call to repair the world.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we spend the day in prayers for repentance for our shortcomings, and reflection on how to bring ourselves back on the right path. The Torah portion is not about punishment or judgement, but a reminder that we are in an eternal covenantal relationship with God. This means God is our partner as we work to navigate our way through life, a Divine partner full of compassion, abundant in kindness, slow to anger and quick to forgive, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. The message is that God wants us to chose life, and has placed the tools we need close to our hands.
There is a famous line from the High Holiday liturgy that states: On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will be written in the Book of Life for another year. May we all- all of us – merit to be written in the Book of Life this year, and be a blessing to one another! Shana Tova/Happy New Year 5780!
Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Etz Chaim fall on Sunday, September 29that 8pm and continue at 10am on Monday, September 30th. Yom Kippur services begin at 8pm on Tuesday, October 8thand continue at 10am on Wednesday, October 9th.