The shofar blows, evoking its multifaceted symbolism of a wake-up call, spontaneous crying, music and a call to arms. We might take a moment to recall the first mention, an allusion really, to the shofar in Judaism.
Immediately we are transported back thousands of years and across the globe to the top of the Temple mount in Jerusalem. There we find Abraham, the visionary and founder of Judaism, contemplating the most difficult decision of his life. He was willing to leave his hometown, Ur, and travel to a faraway land, he was courageous enough to shun the idols and gods of his father in search of the truth, but would he really be willing to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, to continue in his journey?
I’d like to propose that this high holiday season we are all Abraham standing atop Mount Moriah, nervously standing with knife in hand, deciding how to balance the values and ideas for which we stand with our capacity for personal and self-sacrifice. Not, of course, in a literal sense, but a sense that is just as real as it was that pivotal moment thousands of years ago.
For thousands of years, Jews have been interpreting our texts metaphorically. Already in the first century BCE, the Jewish philosopher Philo understood the Akeda narrative, not necessarily as literal fact, but as an elucidation of a fundamental truth about discovering one’s purpose in the world. “Isaac” in Hebrew, he noted, means “laughter.”
The true meaning of the story, Philo taught, is that often in life it seems that we are asked to sacrifice our present happiness (laugher/Isaac) for a greater purpose. But, just like in the narrative in the Torah, once we make the commitment to this higher purpose—be it G-d, our values, or a community—we soon see that our true happiness—Isaac—was never at risk.
One may go on step further and suggest that it is our very willingness to sacrifice for something we believe in during the present that makes our happiness possible in the future.
There would be an array of similar interpretations of the Akeda revolving around this same theme all throughout the rabbinic and later medieval period. Scores of Jewish thinkers held up the Akeda as a paragon, not of blind devotion to dogmatic faith but as a core narrative dealing with the tension of how much we are willing to sacrifice for our beliefs.
Even in contemporary Israel, the Akeda has continued to be understood in this light, perhaps most famously with Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s most celebrated poet, using the Akeda to describe the inevitable sacrifice that Israel must make during wartime in defense of the Zionist dream.
Now it is our turn to become the Abrahams of our generation.
This has been the most difficult year in recent memory, both for the Jewish community and beyond. COVID-19 forced many of our Jewish institutions to close their doors, opting instead for an array of online programming that kept us physically apart.
Social isolation is at an all-time high, with mental health issues proliferating throughout many in our community. At the same time, a dangerous and scary increase in anti-Semitism threatens us from a multiplicity of directions in an array of forms. And many of our organizations need support—from financial to social—after a year of unprecedented pivots, cancellations and strain on the leadership.
This is not to say, however, that I believe that this year will be bleak; quite the opposite.
I believe that the reaction to said pathologies of the previous year will result in a massive increase in engagement throughout the Jewish community, a deep desire for Jews of all ages to connect to their Jewish roots and Israel, and a reinvigorated desire to stand up for Jewish causes.
But we all must do our part to ensure our collective success. For some of us that may be financial, others volunteer work, and others deciding to show up and be present.
This year during Rosh Hashanah, as we read the Akeda narratives in synagogues throughout the world, we must relate to it as a personal challenge. If we truly value the Jewish community, our institutions and leadership, then we must each contemplate what we are willing to sacrifice in the coming year for the sake of both our present and future.
And once we do, we may find that just like Abraham, it was never really a sacrifice in the first place.
Rabbi Daniel Levine