On Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the Akeida, the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, taken out of the context of the Genesis narrative. We weave Abraham as hero into the High Holy Day themes of justice and mercy as one who acknowledges God as the final authority of his life (and the life of his son) and at the end of the story, comes to a full understanding of God’s mercy. So too should we feel on Rosh Hashana our relationship with the Lord of all existence and the balance of strictness and compassion.
Not every commentary on the Akeida agrees that Abraham was a hero. Many believe Abraham took a leap of faith and trusted in God. He kept Isaac in the dark and soldiered his way through to the top of the mountain as a knight of faith. Others believe that God’s order was a challenge to Abraham to argue the case for justice. If Abraham could bargain with God over the sinners of Sodom and Gomorra, saying, “Shall the Judge of the earth not do justice” (Genesis 18:25), could he not save the life of Isaac, his “miracle” son born in his advanced age? Say these commentators: Abraham loses the test of faith with his blind obedience and God never speaks to him again.
Is it possible to read the Akeida in the context of Abraham’s life narrative and not as a mark in either the win column or loss column? I believe we need to honor Abraham’s humanity and know — at all times — that his is up against something that is larger than himself. Abraham’s gestures betray a kind of slowing down of the events of the days after he is called. There are long silences between himself and the boy, a three-day journey into the wilderness, the presence of servants as “witnesses,” and specific details about finding the right place and arranging the wood. This is the way the weak often act in the presence of the strong as an act of civil disobedience. If we cannot fight the strong, let us delay the inevitable as gesture of spiritual resistance. We will overcome someday.
At the end, the ram appears instead of the expected lamb sacrifice and the ram and its horn becomes a symbol for embattlement and spiritual resistance within Jewish life. The British, during their mandate over Palestine, forbade Jews to pray out loud at the Kotel
(Western Wall) lest one upset the Arab residents who lived close to the area. It was forbidden to read from the Torah; it was forbidden to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur of 1930, Rabbi Moshe Segal was at the Kotel and, as it was getting close to Neila, thought to himself, “Can we possibly forgo the sounding of the shofar, which symbolizes the redemption of Israel?” He opened the drawer in a prayer stand and slipped the shofar into his shirt, wrapped himself in his tallit and thought, “All around me a foreign government prevails, ruling over our people on their holiest day; but under this tallit is another domain. Here I am under no dominion save that of my father in Heaven; here I shall do as He commands me, and no other force on earth shall stop me.” When Neila concluded, Rabbi Segal took the shofar and blew a long, resounding blast and the British police grabbed him before he was finished.
He was released, but for the next 18 years, before the Arab conquest of the Old City, other rabbis would follow, piping the wail of the shofar, facing arrest, as an act of spiritual resistance of the weak over the strong. The British well knew that the shofar would bring down their authority as the walls of Jericho crumbled before the shofar of Joshua, and they did everything to prevent it from happening.
Abraham needs to be understood in this way as a kind of hero that did not succumb nor fully protest the authority of a God who makes absurd demands. He reached into his humanity and found a dignified way of bearing the weight of the demand — slowly, slowly — until he met the true God Who embraced him with His compassion. Abraham’s act was an act of civil disobedience.
(This is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinical Association.)