Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
The binding of Isaac is a central motif of the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, both in the shofar blowing, which is the commandment of the day, as well as in the prayers and liturgical poems. Choosing a ram's horn is explained by the Sages (Rosh Ha-Shanah 16a):
Rabbi Abbahu said: Why do we blow on a ram's horn? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Sound before Me a ram's horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.
The motif is also prominent in the prayers, in the Zikhronot section of musaf, where we ask:
Remember unto us, O Lord our G-d, the covenant and the loving-kindness and the oath which you swore to Abraham our father on Mount Moriah: and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Issac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Your will with a perfect heart. So may Your compassion overbear You anger against us…Remember the binding of Isaac this day in mercy unto his seed.
The liturgical poems of Rosh ha-Shanah also include a special group of poems on the binding of Isaac, containing all the requests stemming from the binding of Isaac and pertaining to it.
Stressing the story of the binding of Isaac itself brings out the religious and moral difficulties inherent in this event. The Sages place their arguments questioning the morality of the binding in the mouth of Satan:
Satan accosted him on the way, appearing to him in the form of an old man, and said to him: Old man, have you lost your heart, going to slaughter the son that was given you at the age of one hundred years?...Tomorrow He [the Holy One, blessed be He] will say to you: You have blood on your hands!1
The Torah sharply condemns the pagan practice of child sacrifice: "You shall not act thus toward the Lord your G-d, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods" (Deut. 12:31).
The midrash puts harsh arguments in even into Abraham's mouth, the main one being:
He [Abraham] said to Him [the Holy One, blessed be He]: I should have answered you back and said: Yesterday you told me "it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you" (Gen. 21:12), and now You tell me "offer him there as a burnt offering"!?2
That is, the command to bind Isaac not only contradicts the great principle of divine morality but also the promise G-d made to Abraham.
Reams have been written over the years in an attempt to come to terms with these difficult questions. The key to understanding the binding of Isaac, it seems to me, lies in Rashbam's commentary, which draws a connection between the binding of Isaac and chapter 21 of Genesis, telling of the pact made between Abraham and Abimelech. In Rashbam's opinion, the binding of Isaac is none other than a punishment for this pact, in which Abraham acknowledged Abimelech's ownership of the land of the Philistines for seven generations (for which, the seven ewes). He writes:
After the pact Abraham made with Abimelech and his subsequent generations, giving him seven ewes, the Holy One, blessed be He, was incensed about this, for the land of the Philistines was within the borders of Israel [i.e., part of the land promised to Israel].
Rashbam bases his commentary on Midrash Shmuel,3 which views Abraham's pact with Abimelech as the cause of all the disasters and destruction that befell the Jews throughout their history:
Another interpretation: You gave him seven ewes; on your life, his children will kill seven righteous descendants of yours, and these are they: Samson, Hophni, Phinehas, Saul and his three sons.
Another interpretation: You gave him three ewes; on your life, his descendants will destroy seven dwellings [of the Lord] built by your descendants, and these are they: the Tent of Meeting, Gilgal, Nob, Gibeon, Shiloh, and two Temples.
Another interpretation: You gave him seven ewes; on your life, My Ark will roam in the territory of the Philistines for seven months, as it is written, "The Ark of the Lord remained in the territory of the Philistines seven months" (I Sam. 6:1).
The direction taken by the midrash and Rashbam can be further developed, viewing the pact that Abraham made with Abimelech not only as a grave sin, but as violating the covenant between the Holy One, blessed be He, and Abraham and his offspring, the essence of which was a promise of the land: "On that day the Lord mad a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates'" (Gen. 15:18). The pact Abraham made with Abimelech, which primarily recognized ownership of part of the promised land by a foreign people, not only contradicts but actually annuls the divine covenant. It is with good reason that the Torah in chapter 21 repeatedly stresses the words brit (=covenant or pact) and "oath"—"And Abraham said, 'I swear it'" (24); "and the two of them made a pact" (27); "for there the two of them swore on oath" (31); "they…concluded the pact at Beer-sheba" (32).
The second pact annulled the earlier covenant. The necessary result of annulling the covenant between G-d and Abraham was to deny Isaac's right of existence. Isaac's birth did not take place in the natural human course of things, but required miraculous intervention, underscoring that he was destined to fulfill the divine covenant: "G-d said, 'Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come" (Gen. 17:19).
In commanding Abraham to bind Isaac, He was asking Abraham to give back the gift that had been given him on condition that he remain true to the covenant. Therefore, this should not be seen as contravening the divine promise, rather as carrying out its conditions. This is not a matter of shedding blood, but of returning of something given conditionally.
Only Abraham's total submission to the divine command in the binding of Isaac made it possible for the covenant to be reestablished. Therein lay Abraham's great act of repentance, in the wake of which all the pacts and agreements made with Abimelech became null and void, because they contravened divine will. The most forceful expression of Abraham's repentance is seen in the way Isaac behaved, totally ignoring the pact with Abimelech and choosing to live precisely in the land of the Philistines: "and Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar…So Isaac stayed in Gerar" (Gen. 26:1-6). Notwithstanding repeated attempts by the Philistines to get rid of him and chase him out, he stubbornly remained there, digging well after well, plowing, sowing and planting, and ultimately being blessed with success, "reaping a hundredfold." Isaac's behavior set right Abraham's sin and testifies to Abraham's great repentance.
So we see that dwelling on the theme of the binding of Isaac on Rosh Ha-Shanah in particular and the Days of Awe in general is tantamount to proclaiming total fidelity to the covenant that the Holy One, blessed be He, made with Abraham and the patriarchs of our nation, a loyalty that no human considerations can shake or contravene.
May it be the Lord's will to accept our prayer: "Remember the binding of Isaac this day in mercy unto his seed."
3 Chapter 12, on I Sam. 6:1. Cf. Midrash Aggadah (Buber ed.), Gen. 21, which adds, "You gave him seven ewes; on your life, his descendants will go to war against your descendants and will be victorious."