Akeda and Rosh Hashanah: Invoking the Original Oath God Was Forced to Make
Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, is connected to the story of the binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzchak) both in ritual (the shofar) and in liturgy. The Akeda also features as the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
Abraham Uses the Akeda as Protection for his Descendants
The rabbis link the Akeda with forgiveness of sins for the Jewish people (Bereishit Rabba56:10, taken up in many selichot):
ר’ ביבי רבה בשם ר’ יוחנן אמר לפניו רבון כל העולמים משעה שאמרת לי קח נא את בנך את יחידך (בראשית כב ב) היה לי להשיב אתמול אמרת לי כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע (שם /בראשית/ כא יב) עכשיו את אמרת לי קח נא, חס ושלום לא עשיתי כן אלא כבשתי רחמיי לעשות רצונך כן יהי רצון מלפניך י”י אלהינו בשעה שיהיו בניו של יצחק באים לידי צרה תזכור להם אותה העקידה ותימלא עליהם רחמים.
Rabbi Bibi the Great said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Abraham said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the worlds. When You said to me ‘Take your son, your only one,’ I could have responded to You [as follows]: ‘Yesterday, You told me, “for through Isaac You will have seed” (Gen 21:12) and now You tell me “Take your son, your only one”’ (Gen. 22:2). But, God forbid! I did not do that. Rather I overcame my compassion [for my son] in order to do Your will. May it be Your will, oh Lord our God, that when the children of Isaac come before You with sins and evil deeds, that this Akeda be remembered for them, and may You be filled with mercy.”
The source goes on to note that, as Abraham sacrificed a ram, so the shofar, a ram’s horn, is sounded on Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, every year.
Like the rabbis, we have come to associate the Akeda with Rosh Hashana and forgiveness of sins, but there is nothing in the biblical text that suggests this. Why did the rabbis chose to make the story of the Akeda such a central focus on the Day of Judgment? Other than the obvious drama of a story which features a father willing to sacrifice his son on God’s command, I believe the rabbis are drawing our attention to an important biblical motif: God’s oath.
The theme that God swore to give the land to the Jewish people is firmly entrenched in the Bible. It occurs often in the Torah, including more than twenty times in Deuteronomy, as well as in the prophetic writings. In addition to swearing to give the Israelites the land, God swears to give them the blessings of seed (that is, continuous existence) and to be a blessing to others; these elements are sometimes but not always connected.
The swearing-form almost always invokes the promise to the forefathers and so, one would expect this motif to occur in Genesis, and so it does. Joseph, in ensuring that his family will return his bones to the land for burial, invokes the moment of God swearing:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל אֶחָ֔יו אָנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת וֵֽא-לֹהִ֞ים פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֗ם וְהֶעֱלָ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶל הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֛ע לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב:
And Joseph said to his brothers,“I am going to die but God will surely recall you and bring you up from this land to the land which God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Gen 50:24).
God invokes this same promise when speaking to Isaac:
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל תֵּרֵ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה…וְאֶֽהְיֶ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ וַאֲבָרְכֶ֑ךָּ…וַהֲקִֽמֹתִי֙ אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם אָבִֽיךָ:
The Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt … I will be with you and I will bless you … and I will fulfill the swearing which I swore to Abraham your father” (Gen 26:2-3).
Abraham, too, invokes this moment of God swearing in his instructions to his faithful servant:
יְ-הֹוָ֣ה׀ אֱ-לֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֨ר לְקָחַ֜נִי מִבֵּ֣ית אָבִי֘ וּמֵאֶ֣רֶץ מֽוֹלַדְתִּי֒ וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּר לִ֜י וַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִֽשְׁבַּֽע לִי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את…
“The Lord, God of heaven, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my birth and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me saying: ‘To your seed will I give this land’…” (Gen 24:7).
In all of these examples, however, God only confirms the oath. Where does it all begin? Where does God indeed actually swear? And why?
The Akeda as the Referenced Oath
All the references in the Torah to God having sworn to do something for the forefathers go back to one instance. Indeed, all subsequent references to God having sworn, whether in the prophets or in the rabbinic sources, go back to that same moment, forming thereby a mighty tradition. The text is as follows (Gen 22:15-18):
טו וַיִּקְרָ֛א מַלְאַ֥ךְ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל אַבְרָהָ֑ם שֵׁנִ֖ית מִן הַשָּׁמָֽיִם: טזוַיֹּ֕אמֶר בִּ֥י נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתִּי נְאֻם יְ-הֹוָ֑ה כִּ֗י יַ֚עַן אֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ אֶת הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֖כְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת יְחִידֶֽךָ: יז כִּֽי בָרֵ֣ךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ֗ וְהַרְבָּ֨ה אַרְבֶּ֤ה אֶֽת זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּכוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְכַח֕וֹל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל שְׂפַ֣ת הַיָּ֑ם וְיִרַ֣שׁ זַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר אֹיְבָֽיו: יח וְהִתְבָּרֲכ֣וּ בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁמַ֖עְתָּ בְּקֹלִֽי:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from the heavens a second time. He said: “The Lord has declared: ‘I swear by Myself that, because you have done this thing and have not held back your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you, and I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars in the heavens and like the grains of sand on the shore of the sea. And your seed will inherit the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth shall be blessed by your seed because you have hearkened unto My voice.’”
This moment of God swearing contains the threefold blessing of seed, land, and blessedness. It is the blessing with which God and Abraham begin their journey together (Gen 12:1-3,7) and it repeats itself often in the Genesis stories. When Jacob blesses his children before his death with the threefold sworn blessing (Gen. 48:3-6), it is given to all of Israel, and it remains that way in biblical, rabbinic, and some Christian theology.
Despite the many repetitions, God never again makes this oath. God speaks (א-מ-ר) but God does not swear (ש-ב-ע). Only in the Akeda does God swear. Why?
The Akeda: A Brinkmanship with God
The nineteen-sentence story of the Akeda is one of the richest in all human literature. One can look at this story from the point of view of Isaac or Sarah. It is, however, from the point of view of Abraham that the story of the Akeda is most perplexing. Why did he do it? To prove his own utter loyalty to, and faith in, God? Perhaps; but there may be more.
Elie Wiesel, in Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends sees the Akeda as a double-edged test. God starts it, but Abraham understands the true opportunity: “As though Abraham had said: I defy You, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether You shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son — who is also Your son — is at stake.”
Wiesel then points to three victories Abraham achieves in this brinkmanship with God. First, Abraham forces God to change His mind on the command to sacrifice Isaac. Second, Abraham forces God to cancel the order Himself; it was not enough that the angel spoke to Abraham. And third, as referenced in the opening of this essay, Abraham forces God to agree that, whenever the children of Israel would be sinful, they need only retell the story to invoke God’s mercy.
To this, I add a fourth victory: Abraham forces God to actually swear by Godself that God will give the threefold blessing to the Jewish people. It was not enough for Abraham that God had already spoken the promise to him several times. Abraham used the Akeda to force God into swearing, as it says, “I swear by Myself.” The proof of this is that, after the Akeda, there is nothing left to say; God and Abraham never speak again.
Adding to Abraham’s Commitment
Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son may seem to be explanation enough of why the act evoked such an irrevocable response from God; he was obedient to an extraordinary, maybe even unethical, demand. Nevertheless, the rabbis were not satisfied with that; they believed that there must have been more and they looked for this by combing the biblical text for clues.
One passage that caught the rabbis’ eye was where God repeats Abraham’s name twice to stop the act of killing Isaac (Gen. 22:11). They ask, what did Abraham do between the first calling of his name and the second calling of it?
To answer this question, the rabbis split the next verse “Do not stretch your hand out against the child, and do not do anything at all to him” (Gen. 22:12) into discrete stages (Bereishit Rabba 56:7):
אמר לו אחנקנו,
Abraham said, “I will strangle him [and not use the knife].”
אמר לו אל תשלח ידך אל הנער,
The angel replied, “’Do not stretch your hand out to the child.’”
אמר לו נוציא ממנו טיפת דם,
Abraham said, “I will extract a drop of blood from him.”
אמר לו אל תעש לו מאומה אל תעש לו מומה.
The angel replied, “’Do not do anything (me’uma) at all to him,’” i.e., don’t make any blemish (muma) upon him.
The goal of the Akeda story, then, is to record that God swore, by God’s very own Self, that God will always remember God’s people for the threefold now-sworn blessing of seed, land, and blessedness.
By associating Rosh Hashana practice and liturgy with the Akeda, we call upon the merit of our ancestors. But we do more than that. We strongly remind God of the oath God made at the Akeda. Indeed, we forcefully invoke God’s oath to Abraham and to his seed, and we call upon God to forgive us our sins as God swore to Abraham that God would do.
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September 14, 2014
April 20, 2020
Professor Rabbi David R. Blumenthal is the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Professor Blumenthal is most well known for his books, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest and The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition.
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