It seems like every year on Rosh Hashanah I find myself thinking about the meaning of the High Holidays. It is an observance that stands apart from all others in Judaism, a process that is at times intensely personal. Unlike the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah is actually the beginning of a ten-day event that culminates with Yom Kippur, and the two holidays are meant to be considered as a pair. I’ve always marveled at the structure of Jewish ritual and the deliberate, intelligent way in which holidays and prayer services are organized and written to deliver specific messages – but more importantly, perhaps, to create a very specific effect, and that is to evoke sacred time. To enter into sacred time means stepping out of ordinary time – setting aside daily work and concerns, preparing the home and table, having festive family meals, spending time in prayer and study in community, – and the beginning of this time is physically marked by the lighting of candles, with the sharing of wine and challah, and a group recital of the blessings that are said for each one these, which are always the same no matter what the holiday. This gesture is the moment of entering sacred time, recognizable instinctively to every Jew.
This entry into sacred time is a weekly event for Jews, every Shabbat, and of course on any of the many holidays and observances that enrich virtually every month of the Jewish year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, though, are a higher order of observance, as indicated quite literally by the phrase “High Holidays”. Here we come into contact with eternal time. Rosh Hashanah not only marks a day on the calendar but is a commemoration of the act of creation itself, and in Judaism creation is not seen as a fixed moment in the past, but as eternal and ongoing. This is what is meant by eternal time. Thus during the High Holidays we leave ordinary time and enter sacred time, and through it come into contact with eternal time and the ongoing act of creation, and so we are reminded that each one of us is part of that act. We are active participants, with our own human powers of creation.
Now let’s take a step further into the particular setting of Rosh Hashanah’s sacred time, which is defined in many ways by the Torah reading of those two days: Genesis 21 and 22, which tell the story of the birth of Isaac, followed by the famous Akedah, or Binding of Isaac.
I’ve long wondered about why these two chapters are read on Rosh Hashanah, despite the fact that on the surface the answer is at least superficially clear: at the end of Chapter 22 Abraham is promised that his offspring “will multiply… as the stars in heaven, and as the sand which is on the sea-shore” (Gen 22:17). This is arguably the pivotal moment in the origin of Judaism, the ‘birth’ of the people. Yet the (modern) discomfort around the idea of Isaac being unwittingly led to be sacrificed (not to mention the idea of child sacrifice at all) and Abraham’s willingness to carry it out have for me obscured some essential meaning of the story, which I will try to articulate below.
First of all, it’s important to clarify that in a historical context the story of Isaac’s binding on the altar by his father is actually meant to be a statement against child sacrifice, a practice that was very common at that time. In this story, however, Abraham is not required to sacrifice Isaac, and such a request is never again repeated.
That said, I think that if we look at the story in these two chapters from more of a “birds-eye level” that shifts the focus away from Isaac’s near sacrifice, it becomes much more recognizable to us as the story of a family experiencing unexpected joys, internal strife, and sudden calamities.
The story opens with the birth of Isaac. Abraham and Sarah’s lives are changed by an unexpected, unlikely joy, and they laugh and celebrate. However, this happy development ends up putting Abraham in a very uncomfortable situation in his domestic life, and he is forced make a very difficult choice in order to make peace, sending Hagar and Ishmael away to placate Sarah and assure that his heir would be Isaac. Then Abraham must enter into negotiations with the local Philistine leader, Abimelech, with whom he has an outstanding grievance. Abraham takes the initiative in offering a treaty, and here too he gives something up, in this case seven lambs. Peace is established and Abraham’s family is able to live in Philistine lands, near their well, for “many days”.
Then one day this tranquility is suddenly and unexpectedly shattered when Abraham and Isaac are asked to do something not only unthinkable, but also ambiguous (recall that Abraham is told what area to go to, but not the specific mountain until days later). They both unflinchingly do what is required of them, not knowing what the outcome would be.
The details of the story and its possible meanings have of course been written about extensively, most often focused on the ideas of sacrifice, Abrham’s surrender of will, his love of God, or his faith. However, to me this is at its heart a story about trust. In the first part of the story Abraham must establish trust within his family by making a decisive choice for Sarah and Issac, and he must negotiate trust between his household and the local powers by clearing up differences and specifying terms. These were difficult but necessary actions which led to a period of peace based on that trust.
Those bonds of family trust must have been severely strained in the second part of the story, on the day Abraham woke up early in the morning and took Isaac and two servants with all the trappings for a burnt sacrifice – except for the sacrifice – towards an unknown destination. Sarah isn’t mentioned in this part of the story, yet we can readily imagine her bewilderment and perhaps anguish at the sudden departure of husband and son. Did Abraham tell her what he had been asked to do? We don’t know. But either way, she would have had to trust Abraham to be able to see it through. Then there is Isaac, perhaps even more trusting, as he carries the wood for what he eventually learns is to be for his own sacrifice. How did he not turn and run when his father made to bind his hands or when he laid him on the altar? Consider how much he must have trusted his father in that moment. And as for Abraham, what kind of trust in himself would have allowed him to lift his knife over his own son, who lay trusting and passive on the altar, waiting to be sacrificed?
No wonder this moment has been seared in the minds of generations ever since. Those acts of trust are in many ways the foundation of the civilization we live in.
This is the story we hear before beginning the next part of the High Holidays, and as such we can take it to be a message preparing us for the days that follow Rosh Hashanah, which are meant for individual repentance and self-examination, which can only be fully validated and consummated with forgiveness. On Yom Kippur Jews stand together as a community to ask for forgiveness from God while fasting, not eating or drinking from sundown to sundown; this is a hard thing to do. However, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are considered a unique kind of sacred time, during which individuals are called upon to reconcile with those around them and with themselves. This means asking forgiveness from each other for things we did wrong and hurt we caused over the past year, knowingly or unknowingly.
This is an even harder thing to do.
However, here again we see the genius of the Jewish ritual, which in this case has brought such a difficult personal and interpersonal reckoning down to a manageable scale – we only need account for the past year, not for our entire lives. What’s more, at the end of cycle, when Yom Kippur ends, if we have done the difficult work we will have a clean slate, a chance to start anew. We should not let misunderstandings and hurts linger. We are called upon to make things right each year, with ourselves, with each other, and with God. We can forgive and be forgiven here and now, in tune with the cycle of the years.
This is the message of the High Holidays I’ve been trying to articulate, one that, much like the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac itself is not really unique to Judaism, and which can have a more universal value. It is this: we are active parts of ongoing creation, and this requires trust and forgiveness, both of which require a great deal of us.
With that I wish you the traditional Jewish greeting for the New Year: Shanah Tovah – a good year to you, those dear to you, and to us all.