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The Binding of Isaac

by Tim O'Hearn

Rosh HaShanah (October 4 this year) and the akeida (binding of Isaac) (Gen 22) have long been associated with each other. This is not because of the date, but rather because of the association of both with the ram’s horn. The only ceremony associated with Rosh HaShanah in Leviticus 23 is the blowing of the shofar, which is traditionally made of ram’s horn. When Abraham was prevented from actually taking the life of Isaac, he instead sacrificed a ram that had been caught by its horns in a thicket. Because of this coincidence of mentions of ram’s horn, the account of the akeida is customarily read on Rosh HaShanah.

Abraham was told to take his son and sacrifice him on a mountain specified by God. Regardless of what he may have thought of such a command, he took the wood and Isaac, traveled three days, and prepared an altar. Then he bound Isaac and laid him on the altar. As he reached for the sacrificial knife, an angel told him that he had passed the test God had set him. It was then he saw the ram, extricated it, and sacrificed it.

Many artists’ renditions of this event show Abraham with his hand raised above his head, ready to plunge it into his preteen son. Many artists are wrong. First of all, Abraham would probably have sacrificed Isaac as he would any animal. That means he would have done it in the most humane and quickest way. This is a slice across the neck, severing both jugulars and allowing the animal (or in this case son) to bleed out quickly and practically painlessly. Abraham certainly would not have raised his hand above his head or plunged the knife into Isaac’s heart. Second, Isaac was probably anywhere from his late teens to about twenty-five years old when this happened. Third, the scripture says the angel called to him as soon as Abraham “stretched forth his hand, and took the knife.” (Gen 22:10-11) He probably did not even have time to raise it from the stone on which he had previously placed it. But all of this is digression.

As the start of the Days of Awe that culminate in Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah is a time of repentance. The head of a year is a time for reflection on those things that could have been done better the previous year. The mournful sound of the shofar is a call to repentance. The sacrifice of a ram was most often a trespass offering, an offering for unwitting sin. Thus a further association of a ram with the High Holy Days.

Abraham, of course, had no reason to repent of almost sacrificing Isaac. However, he obviously felt the need to sacrifice to God. The fact that God provided a ram rather than a lamb or ewe may have made him feel the need for repentance. Perhaps he had harbored some doubts, or thought a fleeting rebellious thought on the way to Moriah. Alternatively, he may have felt that his, and Isaac’s, lives had begun anew at the voice of the angel. Although Rosh HaShanah had yet to be designated as the head of the year, he may have been feeling that the akeida was the beginning of a new phase of his life, as indeed it was. After this event, God made several promises to Abraham.

On his way home someone came to Abraham and told him that his brother had children. The timing of this may, itself, have been a message to Abraham. It is as if God was saying to Abraham, “See, if you had not obeyed me I could have taken Isaac anyway and made the promise instead to your brother. But you obeyed, so now you begin a new life as a man with a promise.” Even this is in keeping with the blowing of the shofar. The trumpet call is not just a wail of sorrow. It is also a warning of the Day of Atonement to come. Faith and repentance are necessary precursors to God’s forgiveness.

Whether you are Jewish or not, Rosh HaShanah and a remembrance of the akeida should serve as a reminder of new beginnings. It is a time to get rid of the old baggage of sin and start anew. It is a time to go to those you have offended or who have anything against you and seek their forgiveness in anticipation of forgiveness by God.