Wish_list

Like Brooklyn and Deal, the Torah has what we might call “prime real estate.”  Some aliyot, or sections of the Torah portion, are more popular and desirable than others.  And when a synagogue auctions off the various aliyot, we find that some sell for a high price after a fierce bidding battle whereas others sell for next to nothing.

This happens in my synagogue just about every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Everybody wants to buy the aliyahin which we read Gd’s famous blessing to Avraham Avinu, “Ki varech avarechecha–For I will surely bless you” (Beresheet 22:17).  This timeless promise was made to the patriarch immediately following the dramatic events of akedat Yitzhak, when Avraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son in fulfillment of the divine command, until at the last moment Gd ordered him to withdraw his sword.  Naturally, people vie for a share in this blessing of prosperity and prominence, and thus the synagogue becomes a bidding war zone with congregants
upping the ante back and forth in their fervent quest for this coveted aliyah.

The same cannot be said, however, about the subsequent and final aliyah, a brief section which immediately follows the riveting story of akedat Yitzhak.  This aliyahgets little attention, and draws few bidders, understandably so.  These verses list the children of Nahor, Avraham’s brother.  The only child whom we ever hear from again is Betuel, the father of Rivka, who later becomes Avraham’s
daughter-in-law.  The others – such as Utz, Buz and Kemuel – never make any further“appearance” in the Torah.  Certainly as compared with the drama and inspirational effect of akedat Yitzhak, this section strikes us as – pardon me for saying so – uninteresting.   Hence, it brings in little revenue for the synagogue during the Rosh Hashanah bidding.  In fact, one congregant once joked, “How much will the synagogue pay me to take this aliyah?”

This contrast between the drama of the akedahand the seeming triviality of this concluding section underscores the question of why this section is included in the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.  The relevance of the akedahstory to this day is clear: the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah commemorates the horns of the ram which Avraham offered on the altar in Yitzhak’s place, and the image of Avraham – the symbol of kindness – binding Yitzhak –
the symbol of justice – signifies our pleas that Gd’s kindness should “restrain” His attribute of justice as we stand in judgment.  But why couldn’t the Torah reading end there?  Why did our sages “append” to this reading the seemingly unrelated and irrelevant list of Avraham’s nephews?

The answer to this question requires a deeper understanding
of these verses – and dispelling a common misconception about Rosh Hashanah.

Leave the “Shopping List” at Home

Many people go into Rosh Hashanah like they go into the supermarket.  They have their “list” of what they want, and they hope to “shop” and obtain their desired products by praying.  The items on this list generally include things like a new car, enough money for a vacation and renovations, a marriage partner for a child, the ability to lose about 10 pounds, and so on.  We bring our mental list with us into the synagogue, fervently hoping that our requests will be granted.

It is very easy to prove that this is not what Rosh Hashanah is about.  Just open up the mahzorand review the text of the primary Rosh Hashanah prayer – the Amidah.  We make no personal requests in any of the Amidahprayers recited on this day.  The weekday Amidah prayer is full of requests –for wisdom, forgiveness, health and a livelihood –
but none of this appears in the Rosh Hashanah prayer.  This is not just an intriguing “quirk” or piece of trivia.  It belies the popular notion that Rosh Hashanah is about asking Gd for what we want during the coming year.  If this were what the holiday is about, then this is what the holiday prayers should be!

Even a cursory review of the Rosh Hashanah prayers makes it very clear what this holiday really is about.  The word that repeats itself throughout the holiday prayers, in various forms, is melech– king.  Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of Gd’s kingship.  As we celebrate the “anniversary” of the establishment of His kingdom – the world – we celebrate and reaffirm our recognition of the Almighty asthe Ruler.  In our Rosh Hashanah prayers we ask that all people on earth should join together in their belief in and recognition of Gd, whereupon all evil and corruption will end, and peace and prosperity will prevail.  Along with this recognition comes the realization that we are accountable to the King, that He, like all rulers, has certain demands and expectations of His subjects, and that this is the Day of Judgment. Thus, we pay for a favorable judgment.  At the core of this holiday, however, is not our needs and concerns, but rather our belief, our proclamation that Gd is “Melech al kol ha’aretz– King over the entire earth.”

This is not to say, of course, that we should not be asking Gd for what we need or want.  Of course we should.  But this should not be our primary point of focus on Rosh Hashanah.  We should be coming

to the synagogue not with a “wish list” to submit, but rather to proclaim and celebrate Gd’s kingship over the universe, and to strengthen our emunah(faith) in Him and in His rule over mankind.

Our tradition teaches that the Ten Days of Repentance – from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur – correspond to the Ten Commandments.  According to this parallelism, the two days of Rosh Hashanah correspond to the first two commandments – the command to believe in Gd and the prohibition against idolatry.  It thus emerges that Rosh Hashanah is, fundamentally, a holiday of emunah.  It is when we come together as a nation to loudly proclaim and reinforce our faith in the one, true King over the earth and celebrate His just and kind rule over His subjects.

The observance of Rosh Hashanah spans 48 hours, a period represented by the Hebrew word moah– brain.  Rosh Hashanah is the time to “program” our brains, to firmly implant within our minds the most basic tenet of Jewish faith – “Anochi Hashem Elokecha,” there is a Gd who rules the world and governs the life of each and every one of us.  Rosh Hashanah is not primarily about us and our needs; it’s about Gd and His rule over the earth.

Akedat Yitzhak
A Story of Faith

This perspective sheds new light on the relevance of the akedahstory to our observance of Rosh Hashanah.

Avraham and Sarah were, without question, the most righteous people of their age, and among the most righteous people of any age.  Sarah waited 90 years, and Avraham 100, to beget a child.  In the interim, they endured harsh drought and the hostilities of foreign powers, including Sarah’s abduction by Pharaoh and Avimelech.  And now, after their child was finally born, Gd commands Avraham to offer that child as a sacrifice.

This unfathomable command gave rise to numerous unanswerable questions.  Avraham and Sarah devoted their lives to teaching their contemporaries about Gd and the ethical life He wants people to live.  Their efforts met with great success, and monotheistic belief began to spread throughout a generation which had known nothing but paganism.  Avraham’s sacrificing his son would have jeopardized this entire enterprise.  He would be revealed as a fraudand hypocrite, and be exposed to widespread scorn and contempt.  Moreover, Gd had promised to produce a large nation from Yitzhak, and now He commands that Yitzhak should be slaughtered before he gets married and has children.  To everyone but Gd, this command made absolutely no sense.

Avraham could have thought to himself, “Is this fair?  Do I deserve this?  After devoting myself to Gd for all these years, this is what I have to go through?!”

But Avraham did not ask these questions.  He proceeded to Mount Moriah to fulfill the divine command without questions or complaints.

This question was, however, asked by his son.  As Avraham and Yitzhak made their way to the site of the sacrifice, Yitzhak turned to his father and asked, “Ayeh haseh le’olah– Where is the sheep for the

offering?”  On the surface, it appears Yitzhak was asking why there was no animal to be offered as a sacrifice.  But on a deeper level, Yitzhak was asking a question that people have been asking for millennia.  The word “haseh” has the numerical value of 310, a number that brings to mind the final Mishnah in the Talmud, which states that Gd promises to reward the righteous with 310 “worlds.”  Yitzhak knew full well what was going on, that he was the sacrifice.  And so he turned to his father and asked the simple, painful question: “Where are the 310 worlds?  I am not even given a chance in this world!”  This was the age-old question of “tzadik vera lo,” the question asked even by Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest prophet of all time, the question of why we often see righteous people suffer and wicked people prosper.

Avraham gave the only possible answer that can be given to this question: “Elokim yireh lo haseh– Gd shall show the sheep.”  The first letters of these words spell the name “Eliyahu.”  The question of “tzadik vera lo” will remain a question until the time when Eliyahu comes, when the world is redeemed, when we are shown the precise reason for everything that has occurred.  We have no answers in this world, but we musttrust that there is an answer which will one day be revealed.  On Pesach, many people have a custom to pour a fifth cup of wine, called “Eliyahu’scup.”  The four cups we drink at the seder correspond to the four questions of the Mah Nishtanah, and the fifth cup represents the fifth question, the question for which we have no answer until Eliyahu comes and shows us the 310 worlds promised to those righteous people who are now suffering.

This might be the most important reason why we read about akedat Yitzhak on Rosh Hashanah, on the holiday of emunah.  Accepting Gd’s kingship means unquestioningly accepting His rule and His decisions.  The story of akedat Yitzhak is the story of faith, of submission to Gd’s will even when it seems to us cruel and unfair.  It is the story of faith in that which lies well beyond the range of our very limited vision, faith in the 310 “worlds” which we must believe exist even though we cannot see them.  Akedat Yitzhakis a vital part of the reaffirmation of our loyalty to Gd.  As we proclaim Gd’s kingship, we proclaim our unconditional subservience to His will rooted in the unwavering belief that all His decisions are just.

“Rubbing it In”

Avraham’s incredible test of faith did not end with Gd’s instruction to withdraw hissword, or with the offering of an animal sacrifice in Yitzhak’s place.  Immediately upon returning home, Avraham received word that his brother back in Mesopotamia had 12 children.  While Avraham was married without children for decades, finally begettingone child with his maidservant whom he later had to banish from his home, and then another beloved child whom he nearly had to sacrifice, his brother, an idolater, built a large, flourishing family.  While Avraham struggled, Nahor prospered.  As if the test of the akedahweren’t enough, the news came to “rub it in,” to essentially tempt Avraham to abandon his life’s work by showing him how easy people on the other side have it.

Of course, Avraham withstood this part of the test, as well.  He was not deterred.  The Torah records no response by Avraham to the news.  He accepted it and moved on.  His faith was rock solid.  His devotion to Gd’s kingship was unflinching.

The list of Nahor’s children is not irrelevant trivia.  It is part of parcel of the message of the akedah, the message of unwavering faith even when the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.  This aliyahis no less vital or precious than any other part of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, and it goes to the heart of the exercise in faith which we are to undergo during these 48 hours of “moah,” of training our minds to think and perceive the world with pure emunah.

This is the difficult part of Rosh Hashanah which, I’m afraid, too many of us avoid.  It’s easy to come to the synagogue with our “shopping lists” and ask Gd for what we need and want.  As mentioned earlier, we are certainly encouraged to make these requests, but this is not the essence of Rosh Hashanah.  The essence of the day is not our shopping lists, but Gd’s shopping list, ifYou will.  It is about accepting His will even if it is at odds with ours.  It is about recognizing that Gd is our King and thus has the final say which we must accept, trusting that it is for the best.

Goodness and Sweetness

On Rosh Hashanah we customarily pray for and wish each other a “shanah tovah umtukah – a good and sweet year.”  We wish for a year that is not only “good,” that brings us what we need and want, but that is “sweet.”  What is the meaning of this prayer?  Whyis a “good” year not enough?

When a physician tells his patient that he is prescribing medication that is “good,” he means that it is effective.  It will achieve the desired result, but it might be very unpleasant.  It might have a foul odor or taste, and it might cause painful side effects.  Even if the medication is “good,” it is not necessarily “sweet.”

As the new year begins, we ask Gd for a year that is both “good” and “sweet,” in which we receive what we need while experiencing “sweetness,” without unpleasant “side effects.”  We know that everything Gd does is “good,” just as
we trust that our devoted doctor will always prescribe the most beneficial and effective medication.  But we ask that the Almighty chooses for us “medication” that is also “sweet” and pleasant, so we feel only the benefits without any undesirable byproducts.

At the same time, however, we must firmly establish that no matter what happens, we will have a “shanah tovah,” everything will, by definition, be “good,” because thisis all that Gd does.  Then, armed with this deep-seated faith, we can approach the Almighty and beg for a “shanah tovah umtukah,” for a year filled with the “sweetness” of good health, material prosperity
peace and happiness for ourselves, our community,and the entire Jewish nation.