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Seeing Things - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Devar Torah

God said to Abraham: take your son by the hand.
God said to Abraham: you gotta take him by the hand (take him by the hand).

Take your son, your only son – Isaac, yeah, that’s the one.
Moriah is where you’ll be when you offer up your boy to me.

God said to Abraham: take your son by the hand.
God said to Abraham: you gotta take him by the hand (take him by the hand).

At first glance, the Akedah appears cut and dried: God “tests” Avraham’s commitment by demanding that Avraham offer his son, the only one he has left, as a sacrifice to God. And the traditional lesson of this parashah is that – especially on Rosh Hashanah – we trust God, we have faith that God will do right by us, we enter into the period of Asarah Y’mei Teshuvah believing that God will answer us, just as God answered Avraham’s unspoken prayer that his hand will be stilled from killing his child. Avraham has experience in trusting God; according to our Sages, the Akedah is the tenth such time God has tested Avraham’s faith. But what a terrifying test – it is the ultimate “pass/fail.”

And perhaps this is all the story is meant to be: an exhortation to us to believe – to hope – that fear of God will lead us to lead moral lives, to want to know and do God’s will – to be willing to do whatever it takes to repent and return to God. If we are to go through the painful process of self-reflection and potential humiliation in order to have God inscribe us for a good year, we need to be afraid of the results should we not do all this soul searching. How many of us only clean up our acts, so to speak, when the doctor gives us a dire warning, when we finally realize that we have to do it or die? It is true that fear is a great motivator.

And indeed, some of our Sages – such as Saadiah Gaon – suggest that all God required of Avraham was a willingness to obey His command. Once Avraham had shown such a readiness, there was no longer any need to carry it out. Others – like Y’hudah ha-Levi – teach that the testing of Avraham offered a solution to the problem of reconciling God's foreknowledge with man's Free Will. If God – who is omniscient – knows the end of the story, knows that Avraham will indeed obey without question – the question then becomes why test him at all? Ha-Levi teaches that the real object of the test was to make actual the potential piety of Avraham, the actual being a higher state than the potential.

So of course, this teaching is perfect for the Days of Awe – when we literally take it on faith that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah will avert God’s terrible decree. We have no assurances, we have no good deeds to speak of – to recommend us – to God; all we have is faith and fear.

But – is fear of God enough of an inducement? Fear can only take us so far because it is visceral and primitive; but what will keep us going in the long haul when the risk of spiritual or physical death has ebbed?

There must be something more to be learned. Let’s look towards the end of the parashah. Pay close attention to the emotionless story telling:

9 They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Avraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 And Avraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11 Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: "Avraham! Avraham!" And he answered, "Here I am."

Notice that it takes two tries for the angel to get Avraham’s attention because Avraham is so focused, so blinded by obedience – and fear – to notice a voice that is not God’s. But eventually Avraham does pause long enough to hear the angel speak again:

12 And he said, "Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me."

Being told by a messenger of God that God is pleased with us might certainly be reward enough for doing the right thing. But something is missing. Was this some kind of cosmic joke, with God – through the messenger – saying something like, “Well, I never thought you’d really go ahead and do it!” I don’t think so; this was too deadly an experiment for God to have that kind of a response. So there must be more – some answer that God wanted and hoped for but had not yet received. God seems to be looking for more than blind obedience.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches us that God definitely wanted Avraham to respond from more than just “fear.”

Originally God told Sarah to take Isaac to Moriah – but Sarah refuses. “No, You can’t be that God. The God that I know is the God who tells us to choose life. The God that I know is the one who helps the barren have children and infuses the breath of life into all living things. That’s the God I’ve learned to love. But a God who would have a mother kill her son must be someone else.” She demands to know, “Who are You?”

In frustration, sensing that Avraham wouldn’t argue, God turns instead to Avraham – and the story unfolds. But as Avraham raises his hand to kill Isaac, God suddenly understands Sarah’s question: “Aha!,” God exclaimed, “I know what she was asking me.”

“Who am I? I am the God who delights in life, whose service constitutes choosing life. I can’t ask my faithful to betray their commitment to life and to each other, since that’s how they serve me most faithfully.”

Somehow, God had to teach Avraham to serve out of love, to transcend his fear of God with a more mature love of heaven.”

We sense we are on to something because we then read:

13 When Avraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Avraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, "On the mount of the Lord there is vision."

What is God’s vision?

It is that even as we do our best to obey God, to follow God’s commands, we must be aware that our own limited knowledge and our own determination may not be enough to truly know what God wants. We need guides. We need angels, messengers of God, who will stop us from making the mistake that we always know what is right. We need to open our eyes and see God’s miracles around us.

And after all his years of a relationship with God, Avraham needed to understand that his God demanded not just blind obedience and faith but wanted love as well. God may be a jealous God, a demanding God, a God with consequences, but – as our Yom Kippur liturgy will state so clearly – also a friend, a comfort, a compassionate healer, a lover. And we, like Avraham, need to obey God not only out of fear but also out of love.

And so this is the answer we have been waiting for, because only after Avraham is able to recognize the messenger of God and open his eyes and see the ram stuck in the tree, does the angel finally bless Avraham and – by extension – us.

15 The angel of the Lord called to Avraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, "By Myself I swear, the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, 17 I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 18 All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command."

Perhaps in the long run it doesn’t matter why we obey God. Perhaps obedience through fear and through love are just two sides of the same coin: as long as we wind up with the required result – doing God’s will – it doesn’t matter how we get there. May this be the year that we repent and atone for our sins not because we fear God’s retribution, and also because we love God and want to do and be what God would have us do and be.

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