Thoughts to Ponder, Number 12
20 Elul, 5759; 1 September, 1999

Rosh Hashana

The Torah reading of the second day of Rosh Hashana is the well-known story of Akedath Yitschak (the offering of Isaac by Avraham). Many explanations have been given as to why this portion should be read on Rosh Hashana. (See: Sefer HaToda'ah by Rabbi Eliyiahu Kitov for an overview. Book of Our Heritage, Feldheim, NY pp: 30-33) There is, however, a problem.

We would expect that the reading on Rosh Hashana would end with the final part of this dramatic story: "And Avraham returned to his lads and they went together to Beer Sheva, and Avraham stayed in Beer Sheva" (Bereshith 22:19). Instead, the reading continues with a most unusual and, for Rosh Hashana, "irrelevant" story:

"And it came to pass after these events that the information was given to Avraham saying: 'See, Milcah, she, too, has born children unto your brother, Nachor: Utz, his firstborn, and Buz, his brother, and Kemuel, the father of Aram. And Chesed and Hazo and Pildosh and Yidlap and Bethuel. And Bethuel begat Rivka... (Bereshith 23:20-24). These verses seem to be of little importance and are, therefore, a matter of concern to the commentators. The problem is compounded when we realize that the sages included these verses in the reading of Rosh Hashana. Why did they not decide to end the reading with the earlier mentioned verse telling us that Avraham returned, after the Akeda, to Beer Sheva (See R.S.R. Hirsch ad loc) or even earlier with God's blessing to Avraham after he successfully passed the test of the Akeda:

"And through your seed all the nations of the earth will bless themselves, as a result of you having obeyed My voice" (22,18). which would have been a most appropriate way to end the Rosh Hashana reading, bearing in mind that this is a blessing for all mankind which is very much in the spirit of the Rosh Hashana prayers?

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, z.l., of Boston is known to have commented that the sages may have included this story in the Rosh Hashana reading as a warning to all those who attend the synagogue prayers on the High Holidays. In his opinion, the inclusion of this portion is to draw attention to the fact that once the Akeda episode had come to an end "nothing had changed," and that commonplace life just continued as normal. An event such as the Akeda should have caused the world to shake on its foundations. It should have caused all those who heard about it to better their ways and start a new chapter, but nothing of this actually happened. Once back home, Avraham was not asked by his neighbors about this episode or how it affected his personality or what there was to be learned from such a shattering experience.

Instead, he was confronted with a world which was immune to religious experiences and had nothing to say other than that another few children were born, a world of religious irrelevance in which nothing else counted but the day to day family affairs. One of the greatest moments in man's history was as such completely trivialized into a spiritual nothingness.

This, Rabbi Soloveichick warns, is the danger which waits us all after Rosh Hashana. While we may be lifted up to the highest level of spiritual exaltation on the day itself, we are warned that "the day after" we may be back to our former lives without having changed an iota. Instead of asking ourselves and our fellowmen what Rosh Hashana did for us, many of us start to discuss the cantorial excellence (or failure) of the chazan (synagogue reader) or the ba'al tekia's (the one who blows the shofar) wonderful musical expertise or failure as a trumpeter. Similar expressions are common after Yom Kippur has ended. One question, possibly the most frequent, is, "Did you fast well?" If we would ask somebody to what extend he was affected by the Yom Kippur prayers, we would be seen as a iconoclast who has lost his religious balance.

We would however like to offer another approach, one which would emphasize the other side of the same coin. Perhaps the Torah reading on Rosh Hashana continues with the day to day affairs of Avraham family so as to inform us that after Avraham's Akeda experience (which took him to other worlds and transformed his personality in a most drastic way) Avraham did not lose the ground under his feet. He stayed a family man, dealing with the often petty things that life entails. He does not close himself up in a spiritual oasis, but participates in all human affairs. Neither does he become absentminded but stays alert to all matters human.

This also may be the message which we need to hear after an elevated Rosh Hashana experience. Even when we have been (hopefully) transformed by its holiness, we should not try to escape our daily duties and interests in our surroundings. The greatness of Avraham was that even after the experience of the Akeda his family was able to approach him and tell him that "Milcah (a distant relative) too has born children."

Question to ponder: Did Avraham ever tell anybody of his experience?

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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