Hope and Despair in the Akeida

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"Rabbi Abahu taught: Why do we sound a shofar that is a ram's horn? The Holy One said: Sound a ram's horn before Me in order that I may remember in your favor the binding of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham, and I shall consider it for you as though you have bound yourselves before Me." (Rosh Ha-shana 16a)


Since the Akeida (binding of Yitzchak) is so central to Rosh Ha-shana, let us examine this episode. In consequence of the Akeida, God promises Avraham great blessings:


"Avraham lifted his eyes and he saw, behold, a ram was behind, caught by his horns in the thicket. Avraham went and he took the ram, and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. Avraham called the name of that place 'God will see,' as it is said to this day – 'On the mountain God will be seen.'

An angel of God called to Avraham a second time from the heaven. He said, 'I have sworn by Myself, says God, that because you have done this thing, and you have not withheld your son, your only one – therefore I will bless you greatly, and increase your seed greatly like the starts of the heavens and like the sand that is upon the sea shore, and your seed will possess the gate of their enemies. And through your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed, because you obeyed My voice.'" (Bereishit 22:13-18)


Why does God repeat His blessing to Avraham? He had declared all of this already in His first revelation:


"I shall make you a great nation, and I shall bless you, and I shall make your name great, and you shall be a blessing; I shall bless those who bless you, while those who curse you I shall curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you." (12:2-3)


It would seem that the appropriate blessing after the Akeida would have been, "Your reward is very great" (Bereishit 15:1), as an addition to the original blessing!


Concerning the words, "Behold, a ram was behind, caught by his thorns in the thicket," the Sages explain:


"What is the meaning of 'achar' (behind, after)? Rabbi Yitzchak taught: AFTER all of these things, Israel becomes caught up in sins, and suffer troubles, and they are destined to be redeemed by the horn of a ram, as it is written (Zekharia 9:14): 'And the Lord God will sound the shofar….'" (Bereishit Rabba 56)


In order to understand the full significance of the Akeida, we must note an additional point. "There were ten generations from Noach until Avraham." Only ten generations had passed since God had declared, "The end of all flesh has come before Me." The Flood had come and gone, and new hope had flickered on the horizon. Suddenly, however, the world looked as though it were back at the time of the Flood, in a situation where everything lacked purpose and direction. "Avraham ha-Ivri" (the Hebrew) was so called because "all the world was on one side (me-ever echad), and he was on the other side." Just as Noach was the lonely man of faith in his generation – "For I have seen you to be righteous before Me in this generation," so was Avraham in his: "All the world was on one side, and he" – the lone, strong, true individual - was on the other."


Avraham's dream was to "perfect the world under the kingdom of God." He was fully aware that this would involve a historical process lasting thousands of years, but he believed, with all his heart, that he and his descendants could realize this dream.


At the same time, Avraham feared that it was too late. Perhaps the world was already destined for destruction, before the dream could be realized. It was true that the Holy One had promised Noach, "I shall not curse the land again because of man… nor shall I strike all living things again, as I have done" (Bereishit 8:21). God had also promised, "Nor shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a Flood, nor shall there be another Flood to destroy the land" (ibid. 9:11). But there was no guarantee that the world would not act in such a way as to activate its own self-destruction. There was no way of knowing with certainty that there would not arise an egoistic generation that would seek to exploit all of the world's natural treasures for its own benefit, leaving nothing for the generations to come. There was no assurance that the balance of nature would not be upset, with irreversible damage to the earth's protective ozone layer, or with poisons flowing into the oceans, endangering all of mankind.


"And Avraham and Sarah were old, full of days, and the manner of women had ceased from Sarah" (Bereishit 18:11). Avraham feared that Sarah's barrenness was a sign that there was no hope for the world, that his dream was an empty one.


But a time came when hope appeared: "And God remembered Sarah as He had said, and God did for Sarah as He had said." The Divine promise, "Your seed will be called after Yitzchak," was coming true; it was being revived in all its glory. Avraham was looking towards the future. The conversation in his household was turning to the future of the family. Even for Hagar, the distant future was starting to become something important and tangible in the present: at the time of her distress, she received a promise: "Arise; take up the boy and hold your hand to him, for I shall make him a great nation" (Bereishit 21:18).


Then comes the test of the Akeida. "Take your son, your only one, whom you love – Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as an offering." The test is enormous, but its significance is even greater: the shattering of the dream that has been built up over many years - to establish a nation that will offer new hope to mankind and to the world.


The Akeida presents Avraham with the possibility that the great dream will dissolve in a second. Its memory will descend into the depths of oblivion, dragging with it Avraham, who will have passed like a burst of light in human history for just a moment, leaving behind him no real impression.


Avraham accepts the Divine decree. He presents no complaint, never asking, "Where is Your promise, 'I shall make you into a great nation'? Where is the blessing, 'I shall make your name great, and you shall be a blessing'?"


Indeed, "Your thoughts are not My thoughts, and your ways are not My ways." Before Avraham has managed to digest the significance of the shattering of the dream, "an angel of God called to him from the heaven, and said, 'Avraham! Avraham!'" Avraham is beside himself. His response is a single word: "Hineni!" (Here I am!). The Holy One commands: "Do not lay your hand upon the boy, and do not harm him, for now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me."


Avraham looks at the ram that has been bound in place of his son, and understands that it is not the future that is being offered up on the altar, but rather the present.


From this point onwards, the picture changes. The Holy One repeats His promise:


"For I shall bless you greatly, and I shall increase your seed greatly like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is upon the sea shore, and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemy. And all the nations of the world will be blessed through your seed, because you have obeyed My voice."


Avraham returns to his original dream. The terror has passed, and his anxieties have dissolved. From now, he is certain, the promise will be fulfilled:


"And it shall be on that day that a great shofar will be sounded, and the lost ones will come from the land of Ashur and the forgotten ones from the land of Egypt. And they shall bow down to God at the holy mountain in Jerusalem." (Yeshayahu 27:13)


The Akeida thus bears an important message for all generations. Even when it appears that dreams, visions and aspirations have shattered on the rocks of reality, there is no place for despair. Individuals have the power to build worlds – if only they will believe in their power.


I do nknow if there were many generations that suffered such a sense of helplessness as has our generation. Ours is a generation that survived the Holocaust – "a nation that is remnants of the sword;" a generation that shortly thereafter had to stand – vastly outnumbered – and fight a war for its independence. It is a generation that, while meriting to witness the establishment of the State, could not then retire in peace and quiet. War followed war: the Sinai campaign, the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, the war of rocks and Molotov cocktails, day by day, hour by hour.


Together with the security danger – the external war – we also face a spiritual danger: the internal war. The rate of Jewish intermarriage around the world continues to rise; the birth rate amongst the Jewish population continues to fall. Many sectors of Jewish society tend to follow the empty "in" culture, a nihilistic lifestyle. They espouse a culture that lives by the motto, "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die," a culture devoid of commitment, a culture that recognizes no responsibility.


There can be no doubt: it is far easier to live in a world in which the future is known, and it is rosy and secure. But we are little people; it is not enough for us to know that the dream will be realized in the distant future. We want, right here and now, that "The name of the Lord be exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of all the house of Israel."


At this time, we have an obligation to aspire to the characteristic of Avraham Avinu: to believe in the power of individuals to change the world, to dream and to fight for a world that is more moral, more spiritual, more just. Every person has in his ability to bring closer a world in which "every creation will understand that You have created it, and everything that is alive will declare: The Lord, God of Israel, is King, and His Kingship rules over all!"


(Adapted from a sicha delivered on Rosh Ha-shana 5750 [1989].)