Rabbi Beau Shapiro

Rabbi Beau Shapiro Second-Day Rosh Hashanah Study 5777

Rosh Hashanah II 5777 – October 4, 2016 Text Study Materials
Rabbi M. Beaumont Shapiro Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

The second day observance of Rosh Hashanah is a special time of prayer, study, reflection, and community. These pages include a selection of Torah and commentary that were the basis of our morning discussion.

Genesis 22:1-18

  1. Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.”

  2. And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I wi l point out to you.”

  3. So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.

  4. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar.

  5. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I wi l go up there; we will worship and we wi l return to you.”

  6. Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together.

  7. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

  8. And Abraham said, “God wi l see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

  9. They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham 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 Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.

  11. Then an angel of the LORD ca led to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”

  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.”

  13. When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

  14. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD there is vision.”

  15. The angel of the LORD called to Abraham 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.”


If we look back in the Bible, we see that just one chapter earlier, God had assured Abraham, “It is through Isaac that offspring sha l be continued for you” (Genesis 21:12).

God promises Abraham that the brit, the covenant, made between Abraham and God, a covenant that extends to the children of Abraham throughout time, will be transmitted through Isaac. And then, one short chapter later, God orders Abraham to sacrifice that same son, thereby threatening the promise of a Jewish future.

Abraham’s test, in short, is to live with that paradox: to hold onto the polar opposites of the world as it is and the world as it might be, refusing to abandon either one in the process of repairing them both. Abraham’s test is to accept God’s command to go through the motions of offering up Isaac, fu ly confident that Isaac would indeed be the vehicle through which the covenant with his heirs would begin…

…Abraham’s test is whether, in trying times, he wi l sti l insist on his core identity, still retain confidence that God’s promised covenant wi l survive. By refusing to abandon hope in the face of a bleak reality, by refusing to wish away a challenging reality in favor of simplistic beliefs and wishful stories, Abraham remains true to the brit, the covenant.

-Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

I would like to suggest perhaps a new explanation. I am led to this possibility by the abundance of questions the story leaves us with and the dearth of satisfying answers. Perhaps the real test was for Abraham was to confront God as he did at Sodom, thus teaching his children "righteousness and justice," and ultimately to say "no" to God. Perhaps, on some level in the narrative of the Akedah, Abraham failed the test. I would suggest this is why God never speaks to Abraham again after the binding of Isaac. In the end of the story an emissary angel speaks to Abraham, but where is God? Why doesn't God just speak directly to Abraham? Perhaps Abraham's

leadership and God's relationship with Abraham has ended.

Midrash after midrash hints at such a counter narrative. The midrash, in contrast to the Torah, depicts Abraham crying, the angels crying and arguing with God, and ultimately, Sara's cries when she hears of the Akedah; cries which according to the midrash we mimic in the sound of the shofar.

Perhaps if we begin to see the Akedah as a test in which the right answer is to protect an innocent child, rather than sacrifice him in obedience to God, our world - one in which thousands of Muslims and Christians who trace themselves theologically back to the story of the binding of Isaac and commit much violence - might be a bit different, perhaps for the better.

-Rabbi Hyim Shafner

“If faith does not make it a holy act to be wi ling to murder one’s son, then let the same condemnation be pronounced upon Abraham as upon any man.” Kierkegaard says this in Fear and Trembling, speaking of Abraham’s wi lingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to a divine command. He seems to imply that a believer’s moral duties are superseded by a higher obligation, so that his ethical sense is overridden by an absolute duty to God—and God “may cause one to do what ethics would forbid.” To change the form of expression, faith in God entails a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Ethical duties are suspended because they no longer apply in the face of divine commands, and this suspension is teleological because the individual performs it for the sake of a higher purpose—i.e., he performs it for the sake of his own “eternal blessedness”, the one goal which cannot be abandoned.

-John Whittaker

How can God make such a request? The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, maintains that herein lays the precise nature of the Divine test, the reason why Abraham emerges as the supreme Prince of Faith. God expects of his most trustworthy servant the “teleological suspension of the ethical”; in response to a command by the Almighty, the individual must still the ethical voice of his conscience. We hearken to the word of God not because it is good, but rather because it was from God.

-Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

In the earliest generations of rabbinic development the understanding emerged that Abraham had actually killed Isaac, or at least drew his blood, burned him until his ashes remained on the alter, and then Isaac was revived from the dead. Isaac's sacrifice served as atonement for the sins of the Jewish people, aspects of Hebrew ritual can be seen as rooted in the ancient biblical commandments to sacrifice the first born.

“R. Judah of Barcelona: When Father Isaac was on point of being sacrificed as a freewill whole burnt offering, he beheld the light of the Shekinah, and his soul flew out of him [he died], but the Holy One, blessed be He, revived him. And when he came to his wits and recognized that this is the way the dead will return to life in the future, he rose to his feet, gave thanks and sang praises before our Creator, and said: Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who quickens the dead.”

This rabbinic understanding of the Adekdah met two needs of the Jews during the early rabbinic period. On the one hand, this was a period of persecution by the Romans in which many Jews died. The story of the Akedah gave their deaths meaning. On the other hand, this was the period in which Christianity rose. The Akedah provided a biblical, Jewish, myth to match that of Jesus who died and was resurrected as atonement for sin. The image of Isaac carrying the wood up the mountain like one carries his own cross strikes could easily be seen as influenced by Christian imagery (Genesis Rabbah 59).

-Gleaned from Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial

It is a well-established of archaeological research that child sacrifice was rampant in ancient Mesopotamia. Abraham grew up in this culture and may very well have had it ingrained within him that this practice is indeed an appropriate way to demonstrate devotion to one's god, whether one of the pagan gods or Abraham's own God of monotheism. If rejection of this practice is an important event in Abraham's religious evolution, the child sacrifice motif, rather than the blind faith theme, may very well be the point of the episode.

Abraham was a product of Mesopotamian culture, who has already rejected the dominant paganism of the age in favor of a monotheistic God with whom he has established a close relationship. In the alternative interpretation interwoven in the text, he now wonders about the method of worshipping his God, a Deity certainly no less worthy than the amoral pagan gods of the dominant culture. Abraham perhaps was beginning to wonder whether his son Isaac, a relatively passive figure as compared to his dynamic father, was really going to be the sire of a great nation. He wondered whether perhaps this has become a delusion, whether God no longer has such plans for him. In that case, perhaps the most effective action Abraham could take to utilize Isaac for an act of devotion to his God, would be to perform the contemporary and widely-accepted act of child sacrifice.

God then appeared to him in a dream, and prepared to test him. The real test is: Will Abraham, the monotheist in a largely pagan world, the revolutionary described by the Midrash as having smashed the idols in his father's shop, break away from this noxious practice of the pagan world, or will he succumb to it? The exhortation ''Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, that is, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah . . .' is intended to mean "Abraham, what you are intending to do, according to this practice of the Mesopotamians, which you imagine has My approval, is to take your son, your only son, whom you love so much, Isaac himself, who is to sire a future nation, and kill him!" Implied: "Abraham, does this make sense? Does your God-given intelligence allow this? Think about it, Abraham, on your three-day trek to Moriah."

The test having been set up, the ball so to speak is now in Abraham's court. He has three days to ponder. At the end, he cannot bring himself to do it. However, the decision is not entirely emotional. It has its intellectual component, with Di- vine interaction involved. The dominance of Abraham's own contribution to this decision, however, is now symbolized by the intervention of an angel rather than God Himself. God set up the test, but in the end it is primarily Abraham who, although Divinely aided, is responsible for the revolutionary

breakthrough. Understanding, finally, what is really expected of him, Abraham breaks with the pagan practice of human sacrificial worship. It is not merely fatherly mercy that propels his decision, in which case he would simply have aborted the action on his own.

There is the underlying theological principle involved, symbolized by the participation of the angel, who, when he first speaks, supports Abraham's decision not to sacrifice his son. Abraham then finds a ram, which he submits as an olah sacrifice in place of Isaac. Speaking to Abraham a second time, the angel commends him, saying, 'Because you have done this thing, and have not kept your only son from Me . . . ."This thing" refers to Abraham's substitution of an animal sacrifice in place of the child sacrifice and "have not kept your only son from Me" refers to the fact that Abraham did not kill his son, which would have kept (prevented) him (Isaac) from fulfilling the historical role planned for him by God. What is really being tested is Abraham's determination to complete his abandonment of pagan practices, and continue religious evolution to what will historically become the Torah standard of behavior and worship.

-Malcom E. Schrader, The Akedah Test: What Passes and What Fails, Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2004

The Bible te ls us that “God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). God commands Abraham, the great planner, the man who lives today so that the covenant can flourish tomorrow, that he must sacrifice his very son, the embodiment of all tomorrows yet to come. Abraham’s trial is to learn to live in the present, to value today regardless of tomorrow.

For Abraham, then, the trial is to stop being the planner, to live fully in the present. His son no longer represents a glorious future. Isaac will live only a few more days. The test for Abraham is to live without dreams, to love without plans.

The Torah tells us that Abraham passes the test. In the two days that father and son spend walking together toward Mount Moriah, Abraham learns that simply being together in the present can forge an eternity of meaning and love. The two do not exchange more than two sentences the entire time, and those are of a technical nature. Rather than planning for the future, Abraham is forced to simply savor his son’s presence and his son’s present. Ultimately, that is a l there is.

-Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson


Founded in 1862 as Congregation B’nai B’rith, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is one of the most highly respected Reform congregations in the U.S. and the oldest congregation in Los Angeles. The temple building, built in 1929 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, features a majestic domed, Byzantine-style sanctuary encircled by a 320-foot mural depicting scenes of Biblical and Jewish history. The recent restoration of the temple building is the subject of the award winning documentary, "Restoring Tomorrow", and features Senior Rabbi Steven Leder as he shares the history and present temple, and its many outreaches to the communities in LA that they serve.  Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the Senior Rabbi and Pritzker Chair of Senior Rabbinics. With a cum laude degree in writing from Northwestern University, study at Trinity College, Oxford, and his Masters in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College, RabbiLeder was ordained in 1987. He is the author of 3 books, numerous essays, and Torah commentaries. He is a fellow in the British-American Project, a think tank that brings together leaders from America and Great Britain, and earned the American Jewish Press Association’s Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary.