Akeida #3: The Binding of Isaac - Independence and Surrender
It’s been two years since I last was a darshanit during the High Holidays. This is the third time I’ve given a dvar Torah to you and each time it has been on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, when we read the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac. This is truly hafoch ba vehafoch ba dekula ba, as Ben Bag Bag said in Pirkei Avot: Turn the Torah over and over again, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it (Avot 5:26). As this mishnah suggests, our Torah is a bottomless treasure chest of new ideas and perspectives.
What to say about the Akeida this time? During the summer of 2015 I attended the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar and encountered someone who has become a very important teacher to me - Dr. Micah Goodman. Micah is a philosopher and a Talmudic scholar, a profoundly interesting (at least to me) combination. This dvar Torah was inspired by one of his teachings.
Today we will take a journey into Mishnah Masechet Rosh Hashanah to see what the rabbinic sages have to teach us about Rosh Hashanah. Usually we study one mishnah at a time. If we are learning Talmud, not only do we study one mishnah at a time, we intersperse each of them by reading many pages of rabbinic commentary, debate and discussion. But there is something that we miss out on when we learn mishnah that way - the linkage between all of them.
Masechet Rosh Hashanah is relatively easy, at least on the surface, because it only has four chapters. Roughly speaking, the first two are about hilchot kiddush hachodesh, the laws of sanctifying the new month, the whole project of declaring the new moon. The second two are about hilchot tekiyat shofar, the laws of the sounding of the shofar, declaring God’s sovereignty. Two declarations that reveal a very deep tension - that there is a new month and that God is King.
The first two chapters are an attempt by our rabbinic sages to measure time, experience time, to build the Jewish calendar. Presumably these laws were placed here because we are able to discern when it is Rosh Hashanah - it is Rosh Chodesh Tishrei. But it is a very complicated system, experiencing time by observing a natural phenomenon - the birth of the new moon. This moment is important because we need to capture and declare it in order to declare the new month. It’s hard because there aren’t 30 days in a lunar month. There are 29 days, 12 hours and 43 minutes. But we can’t declare a new month that way, so we balance it out - some months are 29 days and some 30. The rabbis decide which is which by spotting the new moon as it is born and then declaring that it is born.
But there is a problem. In Masechet Rosh Hashanah, we see that the sages wanted the entire Jewish people to be involved in this project of observing the moon. They didn’t rely on astronomical experts. There are a lot of incentives for people to be moon observers, to watch, see the moment the moon is born, and then run to Jerusalem, to the Beit Din, the rabbinical court, and testify. When the evidence of two people is accepted, the Beit Din declares the new month. One incentive is a big feast for the people standing in line. Even if there are 500 people in line and the testimony of the first two is accepted, the Beit Din is expected to hear all of the witnesses, so they won’t feel that they have come for nothing.
Why did the sages create a system designed to seduce the people to search for the moon and then run to Jerusalem? They don’t tell us. But perhaps the famous mishnah about Moshe’s hands in chapter 3 of Masechet Rosh Hashanah provides an answer. As recounted in Shemot/Exodus 17:11, during the first war with the Amalekites, Joshua was fighting and Moshe was on the top of the hill. When Moshe lifted his hands, the Israelites prevailed and when he lowered them, the Amalekites were winning. The mishnah asked whether it was the magical effects of Moshe’s hands that lead them to victory? No. When he lifted his hands, he seduced the people to look up and when they did that, they were looking at the sky. And when they do that, they are accepting God’s sovereignty.
Many times such stories are placed in the middle of a halachic conversation because they somehow embody the depth of it. Maybe the entire project of kiddush hachodesh, of declaring the new month, is an effort to seduce the people to keep their heads up, to look at the sky, search for the new moon, observe the power of the cosmos, accept God’s sovereignty. Maybe our sages wanted to create a society where people kept their heads up and not down.
Getting back to the first two chapters of Masechet Rosh Hashanah, you are even permitted to violate the laws of Shabbat to offer the testimony. You can ride on Shabbat if you aren’t able to walk. Not only that, you can cause others to violate Shabbat. You can bring supplies and servants along with you just so you have the possibility of being the one whose testimony results in the declaration of the new month. Even if the sky is clear and you can assume that everyone is able to see the new moon, and surely someone in Jerusalem can give the testimony so you don’t need to violate Shabbat, still you violate Shabbat. We could understand the need to violate Shabbat if it were a cloudy night in Jerusalem. But even when the chances are slim that your testimony is the one which will be taken, still you violate Shabbat.
The rabbis have created here a hierarchy where the sanctity of the month has more weight than the sanctity of the week. When there was a conflict between astronomy and the testimony that was accepted, that is between nature and human decision, the rabbis decided that they would violate cosmic time and accept time created by human beings. Our task as human beings is not to expose the cosmic moment when the month begins, but to decide when the month begins. We aren’t observers of reality; in some sense we are creators of reality. We violate objective time in order to accept human-defined time. Human beings decide the sanctity of time when it is about the month.
But there is another unit of time human beings have nothing to do with - Shabbat. Shabbat is part of creation, created by God. So there are two systems - weekly and monthly. The weekly system decided by God and the monthly system decided by human beings.
In Masechet Rosh Hashanah the sages created a clash between the Shabbat and the Chodesh. If the only way to declare the month is to violate the sanctity of the Shabbat, then you violate Shabbat. What is more important, the time created by God or the time created by human beings? And the amazingly radical declaration of the rabbis is that the time created by human beings is more important. We sacrifice the time that was part of creation, in order to sanctify the time defined by human beings. The sages here say we are not controlled by time; we control time. If there’s a clash between human time and divine time, we sacrifice divine time. The first two chapters of Masechet Rosh Hashanah declare human sovereignty, human agency, the liberation of human beings from God’s control over time.
There is a beautiful midrash illustrating this in Pesikta D'Rav Kahanna 5:13: Rosh Hashanah comes cosmically. God says to the angels: it’s Rosh Hashanah. We need to open the divine court because we need to sit in judgement. But then they realize the Jews aren’t going to shul because, through their false calculations, they calculated Rosh Hashanah to be the next day. So God tells the angels to close the books, close the court room, and reopen the Beit Din tomorrow because the people define time for God; God doesn’t define time for the people.
The only problem with this interpretation is that it’s only reading the first half of the Masechet. The second half is about hilchot tekiyat shofar, the laws of blowing the shofar. There is a lot of halachic investment in explaining that we don’t fulfill the requirement by playing the shofar, but by listening to it. The mitzvah isn’t based on the tekiya of the shofar; it’s on the shemia. We are commanded to listen to it.
The mishnah adds another layer. You only fulfill the commandment if you have a certain kavannah/intention when you listen to it (3:7). Returning to the mishnah on the hands of Moshe. The mishnah tries to explain what this kavannah really means when we listen to tekiyat shofar. If you think that Moshe’s hands lead to victory, then you think that human beings have the power. But the mishnah say no, it’s not about human power but about something else altogether. It’s not about Moshe having the power, it’s about people realizing that only God has the power. It’s an expression that we don’t have any power at all; it’s about surrendering our power to God’s sovereignty. Tekiyat shofar is about accepting God’s sovereignty, about saying God is king, about realizing God is in control.
Therein lies the tension. We have the power in the first half of the mishnah - kiddush hachodesh, we sanctify time, we’re in control and can violate God’s time. A declaration of human independence. The second half is about realizing God’s greatness, that only God has the power; we surrender to God’s power.
Mishnah Rosh Hashanah puts the two in the same Masechet. How can we live through this? But isn’t that what Jewish tradition is about? The absolute tension between these two impulses? Mishnah Rosh Hashanah takes us through a journey where it’s about us and it’s not about us. It’s also about going through the Akeida and accepting God’s sovereignty. Mishnah Rosh Hashanah takes us through the journey of being independent of God and surrendering to God and being dependent on God. Judaism in a deep sense empowers us to discover, to find ourselves, and at the same time inspires us to sacrifice, to lose ourselves inside an idea. That’s where we realize our life is not just about ourselves, about individualism, but also about losing ourselves. This Mishnah is a reflection of our lives which carry that tension.
This is also a reflection of Avraham’s life. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham embodies his belief in human agency, in his power. He argues with God in an effort to save the people of Sodom. But in the Akeida he is strangely, eerily silent … for three days. He completely surrenders to God; he loses himself. His life is the embodiment of that tension - between being independent of God and surrendering to God.
Living both of these notions creates a tension that enriches our religious life. I will end with a teaching from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. He gives a very creative reading of Pirkei Avot 1:17 - כָּל יָמַי גָּדַלתִּי בֵּין הַחֲכָמִים - All my life I have been growing (gadalti) in between (bein) the scholarsm the wise ones. Rebbe Nachman asks - where did this person, where did I grow? One reading would be that I am surrounded by scholars which creates an intellectual climate that enables constant growth. But Rebbe Nachman asks where do you grow? What is the space of human growth? The answer isn’t the space that exists between scholars, or the space among scholars. We don’t always exist there. What do we see when we open the Mishnah or the Gemara? When we study them we see pairs of scholars - Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Abaye and Rava. What exists between them? A machloket. A dispute. That is where you grow and learn - from the dispute between them, in that tension between scholars, between ideas.
Rosh Hashanah carries these tensions - a moment of celebrating the creation of the world and of human beings, and a moment of self-examination, of surrendering to the Creator. A graduate of Masechet Rosh Hashanah is someone who can enter the tension of Rosh Hashanah.