This Shabbat, we celebrate one of the holiest days of the year, Rosh HaShanah, a two-day holiday of repentance, prayer and feast, which falls this year on Saturday and Sunday, the 19th and 20th of September. As with all holidays, the normal sequence of the Shabbat Torah reading is suspended and the special reading for Rosh HaShanah is read instead.
I find the Rosh HaShanah selections special and never fail to feel a thrill and a sense of awe as we read them each year. On the first day, we read the story of the birth of Isaac, beginning with the words, “And G-d visited Sarah as he had said” (Genesis 21:1). On the second day, we read the continuation of that story, the binding of Isaac, beginning with the words “And G-d tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). Two incredible stories, linked to one another as the history of Isaac, Abraham’s only true heir. Two incredible stories which speak volumes regarding the relationship of G-d to the Jewish people.
Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word translated as “visited” in Genesis 21:1 is the word “pakad.” This word is also used to mean count or appoint. In fact, I am not sure why “pakad” has been translated as visited in this case, for the word appoint would carry so much more meaning. For in enabling Sarah to bear a child, the child who will inherit the blessings and promises given to Abraham, she has been appointed to a weighty job indeed. For through this birth, Sarah becomes the first matriarch of G-d’s chosen people. The very conception of Isaac is miraculous. Sarah is 90 years old and has ceased to menstruate. G-d could have easily given her a child at a younger age, but He wants to ensure a miraculous birth — a birth that all would recognize as a gift from G-d.
And then, as if to erase the entire miracle of the birth and the choosing of Isaac as Abraham’s heir, G-d commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, to kill him before he has had a chance to procreate. Imagine, Abraham’s questioning of G-d — how is it possible for Isaac to be my heir as you promised (Genesis 17:19) and for him to be killed, and by my own hand!!?? And yet, Abraham goes forward, ready to sacrifice his own, long-awaited son, born of his beloved wife Sarah, just because G-d commanded him to do so. Of course, G-d intervenes and prevents the sacrifice. He wanted to test Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice but He did not want to kill Isaac.
The messages of these two stories, as read on Rosh HaShanah, are significant indeed. On Rosh HaShanah, we pray for forgiveness and for a good year, not only for ourselves as individuals, but for the entire nation of Israel. Actually, it is the entire universe that stands in judgment before G-d on these holy days. But as Jews, when we approach G-d on our holiest days of the earth, we remember that G-d chose us as His people, that our very birth, as the first family of G-d and later as His people, was miraculous, that the choosing of Abraham was on the basis of his merit as a believer in G-d, and as a man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to obey His word.
We take comfort in these messages as we face the many trials and tribulations of Jews in Israel and around the world. As we face rising anti-Semitism and denials of our right to this Land, promised initially to Abraham, our forefather, passed on to us through his son Isaac, not Ishmael, we must remember that G-d demands our faith and our obedience, and He, in turn, will ensure our survival, through miraculous means. As He has done throughout our long and difficult history.
May the New Year bring health, happiness and peace to all the peoples of the earth.
Shabbbat Shalom from Samaria,
Director, Israel Office