Concepts and questions crowd in on us this shabbat. As we skate over the thin ice of our new Jewish year 5771 some may wonder, some may worry, what challenges and opportunities will it bring? The story of Avraham and Sarah may set us an example.
Sarah and Avraham can perhaps provides some clues, perhaps some guidance, relevant for us today. Hospitality is the initial obvious theme, with an undercurrent of concern brought through from the previous parashah about sterility, the ongoing concern with fertility and family. Survival is another theme, connected with these, encapsulated in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Relationship with other peoples is covered in the stories about Avimelekh. Yet the main thrust forward comes with the accent on sexuality, firstly in the story of Lot’s daughters and then with the announcement of the pregnancy of Sarah, who is astonished and laughs, perhaps in delight, perhaps with relief at the ending of her barrenness. All this involves an ongoing relationship with God, leading to the ‘akedah, with its theme of sacrifice.
The ‘akedah is perhaps a familiar story for more Jews than many other parts of our Tanakh, because more of us attend synagogue Services for the High Holy days. We hear it so often we may not pay close attention to what it tells us, or, often when listening we focus of the action, rather than on inaction, passivity. We become so used to living in a certain way it is hard to break free. Yet there are other images, which come to teach us, in this story, possibly normally neglected. We usually focus upon the human protagonists of our story: Avraham and Yitzkhak. Perhaps we also notice the Angel of God who calls aloud. Yet there are other living beings involved who say not a word yet are part of the action. There are a couple of servants, an ass and a ram. Let us think of them and how what they do and what happens to them can help us understand our situation here today a little deeper.
Near the beginning of the story we have heard, Avraham saddles his ass to go to worship God and he takes with him, as well as his son, two servants. They play a passive role, told simply to stay put at the foot of the mountain. They are just to wait there whilst Avraham and Yitzkhak go on up to the sacrifice, implying that the two servant lads remain down at a lower level. It does not take much understanding for us to appreciate that a literary critical approach might explain this as symbolic of spiritual states of being. The servants are in no way on the same plane as Avraham and his son, yet they are mentioned as being there. They are not at all abandoned; Avraham returns and finds them there; they then go back together to Beersheva. That there are two of them suggests that they represent plurality. Perhaps these two servant lads stand for the great mass of people caught up in circumstances beyond their control, who simply do not have the capacity to change; lacking the capability themselves for spiritual development, they depend on others to negotiate with God on their behalf. Perhaps this is why we Jews pray, not only for forgiveness from our own sins, but on behalf of the entire world, during our High Holy Days.
The ass is not mentioned again, except that its load is transferred to Yitzkhak for the ascent. Maybe this is a subtle way of telling us not to exploit dumb animals to excess. We share the world with species of animals, which are also God’s creatures, yet we are careless about the environment, which is theirs as much as ours. The message is: do not drive a loaded ass up an incline too steep for it. The moral is the same as that found in other parts of the Torah: animals should be respected, not overloaded or improperly exploited in any way. We must be reasonable about creation for we share it with other creatures as well as with our fellow human beings.
Now we come to the main player in our scene: the ram. The ram is stuck, trapped by its horns in a thicket. It is in the same existential situation we are all in. It sets us an example. To get out of its impossible situation it has to be involved in sacrifice. Avraham represents one generation of his family, Yitzkhak the next. By means of the ram being involved in sacrifice, the life of the next generation is redeemed by the angel of God. The family of Avraham can continue into the future, leading to the development of both the Children of Israel and the Arab tribes.
The ram also plays a critically important part in our development today, because it is still here with us, in the form of the horn that was trapped, caught in the thicket. We hear clearly every Rosh Hashanah that, in the form of the shofar, that which was trapped can set us free, because this horn, though stuck on the head of an animal which was itself stuck, can be used to make music which has the effect of allowing us to liberate ourselves. That which was itself entrapped becomes the instrument of our freedom. Not merely the symbol of our freedom, but an enabler, which can penetrate our soul and redeem us from destruction.
The sound that we hear is a method of releasing ourselves from a trap. The musical notes, the blasts of the shofar, unlike any other we are familiar with, have a remarkable dynamic. They release us from slavery and although we may have felt bogged down and unable to escape, we can learn the lesson anew each year that we can sacrifice bad habits, especially psychological traits that may have disabled us.
Avraham and Sarah may have thought they were barren, a family stuck in time, one generation coming to its end, a family expecting to die out. Sometimes we too may worry that our world is coming to an end. Yet our Torah affirms the certainty of change. Not the possibility, but the promise, that there is a future. We can make it positive, though we will most likely have to sacrifice what we were used to in the past. When the sound vibrates within us, if we open up to the sound of the shofar, its effect is miraculous. People may tell you that the age of miracles is over, but we are here still, and that is a modern miracle. All over the world, wherever Jewish people congregate on Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar reverberates, this miraculous sound penetrating to the collective Jewish soul and keeping alive our remarkable religious culture for another new year. May this continue to be God’s will so that we can affirm our future with hope.
Rabbi Francis Ronald Berry
Bristol & West Progressive Jewish Congregation
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.