We will spend much of this weekend talking about Isaac – in particular we will read about his conception (on Shabbat), and his binding on the altar (on Sunday). But let’s move, for a moment, to the end of Isaac’s life – lying in bed, nearly blind, awaiting the opportunity to bless his eldest son. And in comes Jacob, hideously cloaked in sheepskin so as to have the hairy feel of his brother Esau. But Isaac knows. And Jacob knows that Isaac knows. And we know that Isaac knows, because for the second half of their conversation he never calls Jacob by any name at all – he only says, ‘my son.’ We know that Isaac knows because when he asks Jacob if he is really Esau – as when a teacher might say, are you sure that you’re telling the truth – Jacob cannot even find it in himself to lie and responds, simply, Ani. I am me. This is who I am. This is where I am.
This is exactly what Isaac is thinking through when he says, HaKol Kol Yaakov v’HaYadayim Yadei Eisav. The Voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. This is where the interest is: of course you can make your skin feel fuzzy, but your voice is your own, it is not so easily transformed. Hearing Jacob’s voice, Isaac knows – this may not be what he expected, but it is nevertheless the right son to bless; it has its own sort of truth, it is the best resolution to this awful situation. VaYivarcheichu – and Isaac blessed his son.
The constant refrain of Yom Kippur – repeated in every service – is Shema Koleinu – Hear our Voice. Chus vRacheim Aleinu – show kindness and compassion to us. V’Kabeil b’Rachamim uv’Ratzon et Tefilateinu – and we pray that you will in some sense desire our prayers, and so will hear them with mercy. Shema Koleinu – Hear our voice. Our voice has not changed; it is the voice of our ancestor Jacob reassuring his aged father; it is the voice of Isaac and Abraham who said Hineni – here we stand.
True, judged by our hands, we have not always done what we might, and we have not been the best that we might be – our hands were the hands of Esau. But this season when we call on God we say Shema Koleinu – hear our voice. We desperately try to believe that there has been some unchanging voice, something worth keeping, something tying us to our ancestors who were better.
And this is also why we blow the Shofar. The Shibbolei HaLeket (C13) teaches the Midrash that we blow the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur because – as Moses came down bearing the second set of tablets, on that first Yom Kippur at the foot of Har Sinai – the sound of a shofar rang out. The significance of this Midrash is twofold. Firstly, we blow the shofar specifically at Neilah because it is a remembrance that this was the very moment when Torah arrived in the world – and so although it is a time of locking gates, and ending the day’s particular intensity, it is also a moment when revelation reappears, refilling the world. But more than this, the midrash teaches that we blow the shofar because it is our people’s unchanging voice – the same sound which felled the walls of Jericho, the same sound which announced the coming of Torah. Blowing the shofar is only another way of praying: Shema Koleinu, listen to our voice, hear the Kol Shofar. We are still here, still the same Jews, the same Children of Abraham. Still trying, still struggling, still hoping, against hope, that this year things will be better.
Anthony Lazarus -Magrill LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.