“For the sin we committed before You with a confused heart.”
Rosh HaShana has its tastes, sounds, and texts. We think of symbolic food like pomegranates and apples dipped in honey. We hear the shofar’s call for mercy and we revisit texts that are central to our tradition. One of them, the most difficult of them, is the binding of Isaac. It is in this text that both sound and time merge almost seamlessly. At once, we encounter the text, close our eyes, and mythically hear the ram’s horn that we imagine Abraham might have blown as a testament to his loyalty to God.
Unexpectedly, the biblical chapter that brought us the first shofar’s blast is awkwardly quiet. In the binding of Isaac narration there is neither crying nor supplication. There are no petitions for mercy and no explanations. There is little noise. The silence of the nineteen verses that tell the story is overpowering. God asked something of Abraham with initially one word only: “Abraham.” Abraham responded, in kind, with one word: “Hineni.” I am fully present and at Your command. It is as if Abraham had said, “My name is my destiny. Call it, and I will accept Your will.” And he did. Although God explained the task in limited detail, the test was essentially delivered in one word. Abraham’s “Hineni” followed his name, not the description of the test that stood before him.
A few verses later, we find another almost wordless conversation of a similar kind. Isaac, too, called Abraham, but this time not by name but by role: “Father.” And to Isaac, Abraham also said “Hineni,” followed by the most painful word in the chapter “beni,” my son. With one son banished in the previous chapter and another about to be taken on a mountain altar of undisclosed location, Abraham would not have many chances to address his son again. The word must have dropped to the ground like a heavy weight.
Isaac wanted to know where the sheep was for the offering since the wood and the fire implement were in place. Isaac carried the wood. Abraham carried the fire starter and the knife. Isaac conveniently forgot to inquire about the knife in his description of their readiness. It was not an ordinary knife. A “ma’akhelet” – from the Hebrew word to consume – is found in only one other place in the Hebrew Bible, in a text that makes readers shudder: chapter 19 of Judges. The knife Abraham used in Genesis and the one used in the Concubine of Givah text was used specifically to cut human flesh, not an act generally done within our faith tradition. No wonder poor Isaac forgot to mention it. Abraham explained their three-day sojourn together to Isaac in six truthful but elusive Hebrew words: “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” Again, the words “my son” end Abraham’s sentence with an ominous thud. The two proceed in silence.
Abraham said “Hineni” one more time, after an angel called his name twice to stay his knife-wielding hand. It took one mention of Abraham’s name to begin his mission but two to stop it. Abraham looked up, trying to find a replacement for the child he never sacrificed. Although the narrative is all about following directions, and although Abraham stated unambiguously that God would show them the sheep for sacrifice, it was actually Abraham who identified the animal. It was a ram. “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son” (Genesis 22:13). And then, in the biblical tradition of renaming a location after an act of divine revelation, Abraham renamed the place where he stood: “And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, as it is called to this day ‘On the mount of the Lord there is vision’” (22:14).
Abraham saw a ram, yet he named the mount after God’s long-term vision, not his own immediate vision. Abraham had passed the final test of his loyalty and, in so doing, praised the God who did not ask him to sacrifice his son. There was a vision on that mount that was unlike anything else Abraham knew of the ultimate sacrifices demanded in other ancient Near Eastern faiths. It was as if God said to Abraham through the slow pace of the narration and its silence: “Know forevermore that this new faith will be a radical departure from whatever you know. It will never demand child sacrifice as surrounding faiths do. Instead it will demand ultimate trust, and that you have earned on this mountain today.”1To encounter this reading in greater academic depth, see Jon Levenson’s seminal work, Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). Although Abraham was not asked to offer an animal, perhaps he saw in that ram stuck in the thicket – a place of entrapment and pain – the symbolic representation of a life full of struggle that was finally easing.
For Abraham, the binding was about sight. For us, Abraham’s descendants, the binding is about sound. Abraham experienced a vision and named the place after that vision. He did not blow the ram’s horn on that mountain – or, if he did, there is no recording of it. But somehow, the sound of the shofar – so primitive and so plaintive – echoes in Jewish history for all time and has always been associated with this story. A midrash on the sound of the shofar in the transmission of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 advances the idea that the same shofar was used at both Moriah and Sinai, presaging one person’s commitment of faith into that of an entire nation through a sound associated with mountain heights and divine authority.
The mystery of this instrument of faith was not lost on the rabbis of old. In a beautiful midrash on Genesis 22, the sages hold forth on the shofar’s reach, taking us to the very day of its first use:
Throughout that day, Abraham saw the ram become entangled in a tree, break loose and go free, become entangled in a bush, break loose and go free; then again become entangled in a thicket, break loose and go free. The Holy One said, “Abraham, so will your children be entangled in many kinds of sin and trapped within successive kingdoms – from Babylon to Media, from Media to Greece, from Greece to Rome.” Abraham asked, “Master of the Universe, will it be forever thus?” God replied, “In the end they will be redeemed by [the sound of] the horn of this ram.” (Genesis Rabba on Genesis 22:13)
For Abraham, the shofar was never about a sound. It was predominantly about a sight. Abraham saw an animal that symbolized himself, his son, and his fledgling nation, a ram that had difficulty negotiating its environs. It became entangled. It broke free. This pattern repeated itself.
Looking at this image, Abraham realized the metaphor unfolding before his eyes. But unlike his conclusion, God drew another from it that involved sound. When the shofar is blown, it always signals redemption to those who hear it – whether it is at Mount Sinai with the giving of the law or when slaves were freed in ancient days. The shofar may look like entanglement – but the shofar sounds like freedom.
We cannot envision what it was like for Abraham or for Isaac to be on that mountain that day. The closest we can come to reenacting that moment of faith is by closing our eyes and imagining a shofar being blown into the wind on the top of a mountain; it is the loneliest sound imaginable. That shofar’s wail released all of the tears that were not shed on that day and all of the cries that were never emitted and all of the words that went unsaid. The anguish and the victory of it all is captured most potently with the primitive, primal scream of a shofar.
When the shofar is blown on Rosh HaShana, all time collapses. We revisit our master story again and again, understanding that we are part of an ancient, treasured history, one of entanglement and also of redemption. The problem is to know when we are stuck and when we are just at the beginning of a breakthrough. Often the very same moment can appear to be both. We mistake trouble for possibility or do not see harm or temptation right ahead. Abraham saw a ram in a thicket, a live creature stuck in brambles. He offered up this animal as a testimony to a moment when he was ready to give one thing but was asked for another instead. His destiny could have taken one turn. Instead it took another.
Destiny does not always introduce itself. We have a chance encounter that ends up changing our lives because we are able to say at a moment’s notice, “Hineni.” I am here. I am ready. Nahmanides understood that the verb nisa – and God tested Abraham – was fate calling Abraham to a test that God knew he could pass. Challenging tests of character common in the world of Greek gods and heroes helped the protagonist understand his own mettle, offering an affirmation of strength and pointing to a fate often unanticipated. A strange moment or obstacle suddenly becomes the beginning of a new and unexpected journey that becomes the journey of a lifetime.
This message of destiny and its enigmatic turns underlines much of our Rosh HaShana liturgy and fills the pages of the Maĥzor. The haftara on the first day of Rosh HaShana (I Samuel 1:1–2:10) affirms the role of fate and destiny in a plan we cannot totally fathom. After bringing her son Samuel to the Tabernacle as a servant for life following an emotional battle with infertility, Hannah offers a prayer. Surprisingly, it is not a prayer of thanksgiving but one that captures the seeming arbitrariness of a world of fate:
Then Hannah prayed and said, “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in Your deliverance. There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides You; there is no Rock like our God. Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by Him deeds are weighed. The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. The Lord brings death and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; upon them He has set the world.” (I Samuel 2:1–8)
The prayer continues, but its message is already clear. Those who are poor may find themselves rich one day. Women who have no children may find themselves mothers one day. Warriors stumble. The needy sit with princes. Life as we know it is incomprehensible to the limitations of the human mind. Forces beyond our ken take over, and life as we know it changes dramatically.
James Kugel captures this oddity of fate and destiny in his essay “A Moment of Confusion” from The God of Old.2See James Kugel, The God of Old (New York: Free Press, 2004). Kugel reiterates this notion in his most recent book, In the Valley of the Shadow (New York: Free Press, 2011). Encounters with angels in the Bible, says Kugel, often begin as seemingly coincidental visits between human beings. Abraham saw three guests passing his tent in the distance. They were actually angels who, after a time of sustaining normalcy, disclosed their real identities and predicted an entirely new path ahead for Abraham and his wife. After dozens of years of infertility, this couple would become parents, and the small nation they founded would have its first successor. Abraham was only the first of many to transition from one dimension to another in a human/angel encounter. Human beings in the ancient world, according to Kugel, navigated spiritual worlds in ways that modern human beings do not. They may not have recognized an angel before them, but they were not shocked by such meetings either. The transition from this-worldly to other-worldly was not staggering or dramatic but almost expected. There was a readiness to move within a dimension not visible. At any time, three angels might show up at your door with a message that could change your life for eternity. A bush might burn in flames but not be consumed. A sea might split when you stand on the cusp of its shore with hundreds of enemy chariots directly behind you. A moment of confusion turns into a moment of revelation without the skip of a heartbeat or the time to catch a breath.
You were about to do something that would change your life forever when an angel stayed your hand. At first you were confused, but you moved slowly enough to stop yourself, and in so doing, retrieved what you thought you were about to lose: the most important relationship in your life.
Confusion collapses into clarity.
We confess to confusion on Yom Kippur: “For the sin we committed before You with a confused heart.” How can confusion ever be a sin? It is not intentional. Confusion is not an act; it is a condition brought about by the ambiguities of a situation. But we can perpetuate confusion by not seeking clarity soon enough or at all. And for that, we confess. Confusion can do that to us. In the prayerbook of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah Kramer (1720–1796), this plea includes acts of wrongdoing connected with confusion: doubting principles of faith or law or wondering about the historic existence of prophets or the reliability of Jewish texts. It can also be connected to the pain or anguish we cause ourselves and others because of doubt.
We stay in a state of confusion by not recognizing that destiny does not always knock on our door and announce itself. We have to ready ourselves for a moment as sudden as the appearance of a ram in a thicket, as sudden as the answer to a prayer of infertility.
What will you answer when destiny knocks?
Don’t miss the moment.
A sign on a church lawn read: “Negativity delays divine destiny.”
Fate comes looking for us, but sometimes we are looking down and cannot see possibility. We find ourselves saying “no” to opportunities. The hineni moment passes us by. Rosh HaShana offers us the beginning of a new year to take risks and step outside of our comfort zones and grow. Think of one thing you said “no” to in the recent past. What would it look like to revisit it and say “yes”?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar, a scholar at the Academy of Yavneh during the first century of the Common Era, said, “No is an oath, and yes is an oath.” Rava said an oath is only compelling if fully emphasized: “Only if one said, ‘no, no’ twice or ‘yes, yes’ twice.”3Shevuot 36a. Sometimes a “yes” or a “no” is not an honest answer. Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, basing himself on a commentary on Leviticus 19:36, wrote, “Your ‘no’ should be righteous, and your ‘yes’ should be righteous.”4Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1980), 48. A righteous “no” or a righteous “yes” is an honest reply when righteousness implies integrity and objectivity. Watch yourself in the next few days with these two words alone.
• Is your “yes” righteous?
• Is your “no” righteous?
• When you hear the shofar blowing, imagine for a moment you are on top of a mountain. You have scaled what seemed like an impossible peak. What would you name that place?
• Destiny is often dependent on a series of choices. How good are you at making the decisions that will shape your destiny?
• The rabbinic expression, “There is no happiness like the resolution of doubt,” helps us understand that having too many choices can wear away at our happiness, keeping us in the ether of doubt and second-guessing.5Commentary of Metzudat David on Proverbs 15:30.
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 3:4
Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShana is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar’s call] is saying:
Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save. Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.
Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin, and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. [On the other hand], if he performs one mitzva, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 6: “The Trait of Zeal”
Just as it requires great intelligence and much foresight to save oneself from the snares of the evil inclination and to escape from the evil so that it does not come to rule us and intrude itself into our deeds, so does it require great intelligence and foresight to take hold of mitzvot, to acquire them for ourselves, and not to lose them.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 2:1
Sudden repentance derives from a spiritual flash entering the soul. All at once the individual recognizes the evil and ugliness of sin and is transformed into another person. Immediately he experiences inwardly a complete change for the good. This comes about by means of a manifestation derived from an inner spiritual quality, by means of a great soulful influence whose paths merit scrutinizing to the very depths of their concealment.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• How does destiny manifest itself in these sources?
• What impact does decision-making have on the scale of righteousness?
• How does confusion get in the way of repentance?