Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur speak to us differently each year, challenging us to hear their unique voice. This year, as we confront a world marked by turbulence, pain, and uncertainty, the singular voice of these holiest of days becomes even more important to hear.
A striking inconsistency surrounds the seminal event that the midrash tells us gives birth to the symbol of the Shofar. Why is it that God directly launches Akiedat Yitzchak, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac, but it is left to an angel to stop it?
The Akeida narrative opens with a direct instruction from God to Avraham: “And it was after these things that God tested Avraham and said to himâ€¦ ‘Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchakâ€¦'” In contrast, however, three days later, as Avraham stretches forth his hand on the summit of Mount Moriah to fulfill God’s will, the text clearly proclaims: “And an Angel of the Lord called to him from the heaven, and saidâ€¦ ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the ladâ€¦'”
If God directly launches this difficult test, why does He halt it only through the aegis of a messenger?
The simplest answer to this mystery may be the most profound. At a moment of potential violence against man, even when that violence is mandated by God, God is distant, His presence is diminished. God directly launches the Akeida, but when the patriarch moves to sacrifice his son, God is not there; his presence can be felt only through an angel.
There will be times in human experience, the Torah teaches us, when violence will be justified, essential, and moral. God does not rejoice at such times. When man is threatened, when his image is diminished at the hand of his fellow man, God’s image is diminished as well.
This scene, this message, captures the conflict that defines our times – the spreading global war between two clear religious visions.
On one side stands a religious vision that revels in the cry of jihad; that sees God rejoicing in the violent destruction of human life; that is bent upon the destruction of all vestiges of other faiths and traditions; that perceives no independent value in human thought, creativity, debate, or dialogue. On the other stands a religious vision rooted in Jewish tradition that perceives a fundamental value to all human life; that discerns God’s presence in man’s independent initiative; that views the exchange of ideas as powering man’s accomplishments; that sees violence as an unfortunate, if at times necessary, tool in the confrontation with evil; that counters the calls for jihad with a passionate plea for what it perceives as God’s greatest gift to man, shalom.
In short, we are witnessing a clash between a religious vision that is so God-centric that it leaves no place for man and a religious vision that posits an essential partnership between God and man in the creation of sanctity in this world.
How telling that our homeland and our people stand on the front lines of a global conflict, as happens over and over again throughout history. Make no mistake about it, Israel is Ground Zero, not only in its battle for survival, but in the world war against Islamic fundamentalists. And how important it is that we insist that the battle against such fundamentalism should be a battle against all of its forms and all of its mutations: from Isis to Hamas, from Hezbollah to al-Qaeda, from the Nusra Front to the mullahs of Iran. For while these groups may well war with each other, their fundamental vision remains the same: a world without freedom, without choice, and without independent human endeavor.
Here then, the unique voice of the High Holidays this year, an overlay upon the ever-present messages of teshuva and personal growth. Locked in a global struggle not only over man’s soul, but over man’s vision of God and God’s will, we must pledge to do our part. We are challenged by these days to better understand and appreciate our own vision of the sanctity of all mankind, to support the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism in all its forms, to support our brothers and sisters in Israel as they face an ever-changing violent landscape, and to insist that the world recognize Israel’s struggle as its own.
Above all, we are challenged to pray that God respond to the clarion call for jihad through the bestowal of his greatest gift upon the world and upon our nation: “Hashem oz l’amo yitain, Hashem y’vareich et amo va’shalom.” “May God grant his nation strength; may God bless his nation with peace.”