The Titanic Sacrifice of the Ram, By Zachary Orenstein

The images that the event of Akeidat Yitzchak generally conjure are Avraham’s compliance, Yitzchak’s selflessness, and their unity in order to fulfill the ultimate sacrifice for God. However, the day that is more focused on the Akeida than any other is called Yom Teruah and its climax is the sounding of the shofar; Avraham’s sacrifice of the ram steals the show.[1] This oddity is exaggerated when looking at how the Torah records the sudden change in what is being offered. “Vayeilech Avraham vayikach et ha’ayil vaya’aleihu li’olah tachat binno- Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.״ (Genesis 22:13) The word the Torah uses for “in place of” is “tachat.” Nachama Lebowitz explains based on the Benno Jacob’s reading of Ayin tachat ayin – an eye for an eye, that from many of the places where the word tachat is used in Tanach, it is clear that it implies replacement or compensation for something lost. The argument by “ayin tachat ayin” is that even in Pshat it cannot be about revenge, but rather it has to be describing a way to replace the eye; thus, Chazzal say that the Torah is commanding monetary compensation to replace at least one function of the eye, which is helping to make a living. If this is true, then how could the Torah use the word “tachat” to describe replacing the sacrifice of Yitzchak with the sacrifice of a ram? How could sacrificing an animal begin to compare to the act of sacrificing a child such that it could be referred to with the terminology of a valid compensation?

Perhaps this is meant to highlight a fundamental message of the Akeida. It is stressed many times in Tanach that God does not care so much about the isolated event of animals being slaughtered. The important part is the emotional and psychological response of the one bringing the sacrifice. Although most of the details discuss the specifics of the animal, what really counts is the commitment to God that is developed by people taking a significant part of their property and dedicating it to God. According to this, it would seem that Avraham should not have had to offer the ram at all. As soon as Avraham displayed his commitment to God by showing willingness to sacrifice his son that should have been all God cared about. However, God only offered the full Bracha to Avraham once the ram was slaughtered. Perhaps, this is because if Avraham had just stopped after being told not slaughter his son and breathed a sigh of relief he would have shown a remarkable dedication to God on an intellectual level, but not much else. It would have displayed that he knew God is the one who has the final say, so he did what he was told, no matter how difficult. In reality though, God gave Avraham his tremendous blessing because this was far from the truth. Avraham possessed a profound resolve to fulfill the command of God that took over not just his reason, but his realm of desire as well. He built up a passion for God that was nuanced enough to halt the slaughter in mid act, but so present that he could not stop there. The only option became finding something else to offer. Sacrificing the ram was the indicator of how deep Avraham’s commitment to God was. God then waits until after the ram’s sacrifice to offer the bracha to Avraham to show the extent to which God values such a level of identifying with God’s will. At that point, from God’s perspective sacrificing the ram was as if Avraham had actually sacrificed his son because it showed that Avraham succeeded in producing the quality of commitment that God was looking for from the experience. He proved not just dedication of intellect, but dedication of purpose. That’s why the exchange can be referred to as tachat. The ram is not just a nice touch to an inspiring story. It is the story’s very inspiration.

When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashana perhaps we are trying to evoke this message to our favor. Most of the Rosh Hashana davening is specifically not about getting atonement for our sins, but rather declaring God as our king. I heard Rav Yair Kahn explain in Yeshivat Har Etzion that we do this because we are showing that, while the rest of creation appears oblivious to the gravitas of the day of judgement, we understand its severity and God’s role in it, and this is the greatest way for us to find favor in the Divine court. Perhaps it does not stop there. By spending significant time and energy declaring God to be king and us to be servants we engender within ourselves commitment and dedication to God. Perhaps that is what we hope will find us favor. After all, Avraham internalizing that concept is what led God to give him his epic blessing. It should be no surprise then that the Shofar becomes the center of Rosh Hashana. After trying as hard as we can through davening to reach the mindset of being servants to the all-powerful king and after trying to internalize through Rosh Hashana everything that our relationship with God means, we blow the shofar to say, “Yes, our year was not perfect. It is true that we need to do teshuva. However, we have just dedicated ourselves to You as Your servants and You are the one who showed us through this very instrument, the horn of a ram, that dedication to Your service is what You really want. Forgive us because now we are dedicated to You.” Thus, Chazal describe the Shofar as a coronation tool and a means of prayer. These are not two separate aspects of the Shofar. We declare God king and argue for that act itself to grant us atonement. Yom Kippur ends with the shofar as well because we might not have done proper repentance for all of our sins, but as the book of judgement is sealed, we desperately give a last cry to God, “Look at our current dedication and remember what that meant to you by the ram of the Akeida.” The ram’s horn is a reminder that more impactful than any excuse in our favor or any merit of our ancestors, might be what we can create through declaring ourselves as servants and God as king on these days of awe: a deep sense of commitment to God.

Zachary Orienstein is a graduate of TABC, spent a year studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion, and is currently enrolled in his first year in YU.

[1] This question was raised to me by Rabbi Sariel Malitzky. I owe great gratitude to my Rebbe for provoking my entire thought process that lead to the ideas I present here.

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