On the second day of the upcoming hallowed holiday of many names, Jews around the world will read a story familiar to them from initially learning it in second grade, one which many recount on a daily or weekly basis, and others merely listen to on this day every year. I am of course referring to the twenty-second perek of Bereshit, the story of Akedat Yitzchak.
Many try to offer different approaches as to why we read about Avraham’s near sacrifice of his son on the second day of Rosh Hashana. I’ve always connected the most with the explanation that this story represents one of the biggest merits our people have. Avraham willingness to give up his son Yitzchak, who, after all, was the miraculous result of decades after decades of seemingly unanswered prayer, shows his deep connection and appreciation of Hashem, his readiness to give his all to G-d in the blink of an eye. We, Yitzchak’s descendants, are given many blessings in this reading which we can clearly see in effect today, and it is very important on Yom Hazikaron, to remind ourselves and, symbolically, Hashem, of this zechut as we enter into judgement for the coming year.
As Avraham prepares to sacrifice his “בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ,” on “ אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ,” a מלאך אלהים interrupts him and orders our first forefather to “stand down.” Avraham raises his eyes and:
“וְהִנֵּה אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו”
Behold: [there was] a ram caught in the thicket by its horns (בראשית כב:יג)
Avraham quickly grabs the ram, ties it up, and “וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ,” he brought it as a sacrifice instead of his son. A very happy ending to the story of Avraham’s final nisayon.
Many commentators note that a lot of detail is given to the sudden appearance of the ram, and even more to where it appears. Since no elements of stories in the Torah are ever extraneous, there must be a deeper meaning to even the bush this the ram was stuck in when it caught our forefather’s attention. In one of the most important Torah readings on one of the most important days of the year, what could possibly be the significance of this?
Rav Moshe Taragin, ra”m at Yeshivat Har Ezion, presents a beautiful interpretation in his commentary on the Koren Yom Ha’atzma’ut Machzor. Rav Taragin explains that the condemned ram thrashing to release itself from the thicket is symbolic of Jewish history, of the constant struggle of our people against torment and discrimination in the lands of other nations. Just like pushing aside one branch would cause another one to entrap the ram, release from one nation would just lead our people to another, potentially worse one.
However, unlike the ram, whose final release from the sharp branches of the bush was followed by its death, our nation is promised by Hashem throughout the Torah (especially in sedrot Bechukotai and Ki Tavo) that once we are ultimately out of the “brush” of history, our people will still be alive and better than ever. We will be able to fulfill the prophecy of Zecharia, of hearing the sound of the shofar (coincidentally taken from an אייל) and returning from the exiles of Ashur to Har Hamoriah (also coincidentally where this story takes place). We will be able to completely fulfill the blessing that the divine angel gives Avraham immediately after he sacrifices the ram, that Avraham’s descendants will multiply and be fruitful and take possession of their enemies lands. Once we will be released from the grasp of the brambly bush of tragic Jewish history, we will return to fulfill our forefather Avraham’s legacy and inherit our promised land, thus closing the cycle started with Avraham leaving Ur Kasdim for Canaan and set into motion in this reading of the second day of Rosh Hashana.
Aside from these national implications, I believe that this idea can present a lot of meaning to each and every one of us individually as we prepare to enter Yom Hadin.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the famous saying goes. But, when life keeps on handing you lemons, and you’ve drunk more than your fair share of the tangy beverage, what’s left to be done? You start to feel like you’re drowning in the challenges facing you, barely able to keep afloat. You have difficulty staying focused on the goal, and sometimes begin to wonder why you bother struggling. You could even say that you begin to feel like a four legged mammal, a ram, let’s say, struggling to get out of a thicket on Mt. Moriah, unable to free itself.
When looking back on a year such as this, it’s oftentimes difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel, to imagine that, in this coming year, things can possibly get better. Yet, as we are mere hours away from being judged on the previous year, and our fates for the coming year are being settled, the time has come to muster as much optimism as possible and believe that, in the coming twelve months, we can make lemonade from the lemons life hands us; that G-d can remove us from the thicket and release us to freedom.
Rambam famously taught that there are thirteen principles of faith which characterize our perspective of Hashem’s presence in the world- the penultimate one being the belief that Hashem can and will bring the Ge’ulah Shlaima at any point. This same principle is also true on a personal level. G-d- described by us at least three times every day as the all-powerful giver of life, healer of ill, releaser of prisoners, and reviver of the dead- can and will save us from our personal and national struggles. We don’t know how it’ll play out, and we don’t know when, but we must believe and accept that it will happen. We must realize that, as life throws us lemons, it’s G-d behind the batting cage-style machine throwing them at us, and He has our best interests in mind. He has a plan that none of us can even begin to understand, and we are, metaphorically, just along for the ride.
So, as we approach Yom Hazikaron, review our year and prepare in prayer for judgement, let us take strength from the Torah reading of the second day of the chag. Let us gain chizuk from Hashem sparing Yitzchak and releasing the ram from the thicket (in symbolism to our future redemption), and use this emunah to build our belief in Hashem’s ability to save us from our national and personal struggles.
May we all merit a Shana Tova U’Metuka, a Ketiva V’chatima Tova, and a year full of only besorot tovot, yeshuot, nechamot, and kibutz gailuyot.