According to the Jewish tradition, we are in a sacred time right now. As I write this, we are 15 days into the month of Elul -- halfway through the month that precedes the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two of the holiest days of our festival calendar. As all New Year festivals do, these holidays offer us great opportunity for reflection upon our past year’s troubles and triumphs.
We are encouraged to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, “soul accounting,” reflecting upon where we may have missed the mark, and resolving to realign ourselves with ourselves, our communities, and our God. We are mandated to practice teshuvah -- “return” -- working to right the wrongs we have committed, to repair the connections we have broken, and to seek peace within ourselves and our relationships. Elul is a month of preparation: a time of doing the work to set things right before we stand in judgment before getting - to put it lightly - our yearly performance review from the Creator. It is a time of reflection - of healing, vulnerability and tenderness - but it is also one of accountability.
In preparation for these coming holidays, we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, each day of the month of Elul. The piercing blasts of the shofar feature prominently in the dramatic liturgy of the Rosh Hashanah service, serving as majestic fanfare for the increasingly-immanent Divine, who sits before the Book of Life inscribing the names of those who are to live and who to die. Our blowing of the shofar throughout Elul therefore serves to rouse the soul, to call us to attention and remind us that the Day of Judgment is speedily approaching. It is the alarm clock for our spiritual lives; though we may keep hitting the metaphorical snooze button, the Big Day is coming.
The blowing of the shofar is an ancient practice, described in Torah and throughout the Jewish tradition, and - like all facets of Jewish ritual - is multivalent in its layers of symbolism. It harkens back to the thunders of revelation at Mount Sinai, and alludes to the triumphs of redemption of World to Come. There are many notes to the complex bouquet of the shofar, but for all of this symbolism, one element stands out as particularly relevant for this moment: its connection to the Binding of Isaac, the Akedah.
The troubling story is familiar to Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world (with slight - though not insignificant - differences between the versions found in the Torah and the Qur’an), and has certainly has made atheists out of more than a few. According to the Jewish telling of this story, God tells Abraham to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering; Abraham and his boy ascend the mountain to do the deed; and, just as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, an angel intervenes and confesses that this was just a test of faith. Abraham then notices a ram, caught by its horns in the nearby thicket, and proceeds to sacrifice it instead of his son. For his devotion, Abraham is blessed with promises of an exalted and numerous progeny (“as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand on the seashore”) and no further mention is made of this anxiety-inducing incident in the rest of Torah. [See Genesis 22:1-19, and / or As-Saaffat 37.100-113 for the differing tellings of the story.
Why, then, are we called to remember Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, on these days of judgment and rectification? Are we supposed to honor the alleged piety of our father Abraham, whose faith nearly compelled him to the egregious act of filicide? Should we, too, aspire to such unshaken religious zeal that we would take lives of our own, if the Divine so commanded us? Or is our only takeaway from this episode a watered-down, Sunday School apologetic --- that we should try to do God’s will as best we can by being “good people”?
Before unpacking this further, it is worth noting that the Muslim tradition devotes an entire holiday to this episode: Eid al-Adha, the “Festival of the Sacrifice.” In fact, it is one of the holiest days of the Islamic calendar. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son is commemorated by slaughtering animals and distributing the meat to friends, family and community; like many holidays, it involves family time, celebration, and festive meals. A joy to those who celebrate, but probably a non-event to those who don’t. Due to the lunar orientation of the Islamic calendar, however, this year’s Eid al-Adha (which took place September 12 through 14) had the potential to coincide with the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a prospect that left some religious leaders concerned that it may appear that Muslims were commemorating the anniversary in celebration, The dates did not align after all, but unfortunately, the holiday festivities were indeed marred by violence. In Florida, the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce -- the mosque that Omar Mateen, the shooter in the Pulse nightclub shooting, attended -- was set on fire. In the days that followed, a man in New York set a Muslim woman’s clothing on fire. Between these incidents, the shooting of the imam in Queens earlier this summer, and other such demonstrations of hatred, it is clear that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry is saturating our country with disturbing visibility. The New York Times just published the findings of a recent survey that suggest that anti-Muslim hate crimes are at an all-time high since September 2001. Like the ever-growing litany of names of Black and Brown folks who have suffered violence at the hands of police, these tragedies are too brutal to ignore, and too numerous to call random. (In between my initial writing and editing of this piece, two more Black men - Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott have been murdered with impunity.) There is something deeper here: a cultural context that promotes and permits violence when it is performed for the “right” reasons and done to the “right” people. And yet, as I write this sentence, mulling over the dangers of American exceptionalism, the ways in which our society legitimizes violence, and how our worldviews can be deployed to legitimize violence -- I am made aware of a stabbing attack in Minnesota, carried out by an alleged “soldier” of ISIS, and the bombings in New York and New Jersey.
The news shakes me like a shofar blast, and my mind shifts, calling back into focus Abraham - the source of this meditation. What does Abraham have to do with all of this?
I realize that, in light of all this religious violence -- whether that be acts of violence perpetuated against religious communities, or attacks done in accordance with what some allege to be God’s will -- there is a teaching that we can draw from our father Abraham. While it may be easy to deploy the sacrifice of Isaac as a paradigm to legitimize violence as submission to God, I do not think that that is the moral we’re meant to draw upon in our the High Holidays observances. Rather, it is just the opposite.
We must think beyond the sacrifice itself, and remember our father Abraham. Remember that this is the same Abraham who, just chapters before in the book of Genesis, petitioned God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gommorah. He bargained with the Divine, holding God accountable for straying from God’s qualities of justice and mercy: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25). As the story goes, Abraham wasn’t even able to find ten righteous ones (talked down from his original suggestion of 50) in the cities to fill God’s quota -- but at least he tried. He questioned God, maintaining that there had to be an alternative to the destruction that God sought to wreak.
We must remember Abraham. We must remember, recall and dwell on his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, not to commend his intense submission to God, but to recognize that -- in preparing to take the life of his own son without even considering an alternative -- he had strayed from his own righteous compassionate mode of devotion. Where was the chutzpahdik (audacious) lover of God and humanity who would put his own safety on the line to hold the Source of Life accountable for misdeeds! The lesson of the Akedah is, I believe, that even Abraham could fall victim to uncritically accepting a dangerous message from On High. That even the holiest of souls in our tradition need to practice teshuvah, “return.” That fanaticism is the religious impulse taken to its gross extreme, and we must be adamant in our efforts to fight it. If we are to be zealous, may it be for the clarity of consciousness that helped Abraham find the ram, and not the fervor that caused him to bind his son
I am not asking Muslims to condemn recent acts of violence perpetrated in the United States and abroad, nor to vocally distance themselves from ISIS, as so many are unfairly made to do. As a Jew, I am acutely aware of how the actions of some of the tribe are not representative of the whole, and how Scripture is complex and multifaceted and oftentimes very troubling. To be made to speak for one’s entire tradition is an absurd and impossible burden. I am, however, asking all of the children of Abraham to take the time to breathe, to listen, and to witness. It is time to open ourselves: to understand the realities of this (anti)religious violence in our country and beyond -- and to see how it is bred and legitimized by divisive, xenophobic political rhetoric, whether from ISIS or from Trump -- and to use this moment to grow together. For Jews, now in particular - in this month of Elul - is the time to show up, to learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters, to lift up the voices of People of Color within and beyond the Jewish community, and to stand in solidarity. To follow in the example of our father Abraham, who not only preached divine unity but rushed to welcome and serve strangers, and stuck his neck out in advocacy for the cities facing destruction. How much more so should we work in service, support and solidarity to ensure the safety and prosperity of our spiritual kin!
With its daily blasts of the shofar, Elul teaches us to wake up. To get working. To realign ourselves with ourselves, our communities, and our God. If we are to take our traditions -- our stories, our theologies of unity, our shared sacred lineages -- seriously, we must work together. We must hold one another accountable. We must show up. We must stand up. We must speak out. To quote a famous adage from Pirkei Avot (“The Ethics of the Fathers”): “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist yourself from it.” As we progress through the High Holiday season, and the shofar blasts -- or, chas v’shalom (God forbid), the bombs, the gunshots, and the cries of mourning -- shake and squeal and roar you into reverence and reflection or stunned silence, I ask that you pause to remember Abraham… and from there, get working.
Jacob Ehrlich is a student in the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. His interest in interfaith work was galvanized through participating in the 2016 Emerging Religious Leaders Seminar, a project of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, an interfaith coalition dedicated to fighting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. He has been a DJJ leader for the past year.