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Transience as a Blessing

Thoughts and Insights for Rosh Hashanah

Menachem Mirski

Religion has the beautifully inherent purpose of helping us gain control and guide us in organizing what is irrational within both our spiritual and practical realms. Maimonides’ view on animal sacrifices, which was performed by the ancient Israelites in the Temple, is an illustrative example. According to his view, ancient Judaism put restrictions on animal sacrifices, giving them particular purposes and meaning, in order to ultimately eliminate these practices. This Divine decision was merely a concession to human psychological limitations with the goal of creating conditions for the gradual transition from pagan Canaanite polytheistic practices into monotheism practices focused on prayer and meditation.

But the Canaanite cults not only practiced animal sacrifice, they practiced human sacrifice, including its most hideous form: child sacrifice. There is evidence of this both scripturally and archeologically. The deliberate murder of infant children was a pronounced feature of Canaanite cults and the Bible does not exaggerate this issue.

Within this context, the story of Binding of Isaac, known as Akeda, which is a part of our Rosh Hashanah Torah portion, would first and foremost describe Abraham’s inner struggle with the reflection of the ancient practices of human sacrifice his ancestors had likely been engaged in. It would be his struggle between the remnants of his polytheistic mentality and the monotheism he accepted voluntarily after receiving the divine calling and revelation (Bereshit/Genesis 12), with God testing not only his devotion (the test he passed by trying to sacrifice his son) but also, the authenticity of his monotheistic faith (the test he passed thanks to renouncing to make this sacrifice after hearing the voice of an angel).

The story of Akeda would then describe Abraham’s final rejection of the practices of Canaanite polytheistic religions and the affirmation of his loyalty to the One and Only God. But the last verse of this biblical story raises some doubts about what actually happened, in particular, what happened to Isaac:

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba (Bereshit/Genesis 22:19).

As it was indicated by Ibn Ezra in his commentary on this verse:

And Abraham returned: And it does not mention Issac, as he was under [Abraham’s] purview. And the one that says that he slaughtered him and left him, and he came back to life later, has said the opposite of the verse.

Thus, according to Ibn Ezra’s interpretation, Isaac was in fact killed by Abraham, and was later resurrected, presumably by God, but the Torah covers up this thread. In the Hebrew Bible the references to resurrection are very sparse; the Torah has absolutely no reference to resurrection. In the Prophets, resurrection is typically connected to the idea of afterlife, however again, the Torah is silent on this matter. The only verse that could be vaguely referring to some form of afterlife is:

Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him. (Bereshit/Genesis 5:24)

What does this all mean for us? I would suggest that the general message of the Torah in this matter is: the world is transient, don’t try to resurrect the past, don’t try to bring to existence something that has passed, don’t try to reverse irreversible things and don’t believe in their reversibility. If you have done something that can’t be undone and you feel guilty about it, atone for it, learn from it, learn how not to repeat it and move on. Live and look forward to the future, because what is prepared for you is better than what you have already gone through. You have the freedom to believe whatever you want about the afterlife, but don’t bother your mind with it too much.

The things that have passed are reflected in emotions like longing and nostalgia. However, these things themselves do not exist any longer, the only power they have is the power we give them. In fact, things that have passed are not the cause of our longing or nostalgia – these are the results of individual attitudes. These ‘attitudes’ contribute to us overlooking the fact that the world is renewing every moment. They keep us locked in the past, not able to see the future or even seeing the present correctly.

Transience, the river of being, in its essence, creates a space for the new. Given that we, as human beings, are gaining more and more power over the world throughout history and more and more awareness in this process, it is more and more up to us what this ‘new’ will look like. Don’t idealize the past then and move on.

Transience can be, and often is, a blessing and it is largely dependent on us. Having in mind all our errors and the wisdom we gained from them, having in our hearts hope, having pure faith and good will let’s celebrate. Let us celebrate The Creation of the World, and the fact that we are more than welcomed in the process of its daily re-creation.

Shanah Tovah!

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA