Rosh HaShanah Table Topics

Akeidat Yitzchak: An Immoral Command?

How is one to understand both Hashem' directive to sacrifice Yitzchak and Avraham's willing compliance?

  • How can a moral God, who later in the Torah denounces murder and declares the practice of child sacrifice to be abhorrent, demand of Avraham to kill his child?    Why did Avraham agree without even questioning the directive, as he had when Hashem revealed his intentions to destroy Sedom?
  • To debate: What is the proper course of action when human conceptions of morality, or even the Torah's own ethical system, conflict with a Divine command?  If Hashem were to tell you, today, to sacrifice a loved one, what would you do?
  • See Purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak for discussion of these and other theological issues raised by the story.

Criticizing our Avot

To what extent should we view our ancestors as perfect role models worthy of emulation, reinterpreting any stories that cast shadows on their reputations, and when is it fair to criticize their actions and recognize that they, too, had human flaws?  Use the story of the Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael as a test case to explore the question.

  • What crime could possibly justify the banishment of one's son?
  • How should Yishmael's "צחוק" be understood?  Is it possible that the righteous Sarah would be ready to expel Yishmael for innocuous laughter? On the other hand, is it conceivable that a son raised by Avraham could have committed crimes so dire that such a punishment was warranted?
  • Compare the Tannaim in Bereshit Rabbah53:11About Bereshit Rabbah, who defend Sarah by depicting a particularly wicked Yishmael, with R. Avraham SabaTzeror HaMor Bereshit 21:9:11About R. Avraham Saba (Tzeror HaMor) who condemns her (despite Hashem backing her decision!)

On Prayer and Kingship

  • When we pray, how much of our words should be devoted to our individual needs, and how much to those of the nation as a whole?  What should be the balance between praise and petition?  These are some of the questions raised by Channah's Prayer in Shemuel I 2.  Commentators debate whether it is a song of thanksgiving for being granted a child, or a petitionary prayer which focuses on the needs of the nation at large.  Which position do you find more compelling?
  • One of the focal points of Rosh HaShanah is the theme of Hashem's dominion and kingship, as expressed in the מלכויות section of the Amidah prayer. Practically, though, what does it mean to recognize Hashem as one's king? Channah's prayer suggests that this involves first and foremost the recognition that "לֹא בְכֹחַ יִגְבַּר אִישׁ"; rather, all is in God's hands.  Note the parallels between her prayer and the liturgical poem, "ונתנה תוקף", which shares the same message. For elaboration, see Channah's Prayer.