To my mind’s eye, Rabbi Berechiah appeared stoop-shouldered and mournful on Rosh Hashanah as he listened to the Torah reader recite Genesis 22, The Binding of Isaac. Berechiah, a 4th century sage of the land of Israel, was pained by the story of a father who would agree to sacrifice his son. More painful—if he dared to think it—was his distrust of the God who commanded the sacrifice. Where was the Abraham who risked all to save Sodom and Gomorrah, cities of mainly strangers whom he defended with his life? And where was the God who had offered Abraham the opportunity to defend those cities?
In his heart, he chastised his predecessors for having added the troubling chapter to the holiday Torah reading. Now that we celebrate for two days, they had decided, on the second day we read: After these things God tested Abraham. In simpler times, the only Torah reading assigned to the holiday had been: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month… you shall observe a sacred occasion, complete with loud blasts (Leviticus 23:23). The only provocation of this section was mild: Why advance the counting of the years in the seventh month?
Another year was at hand and Berechiah realized that he would, once again, join the community worship. He would—like Abraham?!—sacrifice his own values on the altar of a tradition that demanded the binding of Isaac. Despite the parallel’s clear limits, Berechiah’s thoughts revealed a certain truth: He preferred to focus on some tendency found in others, but not in himself. How much easier is anger and certainty when strengthened by the objectivity of distance? But now, the merit of Abraham became the merit of Abraham-who-is-me. Perhaps there was merit in every character and lessons to be learned by entering the story as each one, in turn.
Time and again, Rabbi Berechiah lived the story, anticipating a wise poet who would one day encourage everyone to become the knife, the ram, and even to become God:
Everyone who gets up in the morning is alone,
bringing himself to the binding, he is Abraham,
he is Isaac, he is the donkey, he is the fire
he is the knife, he is the angel,
he is the ram, he is God.
When he became the God of the story, Berechiah felt in his own throat an unanticipated softening between the commanding, Take your son! and the appeasing, By my own self, I swear. O! the wisdom of (God’s) vocal chords! Berechiah’s anger turned to wonder: One takes an oath to re-balance a relationship, to assure repayment, or to right a wrong. Excitement rose. The Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah had returned! He rose from his surrender and forced the commanding God to swear an oath of allegiance to the future generations of Isaac’s children!
Berechiah felt less alone in his radical thoughts when he discovered that a generation earlier, Rabbi Yohanan and one of his students had also sensed the deep story behind God’s vow. But Rabbi Berechiah directed himself beyond the insights of these few fellow travelers. He would not be content with a scholar’s joy of learning for the sake of the endless journey. Berechiah was determined to be a focused pilgrim; his eyes fixed on the holy destination of Rosh Hashanah; his offering, an Abraham whose moment of surrender was bound to a moment of strength, binding God to swear an oath.
That year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Berechiah himself read the final Torah verse—that verse with its minor irritation that he had thought quite distant from any story of moral action. But now, he understood that this most ancient holiday reading strengthened the most recent, just as the most recent gave meaning to the most ancient.
In the seventh [shevi’i]month, on the first day of the month, Rabbi Berechiah taught, should be read, In the month of the oath [shevu’a], the month of the binding of God; the month in which Abraham moved beyond his surrender to become the defender of his children’s children. It is the month in which the apologetic God said, I swear [nish’bati].
It was the oath [shevu’a], that named the season—the month of the oath—a yearly reminder to Isaac’s children and to God that this would be a time during which our to be mindful of the human capacities for both surrender and empowerment, forever.