The Shofar II
In last week’s article, “The Shofar”, we were left with one unanswered question: What is significant about the ram being caught in the thicket, “by its horns”? The Torah does not record superfluous information. Why was this enacted by G-d? Let us review.
Abraham was instructed to sacrifice his son Isaac. Subsequently, he was commanded not to do so, and saw a ram caught in the bushes:
(Gen. 22:13) “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, he saw a ram, after it was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a completely burned sacrifice in place of his son.”
Why did Abraham feel he was to offer the ram “in place” of Isaac? This was not requested of him. Sforno suggests that Abraham understood the presence of the ram as an indication that it was to be sacrificed - a replacement for Isaac. It appears from Sforno, that G-d wished Abraham to “replace” his initial sacrifice of Isaac. It also appears from Sforno that Abraham wished to fulfill the perfect act of sacrifice to G-d, although subsequently he had been instructed not to kill Isaac. Yet, Abraham wished to adhere to G-d. Therefore, G-d prepared this ram to enable Abraham’s desire to be actualized. Ethics of the Fathers 5:6 teaches that this ram was one of the ten miracles created at sunset on the sixth day of creation. This clearly teaches that G-d intended this ram to be offered. Why was it so essential that Abraham offer this ram?
Abraham’s Two Perfections
Last week we mentioned the following, insightful answer offered by my close friend Shaya Mann: Abraham was not “relieved” when subsequently, he was commanded not to slaughter his precious Isaac. The sacrifice of the ram displays a subtle, yet important lesson about Abraham: Abraham did not remove his attention from G-d, once ‘he had his son back’. Only someone on a lesser level of perfection would suddenly be overcome with joy that his son will remain alive with him, and then indulge that emotion with no attention directed elsewhere. But Abraham’s perfection didn’t allow any diversion from the entire purpose of the binding of Isaac. Although commanded not to kill Isaac, Abraham’s attention was still completely bound up with G-d. This is where Abraham’s energies were before the sacrifice, and even afterwards, when his only son was spared. Offering the ram teaches us that Abraham never removed his thoughts from G-d, even at such a moment when others would certainly indulge in such joy. Abraham did not rejoice in Isaac’s life, more than he rejoiced in obeying G-d. The ram teaches this. Abraham remained steadfast with G-d. Abraham’s perfection was twofold; 1) he was not reluctant to obey G-d, even at the cost of losing his beloved, only Isaac, and 2) nothing surpassed Abraham’s attachment to G-d.
The very fact that Abraham was not commanded to sacrifice this ram, but did so of his own desire, demonstrates his perfection.
One might ask, “is there not the rabbinical dictum, ‘Greater is one who is commanded and performs, than one who is not commanded?” Based on this principle, Abraham would be more perfected, had G-d commanded him to offer the ram!
A Rabbi once taught, one is more perfected when commanded and acts, as he overcomes the resistance to the “command”. Being commanded in a matter, man has a tendency to rebel. Overcoming the rebellious emotion displays one’s higher state. But what about our case, where a command did not apply, i.e., Abraham was not commanded to offer the ram? In such a case, we must compare what the actual possibilities were; either, Abraham offers the ram of his own desire, or he does not. Clearly, Abraham’s act of offering the ram is greater than inactivity. The Talmudic dictum applies only when a command is applicable. Now, let’s return to the main issue, the significance of the ram.
In reviewing the verses, we note something quite interesting: After Abraham offered the ram, he was addressed a second time by the angel:
(Gen. 22:13-18) “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, he saw a ram, after it was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a completely burned sacrifice in place of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place ‘G-d Appears’, as he said, ‘on this day on the mountain, G-d appeared.’ And the angel of G-d called to Abraham a second time from the heavens. And he said, ‘by Me I swear, says G-d, on account that you have done this thing, and you have not withheld your son, your only. Behold I will certainly bless you and greatly multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore and your seed will inherit the gates of your enemies. And all nations will bless your seed, on account that you listened to My voice.”
But in Genesis 22:12, Abraham was already praised for not withholding Isaac! Why the repetition? Klay Yakar states that there were actually two acts o perfection, 1)”on account that you have done this thing”, and 2) “and you have not withheld your son.” Besides not withholding Isaac, Abraham did one other thing: I believe this refers to the ram offering. This is fully supported by the second, angelic address occurring immediately after Abraham offered the ram. Through the Torah’s method of teaching that this second address occurred on the heels of the ram offering, the Torah calls our attention to this offering. It was an act of perfection. It warranted an additional blessing for Abraham. I feel this substantiates my friend’s insight. Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram was of great importance, as we said, G-d prepared this ram during the six days of creation. It was of utmost importance that Abraham had this opportunity, and that we witness Abraham’s perfection in our Torah.
We also learn that Abraham’s perfection was not simply his one time sacrifice of Isaac. The ram offering displays his sustained devotion to G-d. Both acts, Isaac and the ram, reveal his inner perfection. The Rabbis teach that Abraham would not have been subjected to this trial, had G-d known he would fail. This teaches that G-d helped Abraham actualize his perfection, which was already present.
The Ram Caught in the Thicket
What is significant about the ram being caught in the thicket, “by its horns”? Perhaps such a phenomenon is unlikely. A ram has its horns to the rear of its head. They are used solely for bucking, and are not engaged when eating the vegetation of a bush. There is virtually no way for the ram to get its horns caught, as they are behind its head, and its mouth is the only thing that comes close to the thicket. Animals are quite agile, and accurately sense their range of safety. Being caught by its horns would not happen. But here it did. Why? Answer: it was divinely intended. Again, why?
Two possible explanations come to mind: 1) Perhaps Abraham saw this oddity, and concluded there was divine intent for his sacrifice of this animal. 2) The Torah records this to underline for us - not Abraham, as he did not have a Torah - so we may understand G-d’s intent that this ram offering by Abraham was intended by G-d. The Rabbis deduced such, that G-d created this ram during Creation. This teaching causes us to focus, not just on the attempted sacrifice of Abraham’s son, but also on the steadfast and unceasing attachment Abraham had to G-d and His command. Abraham would not remove his attention from G-d, even though others would be tremendously relieved to have their child safe.
Shofar, the ram’s horn, is taken from this ram sacrifice of Abraham, and incorporated into our Rosh Hashanna prayers. We are to be as devoted to G-d as was Abraham, even AFTER the return of Isaac. Shofar imbues us with a call for a double-edged perfection; 1) sacrifice in the face of adversity (binding of Isaac), and 2) devotion to G-d while in the best state (having Isaac returned).
Sinai and the Messianic Era
We must now recognize one more area, which deals with shofar. I refer to our most familiar blessing of our daily Tefilah (prayer) of “Tika b’Shofar Gadol “, “Blow with a Great shofar”. In this prayer, we anticipate the forecast made in Isaiah 27:13:
“And on that day, there will sound a great shofar, and there will come all those lost in the land of Ashure, and those cast away in the land of Egypt, and they will prostrate themselves to G-d in His holy mountain in Jerusalem.”
What does shofar have to do with the ingathering? Metsudas Dovid mentions that “holy mountain” refers to Mount Moriah, where Abraham offered Isaac. Interesting.
In Otzar HaTefilos, on the phrase “Tikah B’Shofar Gadol” (weekday shacharis) the Iyun Tefilah says as follows:
“And the matter of ‘great’ (shofar) was explained by the Rabbis at the end of chapter 31 in the chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, ‘There were two ram’s horn shofars, with the left (one) G-d blew on Mount Sinai, and the right horn is greater than the left, and in the future, G-d will blow with it, in the ultimate future, to gather the exiles.”
Why is the right horn greater? What is greater about ingathering the exiles, than Mount Sinai? This is apparently the lesson of the right horn being “greater”, that the future ingathering is incomparable to Sinai, in some aspect. We also learn that there is some commonality between the two shofars, as both come from one ram - the “left and right” horns indicate this. What’s the connection between Sinai and the Messianic era?
What does shofar have to do with the ingathering? Quoting Rabbi Reuven Mann, “Why is the event of the Messiah part of Maimonides’ 13 Principles? These principles deal with our understanding of G-d. How is the Messiah equivalent to ideas such as the existence, unity, or non-physical nature of G-d, commencing the 13 Principles?” Rabbi Mann answered, “This event marks the fulfillment of G-d’s promise - the ultimate state of perfection for mankind. Messiah is the culmination of G-d’s system for man, coming to its pinnacle of perfection through the validation of G-d’s word. G-d is absolute truth.” (Paraphrased) This Messianic event is the last “piece of the puzzle.” It displays G-d’s perfection that His words do not ‘fall to the ground’. We gain the ultimate appreciation for G-d via the Messiah and the ingathering of the exiles. Long since unfulfilled, man will comprehend the absolute and complete truth of G-d’s word, when His ancient oath is actualized.
Sinai is eclipsed by the Messianic era. Although Sinai gave man indisputable proof of G-d, the Messiah’s arrival and the ingathering, are the completion of the Torah system, only commenced at Sinai. Thus, the Rabbis teach that the horn, the shofar, blown in the future ingathering, is the “right” horn, the greater horn. It is a far greater event, in terms of our recognition of the truth of Torah, via the fulfillment of the Messianic promise.
This now explains what the common thread is between Sinai and the Messianic era: Sinai was the commencement of the system of Torah, and the Messianic era is its completion. Both partake of one theme - the formation of Torah - and are therefore described by the Rabbis as two horns from the same ram. They are the two greatest elements in the formation of the Torah system; Sinai is the guidebook, and the Messianic era is the final circumstance required for man’s perfect fulfillment of the guidebook’s laws.
Once messiah arrives, all will prostrate to G-d at His Holy Mountain, as stated by Isaiah. Why? Since Mt. Moriah’s distinction is derived from the binding of Isaac, it embodies the perfection in man (Abraham) that all is rightfully sacrificed in the fulfillment of G-d’s word. In the era of the Messiah, this will be clearly understood, and enacted by all peoples. Messiah will teach with lucid insight, why service of G-d is to be man’s primary focus, where all else is inconsequential. Man will arrive at this knowledge, and will demonstrate this by prostrating at G-d’s mountain.
Again we see that Rosh Hashanna incorporates the shofar in perfectly sound reason: it hearkens back to Abraham’s perfection in service to G-d, and it anticipates our greatest state of recognizing G-d’s perfection and ultimate reality and truth, via His fulfillment of His word.