Rosh Hashanah: A Day of Tensions

It stirs up repentance and reflection—not answers.

by Liz Goldstein | August 25 2021

Is Rosh Hashanah really the beginning of anything? It’s on Rosh Hashanah that the books are opened, rather than closed. They remain open until Yom Kippur, and whether our names are written in the Book of Life isn’t resolved until that day. Rosh Hashanah is the new year, and yet the Torah scroll isn’t rolled back until Simcha Torah, at the end of Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah doesn’t even take place in the first month of the Hebrew calendar, but on the seventh.

Rosh Hashanah had a late start in taking its place in Jewish life and stirs up repentance and reflection—not answers.

In the Torah, Passover in the spring is the start of the Jewish year. Different Jewish sources ranging from archeology to anthropology to the Talmud all cite different reasons for why the start of the year in Jewish tradition was moved to the fall. Not unlike Abraham, the biblical patriarch it celebrates, Rosh Hashanah had a late start in taking its place in Jewish life and stirs up repentance and reflection—not answers.

The Tensions in the Akedah

The traditional text for Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 22, at the Akedah, contains many tensions itself. Abraham has waited most of his life to have his son Isaac. God promised this son would be given to him, and God fulfilled his promise.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. (Genesis 22:1–4)

As quickly as the story is set, it moves even more rapidly to the climax: Abraham leaves his servants; Isaac asks about the missing sacrifice; they get to the mountaintop; the two prepare the altar for sacrifice; and Abraham binds his son.

The Lord calls out as Abraham lifts the knife. He stops the sacrifice and has them offer the ram in Isaac’s place. Abraham lifts his eyes. God offers His promise and blessing to Abraham yet again. Abraham’s faith and trust in God grows.

But what about Isaac? I’ve always been intrigued by Isaac. And now I wonder how much this event impacted him and how he interpreted these events. Did Isaac see God as the savior of his life and marvel at the provision of the ram? Or was he profoundly angry? Hurt? Confused? Betrayed? In the same way that the text is silent on Abraham’s thoughts at the beginning of this account, it is silent on Isaac’s thoughts at the end.

And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,  because Abraham obeyed my voice.

We can fast forward through Isaac’s life, which is easy to do because nothing is recorded from this event until he’s 40 years old, which is when he marries Rebekah. And then some time passes before the twins are born (Jacob and Esau). It’s here that we pick up Genesis 26.

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech, king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,  because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” So Isaac settled in Gerar. (Genesis 26:1–6)

God speaks to Isaac at this time. He appears to Isaac and passes the blessing to him that He had given to his father, Abraham. And Isaac receives it. Isaac follows the instructions that are given. From this point, we see Isaac transmitting the faith of his father to his own children. Though he grew up as the son of the father of our faith, to me, this story reveals that he didn’t develop faith in God until he was in his 40s. Just like Rosh Hashanah itself, Isaac was late to arrive. His story is one of tension, of finding faith after a long inner journey to get there.

Faith is filled with tensions.

The formation of faith isn’t the same process for everyone. To list the different ways that a life of faith develops is to tell a billion stories. In the New Covenant Scriptures, we’re told that faith is a gift from God. I find that to be a relief—it’s not up to me to muster a feeling towards God. Throughout the Bible—the Hebrew and New Covenant Scriptures—God intervenes and makes Himself known. He reaches out to us for a relationship with Him. In the New Covenant, this relationship comes as a new beginning and takes place with the entrance of Yeshua to the story. His life and death and return to life restore the relationship with God for those who believe.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah this year and wrestle with questions about new life and new beginnings, we may find tension. But we do this in the context of community—working out these tensions and new beginnings together.