In this essay, we shall note numerous unusual features of the Keriat Hatorah for Rosh Hashana. We then shall postulate that the function of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana differs fundamentally from the function of the Torah readings for other Yamim Tovim. This, in turn, will enrich our comprehension and appreciation of what we seek to accomplish with both our Tefillot and Keriat Hatorah on Rosh Hashana. This essay is an expansion and variation of a Shiur on this topic written by Rav Yitzchak Et-Shalom of Los Angeles that appears on http://www.torah.org/advanced/mikra. My thanks to my Talmidim at Torah Academy of Bergen County and the congregants at the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck for their contributions to the thoughts presented in this essay.
The Unusual Features of the Keriat Hatorah for Rosh Hashana
The Gemara (Megillah 31a) states:
On Shavuot we read the Parsha that includes “Shiva Shavuot” (Devarim 15:8-12) and we read the Haftara from Chabbakuk. Others say that we read “Bachodesh Hashlishi” (Shemot Chapters 19-20) and recite the Haftara from the Merkava (Yechezkel Chapter One). Today, when we observe two days of Yom Tov, we accommodate both opinions (and follow the first opinion on the second day and the second opinion on the first day). The opposite occurs with the Torah reading of Rosh Hashana. One opinion asserts that we read from the Parsha of the Musaf of Rosh Hashana (Bemidbar 29:1-6) and the Haftara is “Haben Yakir Li Efraim” (Yirmiyahu Chapter 31). The second opinion believes that we read “VaHashem Pakad Et Sarah” (Sarah Imeinu’s conception and giving birth to Yitzchak Avinu, Bereshit Perek 21) and the Haftara is from the story of Chana’s conception and giving birth to Shemuel Hanavi. Today when we observe two days of Rosh Hashana, on the first day we read the story of Sarah Imeinu’s conception and giving birth to Yitzchak Avinu, and on the second day we read the story of Akeidat Yitzchak (Bereshit Perek 22).
The Gemara highlights the difference in resolving the dispute regarding the appropriate Keriah for Shavuot and Rosh Hashana. On Shavuot, we accommodate both opinions, whereas on Rosh Hashana we do not. The reason for this might be that the function of Torah reading on Rosh Hashana differs fundamentally from the purpose of the reading of Shavuot, and indeed, of every other Yom Tov.
A careful examination of Rashi’s comments on this Sugya (section of the Gemara) seems to point to the same conclusion. Rashi (s.v. Umaftirin) offers explanations for why we read the stories of Chana and Akeidat Yitzchak on Rosh Hashana. We read about Chana, Rashi explains, because Chana conceived on Rosh Hashana, and we read about Akeidat Yitzchak so that this story be brought to Hashem’s attention on the day that He judges us.
Two questions emerge from this comment of Rashi. First, why does Rashi not offer an explanation for why we read of Sarah’s conception? The Ran (commentary to the Rif, 10b s.v. Berosh Hashana Biyom) explains that Sarah also conceived on Rosh Hashana (see Rosh Hashana 11a), and thus that section should be read on this day. Why does Rashi not mention this? The fact that Rashi mentions Chana’s conceiving on Rosh Hashana but does not mention Sarah’s leads us to conclude that Rashi did not concur with the Ran. Rather, Rashi seems to believe that there is a different reason for the reading of Sarah’s conception on Rosh Hashana.
Another question can be raised on Rashi’s explanation for why we read the Akeida episode. The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 13:8) states the function of the Torah reading on Yom Tov: “On Yom Tov we interrupt the regular cycle of the weekly Torah readings and we read about the holidays.” This fits with the enactment of Moshe Rabbeinu (recorded in Megillah 32a) that we should study relevant matters of the holiday on each holiday: the laws of Pesach on Pesach, the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot, etc. Accordingly, why do we read the Akeidat Yitzchak drama on Rosh Hashana if it does not describe and characterize the holiday of Rosh Hashana? Where else do we find that the Keriat Hatorah constitutes either an expression of Tefillah or supplement to Tefillah?
Incidentally, we should note that the Ran in his commentary to the Rif seems to be aware of this difficulty, and explains that the reading of the Akeida is intended to explain our practice of blowing specifically a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana (see Rosh Hashana 16a). Rashi, though, does not state what the Ran writes, and we must contemplate the reason for this.
Finally, we should question the relevance of the Avraham-Avimelech well story (recorded in the second half of chapter twenty one of Bereshit) to Rosh Hashana? Indeed, the narration of the conception and birth of Yitzchak occupies twenty-one Pesukim, which suffices for even seven Aliyot when the first day of Rosh Hashana occurs on Shabbat. There does not appear to be any procedural need to read more in the Torah than of the conception and birth of Yitzchak on the first day of Rosh Hashana. How does this Avimelech story fit into the themes of Rosh Hashana?
The Unique Function of the Torah Reading of Rosh Hashana
All of these questions point to the conclusion that the purpose of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana fundamentally differs from the purpose of the Torah readings for the other Yamim Tovim. On every other Yom Tov, the purpose of the Torah reading is to read about a relevant theme of that Yom Tov. However, it seems that the purpose of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashana is to supplement our Tefillot to Hashem on this awesome day.
According to this approach, we read the story of Sarah Imeinu conceiving not because this event occurred on Rosh Hashana. Rather, we read it because it is part of the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak.
The Rambam in Moreh Hanevuchim (3:24) describes the lessons of Akeidat Yitzchak. The first lesson, he writes, is to demonstrate the profundity of Avraham’s commitment to Hashem. Hashem demanded the most difficult sacrifice that He could demand from any human being.
“A childless man who profoundly desired to have children to create a new nation who finally has a child after having given up hope of having a child has unbounded love and attachment to his child. Despite all this, Avraham’s love and fear of Hashem outweighed his attachment to his child.”
The Radak (Bereshit 22:1) articulates an approach similar to that of the Rambam. This is not surprising, as the Radak was heavily influenced by the Rambam’s philosophy.
It is necessary to read the story of the conception and birth of Yitzchak to fully grasp the depth of the feelings that Avraham Avinu had for his son. For example, Avraham Avinu consented to Hashem’s order to free Yishmael and Hagar in order to insure Yitzchak’s status as his sole spiritual successor (see Rav Elchanan Samet’s Iyunim Beparshiot Hashavua pp. 41-51), underscoring the level of commitment that Avraham Avinu had for Yitzchak. Avraham Avinu clearly loved Yishmael dearly (as is evident from the Torah and highlighted by Rashi to Bereshit 22:2 s.v. Et Bincha), and yet he “sacrificed” (i.e. freed) Yishmael for Yitzchak’s benefit.
The Avraham-Avimelech well story places the hopes and dreams that Avraham Avinu had for Yitzchak Avinu in perspective. Rav Yitzchak Et-Shalom notes that Avraham makes a treaty with Avimelech that applies to their respective children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Avraham seems to assume at this point that his future is assured. This emotion is expressed in Tehillim 30:7: “I thought in good times, that I should never fall.” For other connections between the Avimelech story and Akeidat Yitzchak, see Rashbam (Bereshit 22:1) and Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s essay on this topic (Megadim 25:44-61). Thus, we see that the second half of chapter twenty-one is also highly relevant to the Akeidat Yitzchak episode (especially to the aspect of the story that we seek to highlight on Rosh Hashana).
The importance of highlighting the depth of the challenge of Akeidat Yitzchak to Avraham Avinu lies in the message we seek to communicate to Hashem on Rosh Hashana. Many recite the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak in Tefillah every day in Shacharit, prefacing the recitation with a plea to Hashem that just as Avraham Avinu overcame his profound love for Yitzchak Avinu at the Akeida, so too should Hashem overcome His anger towards us and treat us with mercy. It is possible that this is what we seek to communicate to Hashem on Rosh Hashana with our Keriat Hatorah. We seek to magnify the depth of the commitment of Avraham Avinu during the Akeida incident in the hope that Hashem will, in turn, increase the depth of the mercy that He will extend to us, in His judgment of us on this awesome day.
Another objective of the reading of the Akeida might be to awaken us to perform Teshuva on this Day of Judgment (similar to the role of the Shofar as explained by the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva 3:4). The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 331) writes that the story of Akeidat Yitzchak should stir us to emulate the level of commitment that Avraham Avinu expressed to Hashem during that episode. Such positive thoughts might influence Hashem to judge us on the basis of the Mitzvot that He anticipates that we will do based on the inspiration we draw from Avraham Avinu.
Yet another lesson of the Torah readings for Rosh Hashana (which I also believe can be read into the words of Rashi) is that just as Avraham Avinu accepted the judgment of Hashem to expel Yishmael and sacrifice Yitzchak, we also should accept whatever judgment Hashem metes out for us on this Day of Judgment.
We see that the Torah readings for Rosh Hashana differ in a fundamental way from the Torah readings of every other Yom Tov. On Rosh Hashana, the readings are part of our Tefillot to Hashem. They also enhance the depth of our experience of Rosh Hashana.
Mr. Richard Schulz of Teaneck, New Jersey has suggested another reason for our Torah reading on Rosh Hashana. He notes that the written Torah explicitly refers to Rosh Hashana only as the Yom Terua (the day of sounding the Shofar). The Torah Shebe’al Peh (the Oral Law) teaches that Rosh Hashana is also the Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. The Torah reading on Rosh Hashana thus emphasizes the judgment aspect of this holiday. Similarly, the Torah reading for Shavuot emphasizes Shavuot as the celebration of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), an idea that is not explicit in the Torah Shebichtav (Written Law).
One might add (I do not recall the source of this idea) that this is another reason why on Rosh Hashana we read of the banishment of Yishmael in addition to the pact between Avraham Avinu and Avimelech. Hashem judges (in accordance with Sarah Imeinu) that Yishmael must be banished (note that in Bereshit 16:5, in the context of Sarah Imeinu’s struggle with Hagar, Sarah says that Hashem should judge between her and Avraham). In addition, both Avraham Avinu and Avimelech judge and rebuke each other for their respective inactions regarding Avraham’s water wells. In the end, they make peace with each other, a theme that is certainly in keeping with the Torah Shebe’al Peh themes of Rosh Hashana and the Aseret Yemei Teshuva.
Our Torah readings on Rosh Hashana are an application of the principle that we find in the Gemara (for example, Rosh Hashana 19a) that “Divrei Soferim Tzerichim Chizuk,” that one must strengthen and emphasize the Torah Shebe’al Peh.