COMMENTARY: Anticipating _ with some fear and trembling _ the High Holy Days

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts on Wednesday evening (Oct. 1) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown the following Friday (Oct. 10) and concludes the next evening.

These two solemn events are the High Holy Days, the most sacred period of the entire year for the Jewish people.

I always look forward to the High Holy Days because they are a time of personal introspection, spiritual renewal, and family reunion.

But I also know the most frightening story of the Bible will be read in synagogues during Rosh Hashanah. It is the chilling Genesis narrative vividly describing how Abraham was willing to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God.

The story was troubling when I first heard it as a child. It grew more disturbing when I became a father.

The traditional interpretation explaining why this excruciating story is included in the joyful New Year's service has never satisfied me. For centuries Jews have been taught that Abraham always knew he would never have to actually kill his son on the altar. It was, as the saying goes, only a test.

Instead, a lamb was offered in Isaac's place and to commemorate that unique moment in Jewish history a ram's horn, or Shofar, is blown during Rosh Hashanah. The Shofar's piercing sound in the synagogue is a wake-up call to an ethically slumbering congregation.

Of course, that interpretation conveniently avoids the extraordinary questions raised by the story. What kind of God demands _ or needs _ the sacrifice of a child? And what kind of parental love does Abraham exhibit by his willingness to cut his beloved son's throat with a knife? Why must any person, especially someone as faithful as Abraham, choose between love of God and love of child?

In addition, the terse, brilliantly written biblical narrative does not reveal what Isaac's mother, Sarah, was thinking when her husband took her only son away for a potentially deadly religious ritual. Sarah is especially poignant because she was barren for so many years before giving birth to her son. Her views on whether Isaac should be sacrificed are forever mute.

And what of poor Isaac? The Bible gives him short shrift, too. He appears docile and fully trusting of his father. He fully obeys Abraham and allows himself to become bound with ropes upon a sacrificial altar.

Surely the little boy must have been suspicious and terrified when his father first tied him up and then drew the knife for slaughter. But we can only speculate because the only significant conversation is between the totally faithful Abraham and God's messenger, whose voice of reprieve is heard at the last possible moment, just as Abraham is about to plunge the knife into Isaac.

The messenger tells Abraham that because of his faithfulness, he and the Hebrew people will be blessed by God and will become as numerous as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea.

But if that was God's intention from the beginning, why the need for an ordeal that must have traumatized the young boy and compelled his father to make a dreadful choice. The Bible does not offer us an answer and we are left to examine that awesome question ourselves.

The profound issues raised by the binding of Isaac have actively engaged some of the world's greatest minds, including the Danish Lutheran theologian Soren Kierkegaard.

He saw the Abraham-Isaac-God encounter as an example of the existential human condition in which we are constantly tested, constantly brought to a state of fear and trembling, and constantly on the verge of personal and collective destruction.

Nor is speculation limited to theologians. Scott Turow's latest best seller,"The Laws of Our Fathers"(Warner), is directly linked to the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice. At the close of this superb novel, the main character, speaking at his father's funeral and desperately seeking reconciliation with his deceased parent, clearly realizes we are all inextricably linked to our fathers:"We tell it (the Isaac story) by way of apology. And warning ... we have all been the child, we have all been Isaac ... he (Isaac) did as his father required ... the son of a man with a Big Idea who ... could only look to his father with that eternal if foundering hope for love." I will be thinking of Turow and Kierkegaard on Rosh Hashanah when the shattering and forever ambiguous story of Abraham and Isaac will once again be read.