By Israel Drazin
Most sermons teach proper behavior, but when examined carefully, there are elements in them that frequently seem irrational and untrue. Their messages may be good but, among other problems, the verses used to support the messages may not say what the clerics say they say to support their messages. Let’s examine a sermon based on Genesis 22:13, which literally states “Abraham looked up and behold behind him another ram was caught in the thicket by its horns.”
Chapter 22 is recited every morning as part of the Jewish morning service. It is also read as the day’s Torah reading on the New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah. It tells the tale of Abraham hearing God instruct him to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him in a place that God will show him. Abraham obeys, takes Isaac on a three-day journey to a mountain, is about to slaughter Isaac, when an angel appears and tells him to stop; this was just a test to see if Abraham will obey God. It is at this point that Abraham spots “another ram,” which he sacrifices in place of his son.
Rationalists, like Maimonides, didn’t take this story literally. God has no need to test people and wouldn’t make people think God wanted them to murder their sons. They see this story reflecting Abraham’s inner struggle, while awake or in a dream. Abraham was considering the culture around him where people piously but over-zealously showed their love of God by giving God their son. Abraham at first thought this was God’s will, but shortly realized that sacrificing a son was wrong.
Whether one chooses to believe the event actually occurred or not, the phrase “another ram” is curious. If the ram caught in the thicket was another ram, where was the first one? This is the only ram in the story.
The Hebrew word for “another” is achier. In Hebrew letters it is a-ch-r. The last letter is a reish, which is identical to the Hebrew letter daled, although the top of the daled extends a little to the right. Some scholars think that a scribe mistook the daled for a reish and the original word was echad, “one”: in context the verse would say, Abraham looked and saw “a ram” caught in the thicket. This would make sense. But is this what happened: our text has an error?
Here comes the sermon. It is in the book called Kli Yakar by Shlomo Ephraim (c. 1550-1619) who was chief rabbi of Prague.
Certainly our text is correct. The first ram is the Jew who does wrong. When this Jew atones for his wrongful act, God takes the “other ram” whose horns are caught in the thicket in his place. What does taking the other ram in his place mean? It refers to the blowing of the ram’s horn during Rosh Hashanah; the blowing of the ram’s horn prompts people to repent and their misdeeds are erased.
There are many problems with this sermon. It seems to reflect the Christian belief that someone or something else can wipe out misdeeds that people commit: “Jesus died for your sins.” It also seems to be based on a notion that if a person prays or has good thoughts, the prayers or thoughts will remove past misdeeds. I can steal and not return the theft, but if I repent, I am absolved. More significantly, it should be obvious that Exodus 22 is not speaking about improperly-acting descendants of Abraham or the blowing of a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah.
Maimonides (1138-1204) taught in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, that repentance requires sensible remedial actions. Individuals who make mistakes must recognize their errors, decide not to repeat them, assure they will not repeat them, and right the wrong. Thieves must repay what they stole. Abusers must seek out the abused and ask the person, not God, to forgive them.
In his essay in Chelek, Maimonides wrote that people who accept homelitical sermons, such as Midrashim, literally, are fools (his word, not mine). Midrashim are parables that dress up a truth, often in a fanciful bizarre manner, to capture the listener’s attention. People should focus on the message, not on how it is presented. Seen in this way, Kli Yakar is saying: use the various prayers, other holiday readings, and practices such as the blowing of the ram’s horn to stimulate you to rectify wrongs committed.
What about the use of “another ram”? Is there another approach one can take than saying the Torah text is in error or developing a sermon about it? I suggest that “another ram” is a poetic way of saying: Isaac was about to be sacrificed as a ram upon the altar Abraham built, but now Abraham found “another ram,” a replacement for Isaac.