by R. Eliyahu Safran
Reflections Based on Teachings of Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran ZT’L
Few moments in Torah have had as deep an impact on our psyches as the moment when Avraham Avinu is called upon by God to sacrifice the son he had waited long into advanced age to father. There is no way to diminish the awesomeness of Avraham’s willingness to pass the ultimate nisayon God places before him – to stand ready to do the will of God and sacrifice his son, his only son, the son whom he loved.
There was no justification for Avraham to take Yitzchak’s life other than his unquestioned obedience to God. As the Abarbanel states, this parasha epitomizes the Jew’s determination to serve God no matter how difficult the circumstances. Indeed, serving God is the reason for Am Yisrael’s existence, then and now! But what kind of service is this, for a man to sacrifice his son? Would our benevolent God ask such a thing? No. A test was asked of Avraham, not a sacrifice. Our God desires no human sacrifice, ever. So that when it is clear that Avraham will pass this test, God calls out to him, Al tishlach yadecha el ha’naar [Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him], ki atah ya’daati [for now I know that you are a God-fearing man…]
God is satisfied. But what about Avraham Avinu? He no doubt fully understood that this moment was not merely a private moment between one man and God. In this test was a test for all generations to come, for Am Yisrael. At the core of his being he knew that the Akedah would be fundamental to Jewish faith and belief. Indeed, as we stand humbly in prayer on the holiest days of the year, we beseech God with tears and supplications, v’Akeidat Yitzchak lanu hayom b’rachamim tizkor. On Rosh Hashanah, when our unworthiness is most present in our minds, we ask God to mercifully recall the momentous occasion of the Akedah, not of our personal worth or triumph but as proof of our collective faith and trust in God; when Avraham’s readiness to give his greatest gift, his one and only, beloved son Yitzchak, demonstrated for all time the faith of the Jewish people. We beseech God that the Akedah might stand for all of us for all time. This is the reason the Akedah is the focal point of the Zichronot shofar calls.
God stops Avraham.
In the ensuing unbearable stillness, what then? What could follow the ultimate tension of that moment? To simply untie Yitzchak, repack the donkeys and walk away from that place? To breathe a sigh of relief. To whisper to himself, “No harm, no foul”?
What could possibly happen next?
The Torah reports (Bereishit 22:13) that, Vayisa Avraham et einav…ve-hinei ayil ahar ne’ehaz ba-sevakh be-karav [And Avraham raised his eyes and saw a ram, caught in the thicket] Abraham then, promptly, “…went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son.”
Ve-hinei ayil ahar. On this critical phrase, that Avraham “raised his eyes” and saw that a ram was caught in the thicket, Onkelos astonishingly translates, “Avraham raised his eyes after these and saw that one ram was caught in the thicket.”
What kind of translation is this? And what insight does it add to our understanding of these amazing events?
R’ Yisrael Antonier asked my grandfather (Shu’t R’Baz Choshen Mishpat 38) HaGaon Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran ZTL to please explain to him Onkelos’ strange translation [de’zakaf Avraham yat einuei batar alein v’chaza v’ha dichra chada], which seems to show that instead of ahar, Onkelos reads echad in the text, which, among other things would render the phrase batar alein (after these) superfluous.
The posuk reads, ayil ahar yet Onkelos translates it as dichra achid, one ram!
My grandfather did respond, and in his response, I believe illuminated the critical point that the Akedah was an event that extends far beyond the personal faith of Avraham Avinu. The Akedah stands at the core of Jewish existence for all times. My grandfather tells R’ Antonier that in his translation Onkelos had in mind that which is stated in Yerushalmi Ta’anit (2:4) and in Bereishit Rabah (56:13): “And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold another (ahar) ram.
What does the use of ahar mean here? There was no other ram there, my grandfather explains, so why it is referred to as “another” ram? Said Rav Yudan: ‘After (ahar) all the generations, your sons will be caught up in sin and be ensnared by troubles (b’tzarot), but they will ultimately be redeemed by the horns of this ram, as the Navi Zechariah (9:14) proclaims, “…the Lord God shall sound the ram’s horn…” ‘Rav Hanina bar Rav Yitzchak said: That entire day, our father Avraham watched that ram get stuck in one thicket, extricate itself and go free, get stuck in a tree, extricate itself and go free’ and my grandfather elaborates, explaining that it should have said that it was caught by its horns; since it says, “…caught in a thicket by its horns” they derive that it constantly extricated itself and went free. “The Holy One said to him [Avraham], ‘So will your children be caught by their sins and ensnared by kingdoms from Babylonia to Media, from Media to Greece, and from Greece to Rome. He [Avraham] said to him [God], ‘Will it be like this forever?’ God replied, ‘They will ultimately be redeemed by the horns of this ram, as Zechariah (9:14) proclaims: “The Lord God shall sound the ram’s horn…” (My grandfather notes that so it is also stated in the targum of Yonatan ben Uziel)
My grandfather concludes that based on all this, Onkelos’ translation ahar as “after these” makes perfect sense, for Onkelos was alluding to all of these trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of the Jewish experience. Likewise, his translation of “one ram” works out, because there was only one ram there, and no second.
My grandfather interprets Onkelos based on the cited Midrash that at that critical moment when it was crystal clear that God was not seeking the sacrifice of Yitzchak, Avraham saw the future of his children caught in so many thickets throughout their history and galus, but this ram will have a critical role to play after the unfolding of the many and varied historical events we encounter and experience as we await the ultimate geula.
For that and more we blow the “ram’s horn” on Rosh Hashana reminding God, as it were, of His response to Avraham v’sofan l’hi’gael b’karnav shel ayil zeh – They will ultimately be redeemed by the horns of this ram…
So it is that we eagerly await the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, The Lord God shall sound the ram’s horn…”