The Akeidah

The Akeidah is our first Torah reading during Shaḥrit services but the second Torah reading of the morning.  The Blessings Over the Torah, said at home during our early morning prayers, officially begins our daily Torah study and also sets the expectation that we will continue in further Torah study throughout the day.  Since it is essential to directly connect an activity with the blessing for that activity, we immediately follow The Blessings Over the Torah with a Torah reading (the Birkat HaCohanim) followed by commentaries from both Mishna and Gemara.

The Akeidah, also known as the Binding of Yitz’ḥak, hinged on Yitz’ḥak’s willingness to allow his elderly father to sacrifice him on the altar built on Har HaBayit (Mount Moriah).  Yitz’ḥak was a man in his 30’s at that time yet all indications are that he freely gave his cooperation.  He understood and embraced the singular purpose given him; Yitz’ḥak was ready to die.

The Biblical account of the Akeidah does not focus on Yitz’ḥak but on his father.  Why is our attention drawn to Avraham?  Yitz’ḥak was the heroic one – right?  Yes, but Avraham’s task was vastly different from Yitz’ḥak’s – and far more difficult to endure.

Marc Chagall

HaShem commanded Avraham to kill his son.  There may be merit in being willing to die, to sacrifice your life for others – but how do you embrace the thought of sacrificing someone you love, of killing your only child?  When HaShem called Avraham to take “your son, your only son, Yitz’ḥak, whom you love . . .” He was drawing Avraham into an agonizing act of faith, an act which could only be misunderstood and condemned by everyone he knew.

Through His harsh directive HaShem allowed Avraham a glimpse of His own agony, of the immense price He paid for eternal Israel.  Avraham was convinced his son was about to die; Mashiaḥ Ben Yosef actually dies.  To truly engage with the Akeidah is to be emotionally exhausted.

Our response, entitled “Accepting the Sovereignty of Heaven,” dates from a period of persecution during which Shabbat observance and Torah study were forbidden.  It is poignant to realize that our challenge to be consistently observant in all we do, both public and private, was written at a time when we were forced to practice our faith in secret; at a time when many instead chose Kiddush HaShem (martyrdom).  Face with the enormity of this challenge of faith, we pour out our hearts:

“What are we?  What are our lives?

What is our loving-kindness?  What is our righteousness?

What is our salvation?  What is our strength?

What is our might?  What shall we say before You,

L-rd our G-d and G-d of our ancestors?

Are not all the mighty like nothing before You,

The men of renown as if they had never been,

The wise as if they know nothing,

And the understanding as if they lack intelligence?

For their many works are in vain,

And the days of their lives like a fleeting breath before You.

The pre-eminence of man over the animals is nothing,

For all is but a fleeting breath.

“Yet we are Your people, the children of Your covenant,

the children of Avraham, Your beloved, . . .”

Notice how we plummet to abject insignificance and then abruptly soar to mighty purpose.  These sudden shifts should begin to feel familiar as we move from the Mah Tovu to the Adon Olam, Yidgal, Birkat HaShaḥar and now the Akeidah. 

As our perspective repeatedly swings between the miniscule and the infinite, from the individual to the Nation to the Ein Sof, we sense the rhythm of worship.  To those new to Judaism this may feel more jolting than rhythmic.  Yet over the months and years as we incorporate these prayers into our daily lives these seemingly incongruous perspectives somehow reconcile; we continue next with the preliminary prayers for the Sh’ma.

Seder HaKorbanot Part One

The Tamid Offering

“At that time I will bring you home, and at that time I will gather you, for I will give you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I bring back your exiles before your eyes, says the L-rd.”  With these words from Tz’fanyah 3 (Zephaniah) our focus shifts to the Seder HaKorbanot (the order of the offerings), a thumbnail sketch of the Holy Temple offerings.

The importance of the Temple offerings is highlighted by an intriguing detour; rather than launching immediately into the description of the actual offerings, we first study the preparations which lead up to them.  Reading excerpts from Yeḥezk’el (Ezekiel) and Vayikra (Leviticus), we become immersed in the sights and sounds of Temple life.

We first see the bronze basin and bronze laver.  The Kohanim (priests) wash their hands and feet when they enter the Mikdash (Tent of Meeting) and again before approaching the altar, explained simply with, “so they will not die.”  There are no minor or perfunctory duties in the Temple; each one is to be approached respectfully and diligently.

We then witness the meticulous procedure for taking the ashes from the altar.  Notice that this seemingly menial series of tasks is described as “the law of the burnt offering” and includes specific instructions for the offerings, the ashes, the fire – even what clothes are to be worn at which times.

Now, ready to consider the details of the offerings, we pause momentarily to lift our hearts and eyes heavenward,  “May it be Your will, L-rd our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that You have compassion on us and pardon us all our sins, grant atonement for all our iniquities and forgive all our transgressions.  May You rebuild the Temple swiftly in our days so that we may offer You the continual offering that it may atone for us as You have prescribed for us in Your Torah through Moses Your servant, from the mouthpiece of Your glory, as it is said: The L-rd said to Moses . . . “

Excerpts follow from BMidbar 28 (Numbers) and Vayikra 1 (Leviticus) which provide the description of the Daily Sacrifice – the Tamid offering – directly from the Torah.  Notice that Moshe is to command the Israelites to “Be careful to offer to Me at the appointed time My food-offering consumed by fire, as an aroma pleasing to Me.”  Again we see an admonition for scrupulous attention to detail.  (Imagine presenting a gift to a world leader, or to a cherished loved one – how much more fastidious we should be when presenting an offering to HaShem, L-rd of all creation!)

The offering components are described and then a seemingly minor yet immensely significant phrase precedes the recap: “This is the regular burnt-offering instituted at Mount Sinai as a pleasing aroma, a fire-offering made to the L-rd.”  Our national memory awakens; despite our centuries without the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) we remember the magnificence of the days of old – then, as our vision slowly fades, with a mixture of sadness and hope we conclude, “May it be Your will, L-rd our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that this recitation be considered accepted and favored before You as if we had offered the daily sacrifice at its appointed time and place, according to its laws.”

Comprised of two yearling lambs, together with their designated meal and wine offerings (one lamb at sunrise, the other at dusk), the Tamid is the first and last offering every day.  Preparations for the Tamid offerings begin long before sunrise; the concluding activities last long after sundown.  The yearling lambs have to be available and inspected.  The grain, oil, and wine must be ready.  The duty priests must be present, and they must know precisely how to perform each part of the sacrifice.  All this took place twice daily, week after week, year after year, century upon century.

In Judaic thought the most frequent activities are often imbued with the greatest holiness.  We are taught that it is better to give one groschen for tzedakah (charity) one hundred times, rather than one hundred groschen at one time, as the more frequent giving builds a habitual awareness of our opportunities for tzedakah.  They also teach that Shabbat, every Shabbat, is the holiest day of the year.

The Tamid is not only the foundation of the Holy Temple offerings; it is our first lesson in understanding how to view things which at first glance appear to be commonplace.  When we see the breathtaking beauty of routine holiness, measuring every moment, every choice, against His Torah, we joyously endeavor to perfect every mitzvah – even though another opportunity is already on the horizon.  Indeed, this is living a life pleasing to HaShem.

Seder HaKorbanot (Introduction)

As we conclude our Pesaḥ Seder each year we join together with the Jewish Nation, declaring, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”  In that moment we envision ourselves in the midst of this festive annual pilgrimage to our rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem, joyously sharing in the Korban Pesaḥ (roasted lamb or goat) with family, friends, and neighbors.  

Pesaḥ is a familiar picture of Temple life.  The Pesaḥ sacrifice, as described in Vayikra (Leviticus) 23, is offered by an individual on behalf of those who will join him in his household’s Pesaḥ Seder.  It is in B’Midbar (Numbers) 29, though, where we learn of the national offerings – it is these offerings which are commemorated in traditional Siddurim.  

Our connection with HaShem spans our lives both individually and nationally.  Our days are replete with opportunities for individually connecting with HaShem through both prayer and mitzvot.  As we gather in our local synagogues, though, our focus is on connecting with HaShem nationally; we pray as a nation, we commemorate the national offerings.  

Synagogues originated as “Bayit T’fillah” during the Babylonian Exile.  Without the Holy Temple for the first time in our nation’s history, our leaders, known as “the Men of the Great Assembly,” diligently studied Torah as we held onto HaShem’s promise to restore us to the Land.  In addition to the Bayit Din (judicial system using Torah as our “constitution”) and Bayit Midrash (schools for Torah study), they developed Bayit T’fillah (house(s) of prayer) in order to commemorate the Temple sacrificial services.   Their goal was two-fold:  to use the Torah as the foundational structure of our judiciary and education systems, and to preserve the details of the Temple sacrifices so we would be ready to resume them when our exile ended.

This three-fold structure sustained us during the exile and continued to provide a strong network of community after HaShem restored us to the Land.  As we gathered daily in our local Bayit T’fillah to commemorate the Temple sacrifices Jerusalem didn’t seem so far away.  Later known by the Greek word “synagogue,” they continued to provide structure throughout the nation, combatting the allure of idolatry in our communities, including even those far from Jerusalem.  

The Amida prayer is the pinnacle of each synagogue service just as the sacrifice is the pinnacle of each Holy Temple service.  Each Temple sacrifice (Shaḥrit, Musaf, Minḥa, Ma’ariv, etc.) has its own version of the Amida, the “standing prayer” which was voiced by those in attendance during the Temple sacrifice.  The design of each service is for us to ascend to and then descend from the height of the Amida. 

Consider for a moment the components of the sacrificial system:  meat, grain, wine, and incense.  Note how each component gradually guides our attention away from our ordinary daily existence, ushering our awareness toward the hidden eternal. 

Meat is the most “close to home” in that the sacrificial animals are physically similar to us – they have bodies, legs, faces; we can look into their eyes.  Grain and oil are somewhat removed from us – they are plant-based and also have less texture than meat.  Wine is poured on the altar and has even less texture than grain.  Each component is a bit less involved with the corporeal, providing opportunity to be more aware of the eternal.

Incense offerings, which happen twice daily as the menorah is cleaned every morning and lit every evening, take place solely within the Heiḥol (the front room of the Temple building).  Only the officiating Kohen sees the incense offering.  As the “hidden” offering, incense reminds us of the intimate connection we have with HaShem as His chosen people.

Traditional Siddurim include a brief study of the national sacrifices during the daily Shaḥrit service – mere gleanings of the exhaustive descriptions in Talmud – so each generation can commemorate and anticipate the national sacrifices, remaining constantly ready for the rebuilt Holy Temple.  

The Sh’ma

Therefore it is our duty to thank You, and to praise, glorify, bless, sanctify and give praise and thanks to Your name. Happy are we, how good is our portion, how lovely our fate, how beautiful our heritage. Happy are we who, early and late, evening and morning say twice each day –

שמע ישראל ײ אלהינו ײ אחד

Listen Israel: the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.
Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and all time.

Love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. These words which I command you today shall be on your heart. Teach them repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be an emblem between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.

During periods of persecution the joyful lead-in to the Sh’ma serves as a bold refutation of our perilous conditions. Our freedom to express our faith through observing the Shabbat, reciting the Sh’ma, and studying Torah is a perennial target of our oppressors; their constant goal is to separate us from the core of our faith in the One True G-d. Yet whether we live our days harassed or welcomed, we must cling to these precious foundation stones with heartfelt delight and gratitude.

“Listen Isra’el: the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.” The Sh’ma, known to the youngest child, and often the last words spoken prior to death, is the timeless affirmation of our faith.

“Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and all time.” This is spoken quietly, practically inaudibly – with the only exception during Yom Kippur when we are released to declare these words in our loudest voice. There are various teachings for this practice, all of which provide deep insights to our ancient culture.

Immediately following the Sh’ma, the v’Ahavtah begins with a mandate to love HaShem completely. The Ḥazal teaches that Avraham loved HaShem with all his heart; that Yitzḥak loved HaShem more than his own “נפש“ (soul), as demonstrated in the Akdeidah; and that Ya’akov loved HaShem “מאדך,” a word which is difficult to translate. Frequently translated into English as might, strength, or resources – the concept is “everything, and more; and still more; and then some.”

The v’Ahavtah extends the Sh’ma across generations; we are commanded to teach our children “repeatedly … when you sit at home … when you travel on the way … when you lie down … when you rise.” Surpassing mere transfer of information – this is an imperative to live so that our children grow to love HaShem.

The v’Ahavtah finishes by drawing our attention to “a sign on your hand … an emblem between your eyes … [written on] the doorposts of your house and gates.” The mitzvot of laying t’fillin and of hanging mezuzot are based on these commandments. We bring our daily lives into alignment with HaShem through repeated physical acts of obedience, and it is through His great compassion for us that He bestows us with an abundance of mitzvot.

The prayers which follow the v’Ahavtah are laser-focused on Hashem: He is our Eternal King, beyond infinity yet within every individual. We sanctify His Name and also those through whom His Name is sanctified – a reminder to guard against taking G-d’s name לשוא (casually), plus quiet homage to those who have and will defend His Name through Kiddush HaShem.

His Salvation gives us assurance that we will one day see Him known by all nations. We eagerly await the day when He redeems us from exile. We yearn to see the rebuilt Holy Temple and to once again proclaim Him to all creation as the One True G-d. We imagine preparing the daily sacrifices in the rebuilt Holy Temple – we now are ready to study those very offerings.

Recap:
We’ve learned that the Mah Tovu prayer, which we sing individually as we enter the synagogue, exhorts us to leave all our personal joys and sorrows behind so we may worship without distraction.

The Adon Olam pulls us into a greater awareness of Hashem as the G-d of all the vastness of infinite creation – yet also as our personal ever-present G-D.

Yigdal then directs our attention to Israel’s unique connection with Hashem. He is the G-d of Israel; revealing Himself to us in ways the nations do not yet see. The familiar rhythms of the Birkat HaShaḥar reinforce our unique relationship with HaShem as interconnected individuals within the Nation.

The Akeidah anchors us to the very beginning of Judaism – the faith of our father Avraham.

The Sh’ma and the prayers completing this section of services summarize Israel’s declaration to the nations of the One True G-d and Israel’s hope of redemption – an anchor during our darkest days of persecution.

Birkat HaShaḥar

The Birkat HaShaḥar (morning blessings) is our springboard into each day. It is recited upon waking, but over time it has also become part of the daily Shaḥrit service. The blessings connect us to Israel, to HaShem, and to the nations, spanning the immediate to the infinite and revealing how insignificant – and irreplaceable – we are in G-d’s amazing creation plan. Each blessing begins with the same phrase, anchoring our thoughts and focusing our attention as we enter into the familiar cadence,
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe . . .

“Who gives the heart understanding to distinguish between day and night.”
As with so many of our communal prayers, our challenge is to rise above tedious sight-reading to being captivated by their fullness. We notice sunrise; we recognize good; we perceive eternal truths; we detect the spark of divinity in one another.

“Who has not made me a heathen.
Who has not made me a slave.
Who has not made me a woman. / Who has made me according to His will.”
We are grateful for what we aren’t; we are also grateful for what we are. “ . . . We are the clay, and You are our potter: and we are all the work of Your hand” (Yesha’yahu 64:7(8)). No matter our role, we should always defer to others; extending both honor and compassion to everyone we meet.

“Who gives sight to the blind.”
This literally means “who opens our eyes.” This describes physical sight, but we can also see this as the capacity to view everything from Hashem’s greater perspective.

“Who clothes the naked.”
Clothing provides us basic protection from the elements, but clothing is much more than that. When we select our wardrobe for the day we are essentially putting on our daily “uniform” which communicates our identity to those we meet throughout the day. The care with which we dress, whether provocative or modest, is a direct reflection of our call to be a separate people, a light to the nations.

“Who sets captives free.”
At its simplest, this describes regaining control over our physical bodies as we awaken each day (we spend our sleeping hours in a form of paralysis which prevents us from acting out dreams). Deeper meanings include freedom from any form of restricted movement, from any inability to express ourselves.

“Who raises those bowed down.”
Yes, we arise and stand up as we ready for each day – this also beautifully depicts how HaShem redeems lives.

“Who spreads out the earth above the waters.”
Bam! Paradigm shift! Pulled abruptly away from our line of thought, we are called to “know before whom we stand” – HaShem, G-d of all creation, beyond time and space, the indescribable Ein Sof.

“Who has provided me with all I need.”
After the previous reality check, and keenly aware that HaShem is the source of all creation, we resist dwelling on our perceived unmet needs. Instead, we are deliberate in appreciating all that HaShem has already provided to us, no matter how abundant or meager, taking nothing for granted.

“Who makes firm the steps of man.”
HaShem plants within each of us the desire to follow Him, and firms our steps based on the choices we actually make. This is a poignant reminder to live intelligently disciplined lives, measuring every decision with the knowledge that HaShem will firm our trajectory based on what we pursue.

“Who girds Israel with strength.
Who crowns Israel with glory.”
As we make our choices throughout the day, we rest in HaShem’s powerful love for Israel. This reassures us that as we choose to follow Torah with Israel, our steps will be aligned with HaShem’s greater purpose, and we will bring merit to the Nation.

“Who gives strength to the weary.”
We are all creatures of limited strength, no matter how mighty or frail. Our limitations require that we prioritize our activities, which in turn show those around us our true relationship with HaShem.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. And may it be Your will, Lord our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers, that You accustom us to [study] Your Torah and make us attached to Your commandments. Lead us not into error, transgression, iniquity, temptation or disgrace. Do not let the evil instinct dominate us. Keep us far from a bad man and a bad companion. Help us attach ourselves to the good instinct and to good deeds and bend our instincts to be subservient to You. Grant us, this day and every day grace, loving-kindness, and compassion in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow loving-kindness upon us. Blessed are You, Lord, who bestows loving-kindness on His people Israel.”

The finale is a montage of parting thoughts and supplications toward being better people by each day’s end than when we awoke. When we read “lead us not into error . . . ” we cannot help but hear those same words echoed in Yeshua’s “Lord’s Prayer,” reminding us that G-d is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We are now ready to face the day in pursuit our raison d’être – choosing of our own free will to love HaShem through our thoughts, words, and actions.