Two years ago I had occasion to participate in the Shabbat service of Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, who is the rabbi at Chabad Anchorage, Alaska. He gave a sermon on that week's Parsha (portion), which was Re-eh, the fourth Parsha in the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, in which we are commanded to bring sacrifices and come for a pilgrimage festival.
However, we are not told specifically where to go. Rather, eleven times the Parsha says that we must go to the place which God chooses, "bamakom asher yivchar Hashem." Rabbi Greenberg asked a very valid question: why all these references to a place that God will choose? We know very well that the place was Jerusalem. And God, of course, knew when he issued these various commandments that the place was to be Jerusalem. So why refer to the place God will choose, as if God hadn't already chosen a place, and why not simply instruct the people to travel to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals?
Rabbi Greenberg's answers were good and they encouraged me to read the commentary on these verses in the Chabad Chumash, which referred me to Bereishit, Genesis, Chapter 22, verse l4. Chapter 22 is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and tells the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Yitzchak. What does it have to do with God choosing Jerusalem as the future place for sacrifices and pilgrimages?
God instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. Avraham and Yitzchak go together to the place God sends them. Avraham binds Yitzchak to the altar, takes the knife and is about to slaughter his son when an angel of God calls out to him and tells him not to touch Yitzchak. Avraham sees a ram and slaughters it in place of his son. Then the Torah says,"Vaikra Avraham shem hamakom ha'hu Hashem Yireh, asher ye'amar hayom b'har Hashem Yeraeh." And Avraham named that site "Hashem Yireh," as it is said this day, on the mount of Hashem there is a vision.
Dr. Nahum Sarna points out in his commentary of Bereishit, that it was very common for people in the Torah to give a name to a place where they brought a sacrifice and Abraham follows this tradition by naming the place "Hashem Yireh." Sarna points out that the name may be connected to Avraham's conversation with Yitzchak who asks his father "Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep? Avraham answers, "Elokim yireh lo haseh," God will provide Himself the lamb. This doesn't explain, however, why in the Chabad Torah commentary for Parshat Re-eh we are told Jerusalem is the place that God will select.
The great commentator Rashi, agreeing with Targum Onkelos, says that when the Torah says Avraham called the place "Hashem Yireh" it means "Hashem yivchar," God will choose, meaning God will choose this place as a proper place for sacrifices and to rest his divine presence. In other words, Avraham prophesizes that in the future this place, Har Hamoriah, the place where Yitzchak was brought, is where the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, will be built.
There is a connection between Akedat Yitzchak, written in the first book of the Torah, and Parshat Re-eh, written in the last book, where the people of Israel are on the verge of entering the land and getting their final instructions from Moshe. They still don't know what will happen when they get to Canaan; in fact, 10 of the 12 spies warned them that they would never conquer the land. Yet, they trusted Moshe and in God, and they enter the land to which God is leading them. Once settled, they will bring sacrifices in the place which God chooses. Yitzchak is in a similar position. He is being led to a place that he does not know and asks his father where the sheep is. Just as the people entered the new land with faith in God and in Moses, so too, Yitzchak continued on this journey with faith in his father.
Avraham understands that the lesson of the Akedah, or perhaps one of the lessons of the Akedah, is that never again should a deity be worshipped by child sacrifice. Rather, sacrifices must be animals, not humans. This lesson is made clear by the angel stopping Avraham just as he was about to slaughter his son.
"Asher yeamar hayom b'har Hashem yeraeh'' is a powerful message for future generations. Every year, on Rosh Hashanah, as we pray to God to forgive our sins and grant us life for another year, we pray that God remember the Akedah and the courage and devotion of both Avraham and Yitzchak, and grant us atonement. Perhaps this verse is telling us something even more profound. Today, on the mountain of Hashem, we will see and understand our place in the universe, and find purpose in our lives. Where is the mountain of Hashem? How do we get there? How do we know when we have arrived?
We are like Yitzchak. We are on a journey which we do not completely understand. His father, however, told him that God would direct them and show them the sheep. Like Yitzchak, we aren't sure where we are going, and we don't know what will happen when we get there. The Biblical verse tells us, "B'har Adonai yeraeh," you will be seen on God's mountain. And that is our goal. We want to be seen on God's mountain. We may not know where it is, but we know where it is not.
Zaidie Smith, a brilliant young British writer, once asked the American author Phillip Roth what he thinks about when swimming laps. He told her that for each lap he picks a year of his life and tries to remember the events that happened to him, his family and the world. Then he asked Smith what she thinks about while she is swimming back and forth, and she told him during the first lap she says to herself, Lap One, Lap One, Lap One, and then during the second lap, she thinks to herself, Lap two, Lap two, Lap two.
And that is our challenge today, hayom, and every day of our lives. Will we be thinking important thoughts and doing meaningful things for ourselves and for others, or will we be going through life saying Day one, Day one, Day one; Day two, Day two, Day two. Let us all say TODAY, HAYOM, B'har Hashem Yeraeh, we are working and praying and struggling so they can say of us—on Har Hashem you are seen.