One day, Rabbi Chayim of Sanz told the following story:
A man kept taking the wrong path in the forest for many days so he was lost and unable to find his way out. One day he saw another man in the distance. He ran towards the man. His heart was pounding in his chest, full of joy. «Now I will finally find the way out» he kept saying to himself. When he finally approached the man he asked: «Could you please tell me which path is the right one? I have been taking the wrong path in this forest for so many days!» The other man answered: «I no longer know which is the right path because I have also taken the wrong way, but this I can tell you: do not take the path that I am coming from because you will get lost. But if you want, let’s look for an exit together.»
The rabbi added: «The same thing happens to us. This is something I can tell you: the path that we have walked until today will lead us nowhere. Today we need to look for a new path.»
This parable applies to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a crossroad upon which we need to reflect so that we can determine which new path each of us should take. Based on our previous experiences, we probably will choose to walk toward a future full of hope. The two men in our story reject their past. However, our liturgy seems to reproach the two men this attitude and, inspired by the book of Eicha / Lamentations, says: «חדש ימינו כקדם chadesh yameinu ke kedem / Renew our days as you have done of old!» (End of Torah service, Mahzor page 605)
The idea of חידוש chidush, renewal, fits perfectly with Rabbi Chayim of Sanz’s parable: the person who is taking a new path after being lost in the forest for so many days. But the expression «כקדם ke––kedem / as days of old» seems to be at odds with the story because it seems to lead us toward the past rather than the future. There is no question that the author of the Book of Eicha asks forgiveness from God, but instead of looking for new days, the author wants to go back to a past that was apparently better. But that day is expected from year to year because during these days of judgment, who can boast of having a past without blame, a memory with no shadows. On the other hand, we should not blame ourselves for having erred on the path like the lost people in the forest. It is uncertainty that dominates and not the certainty of failure or success.
But allow me to indulge in a review of the meaning of the rootקדם kedem in the expression, «חדש ימינו כקדם chadesh yameinu ke kedem / Renew our days as you have done of old!» The root kedemקדם is very rich. It has three meanings that can be helpful to us. Kedemקדם is above all the places where the sun rises, the East, the Orient, the symbol of renewal, the symbol of a new day that is just beginning, the idea of creation of the world that Rosh Hashanah celebrates. «The Lord planted a garden in Eden, in the east…» (Gen 2:8) we read in Genesis. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, היום הרת עולם hayom harat olam, the day when the world was created, the day when the day became day, the beginning of history.
Kedem does not translate only into the realm of space but also into the realm of time. The place where the sun rises is not only a geographical place, but it also marks the beginning of a new day. Kedem is then not only the «Orient» but also «front.» The Midrash Rabbah plays on words to link the one in front with the one who fulfills God’s will. «If anybody deserves praise they say to that person: You precede (קדמת kadamta) the angels of the holy service.» (Genesis Rabbah 8) And then we have yemei kedem, that is to say «ancient times.» Kedem appeals to the nostalgic times of something established, fixed, eternal. «Turn us back O Eternal, to You and we will return. Renew for us this kedem.» This sentence then reminds us of both the creation of the world, the Orient, the leadership necessary for those who walk in front, and the nostalgic view into the past. During this time of transition between years, we should be inspired by these three elements.
But renewal, the principle of life, is the quintessential theme of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. It is not about how we think the future will look, but rather having a vision for the future. Remember the lost men in the forest. The situation did not ask them to plant their tents and cry and lament about their fate, but rather to continue the search for the «right path.» חדש ימינו כקדם chadesh yameinu ke-kedem is above all a call for life, and the text of the Akedah, Isaac’s sacrifice that we have read today, offers us a good example. Abraham was commanded to take his beloved son, Isaac, his only child, and to offer him as a sacrifice on a mountain. Abraham fulfilled the divine command. He woke up at dawn and tied Isaac to the altar. As Abraham was raising the knife, an angel intervened to stop the fatal act. This text has inspired countless commentaries, but I will just focus on the one which emphasizes the end of the story: Isaac was not sacrificed.
It is interesting to frame this story in its historical context: it was a practice in some cultures to sacrifice children to a divinity. The tragic story of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, who was sacrificed in order to appease a goddess, has been immortalized in Greek, Latin and Western literature. Abraham wanted to show his loyalty to his new faith by following God’s order to sacrifice his son Isaac. But it is the conclusion of the story that provides the lesson God gives to Abraham and to us: Abraham’s God does not ultimately require the death of His followers through sacrifice… rather, it is life that is important.
Maimonides insists that the presence of the word ניסה nisah in the text which, placed at the opening of the chapter, makes it very clear to the reader that we are involved in a test: «And God put Abraham to the test.» (Gn 22:1) Abraham’s implication is very important, as emphasized by the Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard, but the happy ending is essential. In the words of Rabbi Louis Jacob, the heart of the conservative movement in UK, «The happy ending is not an emotional effect that diminishes the greatness of this episode. Because the God of Israel is the God of life, the lesson of this episode is that God does not require the death of Isaac… To ignore the end would be the equivalent of encouraging a morbid understanding of religion exalting what’s anti-rational in the human soul … at the cost of a healthy and normal view on life.»
This preference given to the principle of life can be found in the most simple gestures of Judaism as well as in its theology. The «חי chay» that some wear as a necklace, meaning «Life» has become a symbol of Judaic values. At the occasion of every holiday or happy event, before our lips touch the glass of wine, we cheer to each other «לחיים lechayim –– To life!» There are only three commandments that can never be transgressed: killing, incest and idolatry. Any other precept can be nullified in order to save a life. Even Shabbat, even Yom Kippur, can be nullified in order to safe a life. The Talmud is clear: «One who saves a life saves a world» (Pirke Avot 4:5)
Chadesh yamenu ke kedem חדש ימינו כקדם. Remember that the Eternal, our God, does not require human sacrifices. Remember that our religion has been advanced to its own time. Remember that we have the duty to make sure it still is, and that we ought to sanctify life.
When we hear speeches by leaders who use religious language to defend sacrifices and call for human blood in order to defend their principles, remember that the spirit of religion cannot be betrayed. Religion’s reason for being is to sanctify life, not to kill it. The milchamot Adonay, the wars of the Lord, no longer exist. There is no longer Holy War. This is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. At the dawn of this new year, let us remember the reason why the Torah has been given to us, let us give the Torah its true value: «Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it, and all who uphold it may be counted fortunate.» (Prov 3:17)