Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh HaShanah Morning and Torah Reading Options
By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
The most traditional texts for the Torah reading on Rosh HaShanah morning are Genesis 21 and Genesis 22. In many congregations that observe two days of the holiday, it is most customary to read 21 on the first day and 22 on the second day. Genesis 21 begins with the notion that God remembered our matriarch Sarah and enabled her to have a child. The idea of remembering is tied to a name of Rosh HaShanah in the Bible: the Day of Remembrance. This is the lesson: God remembers us as God remembers Sarah. To paraphrase a very different cultural artifact: “God knows when we have been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.”
Genesis 22, the famous Binding of Isaac story, may be read on the second day for the prosaic reason that it is the next part of the Torah, and thus no Torah scroll maneuvering is needed. There are also connections between the ram in the story and the sounding of the ram’s horn. In addition, there are a multitude of sermonic challenges, explaining why God would test Abraham in such a way. But then maybe that is the point of Rosh HaShanah: we are all being tested.
When Gates of Repentance was adapted more than thirty years ago from the British liberal machzor, the committee decided to omit Genesis chapter 21, perhaps due to its negative treatment of a non-Israelite, but also because of lack of space. Space was lacking because Genesis 1 was added. Rosh HaShanah is considered by the ancient Rabbis to be the birthday of the world, so it follows that reading about the birth of the world is apt.
The new machzor will include these three choices, but the editors wish to add a fourth option: chapter 18 of Genesis. Why? Genesis 1 is beautiful but offers no human narrative. Genesis 21 and 22 feature the founder of what will become Judaism acting in ways that modern readers easily find questionable, i.e., casting out his son Ishmael and her mother and then readily agreeing to kill his beloved Isaac. On the other hand, Genesis 18 features Abraham questioning God, like a loyal but confident subordinate might question his or her boss. When God chooses collective punishment for all the inhabitants of Sodom, Abraham asks God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth not also act in a just manner?” We the editors feel that a story showing the positive side of Abraham’s development as a leader is inspirational for all of us who aspire to act with righteousness, even if at times that means questioning authority.
We hope that the Torah choices included in the new machzor will prompt many years of conversation about important topics and lead as well to chesbon hanefesh, a searching of our own souls for the good and the true.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg has served as the senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Coral Gables since 1996. In July he will begin serving as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Rabbi Goldberg is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud.