Grasping a knife with one hand and pinning down a young boy with the other, the man stands bent over the lad but with his face turned away, toward an angel who captures his attention and directs it away from the act he is about to commit. The angel points to something over in the shadows on the right side of the canvas -- a ram, whose gaze is directed up toward the man.
This painting, created in the early Seventeenth Century by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, is one of countless images depicting The Sacrifice of Isaac. The compositions all vary, according to the particular artistic conventions of the periods during which they were created; however, certain elements are always present: man, child, knife, and ram.
That ram gifts us with one of the most prevalent symbols of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The reverberations of a shofar, a hollow instrument created from a ram’s horn, can be heard at specific moments during services on these days. Although the shofar is blown during many religious ceremonies throughout the Jewish calendar, it is particularly connected with the High Holy Days. At this time, its sounding is a wake-up call, a reminder to take this opportunity to realign ourselves with our divine path.
Why a ram’s horn? The rich symbology contains references to a multitude of significant aspects of The New Year and The Day of Atonement, including the newness of creation and the hollowness of humans through which divinity can flow.
That newness of the year is reflected in the Western astrological system, where Aries the Ram is the first sign of the new zodiac each year. During these Days of Awe, when we are called to carefully comb through events of the past year in search of places where we have turned against ourselves, one another, and our divinity, strength and perseverance are essential; these attributes are those of the ram and of Aries -- the ability to charge straight into challenging situations. As we navigate the often treacherous waters of repentance and forgiveness, we can call on these energies, being reminded of their immense value each time we hear the blaring of the shofar.
In ram medicine, the horn often denotes increased mental inquiry, which is entirely relevant for these holy days. Our minds can be both at the service of the work we do in apologizing and forgiving and stand in the way of that same work. Indeed, while we utilize our minds to track our actions of the past year, those same minds are often busy trying to hide from us those very same actions or attempt to explain them or normalize them . . . in short, to let us off the hook of this whole apology and forgiveness business altogether.
And that brings us back to the man, the boy, the angel, and the ram. The story of The Sacrifice of Isaac, found in Genesis 22, goes like this:
One night, God tells the elderly Abraham that he will need to sacrifice his only son, the child whose birth he had awaited for 100 years. The next morning, the faithful Abraham gathers Isaac and the wood necessary for a burnt offering and sets off to find the place where the offering should take place. Once there, he constructs an altar, piles wood atop it, and binds his son. Just at the instant when he is about to kill Isaac . . . well, Caravaggio shows us what happens:
Take just a moment and look into the boy’s eyes; notice the fear and horror there as, aware of his immanent death, he seemingly stares back into your eyes, beseeching you to help him escape this nightmare. Notice, too, the resolve apparent on his father’s face.
Decades ago, I could not look at this painting without feeling huge rushes of terror myself. I empathized with Isaac and found myself judging Abraham harshly, from the viewpoint of the child himself. “Why would my father do such a thing to me?” I heard/felt the young man wonder, as I questioned, “What kind of God asks a parent to kill a child?”
My relationship to this story expanded when I became a parent. Then, my questions were for Abraham: “How could you even think of killing your own child?”
Yes, I know how the story ends; the Angel of God swoops in, tells Abraham that his obedience has won him God’s favor, and Abraham sacrifices a ram in the place of his son.
I know all that, because I have the benefit of reading the story or seeing images of it with all the knowledge of what will happen in the narrative’s climactic scene. But Abraham did not have that luxury. He was in the midst of killing his son, the thing most precious to him in the world.
How can we relate this story of near-filicide with The New? What could it possibly have to teach us about repentance and atonement?
Abraham is asked to sacrifice that which he holds most dear, his only son; we, too, are asked to build a funeral pyre and place upon it our most sacred belongings. Repentance, forgiveness, and atonement often require great surrender. Truly turning away from our habitual thoughts, words, and actions can require us to lose our relationships, our social status, and our sense of comfort. Indeed, we must be prepared to lay on the altar our pride and our egos, the little offspring we have been nurturing throughout our lives. This is perhaps the most frightening piece of surrender, this laying down of who we have constructed as ourselves in order to make space for who we really are.
As a reward for Abraham’s devotion, God blessed him by multiplying his “seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore.”
And the blessings offered to each of us when we realign ourselves with our divine nature, when we sacrifice the parts of us that stand in the way of that alignment, are just as numerous as the stars of the heavens and the sand on the shore.