parsha of the week

On Yom Hazikaron, what do we remember?


Arguably the most enigmatic of the names of Rosh Hashana is Yom Hazikaron. What is being remembered and who is remembering?

When we read through the selichot, particularly those of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, we can’t help notice the constant mention of the Akeidah story, which also is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana, as well as an oft-repeated shout-out to the “Bris Avraham.”

In essence, it seems, the Day of Remembrance is for G-d to recall why He loves us so much. He loves the Jewish people because He loved our forefathers: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. He committed to a special relationship with them and their descendants.

The story of the Akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak, is also something we want G-d to recall on this holy day — the ultimate sacrifice of the most devout Jew who ever lived. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 111a) recalls one of G-d’s laments when He is confronted by Moshe. G-d says, “How I miss those who are gone but not forgotten!” Translation: Avraham and the other forefathers took my instruction and never complained about anything. With Avraham, the first of the lot, there were no questions asked. Avraham was willing to give up the son he had yearned for his entire life in order to serve G-d.

Yitzchak too underwent tremendous stress in order to achieve his maximum potential. Sacrificing yourself is not easy, but he was ready to do it in deference to what seemed to be G-d’s will. We ask G-d to remember that as well when He considers our fates on this day.

We ask G-d to remember the forefathers, so He will look upon us favorably. When you love someone because you loved their parents first, it is easy to see past their flaws and to recognize that their flaws are not so terrible, because you know from whose stock they emerged.

On a different note, the Gemarah (Brachot 29a) tells us, “On Rosh Hashana, Sarah, Rachel and Chana were remembered.” This rounds out the greater picture of the Torah and Haftarah readings of the day. The first day’s Torah reading demonstrates Sarah’s joy over the birth of her son Yitzchak. The first day’s Haftarah reading is the story of Chana. The Haftarah relates how Rachel cried for her children, and how Ephraim, her “chosen” grandson, will be remembered by G-d.

However, the story lines blur when we actually compare the stories. Sarah yearned for a child for many years, and eventually gave Avraham her maid as a spouse so a child could be brought into the family. Rachel brought Bilhah into the relationship with her husband for a similar anticipated outcome.

In a different parallel, Rachel had to sit and watch while her rival wife, her sister Leah, gave birth to child after child. Chana, also the preferred wife in a polygamous marriage, similarly watched her rival wife Peninah give birth to 10 children.

It could not have been easy for Chana or for Rachel. Yet they both took matters into their own hands when they realized their husband would be of no help in their attempts to reach their goal of motherhood, of creating life.

Chana offered the anticipated child to G-d and promised that his hair would never be cut. Rabbi Yaakov Medan points out that Yosef, Rachel’s son, is called a “N’zir echav” (Bereishit 49:26) and may have also been a product of a prayer and a promise to not have his hair cut, for he would be dedicated to G-d.

Whether it is a lesson in how to pray, or a lesson of complete devotion and dedication to G-d and doing His will, on Rosh Hashana we are meant to learn from these great fathers and mothers of our people. It is not “only” the fathers or “only” the mothers; both men and women play a pivotal role in how this day turns out for them individually and for our people collectively.

On this Rosh Hashana, may the merits of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and Sarah, Rachel and Chana, stand as a merit for us all. May G-d remember us the way He remembered them, and fulfill our hopes and dreams for the good in the new year.

A version of this column appeared in 2010.