One of the very happy memories of my years of study in Israel was the experience of the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths) in the city of Jerusalem.
With those holidays upon us again now, I would like to recall one of the principal biblical texts read in synagogues on the Jewish New Year, and consider its relevance for us today, especially at a time when solid interfaith relations are essential and necessary for the future of humanity.
It is the well-known Genesis story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham (Genesis 22:1-19), referred to as the "Akedah" in Hebrew. Akedah is the anglicization of the Aramaic word for "binding."
The story is told in few sentences, and it easily provokes scandal for the modern mind: What sort of God is this, who can command a father to kill his own son? What would a contemporary father do if he were to be called on to sacrifice his only son to God?
The point of the story is Abraham's unquestioning faith and God's acceptance of it as the occasion of his unconditional promise of future blessing to Abraham's descendants.
One aspect of the Akedah has much relevance not only for Jews, but Christians and Muslims as well: The location of this story. The event took place on Mount Moriah. "Moriah" in Hebrew refers to "the place of vision." The ancient Israelites were drawn to the sacred high stone of Jerusalem because the Canaanites first worshipped it. The link between the two peoples is dramatized in Hebrew scriptures by the story of Melchisedek, the legendary Canaanite priest-king of Jerusalem who anticipated monotheism, the belief in but one God.
Later, the patriarch Abraham, obedient to the Lord, binds his son Isaac for sacrifice on the sanctified rock called Moriah.
Eventually Moriah becomes the foundation stone of Solomon's Temple, built as the dwelling place of God. The precious rock becomes the bond between Judaism and two other faiths, Christianity and Islam. It was on the Jewish Temple that Jesus prophesied Jerusalem's destruction as prelude to the arrival of God's Kingdom.
Six hundred years after Jesus, with the Jewish Temple in ruins, the Muslim conquerors of Palestine showed their own profound respect for the Abrahamic stone of sacrifice by building over it a magnificent octagonal shrine, naming it The Dome of the Rock.
This stone on Mount Moriah is the source of Jerusalem's religious unity and it is also the symbol of the world's faith. I often saw pilgrims kneeling at Jesus' tomb at the foot of another Jerusalem mount named Calvary, and Jews in prayer before the Western Wall, while the muezzin called the Muslim faithful to prayer!
The root of redemption
Jerusalem, whatever its problems, is still the root of redemption. The vision of the one God united Jerusalem's different peoples. What divides them is the daily, practical application of that vision, i.e., religion.
The vision of God is given to human beings who speak different languages and see the world differently. Religion is born of these differences.
There is no better place to experience this paradox than on the very stone which tradition identifies to be the place of the Akedah. For all three great world religions, this spot is a centre of focus and identity.
The binding of Isaac is a symbol of life, not death - for Abraham is forbidden to sacrifice his son. Jews, Christians and Muslims exist to reveal the holiness of God's name and God's sovereignty over all creation. In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all recognize God as ruler over all.
Together let us yearn for the day when God will be all in all, when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks - in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land, and throughout the world.