Sacrificing Our Children on the Altar of Our Dreams – Rosh Hashanah 5773, Day 2

As a Rabbi, I often find myself in conversations about this morning’s Torah portion.   It is a particularly troubling story.   Surely, there are other passages in the Bible that provoke modern sensibilities as much.  That our people has gone out of its way to read this one every Rosh Hashanah might explain why it tugs so much at our conscience.
Abraham is asked by God, in a test of his faith, to slaughter his son Isaac as a burnt offering.  Driven by his love for God, Abraham responds to the call with unwavering determination.  Without hesitation, he gathers the supplies, sets out with Isaac and two servants on their three day journey, ascends the mountain, builds an altar, binds his son to it, and brandishes the knife.
The actions in the story are quick and precise.  Abraham expresses no doubts about this demand from the same God who had promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the earth.
Of course, we know nothing about Abraham’s inner state of mind.  There are no adjectives, and no descriptions of emotion throughout the story.
Modern readers are almost universally horrified, first of all by God’s seemingly cruel request, and secondly by Abraham’s willingness to carry it out without even raising an objection.
At the end of the story, Abraham is rewarded for his demonstration of absolute commitment to God, and is blessed once again with the promise of countless descendants.
He never does have to kill his son.  At the last minute, God sends the angel to stay Abraham’s hand.  It was only a test, it turned out, to see just how far Abraham would be willing to go to express his love for God.  Apparently, he was ready to go all the way.
Traditionally, this story is understood to be a lesson in faith.  But it also has something to say to us about relationships between parents and children.
Perhaps that is why so many of us react to it so personally.  In idealizing Abraham’s love for God as something we should strive for, it alienates most of the people with whom I speak, who want nothing to do with that kind of faith.  Why should Isaac have to suffer this traumatic, near-death experience so that his dad can realize his dream of giving up everything for God?
Our kids are too precious.  How can we even think of sacrificing our children on the altar of our dreams?
In these conversations, nobody ever comes to Abraham’s defense.  But I think I understand what Abraham might have been going through: his eagerness to project his own aspirations in life on to his child, as well as his inability to deviate from the course he has set once he has embarked.
This is a pattern that is repeated in every generation, up to the present day.  The truth is, parents do bind their children to what is important to them all of the time, and children never fully escape from those bonds.
One of the most well-known mitzvot in the entire Torah appears in the Ten Commandments.  Honor your father and your mother.  It is said that we owe a unique obligation to our parents, because it is they, along with God, who bring us into the world.  That is the reason that children spend an entire year reciting the mourner’s kaddish when a parent passes away.  It is our special obligation to them.
But there is another way to look at it, and it is not so explicitly stipulated in the Torah.  We did not ask to be born.  We have been brought into this world against our will – by our parents.  It is they, therefore, who owe us.  Parents, according to our tradition, are responsible  for providing kids with an education, teaching them a trade, teaching them how to swim and by extension, how to be safe.  Jews are also responsible for transmitting Torah to the next generation, as well as imparting compassion and morality.
And so, parents play a critical role in the dreams of children, as they should.
But sometimes, the lines between a parent’s dreams for him or herself, and a child’s dreams become blurred.  Our parents expect to fulfill their dreams through us, and those of us who are parents hope to fulfill our own dream through our kids.  This can sometimes result in unrealistic, and even unhealthy burdens.  Children become bound to the altar of their parents’ dreams.
We can all relate to this, because all of us are children.  We all have parents, in some cases parents who were not present, but we all come from somewhere.  Think of the ways in which our parents’ lives, their decisions, have bound us, and continue to bind us.  Think of how we measure success and failure for ourselves.
Am I struggling to live up to an impossible standard that was set, either explicitly or implicitly by a parent?  An expectation to succeed financially, or intellectually, or perhaps to be the perfect mother and wife, or father and husband?
Are the standards by which each of us measures ourselves truly ours, or have we inherited them from a previous generation?
And what are we doing to the next generation?  And by this we include both those who have kids of their own, as well as those who are aunts or uncles, friends, and members of a community like ours, in which we pride ourselves on caring about one another’s children.
Consider the stereotypes that we see in movies, TV, books, and maybe even in real life:
An embarrassed and reluctant son who is forced to perform a dance routine in front of adult dinner guests.
A daughter who is pushed by an overbearing parent in elementary school or even earlier to go to an Ivy League university.
A child who is expected to take over the family business, despite having other aspirations.
But really, consider the many ways in which parents place the burden of success on their children for something in which they themselves failed.
I am not saying that parents should not set any expectations for their kids.  God forbid.  I fear a society in which parents release themselves from the obligation to impart a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, to the next generation.
Parents are obligated to provide a moral education for their children, as well as to encourage their children to set lofty goals which they then help them reach.  But it is important for parents to consider their motivations.  Are we pushing our children for their sakes, or for ours?
At first glance, it would seem that Isaac is bound to the altar for the sole purpose of his father’s religious zeal.  Our tradition has been uncomfortable with Isaac’s apparent passivity.  That discomfort has prompted much discussion through the millennia.  A widely-accepted midrash suggests that Isaac was thirty seven years old at the time, a grown man.  This means that he willingly accepted his role as the sacrifice, even encouraging his father to bind him so that he would not be able to escape if he changed his mind.
The story in the Torah begins by informing us that God put Abraham to the test.  A midrash*1* suggests that it was an even greater test for Isaac, for several reasons.  Abraham, until the very end, could have put down the knife.  Indeed, he was stopped at the last minute.  Isaac, on the other hand, in allowing himself to be bound, had no way to change his mind, thus his obedience was even more complete.  Also, Abraham received his instructions directly from God.  Isaac only heard it second-hand through the mouth of his extremely elderly 137 year old father, yet he did not for a moment doubt the truth of what was being demanded, or question his dad’s senility.  It is surely a heroic act of bravery and trust.
Isaac is permanently affected by this experience.  It seems that he never recovers.  We have no record in the Torah of any later interactions between him and his father.  Further, he appears as a passive figure, living a quiet life, and being duped and manipulated by his wife and children.  A midrash suggests that the blindness Isaac suffers later in life is the result of angels’ tears falling into his eyes while he is bound on the altar.
Abraham, because of this story, is known as the great lover of God.  Isaac, also from this story, is known as the great fearer of God.  Whose is the greater legacy?  Well, the story has come to be known as Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac.  The midrashim suggest that Isaac was somehow fulfilling his own dreams, expressing his own relationship to God in his way, just as his father did.
As we begin this new year, we consider our lives.  God reads from the Book of Remembrance to review our deeds, while we measure ourselves against our own expectations of success.  We owe it to ourselves, and our kids, to consider the legacy that our parents have imparted to us, and that we pass along.
We will close with a Jewish story about a mother bird and her young.  As you listen, think about the obligations that children and parents owe one another.
Consider whether we are binding the next generation to our dreams for their sake, or for ours.
What are our dreams?  What do we hope to pass down?  And what dreams of our children can we step back and watch with pride as they develop them for themselves?

There once was a mother bird who knew it was time to migrate to warmer lands. In order to get to the place where she went every year, she would have to cross a great sea. She began to get ready for the long journey. Knowing that her three fledglings were too young yet to fly, especially over such a great distance, she decided to take the three little birds on her back. She loved her children, and she was willing to do anything in the world for them.

And so the little birds got on their mother’s back, and the mother bird began to fly. At first, the flight was easy enough. “Carrying my own young is never too burdensome,” thought the mother bird. But as time went by, the little birds began to feel heavier and, after the first day, then the second, and finally the third day, the mother bird was tired.

“My child, my birdling,” asked the mother bird of the little bird sitting in front, “Tell me the truth. When I get old and will have no strength to fly across such an ocean, will you take me on your back and fly me across?”

“No mama,” answered the fledgling.

‘What? You disregard the mitzva of respect for your parent?” said the mother bird. And in anger she threw the little bird into the sea.

Then she turned to the second of her young and said, “Tell me the truth, my child, my birdling. When I get old and will have no strength to fly such a great distance, will you take me on your back and fly me across?”

“No mama,” answered the second fledgling.

Again the mother bird became angry. “Indeed! You dis­regard the mitzva of respect for your parent.” And the mother bird threw the young one in to the sea.

With a hurt-filled heart, the mother bird turned to the third fledgling. Speaking in a guarded tone, she asked, “My child, my dear sweet fledgling, tell me the truth. When I get old and will have no strength to fly over such a big sea, will you take me on your back and fly me across?”

And the third fledgling answered, “My mother, I can’t promise to do that. I may not be able to fly you across a sea because I may be busy flying my own children on my back just as you are doing for me.”

When the mother bird heard this answer, she laughed with a joyful sound, and she and her fledgling continued on their flight.

*1*Iturei Torah, vol. 7, p. 37

*2* “An Offspring’s Answer” in Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, by Penina Schram, p. 454.

Recalculating – Rosh Hashanah 5773, Day 1

There is a technological gadget that has become almost ubiquitous in the last decade.  It models a behavior that all of us might want to emulate.  It is a device upon which many of us have come to rely to find our way in the world:  The Global Positioning Satellite – the GPS.
You type in your destination on your smartphone or computer that is built into your car, and a miracle happens.  It talks to a satellite orbiting 11,000 miles over your head, and then tells you exactly how to get to where you want to go.  It even gives you turn by turn directions – even the new iPhone can do this.  It estimates how long your trip is going to take.  It warns you about the traffic you will find along the way, and if you want, it points out the gas stations that you will pass.
I am sure that there are a few people in this room who actually understand how this works.  But for me, my GPS is an absolute miracle.
This nice lady, with a pleasant voice, calmly tells me where to go.  And if I don’t follow her instructions, either because I wasn’t paying attention, or because I think I know better – and I am always wrong whenever that happens – she never loses her cool.  The nice lady does not fret, get angry, turn herself off, feel guilty, or demand to be comforted.
No, she does something different.  She says, in her calm voice:  “recalculating.”
Ten times in a row, I ignore her advice.  I drive seventeen miles off course, I swear at her for remaining so even-tempered, and she remains calm, and focused on the goal.  Recalculating.  Continually recalculating.  Adjusting to any changes, surmounting any new obstacles to which my reckless wanderings have led.
Alas, it is much easier for the nice lady than it is for us.
I heard this suggestion about the GPS in an interview earlier this year with Dr. Sylvia Boorstein.*1*  Raised in a traditional Jewish household, she embraced Buddhism and now is a teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the North Bay.  Among her several books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, in which she shows that a person can be both an observant Jew and a committed Buddhist.
In the interview, Dr. Boorstein spoke about what happens to a person when he or she experiences tension – when our path in life does not follow the route that we have mapped out for ourselves and we get off course.  We all experience anxiety.  Sure, some of us become more overwhelmed by it than others.  But the simple act of living means that we will encounter adversity.  No matter what happens, no matter how much we try to insulate ourselves, some things are not going to go our way.
There are many different types of experiences that cause tension, from the seemingly trite to the highly significant.  Somebody cuts you off in line at the grocery store.  You get in a fender bender.  The person who has been your partner for all these years leaves you.  You are diagnosed with a life-altering medical condition.
When something happens that produces anxiety, how do you react?  What is your response to tension?
Dr. Boorstein describes our initial, instinctive response as a glitch of neurology, one of five genetic fallback behaviors that we revert to when we are challenged.  While some of us succumb to these glitches more intensely than others, we all have a gut reaction.  These are the five:  we fret, we get angry, we lose heart, we feel guilty, or we seek sensual soothing.  Of course, we probably exhibit all of these reactions from time to time, but one of these five behaviors, according to Boorstein, is dominant in each one of us.
Which of these five typologies do you fall into?
The first group responds to tension by fretting.  “When in doubt, worry.”  Let’s say I am  supposed to meet someone outside a restaurant at 5:00.  It’s already 5:15 and he’s still not there.  Where could he be?  What happened?  Maybe he had a heart attack.  God forbid he was in a traffic accident.  That siren I hear in the distance must be the ambulance taking him to the emergency room.
The second type of response is anger.  People in this group respond to anxiety by lashing out at others.  It might be that the source of tension is the other person, and so you let ’em have it.  But often, we misplace our anger by snapping at the first person who happens to come along.  You have a bad day at work.  Your boss yelled at you.  And so you take out your frustration on your kids when you get home.
The third type of gut reaction is losing heart.  That is when a person’s energy just evaporates.  You want to back off and flee from whatever the confrontation is.  You get tired, and would rather just go to sleep in the hope that if you avoid the situation, it will go away.  But it never goes away.
The fourth group responds to tension with guilt.  Whenever something bad happens, you immediately think it is your fault.
The fifth type of reaction is to seek sensual soothing.  You get in a fight with your partner, and so you go home and inhale an entire carton of ice cream.  Or drink a bottle of wine, or take drugs.
So which are you?  What is your innate, gut response to tension?
Whichever group you would place yourself in, I bet that, like me, you wish you didn’t always respond that way to stressful situations.  Have you had the experience of getting angry, and then wishing that you had kept your cool?  Or taking on guilt for a problem you did not cause?  Or having a stomach ache the day after you drowned your sorrows in mint chocolate chip?
Dr. Boorstein suggests that, rather than succumb to that response, that we instead recognize that our tendency to fret, or get angry, or lose heart, or feel guilty, or reach for the ice cream, is just our particular glitch kicking in.  In fact, there are alternative courses of action.  There are a lot of other things that we could do.  Sometimes, just by recognizing something about ourselves, we are able to transcend it.  When we experience that challenging moment and the anger starts to rise, just say “oh, that’s the part of me that gets angry responding to tension.”  That frees us up for a different response.  It frees us up to respond like the nice lady in the GPS.  Think of what it might be like if, when we get off course, we could first pause to recalculate.
In the Torah portion that we read today, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we see a number of characters experiencing stressful situations.  Situations that bring out their natural fallback responses – to unfortunate outcomes.
At the beginning of our reading, God has finally taken note of Sarah and blessed her with a son, Isaac.  At the party that Abraham throws for Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, playing with Isaac in a way that she does not like.  She reverts immediately to her fallback behavior.  She becomes angry.  Turning to Abraham, she demands that he banish her son’s tormentor, along with his mother, Hagar.
This sets up the next character, Abraham, who is extremely upset by the situation.  His response is to fret.  He knows that what Sarah has asked of him is wrong, but the stress of the situation, of being placed between his wife’s anger and Hagar and Ishmael’s lives causes him to worry and prevents him from taking decisive action.  It is only when God instructs Abraham to listen to Sarah, because God will protect Hagar and Ishmael, that Abraham is able to make a decision.
Hagar and Ishmael are now exiled in the wilderness, and they have run out of food and water.  Hagar succumbs to her fallback glitch and loses heart.  She cannot bear to see her son die, and so she places Ishmael beneath a bush some distance away so that she will not have to witness his suffering.  The situation has rendered her powerless, incapable not only of making a decision, but of even being present for her son.
While the responses of each of these characters are essential to the story and give it its punch, we still can wonder how things might have been different if they had recognized their natural fallback glitches.  Sarah might have seen Ishmael’s actions, and instead of allowing her anger to overcome her, might have instead recognized it, set it aside, and reached out to Hagar to find a collaborative approach for dealing with Ishmael’s wild behavior.
Abraham, instead of absorbing all of the anxiety of the triangle in which he found himself, might have instead called a family meeting to try and mediate between the two women in his household.
For her part, Hagar might have recognized her urge to flee from her son’s suffering and instead comfort him.  In so doing, she might have discovered, on her own, the well that it took an angel to reveal.
Of course, this is all just conjecture.  But it illustrates the point that our future is determined not only by those events that happen to us, but also by the ways in which we respond to those events.  Our reactions often lead us further off course.
I have always found interesting the way that we celebrate the world’s birthday.  To celebrate such a majestic event, we turn inward, and assess our lives in a process called cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.  The traditional language uses words like sin and forgiveness, confession and atonement.  Practically speaking, we take an honest look at our lives and note those times when we have not lived up to our potential, when we have been less than we could be.
The process of teshuvah, repentance, suggests that we can address those times when we came up short and fundamentally change ourselves in the year ahead.  Our patterns of behavior are not permanently locked in.  We can become better.
If we have been doing the work that is asked of us, we have identified lots of mistakes in the past year.  The question we face every Rosh Hashanah is how to actually change.  It is relatively easy to apologize for a particular wrong, and make restitution.
I embarrassed my friend in public, so I go to her and apologize, confess the wrong I did and acknowledge the pain it caused, and hopefully repair the relationship.
But when it comes to changing deep-seated behaviors that are part of our very make-up, it is a different story.  Recognizing those reactions as our innate fallback responses might actually be helpful.  It might make it possible for us to respond differently, and take control of our future in a way that enables us to be the kind of people we want to be.
This is not going to work every time.  Overcoming instinctive behaviors takes a tremendous effort.  Unlike the even-tempered lady in the GPS, whose personality is controlled by software, we are human beings.  But imagine what a different person you could be if you could stop yourself and recalculate.  Imagine what a different world this would be if we could all do that.
We are just now taking our first steps into the new year.  It is a fantastic opportunity to chart a course to become our best selves.  We do not know what the new year holds in store, but it is safe to say that there will be blessing and joy, just as there will be sorrow and loss.  When that thing happens to push us off course, and it will, let’s try to remember to take a breath, recognize what our fallback response is telling us to do, and then push ourselves to try something different: recalculating.


*1*Interview with Krista Tippett on March 29, 2012, broadcast on the podcast On Being  (