Isaac’s Bar Mitzvah Speech – Rosh Hashanah II 5774

I can’t believe this day has finally arrived. There were definitely a few moments when it was not at all certain that I would be standing here before you.

I know what you all must be wondering. What happened up there – on the mountain? It is difficult for me to talk about. Some of it I still do not understand. I keep replaying the events of those three days over and over in my mind, and different images keep flooding into my head – many of them contradictory. Looking back, I don’t quite know what was real and what might be a figment of my imagination.

Father has never talked about “the incident” since. He barely even spoke while it was going on. It all started when Father came to me, and said, his voice filled with gentleness: “My son, my favorite son whom I love, Isaac, you must come with me tomorrow. We are going to worship the Lord.”

Father had been telling me about the Lord for as long as I can remember. That this God, the only God, sent him on a journey from his native home to the land of Canaan, where we live now. Father left everything behind, and set out with Mother to come here. God had communicated with Father several times, promising that Father would be the founder of a great nation.

I was to be the one through whom this blessing, this b’rit, or covenant, as he called it, would pass. Although Father told me about the Lord often, I never heard the voice. I was never visited by angels. Father always seemed so certain, so unwavering. He knew in his heart that these promises would be fulfilled. And so I have always trusted him, even though I felt that this was too great a burden for me to bear.

When he told me to get ready for our journey, I went along.

On the morning of the third day, Father looked up and saw a mountain. He asked the two servants who were with us if they could see anything out of the ordinary, but they could not. I could see it, however. Moriah. The mountain was enveloped in clouds, with a pillar of fire flashing within.*1* He sent away the two lads with the donkey, and gave me the wood for the burnt offering to carry. Father took the flint and the knife.

Something was missing. “Father,” I asked, “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering.”*2*

“God will provide, my son,” he replied. There was something in his eyes at that moment. A distant look, as if he was concentrating on a voice that was meant only for him. Then he looked at me lovingly, and without a word placed his hand on my shoulder and we walked up the mountain together.

When we reached the top, Father began collecting large stones to build an altar. It was at that moment that it became clear to me what I had known all along. There would be no sheep. I was the sheep.

But I didn’t know if I could do it.

“Father,” I said, as he put the last stone in place, “I am just a boy. I don’t know that I will be able to stay still for the sacrifice. I am worried that if I get scared, I will tremble out of fear of the knife, and you will feel sorrow, and perhaps then your sacrifice to God will become invalid. Please, Father, bind me extra tightly.”*3*

And so he did. He stacked the wood on top of the stones, and placed me, bound, on top. Then Father grasped the knife.

At the moment that he raised it high, I looked up, and beheld something wondrous. The heavens opened. I saw the Shekhinah, God’s very Presence, seated in the heavenly throne room, which was filled with angels. For the first time, I understood a little about the One who commanded Father to offer me up as a burnt offering. My soul flew out of my body.

An ethereal voice cried out, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not raise your hand against the boy.” The Holy One revived me. I came to, and all I could think to do was praise the Lord: “Blessed are you Adonai, who gives life to the dead.”*4*

I then realized that my eyesight had gone blurry. While my soul was leaving my body, Father’s eyes were dripping with tears. Apparently, he could no longer keep his emotions bottled up, even as his heart was filled with joy at fulfilling God’s command. Father’s tears poured into my eyes. I have had difficulty seeing ever since.*5*

I was in a daze. Suddenly, there was movement off to the side. It was a ram, its horns caught in a thicket. I recognized this ram, although I don’t think Father did. It was from our flock. We had named it, ironically, Isaac.

Father had come to worship the Lord, a task which he had to complete. Without betraying any emotion, he freed the other Isaac from the bush, and brought it to the altar, where he offered it up to God.

Since that day, Father and I have hardly spoken. I was sent off to the Garden of Eden to recover. Then, Father enrolled me at the Shem and Ever Day School to learn God’s Torah and the mitzvot.

But a mystery still haunts me. I was the one through whom the Covenant would be fulfilled. And yet, I was the one whom Father was asked to sacrifice. Father says that this was a test. I don’t know what exactly it was a test of. A test to see if his faith in God was greater than his love for me? A double test, to see if he would carry out the command to the very end, confident that he would be stopped at the last minute so that God’s promise of children as numerous as the starts could be fulfilled? Whatever it was, it seems that Father passed it.

Afterwards, an angel blessed him, because he did not hold back. Therefore, Father, myself, and all of our descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. The nations of the world will be blessed through us, because Father obeyed the Lord’s command.

And now here I am, becoming a man.

There are a few people without whom I could not have made it to this day.

First of all, I would like to thank all of my teachers at the Shem and Ever Day School.*6* You taught me Torah and mitzvot with so much love and passion. I will strive to pass on that same love of Torah to my own children.

I also want to thank the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home.*7* You nursed me back to health when I needed you. You healed my neck, which was nicked by the knife. You did such a great job that I only have a tiny scar the size of a bead.*8* I literally would not be here without you.

Ishmael, my brother, you had to leave when I was really young, and I still do not quite understand why. Mom said you were a bad influence on me, but I really missed having a big brother around. We do not see eye to eye on most things, but I think we have more in common than most people assume. I hope we can find an opportunity to spend some time together so that we can really get to know each other. Maybe then, each of us might be able to hear and accept the other “where he is.”*9* We have spent way too many years apart.

Mom, I know that you are here with me in spirit. I was the son you always wanted. You had given up on ever having children, but then, miraculously, you got pregnant and had me. Sometimes I wonder if, having been born so late, you and dad might have put too many hopes in me. I know you protected me fiercely from what you saw as bad influences, and I do not blame you for that. You loved me more than anything in the world, and you put my future ahead of everything. You and dad each loved me intensely, but quite differently, and that could be confusing sometimes. Mom, I heard you died right after “the incident.” I overheard the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home whispering something about how the Adversary told you what Dad and I had been up to, and the shock was too great. I was so sad to not be able to mourn for you at your funeral. Whenever I look at your empty tent, I am painfully aware of the hole in my heart. I long for the day when my memory of you will not be so difficult.*10*

Last, Father. I don’t blame you for what you did. I know you love me as much as it is possible for a father to love a son. It’s just that your faith in God was stronger. My faith, I think, is not the same.

When I have kids one day, God willing, I plan to do things differently. I prefer a quieter life. I don’t want to travel far and wide. I don’t want to seize the gates of my foes. I want to be close with my kids.

I worry about how my descendants will understand what has happened to me. There will come a time when they will suffer persecution, when they will be oppressed and murdered for being heirs to this covenant. What, then, will they do – when their love for God is so great, matched only be their love for their children? What will they do when the bloodthirsty mobs come, demanding that they break the covenant, and turn over their sons and daughters, whom they love?

I know what they will do. They will look to me and Father as examples. And they will offer up their children to God. But there will be no angel to stay their hands. There will be no miracle to turn aside the hordes at the gates. They will accomplish that which Father only showed a willingness to complete. “Yours was a trial,” they will say “mine were the performances.”*11* They will compose elegies to glorify their martyrdom, such as this:

On the merit of the Akedah at Moriah once we could lean,

Safeguarded for the salvation of age after age-

Now one Akedah follows another, they cannot be counted.*12*

Is this what it means to be chosen? Chosen for what? For suffering. For love. For death.

No. Not for death. I refuse to believe that. For life. Maybe the test was a lesson. After all, God stopped Father at the last minute. “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him!”*13* cried out the angel. God does not want parents to offer up their children as burnt offerings. God wants parents to raise up their children with love, and learning.

Thanks to all of you for being here with me as I celebrate becoming Bar Mitzvah. If there is one lesson I take from what happened to me, it is to treat every day as a gift. Every day we are alive is a day that God has sent angels to protect us. We must strive to make the most of the blessings we have been granted.

That is the legacy I will leave to my descendants.

 

*1*Genesis Rabbah 56:1,2

*2*Genesis 22:7

*3*Genesis Rabbah 56:8

*4*Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 31 quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, pp. 30-32

*5*Genesis Rabbah 56:8

*6*Genesis Rabbah 56:11 (4)

*7*Abravanel on Genesis 22:19 (5-6)

*8*R. Joshua ibn Shuaib, Sefer Derashot (Cracow, 1573), Hayye Sarah, 96.

*9*Genesis 21:17

*10*Genesis 24:67

*11*Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 16

*12*Selihah by Rabbi David bar Meshullam: “O God, do not hush up the shedding of my blood!” quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 21

*13*Genesis 22:12

 

Making Our Insides Match Our Outsides – Rosh Hashanah I 5774

Most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about what we want written on our gravestones. As a Rabbi, I actually do think about this quite a bit, because I often help people design their family members’, or even their own markers.

Here are a few epitaphs, messages inscribed on gravestones, that I did not have a hand in.**1**

Some describe the manner of a person’s death, as in:

Here lies a man named Zeke.

Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.

Others seem to be more about the living:

Sacred to the memory of

my husband John Barnes

who died January 3, 1803

His comely young widow, aged 23,

has many qualifications of a good wife,

and yearns to be comforted.

Gravestones sometimes say something about the deceased’s personality:

Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,

Lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt.

Who died one morning just at ten

And saved a dinner by it.

And then there are those that purport to give advice to the visitor:

Reader, I’ve left this world, in which

I had a world to do;

Sweating and fretting to get rich:

Just such a fool as you.

Sometimes, a person has specific ideas about his or her own epitaph. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, left clear instructions of what he wanted to appear on his gravestone at Monticello. The inscription reads:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

Father of the University of Virginia

Our third president, a man who accomplished so much in his lifetime, wanted to emphasize what he had given the people, not what the people had given him. These three accomplishments stand out as legacies that continue to shape the lives of millions to this day.

The message that we leave behind on a tombstone, or in most cases, the epitaph that is placed upon our tombstone by others after we die, is one of the ways in which we leave our legacy to the world. The advice I give is that the epitaph should say something about who this person was, and what they cared about.

How was she known in the world? Was she kind and generous? Was he a loving father and grandfather, or maybe a patron of the arts? Was she a musician, a great reader, or a gourmand?

Six generations from now, will a descendant be able to gain an understanding of his ancestor when he visits the grave?

What happens when there is a discrepancy between how a person sees herself and how the outside world sees her?

I experience this as a parent. Our children want to be recognized and acknowledged. They want the reassurance that they matter. They want to be truly seen for who they are.

And the truth is, this does not end at childhood. Most of us want to be seen for who we are. But few of us feel that we are. There is a disconnect between our internal and external experiences.

Each year, Rosh Hashanah presents us with an opportunity to realign our outsides with our insides.

One of the aspects of Judaism that many people seem to admire is its emphasis on action. It is not what we think that matters, but rather, what we put into practice. When the day of judgment comes, we will not be held accountable for all of our ugly thoughts, the times when we lashed out at each other in our minds. What will be piled on God’s scales of justice are our actions. What did we do in our lives?

People seem to like this aspect of Judaism.

But we also emphasize the interior life. We affirm the existence of something called a soul. We speak of God’s Presence dwelling within us. We point to a Divine Spark that is buried deep within the heart of every human being. The interior life matters also.

What is the definition of a person who is at peace? It is someone whose insides reflect what is outside – tokho k’voro.

Who among us can claim this? That the self we express out to the world is the same as the ideal self that we would like ourselves to be?

In the Haftarah that we read this morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we encounter someone who experiences this disconnect between internal hopes and external experiences. We meet Hannah, favorite wife of Elkanah. Hannah is unable to become pregnant. Inability to conceive is a common Biblical motif. The basic pattern goes like this: The woman is beloved of her husband, but is unable to have a child. The people around her make fun of her, which exacerbates her suffering. God intervenes on her behalf, and she becomes pregnant. Within a year, she gives birth to a boy, who lives a remarkable life. This is a motif that repeats itself numerous times. Think of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, the unnamed mother of Samson, and Hannah.

The story of Hannah is remarkable in that it describes both the internal and external sides of the story. We know how the outside world is interacting with Hannah. We are also told what she is feeling, what she does not express. There is a discrepancy between Hannah’s inner self and the self that she portrays to those around her.

Every year, she would travel, with her husband, her husband’s other wife Peninah, and all of Peninah’s numerous children, to offer a sacrifice at the shrine in Shiloh, where the Priest Eli presided.

This was a particularly sad time for Hannah, made worse by Peninah, who would deliberately make fun of Hannah by flaunting her numerous offspring in the face of her sad rival.

Elkanah sees that his wife is depressed and tries to comfort her in his way. “Hannah, why are you crying and not eating. The food is getting cold. Why are you so sad? Aren’t I more devoted to you than ten sons!?”

While everyone else is experiencing food coma, Hannah gets up to pray. Eli the Priest looks at her, sees her lips moving without uttering a sound, and immediately jumps to conclusions: she must be intoxicated. “How dare you defile the Lord’s sanctuary in your drunkenness!” he yells. Here she is, pouring her heart out to God, and God’s own Priest completely misunderstands her.

Hannah is experiencing great pain. She is not the person who she wants to be. She is not living the life that she has imagined. Nobody sees her as she sees herself. Nobody understands her pain and sorrow. Instead, they insult her, or patronize her, or misjudge her. Hannah is utterly alone. She has nobody with whom she can share her suffering.

So what does she do? This is how the text describes it: “Hannah was bitter of soul, and she prayed to God, all the while crying her heart out.”**2**

She channels her anguish and pours her heart out to the Lord. If no other human being can understand her, perhaps God can.

Hannah’s tale has a happy ending. The woman who begins the story bitter of soul has her prayers answered by God. She gets pregnant and gives birth to a son whom she names Samuel. He will eventually become a chieftain, prophet, and anointer of kings. At Samuel’s weaning, Hannah returns to Shiloh to dedicate her son to a life of service to God. Again, she opens up her heart and this time offers a prayer of blessing and gratitude to God.

Our tradition identifies Hannah as the model for heartfelt prayer. Whenever we are feeling that the words in our siddur do not resonate with us, do not express what we are feeling in our hearts, we would do well to remember that the early Sages did not think that fixed words were the most authentic way to pray. Hannah’s way is the ideal to which we ought to aspire. To bring what is internal, whether sorrow, gratitude, or joy, and make it external.

To do this, we must appraise ourselves honestly. What is the ideal self that we wish we could be?

Perhaps I strive to be generous, or to make a difference in my community. Maybe I want to be well-read, or knowledgeable. Or perhaps I want to be a reliable friend and confidant? Maybe I want to have a healthy body.

We often try to teach our kids: “It doesn’t matter what other people think.” Well, it is not exactly true. In fact, there are some people in our lives whose opinions matter. People whose views of us we should care about. What we should be teaching is to be selective, to figure out which people are the ones whose opinions count.

Pick one person in your life whose opinion you care about. It could be a spouse or partner. Maybe it’s your mother or father, or possibly a son or daughter. Maybe you have a friend whose opinion really matters. Or perhaps a mentor, teacher, or someone you work with.

Let’s take a few moments to ask ourselves: How do I want this person to see me?

Now let’s ask the more difficult question: How may this person actually see me?

Put another way: If this person were to write my epitaph, would it be the same as if I had written it myself?

I am going to guess that there is a difference between how we want to be seen, and how we are seen.

So what will it take to become that person that we strive to be, and to be known that way by others?

As the Nobel Prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer said: “We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.”**3** By focusing on our actions, maybe we can change ourselves from the outside in.

One of the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Ila’i, teaches that if you want to know what a person is like, you have to look at three aspects of his or her behavior.**4**

Amar Rabbi Ila’i: Bishloshah d’varim adam nikar.

“Rabbi Ila’i said: A person is known by three things.” Then he makes a little pun.

B’khoso, uv’khiso, uv’kha’aso.

b’khoso – by his cup, uv’khiso – by his pocket, uv’kha’aso – and by his anger.”

What do each of these things mean?

Let’s start b’khoso, by his cup. In Rabbinic literature, a kos, a cup, is a euphemism for wine. Our tradition sees alchohol, potentially, as a great blessing: “Wine gladdens a person’s heart,”**5** Psalms teaches. But the Rabbis also recognize the harm that overindulgence can bring.

And so, b’khoso is about enjoying the world. A person is known by the way in which he or she takes pleasure in life.

The Talmudic Sage Rav taught: “A human being will have to give account for all that his eye beheld and he did not eat.”**6** The world that God created is a blessing, one which we are meant to appreciate and enjoy.

A person is known by the quality of his enjoyment of the world. Did he hold back, denying himself the ability to experience pleasure? Perhaps he overindulged, consuming so much that he could not appreciate the earth’s blessings. Or maybe he found the sweet spot, cultivating a sense of gratitude by being constantly open to the world’s bounty, recognizing it as a gift from God that must be appreciated, conserved, and shared.

However we enjoy the world, people will know us by it.

A person will also be known b’khiso, by his pocket. How we spend our money says something about us. What percentage of our income do we give to tzedakah? Which causes are the ones which inspire our generosity: hunger, curing disease, education, the arts?

How much do we tip?

How well do we save for the future?

Do we give gifts to our friends and family members?

How do we choose to spend money on ourselves?In contemporary society, with widening income gaps and disposable consumerism, a significant portion of our community has the ability to buy and buy and buy – with much of that buying making no difference in our quality of life. How have we managed to resist those pressures?

Our peers, and our children, see how we choose to spend our resources. What lessons are they drawing about where our priorities lie?

Finally, a person is known b’kha’aso, by his anger.

Anger is not a bad thing. Anger is important. Anger can tell us when there is injustice. Anger points us towards wrongs in our world that need to be corrected. Our challenge is twofold. On the one hand, we have to learn to pay attention to our anger. On the other hand, we have to not allow ourselves to be consumed by it.

So what makes you angry? Needless violence? Children who start school already behind because they don’t have any adults to read to them? Pollution in our air? Dirty clothes left on the living room floor? “The size of a man is measured by the size of the thing that makes him angry.”**7**

Once you are angry, what do you do about it? Nothing? March in the streets? Donate money? Volunteer? Start an organization? Start yelling and waving your arms? Anger is a useful emotion only so long as we direct it towards righting that which is wrong.

We will be known by the things that make us angry and what we choose to do about it.

Our task is to make these aspects of our lives reflect the kind of person we imagine we can be in our hearts.

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the new year, the day on which God created all that is. In our mahzor, we state hayom harat olam. “Today the world is conceived.” Not 5774 years ago. Not four and a half billion years ago. Today. Creation is renewed today – in each one of us.

Rosh Hashanah offers us the choice of becoming a new person. The past is gone, never to be repeated. There is only the eternal present, and hope for the future. What can we do to make our outsides match up with our insides? To make the self that others see reflect the self that we want to be?

This year, focus on three things: b’khoso, u’v’khiso, uv’kha’aso. By our cup – the way that we enjoy the blessings of the world; by our pocket – how we choose to prioritize our resources; and by our anger – how we express our moral outrage.

This year, let us become new people.

**1**I found these epitaphs at the following websites: http://www.webpanda.com/ponder/epitaphs.htm and http://www.et.byu.edu/~tom/jokes/Funny_Epitaphs.html

**2**I Samuel 1:13

**3**Isaac Bashevis Singer, New York Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 1978.

**4**BT Eiruvin 65b

**5**Psalms 104:15

**6**PT Kiddushin 4:12

**7**Attribution cannot be confirmed. Most likely J. Kenneth Morely or Christopher Morely.