Self Absorption – Rosh Hashanah 5777

The story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, which we read every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is so tantalizingly evocative, inspiring, and troubling.  It is a carefully written literary masterpiece.  Every year, we find new ways to read it.

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”

What kind of test is this?  Is it pass/fail?  Is it a test for which God does not know the answer, or a test meant to impart some lesson?

Maybe it is like the test of the emergency broadcast system.  “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  Had the All-Powerful Supreme Ruler of the Universe actually wanted you to sacrifice your son, more information would have followed.  This is only a test.”

Or, perhaps it is a test for us – the readers.

Of course, we know it is a test from the beginning.  The actors in this drama have no such foreknowledge.

“Abraham.”

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  V’ha’aleihu sham l’olah on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Abraham hears this as “offer him there as a burnt offering.”

Before we get too upset, keep in mind that child sacrifice was not such a far-fetched idea in Abraham’s day.  It was a widespread practice throughout the Ancient world, including in the Land of Canaan.  We have biblical and other ancient literary references, as well as archaeological remains.  As far as humans in ancient times knew, the gods liked it when people offered up their children.  It probably did not sound all that strange to Abraham.  So he complies with the request.

Without a word, Abraham gets up early, saddles a donkey, enlists two servants and Isaac, and chops some wood to serve as fuel.

On the third day, Abraham looks up and sees the mountain.  He tells the servants to wait at the bottom with the donkey.  He gives Isaac the wood to carry, and they set off to climb the mountain.  He himself carries the firestone and the cleaver.

Suddenly, we hear Isaac’s voice, the only time that the Torah records father and son speaking together.

“Father.”

“Here I am, my son.”

“Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the sheep for the offering?”

“God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.”

And the two of them walk on together.

No more words are exchanged.  They reach the top of the mountain.  Abraham, methodically, goes about his business.  He lays out an altar.  He places the wood on it.  He binds Isaac and places him on top of the wood.

He reaches out his hand and takes hold of the cleaver in order to slaughter his son.

And suddenly a voice cries out:  “Abraham!  Abraham!”

It is an angel of the Lord from the heavens.

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

Abraham raises his eyes and he looks and ‘Behold!  A Ram!’

―with its horns caught in the thicket.  And Abraham takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.

Abraham barely speaks throughout this story, and never once to God.  Rashi, citing a midrash, imagines that Abraham might have had a few questions that did not make the final edit.

“I will lay my complaint before you,” he begins.  “You told me, (Genesis 21:12) ‘through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed,’ and then you changed your mind and said, (Genesis 22:2) ‘Take, pray, your son.’  Now you tell me, ‘Do not reach out your hand against the lad!'”

Abraham is understandably confused.  God has promised that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, descended specifically through Isaac.  We read about in just the previous chapter, and we chanted it yesterday.

Then, God seems to change the plan by asking Abraham to offer Isaac up.

Through it all, Abraham goes along.

Now, having done everything God has asked of him, despite the contradictions, Abraham is told not to follow through!?

The Holy One, blessed be He, says to him, [You misunderstood me.]  When I told you, ‘Take [your son…,] I did not tell you ‘slay him’ but rather ‘bring him up,’ for the sake of love did I say it to you.  You have brought him up, in fulfillment of my words — now take him down.’ (Genesis Rabbah 56)

The miscommunication hinges on the phrase v’ha’aleihu sham l’olahAn olah is a burnt offering.  That is how Abraham hears it.

But it also means “go up” or “ascend.”  A person who moves to Israel makes aliyah.  Someone who is given an honor in synagogue receives an aliyah.  In the midrash, God means for Abraham to bring Isaac up to the top of the mountain as an expression of love, not to be a sacrifice.

How could Abraham have misunderstood?

To answer this, we must identify the role of the angel in this story.

Imagine the critical scene in your mind, when Abraham has grasped the blade in his hand, and the angel comes to intervene.  Picture it.  Where are Isaac, Abraham, and the angel situated?

In almost every work of art depicting the Binding of Isaac, the angel is reaching out a hand and grabbing Abraham to prevent him from slaughtering his son.  That image of physical intervention has entered our consciousness.

But that is not what the text says.  The only intervention that takes place is verbal.  “Abraham.  Abraham.”

“Here I am,” he responds.

It is Abraham who holds back his own hand.

There is a vein within the Jewish mystical tradition extending into mussar thinking that understands angels as inert forces in our world.  They are unable to act.  It is righteous human action, or expressions of will, that activates these inert Divine forces.

Mussar understands the expression of the human will as it acts in the world to be our yetzer.  The yetzer can be tov – good, or it can be ra – evil.

When we allow it to flow out of us, the yetzer is tov.  But when it is stopped up inside, it becomes ra.

To expand on this―when my focus is external; when my concern is for the other; when the question I ask myself about the person before me is “what does this person need from me?”―That is when my soul opens up, and my yetzer flows out.

But when I am self-absorbed; when I am concerned for my own needs; when I am wrapped up in my own suffering― then I am unable to recognize the needs of the person facing me.  My soul is stopped up, and my yetzer works its evil, rotting inside of me.

All that God or the angel can do is speak.  Only Abraham can act to change the course of events in this story.

In the beginning, God calls out to Abraham and asks him to raise up his son in love.  But Abraham, in this moment self-absorbed in his devotion to a god who might just be a projection of his own ego, hears the message differently.  The yetzer hara has taken hold.  Can Abraham break out of his self-absorption and release his yetzer hatov?

Abraham has other moments of greatness, when his yetzer tov flows out into the world.  When he runs out of his tent to welcome three angels disguised as travelers, when he argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah―these are moments when Abraham has set aside his own self-concern to serve others, and in so doing, to activate God’s Presence in the world.

In this story, however, Abraham’s yetzer is stopped up.  He is not able to activate the Divine potential that lies dormant.  He does not see the suffering of his son.

Something happens on top of the mountain.  The angel calls out twice.  Abraham looks up.  Not only does he see the ram, he sees his son, perhaps for the first time.  That is the test.  And he passes.  He saves his son, substituting the ram.

Only then does God bless him.

We live in an epidemic of self-absorption.  In former times, people lived in close quarters.  It was not uncommon for three generations to reside under the same roof.  We were thrown against each other in such a way that it was nearly impossible to find privacy, even in our own homes.  Facing each other’s needs was inevitable.

Now, we are so spread out.  Most households today have just one or two generations living under the same roof.  Plus, the distance between our homes has grown, so we are farther away from our neighbors.

The membership of our synagogue is spread out over many square miles.  We’ve gone to the opposite extreme.  We have so much private space that we now find ourselves alone much of the time.  If we want to be with other people, we have to actively do something to make it happen.

The internet offers the promise of connecting with each other across the physical divide.  But how do we use it?

I might snap a selfie, or post the silly thing that my kid said.  I’ll take a picture of my lunch and share it with the world.  And then I’ll check to see how many “likes” I’ve received.  Is this really connecting with other people, or might this perhaps be a manifestation of my self-absorption?

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time we spend “connecting” online and the amount of time we spend “connecting” in person.  It is getting steadily worse as the number of screen devices in our lives increases.

Our tradition teaches us that holiness is encountered in the relationships between people.  The three dimensional relationships.  God, as a latent force, is activated when we care for another person, placing that other person’s needs before our own.

And believe it or not, quantity matters.

The question is asked―If I have a thousand gold coins to give away, is it better to give all thousand coins to one person, or should I give one coin each to a thousand people?

I might think that it does not make a difference.  What matters is the bottom line.  The tax deduction is the same either way.  Or, I might say that one coin is not going to do anyone any good, but one thousand coins will surely make a difference in someone’s life.

But that is not what our tradition says.  It is better for me to give a thousand coins to a thousand people.  Why?  Because of the impact of one thousand face-to-face interactions on me.

The word v’natnu, meaning “and you shall give” is the longest palindrome in the Torah―vav nun tav nun vav.  This teaches us that the blessings of generosity flow forward to the receiver and backward to the giver.

What are those blessings?  Increased consciousness of the other.  Holiness.  Awareness of God.

What will it take for us to be less self-absorbed?  Deliberate effort.  We have got to train ourselves if we want to be able to resist the forces that drive us towards increased alienation.  And just like the thousand coins, quantity matters.

It is one of the reasons why our synagogue is so important.  Involvement in a religious community offers many ways to break out of self-absorption and see the other:  attending Shabbat services, where we pray side-by-side, and then share a meal together; learning together at a Limmud La-ad, Lifelong Jewish Learning, program; taking time out to comfort a mourner by attending a funeral or a shiva minyan; delivering a meal and visiting with someone in our community who is ill; helping to serve lunch at a homeless shelter.

In this new year, let us each identify individual actions that we can take that will change the question from “what do I want?” to “what does the person before me need?”

The accumulation of many such actions can eventually unstop our hearts, release our yetzer tov, connect us with others in a world of increasing alienation, and activate the Divine Presence in our world.

Like Abraham, who at the critical moment, heard the Divine Voice calling, and woke out of his narrow-minded self focus to see his bound son suffering before him – we too can wake up.

Shanah Tovah.

 

Thanks to Rabbi Ira Stone for providing ideas that went into this D’var Torah.

What Do I Do That Makes Me a Jew – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (second day)

The Torah does not make any connection between Rosh Hashanah and repentance.  Yom Kippur, yes.  But Rosh Hashanah is described in the Torah as Yom Teruah – a Day of Blasting.  Although it is not stated explicitly, the biblical Rosh Hashanah did mark a new year of sorts.  It was a coronation holiday, when ancient Israel celebrated the crowning of God as King.

It was implied that on the day we celebrate God’s Kingship over the universe, we also celebrate God’s creation of that universe.

The element of teshuvah, repentance, does not seem so obvious.  Why celebrate something so grand by first going through the soul-wrenching experience of teshuvah?

The musaf Amidah includes three major themes: Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot – Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar blasts.  Each section is comprised of ten biblical passages followed by a concluding blessing.

The verses in the first of the three sections, Malkhuyot, proclaim God’s Kingship over the universe, as we might expect.  The ninth verse is from the Prophet Zechariah: v’hayah Adonai l’melekh al kol ha’aretz, bayom hahu yi-h’yeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.  “Adonai shall be acknowledged King over all the earth; On that day Adonai shall be one, and His name, one.”

It might sound familiar.  This verse is included in the final line of v’al kein, the paragraph after Aleinu.

Notice that in Zechariah’s words, God is not currently recognized as King over all the earth.  The Prophet speaks of a future time when God will reign supreme.  “Adonai shall be acknowledged King…”

Zechariah looks ahead, to a time when all of humanity will be united in recognition of God.  Neither Zechariah, nor any other biblical or Rabbinic text, proclaims that everyone will become Jewish.  We have never expected the nations of the world to convert to be saved.  Rather, Zechariah imagines that all peoples will come to recognize God, and will be united in their commitment to justice and kindness.  That is the messianic future in our Jewish tradition.

So if, from the human perspective, God is not currently King, why do we celebrate God’s Kingship?

The clue is perhaps to be found in the tenth verse of Malkhuyot.  This should also sound familiar.  Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.  “Listen Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.”  It is included in Malkhuyot, even though it does not contain any obvious reference to God’s Kingship, either now or in the future.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understand the Shema as a statement about the Jewish people’s sole commitment to God.  In declaring our allegiance to Adonai alone, we proclaim our acceptance of ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

But there is something unusual about the language of the Shema compared to almost every other prayer.  Usually, we direct our prayers towards God.  God, you are great, merciful, powerful, and so on… Heal us, forgive us, save us…  You get the picture.

With the Shema, however, we talk to each other.  Shema Yisrael – “Listen Israel.”  Our tradition is to close our eyes to help us concentrate better, but it might make more sense to actually turn to the people around us, and make eye contact.  That is what the words themselves would seem to suggest.

Shema Yisrael!  “Listen, my fellow Jews, standing to my right and my left, in front and behind me.”  Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad! – “Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”

This proclamation we make to one another is kind of a pep talk.  While the rest of the world may not yet have come to acknowledge God, we the Jewish people are committed.  We have a unique covenant, a particular sacred relationship with God that confers certain responsibilities on us.

By reciting the Shema as the conclusion of Malkhuyot, we send a message to ourselves and each other that the Jewish people has a role to play in crowning God as King of the world.  What is that role?  To live up to our potential as individuals and as a people. As Jews, the Torah is our recipe for reaching higher.

Teshuvah, repentance, is about refocusing ourselves on a life of Torah, recommitting to what truly matters in life.  That is how we bring Zekhariah’s vision closer to reality.

Today, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As a test, God asks Abraham to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering.  Abraham complies without a word of protest.  At the last moment, as the knife is raised above his bound son, an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham… Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him…”

To our ears, this is a horrific story.  How could Abraham go along with such an awful request, we ask.  Why does the man who argued with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah not plead for the life of his own son?  What kind of a God would ask such a thing, even if the plan all along was to stop Abraham from finishing the task?

These morally troubling questions might seem obvious to us, but before modern times, these were not the issues that Jews raised.

Traditional commentaries and midrashim recognize the importance of this story, but for different reasons.  It is so significant that our ancient Sages selected it as the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah.  I do not think their goal was to horrify Jews sitting through long High Holiday services.

Why did they pick it?

The answer can be found in the angel’s next words to Abraham:  “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

It is Abraham’s faith, his willingness to offer up the ultimate sacrifice, that the Rabbis suggest as a model.  Abraham did not want to sacrifice his son.  The text tells us as much.  “Take your son,” God instructs Abraham at the beginning of the story.  “your favored one, Isaac, whom you love…”  There is no question that Abraham loves Isaac, and that he does not want to do what has been asked of him, but his fear of God is even greater.

For millenia, Jews read this story and saw in Abraham not a model to be emulated, but a solitary act of faith whose merits would continue to reverberate with blessings throughout the generations.  To this day, prayers in our siddur evoke Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) tremendous act of faith.  Jews in the middle ages who took their own and their children’s lives rather than be murdered by Crusader mobs looked to the Akedah as a model for martyrdom.  “Abraham did not finish the task, but we did,” they proclaimed.

One reading of the story could be as a rejection of child sacrifice.  After all, God tells Abraham that he does not want him to sacrifice Isaac.  Contrary to the pagan gods of the ancient world, our God is not like that.  The sacrifices asked of us do not require that we give up our future.  Quite the opposite.  The purpose of the Torah and the mitzvot is to promote life.

Nevertheless, we are asked to offer our children to God, but in a different way.

A midrash teaches that as the Jewish people are at Mount Sinai about to receive the Torah, God suddenly stops and says, “I will not give this Torah to you unless you provide worthy guarantors who will ensure that you keep it.”

The people are dumbfounded.  “We’ll give you the Patriarchs,” they offer.

“Nah.”  God is not impressed.  “They didn’t always do what I wanted.  They need their own guarantors.”

“Okay,” the Israelites think. “We’ll give you the Prophets.”

“Nope,” God responds.  “I have problems with them too.”

Finally, the Israelites look up.  “Our children will be our guarantors.”

God smiles.  “That I can work with.”

From that moment on, the Jewish people have been committed to living by the Torah.  This commitment is primarily not about belief, but rather it is about action, so let each of us ask ourselves the following question:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

It is not such a simple question.  Let me reframe it.  What does Judaism compel me to do that, left to my own devices, I would not do on my own?

For example:  I would love to stay in bed all morning on Saturday, but according to Jewish law I am supposed to get up in order to pray, ideally with a community.  So instead of sleeping in, I come to synagogue.

Here is the inverse of the question:  What would I love to do that I don’t because Judaism says no?

That’s easy.  I would eat a bacon double cheeseburger.  I have never had one, but I am certain that it is delicious.  According to the Torah, bacon double cheeseburgers are not kosher, so I will have to go without.

What do I do that makes me a Jew?  It is an important question because being Jewish is more than just a cultural aspect of our identities.  Judaism is supposed to be lived.  We ought to be able to point to specific decisions we make that we would not make if we were not Jewish.  Everyone in this room made a choice to come here today.  You are here because of Judaism.  How else does being Jewish impact our decisions and actions?

In recent decades, much of the Jewish world has embraced tikkun olam, literally, “repairing the world,” as a core expression of Jewish values.  While traditional texts have something more mystical and spiritual in mind, we have redefined the term to refer to social action and social justice.  Tikkun olam means literally, “repairing the world.”  Reinterpreting tikkun olam in this way is a wonderful application of traditional Jewish values about justice to contemporary life.  But is social justice Jewish?

After all, there are lots of people of all faiths, and of no faith, who are dedicated to social action and social justice.  I do not need to be Jewish to volunteer at a soup kitchen, clean up a creek, run a clothing drive, or make a micro-loan.

Would I do the same volunteer work and give the same money to charity if I was not a Jew?  If the answer is yes, then can I really claim to be doing something Jewish?  Do not get me wrong, humanist values are important, and often overlap with Jewish values.  In fact, these kinds of shared values are a great opportunity for finding common ground with other groups.

But a Judaism that is only about social action and social justice is incomplete.

So let’s come back to the question:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

Let’s consider our homes.  If someone were to walk inside your home, how would she know that its residents were Jewish?  A Jewish home has a mezuzah, at least on the main entrance, and preferably on all doors except bathrooms and closets.  Jewish homes have books, especially Jewish books, emphasizing our commitment to learning.  Jewish homes have ritual items on display like Shabbat candles, Challah plates, kiddush cups, Chanukah menorah’s, seder plates, and so on.  Ideally, these ritual items should be used.  Jewish homes often have Jewish art on the wall.  If it is the home of a married couple, the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, might be displayed prominently.  A Jewish home probably has a Jewish calendar hanging up somewhere.  The synagogue bulletin might be on a coffee table or attached by magnet to the fridge.

If a home is kosher, it might have labels on the kitchen cabinets, indicating whether the milk or the meat utensils belong there.

That’s the home.  What about when we are out in the world?  When it comes to food, there are twenty four primary regulations that make up the rules of kashrut.  But did you know that there are over one hundred rules that deal with business conduct?  Those rules are a lot more complicated than “be honest.”  These laws often go beyond what the secular legal system would allow, and represent a way of conducting our affairs that is rooted in morality, fairness, and compassion.  For example, it is forbidden to ask a shopkeeper how much something costs if we do not have any intention of making a purchase.  While perfectly legal under American law, our Jewish law considers it cruel to falsely raise the hopes of someone whose livelihood depends on making a sale.  Let us think about that the next time we go into a brick and mortar store to check out an item that we intend to purchase online.

It is a mitzvah to give tzedakah, charity.  Specifically, we are asked to give a minimum of 10% of our income.  This applies even to the person who is himself a recipient of tzedakah.

How does Judaism impact the financial decisions we make?

Judaism has a lot to say about what comes out of our mouths.  Spreading gossip, lashon hara in Hebrew, which literally means “the evil tongue,” is forbidden in Judaism.  Entire books have been written that explore the numerous permutations of this most ubiquitous of activities.  To talk as a Jew involves holding our tongue in rather significant ways.

The ways that Judaism offers guidance for our lives covers nearly every category we can imagine: how we treat our family members, how we support members of our community in need, how we celebrate with a bride and groom.

Taken as a whole, to live a Jewish life has the potential to touch on every moment of the day.  Committment to the mitzvot puts us on the path for living an ethical life, a life in which our everyday moments are elevated in holiness, a life in which our own characters are refined, and a life in which we share a deep connection with the Jewish people of today, those who have come before us, and those who will follow.

The question that everybody involved in Jewish continuity wrestles with is “How do we ensure that the next generation of Jews will stay committed?”

The answer is so simple.  We have to do Jewish and like it.  When children are immersed in families and communities in which the adults, their role models, have made a commitment to Jewish life because it is meaningful to them, it makes an impression.  It must be more than dropping off our kids at Religious School or Day School.  We have got to model how living a committed Jewish life is worthwhile for adults.

That is the simple answer for how to raise committed Jews.

Last year, the well-publicized Pew Report on Jewish identity in America indicated declining rates of affiliation among Jews.  Every marker of Jewish identity and commitment, ranging from raising children as exclusively Jewish, to lighting Shabbat candles, to feeling connected to Israel, had gone down rather significantly compared to surveys in previous decades.

It especially highlighted – and many articles were written subsequently about this – the decline of the Conservative Movement.

Yet here we are – so many people gathering together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  And look at all of the children who have passed through these doors the past two days.  In our little pocket here in San Jose, we seem to be bucking the trend – and there are a lot of similar pockets around the country.

It is because we have chosen to make a commitment.

Last year, Congregation Sinai adopted a new mission statement.  The first line captures what our synagogue is here to do:  “At Sinai, we connect people to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.”

Judaism has always been rooted in community.  The fullest expression of Jewish life needs other Jews.  It needs synagogues.  That is why the Shema is such a perfect prayer for us to recite.

It is a prayer in which we acknowledge each other.  We declare that we need one another to fulfill our role in the world.  And if we, the Jewish people, are going to play our part in bringing about Zechariah’s vision of a world that is united in its commitment to peace and justice, it will depend on each one of us.

The teshuvah that we perform during our celebration of the New Year recommits us to that vision.

Over the rest of today, and in the days ahead leading up to Yom Kippur, let us each ask ourselves the question.  Let us talk about it with each other.  Let’s talk about it with our kids:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?