What Happens Behind Closed Tent Flaps – Rosh Hashanah 5782

When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?

The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning. 

Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice.  On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain.  He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.

We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.

Avi – “Father”

And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”

Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)

And they continue on together.

That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.  

The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.

In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.

Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.

But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from. 

Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son).  (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)

Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.

Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,

“Do you know what has just happened?  Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar.  He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim.  Then her soul departed.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8

Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.

But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?

Of course not. 

Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.

Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.

And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.

Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?

After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.

We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.

We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced.  We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.

Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.

Human beings are often quick to judge.  Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.

To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.

What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.

This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us.  In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.

Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.

This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.

Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves. 

We do not know what is going on beneath the surface.  What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan

So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.

With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.

Shanah Tovah.

Take a Seat on the Throne of Mercy – Yom Kippur 5780

Think about an argument that you have had with someone in the past year.  Some time when you really got angry.  Picture the scene.  What did the other person do and say?  What did you do and say?  Think back to what led up to the fight, and what happened after it was over.  Are you still angry about it?

Now I have a question: What color were the other person’s eyes?  Can you even picture their face, or is it a blur?

It is not only when we are in a fight that we don’t look at one another.  We tend to be pretty self-centered in most of our interactions.  As society becomes more fractured and people become more atomized, this is only getting worse.

Self-centeredness lends itself to being more judgmental of others.  We are less willing to see things from another person’s perspective.

And yet, that is exactly what we ask God to do for us.  We want God to take note of us, to see things from our perspective, and have mercy.

It is ironic, because the dominant depiction of God during the High Holidays is as a King.  Last week, for Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated creation.  God is a Creator King.  Today, on Yom Kippur, we stand in judgment before our creator.  God is a Judge King.  

What does every King need? A throne, of course.  The Hebrew word for throne is kisei. The image of God’s kisei appears frequently in our High Holiday prayers.

One of those thrones appears in the prayer, Unetaneh TokefV’yikon b’chesed kis’ekha — “Your throne is established in love.”  V’teshev alav be’emet — “and You sit upon it in truth.  ‘Truth’ for you are judge and prosecutor, expert and witness…” The image is of God as a King and a Judge, reviewing the deeds of all of Creation, passing judgment on us on Rosh Hashanah and sealing it on Yom Kippur.  It is a terrifying image, suggesting that our actions in the past year seal our fate in the year to come.  There is no escaping the truth of our deeds.  The best we can do is avert the severity of the decree.  It is not particularly reassuring.

Fortunately, this is not the only kind of throne that we find in the Mahzor.  Another part of our Yom Kippur service is called Selichot.  We recite the words El Melekh yoshev al kisei rachamim.  “God, King, who sits on a throne of mercy.”  That is the image of God that we want.  “acting with unbounded grace, forgiving the sin of Your people, one by one, as each comes before You, generously forgiving sinners and pardoning transgressors, acting charitably with every living thing; do not repay them for their misdeeds.” The God of Selichot is the polar opposite of the God of Unetaneh Tokef: a God of mercy rather than a God of justice.

Our goal, through the season of repentance, is to elevate the Divine King from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy.  It is why, for example, we add an extra l’eilah to the Kaddish.  L’eilah l’eilah: Higher and higher.  Rise up, O Lord, to Your Throne of Mercy.

This tension between justice and mercy, din and rachamim; law and righteousness, mishpat and tzedek, is found throughout Jewish tradition.  

It is in the commentaries and midrash and even in the Bible itself.  It is reflected in two most commonly appearing Divine names.  Yud Hei Vav Hei is the unpronounceable name that we read as Adonai or, “The Lord.”  The other name is Elohim, which we translate simply as “God.”

Jewish tradition understands these two names as reflections of the two aspects of the Divine persona.  These attributes oppose and balance one another.  Adonai is mercy and Elohim is Judgment.

Throughout the creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Divine is repeatedly referred to by both names, together: Adonai Elohim—”The Lord, God.”  This is atypical.  Usually, the Torah uses one or the other name.  It must mean something important.  A midrash offers a parable (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

There once was a human king who had some drinking cups.   The king said to himself, “if I put hot water in them, they will shatter, and if I put cold water in them, they will crack.  What to do?  What to do?”

So what did the king do? He mixed the hot water with the cold water and then filled up the glasses so that they would not break.  (This is not rocket science, folks.)

So too did the Blessed Holy One say: “If I create the world only with the attribute of compassion alone, I will tolerate everything and the sins will proliferate uncontrollably.  But if I create the world only with the attribute of justice alone, how would it be able to stand?”

“So,” the Lord God concludes, “I will create it with both judgment and compassion.”

So far, this is a pretty straightforward midrash.  There are several rabbinic texts that say something similar.  But the two concluding words are unique:  V’halevai ya’amod.  “Would that it stands.”

This ending is delightfully ambiguous.  God says, “I’ll give this a shot.  I hope it works.”

The resulting world, our world, is a confusing mess.  Fate is unpredictable, and may or may not reflect a fair consequence of our actions.

This tension is on display in full force in the Book of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon.  The book opens with God’s command to deliver a prophecy against the residents of the wicked city of Nineveh. Without any explanation whatsoever, Jonah runs the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship.  When the inevitable storm appears, Jonah is asleep in the cargo hold.  The other sailors are doing everything possible to survive.  They each pray to their own gods.  They throw overboard anything that is not nailed down.

Nothing works.  When the captain finds Jonah asleep, he is incredulous.  “How can you be sleeping at a time like this!  Get up and cry out to your god!  Ulai—Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish!”

Jonah ignores the captain in silence.  It’s like he wants to go down with the ship.  So they cast lots to identify the person on whose account the storm has come.  Of course, the lots indicate Jonah.

“What did you do?” the sailors cry.

Again, Jonah is silent.  

“What can we do to calm the sea?” they ask.

Finally Jonah speaks, “Throw me overboard and the sea will calm down, for I am the cause.”

The sailors are heartbroken.  They do not want to perform such a terrible action.  But the storm is raging stronger by the minute, and they have no alternative.  Before they do it, they offer a prayer to Jonah’s God.  “Please, Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.  Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person…!” Then they toss the prophet, and the storm ceases.  In appreciation, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to God.  

What is up with Jonah?  Why does he run?  The text offers no explanation.  You would think that he might try to argue with God.  Perhaps he could pray when the captain approaches him.  What is going on in this guy’s head? The man has a death wish.  He is on a one-way journey of self-destruction.  If not for the piety of the sailors, he would have brought them down with him.

God will not let Jonah off so easy.  Instead of letting him drown, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah alive and deposit him on dry land after three days.  God orders Jonah, once again, to deliver a prophecy of destruction to Nineveh.  Realizing that there is no escape, Jonah performs his task.  He walks through the streets declaring, Od arba’im yom v’Ninveh neh’pachet—”Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

Compelled by these five inspiring words, the entire city—from the King to the people to the livestock—puts on sackcloth and fasts in repentance.  God backs down from the evil that had been planned for them.

Jonah’s reaction is exactly the opposite.  The forgiveness of the Ninevites “was exceedingly evil to Jonah, and he was angry.”

Now, finally, at the beginning of chapter four, Jonah reveals his motivations in what the text describes as a prayer to God.  It does not sound much like a prayer, though.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  That’s why I ran away so quickly.  I knew that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil.  Now, Lord, please take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Jonah still harbors his death wish.  Why is he so upset? In this book, God is governed exclusively by the attribute of mercy.  Jonah knows it well.  He is certain that when the Ninevites hear his prophecy of doom and destruction, they will repent.

God, who is always ready to forgive a sinner, will then have to forgive the Ninevites.  Jonah’s prophecy of devastation will never come about and he will be made to look the fool. He would rather die than be embarrassed.

If God is driven solely by mercy in this story, then Jonah is governed by strict judgment.  The world he wants to live in is a world in which the wicked are always punished. He is willing to suffer to make this happen.  Jonah would rather die than act to prevent the deaths of others he deems not worthy. He wants to invoke the God of justice, but this is not a story about the God of Justice.  In this book, it is a merciful God who saves the sailors, prevents Jonah from drowning, and forgives the Ninevites, along with their animals.

Jonah is closed off to the possibility of change.  He is closed off to considering the internal feelings, thoughts, and experiences of anyone but himself.  He will not allow himself to consider it.  Justice prevents it.

Contrast him with the ship’s captain.  The captain says Ulai—”Maybe.”  What a beautiful, hopeful word.  The captain does not know why the storm has risen.  His world, and that of the Ninevites, is one in which is mercy is possible.  He does not know if Jonah’s prayer will work.  But he is hopeful.  Ulai.  “Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish,” he offers wistfully.

The captain’s ulai sounds like God’s Halevai ya’amod from the midrash of the cups.  “Would that the world stands.”  We live in a world in which justice and mercy are both present.  Harsh, unrelenting punishment, competing with forgiveness and second chances.

I have suggested before that whenever we talk about God, we are actually talking about ourselves.  The midot, God’s qualities. are what we imagine to be the best possible attributes that a human being can achieve, but better.

So when we ask God to ascend from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, and when we read how Jonah is unable to prevent God from acting with compassion, we are talking to ourselves. It is we who are overly judgmental, and who suppress compassion for others in our relationships and interactions.  We are the ones who need to rise to the throne of mercy.

But it is so hard.  Every day, we have to deal with people who drive us crazy.

That person who lives under the same roof, who leaves their socks out on the floor of the living room, or the family member who yells at them for it.  The child who screams at a parent to change the radio station in the car, or the parent who insists on listening to the news.  (This is all hypothetical, of course.)

At school: the disruptive student who takes up 50% of the teacher’s time.

At work: the coworker who stubbornly refuses to see that my solution to the problem at hand is clearly the best one.  The employee who arrives late and goes home early while I work hard at my desk.

In the news: the politician who is clearly driven by the pure quest for power and ego-fulfillment, and the blind, naive supporters.  Why can’t they see the facts, which are so clear and straightforward?

My knee-jerk response is always to judge others.  Like Jonah, I do not take time to consider the experiences and emotions that another person might be feeling.  Instead, I judge that person only according to the impact of their actions on me, personally.

One of my favorite lessons in Pirkei Avot is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya.

Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’khaf z’khut. “Judge every person to the scale of merit.”

Pirkei Avot 1:6

Imagine scales of justice, with one side representing guilt, and the other side representing or innocence.  We are encouraged to do everything possible to load up the side of innocence. 

I am really good at this, an expert, really… for myself.  I find all sorts of ways to justify my behavior, to excuse my mistakes.  I am so good at defending myself against the critiques of my family members, friends, and coworkers.

When it comes to other people… not so good.  Giving other people the benefit of the doubt does not come easily.

Consider every confrontation with another person that you have ever had.  Estimate the percent of time that you were the side in the right.  What would the percentage be?  50/50?  I don’t think so.

Human beings are naturally biased.  We have a strong tendency to be merciful with ourselves and judgmental of others.  This is called “illusory superiority.”  It is when a person tends to overestimate his or her own qualities and abilities compared to others.

80% of all drivers think they are above average.  Look around the room.  80% of us think that we are better than half of you.  

I know what you are probably thinking, because I am thinking the same thing: “but in my case, I actually am better than average.”  Sure you are.

Mashing up the Pirkei Avot teaching with the Torah’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, adds

Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, makes excuses also for your fellow.

Is that doable?  The next time someone cuts me off on the freeway without indicating their turning signal, can I make an excuse for them?  Let’s try.

  • Maybe there is a woman about to give birth in the backseat.
  • Maybe there is a toddler having a temper tantrum.
  • Maybe the driver did signal, and I just didn’t see it.
  • Maybe the driver has been on the road for three hours and really needs to find a bathroom.

Imagine the story that would explain the behavior to be perfectly reasonable, even preferable perhaps—given the circumstances.

This is easy when it comes to people we don’t know and whom we do not have to face directly.  It’s easy to make up a creative story that probably isn’t true about someone I have never met before.  What about people we do know?

I recently heard an interview of Alan Alda on the podcast, Hidden Brain.  He wrote a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? in which he draws upon his work helping engineers and scientists to become better communicators.  Effective communication all comes down to “empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking.”

In the interview, Alda quips, “I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.”

He suggests a simple practice that can help us develop greater empathy, improve communication, and improve our relationships.  While  interacting with someone, try to name the emotion that this person is feeling.  Psychotherapists are trained to do this in clinical settings, but there is no reason why the rest of us cannot employ this practice in our everyday interactions.

Alda suggests that we don’t even need to name the emotion.  Just taking note of the color of a person’s eyes can help us become more loving in our relationships.  

I am far less likely to get mad at somebody if I have a sense of what they are feeling and thinking, or if I have taken a moment to look deeply into their eyes.  This can be an effective way to elevate ourselves from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy.  It is a way of conveying to myself, and to the other person:  “I see you, and I am listening to you.”

Alda writes that

Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking…  Unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening.  But if I do listen—openly, naively, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us.”

Alan Alda.  If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (New York: 2017). pp. 10-11.

What a profound statement!  In how many of my conversations can I truly say that I was willing to be changed by the other person?

That is what it means to sit on the throne of mercy.  In our prayers, this is the essence of what we ask for from God.  Take note of us.  Look at our lives.  See how much we struggle.  Look at the good things we have done.  Look at how hard we have tried to repair our mistakes, to improve?  See us.  And forgive us.

I do not know whether there is a God who is listening to all of these prayers, but I do know that I ought to be listening.  Am I able to get up from the Throne of Judgment, and take a seat on the Throne of Mercy?