Rosh HaShanah Morning - 1 Tishrei 5777 - Monday, October 3, 2016
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York
L’Shanah Tovah! A good New Year to all of you.
Here is a translation of the Binding of Isaac, which we have already heard beautifully chanted in Hebrew today.
God tested Abraham.
God called to Abraham saying: Abraham!
Abraham said: Here I am!
God said: Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.
Go forth to the Land of Moriah, and take him up there for an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.
Abraham got up early the next morning and loaded up a donkey with all that he needed for the offering.
He took two servants with him, and Isaac, and departed for the place that God talked about.
Three days later Abraham saw the place from far away and told the servants to stay there with the donkey while he and his son would go up, make an offering, and then both return.
Isaac said to Abraham his father: Father!
Abraham said: Here I am, my son.
Isaac said: here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?
Abraham said: God will see to the lamb for the offering.
Then the two of them went on together.
They came to the place that God had spoken about.
Abraham built the altar, arranged the wood, and bound Isaac his son, and placed him on top of the wood.
Abraham stretched out his hand, he took his knife to slay his son.
But God’s messenger called out from heaven and said, Abraham, Abraham!
He said: Here I am!
He said: Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!
For now I know that you are in awe of God. You did not withhold your son, your only one, from me.
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw: here was a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.
Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as an offering in place of his son.
Like many of you, I am troubled by this story. We read this every year on Rosh haShanah.
Why? Shouldn’t we be reading the opening chapters of Genesis, the story of the Creation of the World as a way to celebrate the birthday of the world?
Many years ago a congregant explained this to me. We Jews keep the stories that raise questions. We need stories that make us think. And so instead of the story of Creation, we read the Binding of Isaac, which forces us to ask this central question, “What was Abraham’s test?”
We ask this question on Rosh haShanah because how we answer it determines how we see God, religion, parenting - the sum total of Judaism in one single question.
Traditionally, we are told that this was a test of Abraham’s faith - will he blindly do what God told him to do?
I refuse to accept that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill his son.
I refuse to accept that the point of the story is proving that we are willing to do something abominable in the name of God.
If this is not the test, then what is it instead?
I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am. He focuses on the idea that when we call out to one another, we should follow the example of Abraham and say, “Here I am”. Abraham had to pass the test of being present.
Think about that.
Someone calls our name, doesn’t have to be God, can be a friend, a child, a spouse, a co-worker. What is our initial response?
How often do we look up from the thing we are doing and say, “Yes?” “What can I do for you?” Or sometimes more brusquely, “What do you want?”
What happens if instead, the next time someone calls our name, we say or fulfill the idea of, “Here I am.”
“Here I am” - to listen to you, to see you, to be here for you, to be present and not multi-task while talking to you.
The test that Abraham faced was how could he be truly present for God and Isaac his son. God called Abraham and Abraham responded: “Here I am”.
God’s request was terrifying and made no sense but Abraham felt that he had to follow it through - he was present for God.
Isaac interrupted their journey, called out to his father, and Abraham again responded: “Here I am”.
Isaac asked, reasonably, for clarification, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham had to be there for his son too, and placed his hopes and faith in it all working out in the end by saying, “God will see to the offering”.
And finally, on the top of the mountain, with the knife in his hand, Abraham has to be present for both God and his son Isaac. When he responds to God’s messenger “Here I am!”, Abraham is able to see the ram, and see his way to being there for both God and Isaac.
At no point in this narrative did Abraham respond to these interruptions with anything but his fullest self. The Torah doesn’t portray our ancestor as impatient or bothered by either his son or God in those moments.
Abraham offered full attention. “Here I am! Ready to listen to you with my full being.” Abraham was present and attentive to Isaac and to God. Abraham never turned away from facing the people who demanded his attention.
Abraham passed the test of full attention. He showed up fully, and, so what? We are still left asking: What kind of God asks this? What kind of father considered it?
We are not the only ones who ask, and asking is an age-old Jewish practice.
In the Middle Ages, Rabbi David Kimchi wrote that Abraham should have heard God say about Isaac: “take him up for an offering event” instead of “take him up and offer him”. The test is one of listening comprehension - can Abraham accurately understand what God is asking of him?
This is the rest of Rabbi Kimchi’s interpretation of the story.
Abraham originally misunderstood God and set out to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice.
As he got closer to the event, Abraham had his doubts. Isaac asked Abraham along the way, “Here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?” Even though Abraham may not have thought through what would happen, he responded with a true vision of the future: “God will see to the lamb for the offering.”. This is what would eventually happen!
We can imagine Abraham’s distraction as he planned this terrible act. Abraham faced the horror, and went on with only those thoughts in his mind. He didn't even notice the ram that was already there caught in the thicket by its horns. It was that moment with the knife over Isaac, when Abraham hesitated and heard God’s voice saying, “Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!” In that moment he raised up his eyes and saw the ram.
In that instant Abraham understood God’s real message. Abraham understood the wrongness of what he thought he had heard, and allowed himself to learn what God had originally asked him.
Abraham becomes a model for learning to do better, as opposed to a parent applauded for his willingness to murder his son. Abraham is a model of growth. He starts out misunderstanding God’s demand, along the way he hears his son’s protest, and at the end, he stops himself from committing a calamity.
Meanwhile, we also redeem God through this reading. God is no longer a malicious deity trying to gauge Abraham’s devotion by asking him to do something vile. Even in the face of not being understood, God gave Abraham more opportunities to do the right thing. Rather than shame Abraham as a murderer, God offered him an explanation that allowed Abraham to learn and grow. God didn’t say: Abraham, your barbarian, you misunderstood me! God said, “Now I know that you are so in awe of me, you will run and do something that I never intended”.
When someone has power over us, we may listen too closely and hear things that weren’t in the message.
Listening requires more than hearing, and learning requires more than following the directions. We need to look more deeply for real communication.
One of the most central prayers in Judaism is Sh’ma: Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. After that opening line we continue with the paragraphs that start with “V’ahavtah” - You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your spirit, with all your being”.
“Listening” closely was the lesson of Abraham, the first part of Sh’ma - “Listen up Israel!”
When Abraham paid attention he learned. The learning took place because Abraham also fulfilled the idea of the second part of Sh’ma - he listened, he loved, and he allowed what he heard and who he loved to change him.
Rabbi Zusya was the greatest and most righteous scholar of his time and he lay upon his deathbed, surrounded by his students and family. Rabbi Zusya looked around at all of them, and then began to cry. His wisest student asked him, “Master, why are you sad? You have lived a full life, touched so many lives, made such a difference, you have been like Moses to all of us.”
Zusya patted the extended hand of his student, reassuringly, and said, “That’s exactly what worries me. When I am judged at last, I will not be asked, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ I will be asked, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”
Zusya’s challenge was to be fully present at his death - not only for his loved ones and students who tell him how wonderful he is, but most importantly for himself.
How often do we turn away? How often do we let that moment that demands our attention pass?
Zusya’s question, “Am I a good Zusya?”, is our question during these holy days. Can I be the best even when faced with the worst? Can I show up for the demands of myself, my family, my community, my world, and be changed by them?
On this day when we celebrate the creation of everything, when the Shofar sounds to awaken us to our place in creation, our memory of who we are, and our task to make it all better, we must devote our full attention to being present, in the moment, no matter how difficult. We must allow ourselves to be changed and learn.
We have to be like Zusya when he worked to be present for himself. We have to be like Abraham when he allowed love to transform him. Self, parents, children, siblings, friends - we know that we need to do this in our close circle.
I am asking us to take this a step further and admit that we live in a world shared by one family - that we are all related and that if we follow the fundamental teachings of Judaism, that we are all created in God’s image and likeness, then we must aim to include everyone we meet in that close circle. We must be present for every person we meet.
Hard as this may seem, this is our task, we must save the world by being present and learning from everyone around us: one thought, one feeling, one conversation, one encounter, one relationship at a time.
We must overcome one of the first lessons we learned as children going out into the world - we must talk to strangers.
We must overcome our fears and reach out and be present for the person we will meet when we leave here today.
We get to be good people when we work on our relationships and when we reach out to the stranger. The stranger is the friendly person at the supermarket and the person whose presence makes us so uncomfortable that we normally ignore them.
We must be the people who break down the barrier between us and them.
This may be our mission, to be a light unto the nations as the smallest nation willing to reach out to everyone else.
The central message of the Torah is “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt”.
We know what it is like to be oppressed, and even if we don’t remember it ourselves, we remind each other of it every year at the Passover Seder.
When our prayers remind us to “Hear O Israel!” and “Love God!” we must show up, pay attention, and be transformed by our love.
Say, “Here I am.”
Talk to strangers.
Our love and attention transforms the world.