Here we are once again, together on this day Yom Hadin - the day of judgement, the birthday of the world and the birthday of Adam. Each year I ask myself, why am I here? There are as many different reasons as there are people sitting here. As we all know, today and on Kol Nidre there are more Jews in synagogue than any other day of they year. No matter how tenuous our connection to Judaism or to a Jewish religious practice may be, on this day we come; on this day many of us feel compelled to come.
But why? Let me share some of my reasons. The first is that I have always come. I came first as a child with my father - z''l - and my memories of being with him in schul are intimately bound up with my connection to Rosh Hashana. Call that tradition, the power of memory and the power of habit, the commanding power to do what you have always done, what your parents have always done and what your family has done as far back as anyone can remember. Another reason I come is because I like to be with Jews and on this day, I need to be with Jews. I cannot imagine being alone on Rosh Hashana. I must be here, in schul, with you. Call that community and I suspect that is true for many of you as well, the need to be with the tribe, with the am on this day. I also come because that is what we I am commanded to do on this day. Call that spiritual practice and the path of religious observance. Memories, tradition, community, and observance, these are all reasons that I come and finally I come because Rosh Hashana, the asseret yamei tshuva - the ten days of repentance - and Yom Kippur are a special gift from God, if we choose to accept it. These days can be a time for reflection, to take stock of who we are, what truly matters and whether we are living lives that of integrity and value as defined by Judaism.
But I do not come here to stand trial, which is one of the central metaphors of Rosh Hashana. I do not believe that God sits in judgement on each of us, weighs our deeds during the past year and decides who shall live and who shall die. I just don't believe that those who will die between this Rosh Hashana and the next Rosh Hashana are any worse than those who will live, more sinful than those who will live, or less worthy than those among us who will live. Human beings die for all sorts of reasons and the truth is we don't know why. But I am certain they don't die because they are unrepentant sinners. If they did, Washington D.C. would be a city of the dead. Too many SOB's live long and happy lives for me to believe that sin is cause of their death. If you, like me, don't buy this idea then what do you believe? If we reject the image of the trial, with what metaphor do we replace it? Let's look at the two parshiot that we read today and tomorrow to find an answer and a new reason for coming here today.
First, lets face it, these two parshiot are extremely difficult and problematic. Today we read, Genesis 21, the story of the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die by Sarah and Abraham and their miraculous survival by God's intervention. Tomorrow we will read Chapter 22 the story of the Akeda - the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as demanded by God. I can't think of two more horrific parshiot. Both of them involve the near murder of a child by Abraham. They are harsh, unrelenting and extremely difficult to listen to. And if you only come to schul two or three days each year, then this may well be all the Torah you know. So why today - on all days - on this day of self-reflection, and potential renewal do we read these stories where Abraham tries to kill his children. What is the lesson here?
The sources aren't a lot of help. In Talmud Bavli, Masechet Rosh Hashana, page 29A it says that God remembered Sarah on Rosh Hashanah. And so for that reason we read the portion we read today, which begins “And God remembered (or took note) of Sarah as he had spoken.” And of tomorrow's Torah reading it says even less. Just that we blow the rams horn in memory of the Akeda and Isaac's miraculous deliverance when the angel intervened and Abraham found the ram caught in the thicket by his horns to sacrifice in place of Isaac. Another reason is that the rabbis, who started the Isaac story with his birth today, simply wanted to complete it tomorrow. But none of these explanations do much for me. In fact there isn't a lot of early rabbinic material, the era when the service as we know it was being constructed, to explain why we read these two stories on Rosh Hashanah.
The good news is that this gives me the freedom to be creative in how we look at the story. But first I would like to suggest that the rabbis knew what they were doing and that these parshiot may be exactly the right ones to read on Rosh Hashana, exactly because of their content. They are so hard to read because the primary subject of both is birth and death, the two boundaries of existence. These are the two places where most of us will experience God in the most unfiltered, visceral way possible and both life and death, these two markers of existence, are absolutely and utterly beyond our control. One of the Hasidic masters taught that everything important is beyond our control; the only thing we can control is how we react. Which is exactly what we have in these two stories, Abraham and Hagar reacting to terrifying events that are totally beyond their control.
Additionally, there are some interesting parallel's between these two stories: the expulsion of Ishmael and the near-sacrifice of Isaac. First, is the randomness of each story's beginning. The story of Ishmael's expulsion begins at the party Abraham gives for Isaac's weaning. This must have been a moment of extreme joy for him. In the company of his two sons, his wife and his concubine he is finally celebrating the fulfillment of God's promise to make him the father of a great people. He must have been extremely happy, but wait... in the midst of the party, at the height of his joy, Sarah says “Cast out the slave woman and her son...” Listen to the language, “Cast out the slave woman and her son...” as if Hagar was nothing to Abraham and Ishmael not his son too. We can only imagine the feeling in the pit of Abraham's stomach as his moment of joy implodes into one of agony. The incident of the Akeda begins when Abraham has been settled for some time, peacefully and successfully, in the land of the Philistines. Life goes on in its routine and settled way, as it often does, and one day out of the blue God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your special one, the one you love, Isaac and go to the land of Moriah..” and in an instant Abraham's world must have collapsed around him as all his hopes and dreams blow away like so much smoke in the wind as he understands that his only remaining son now must die. How much like life. Everything is going along just fine and then everything changes in an instant: a drunk driver crosses the median line, your doctor calls with a worrisome result on medical test, a you receive that phone call about the sudden death of a beloved friend or the serious illness of a parent. Life is neither predictable nor stable, and if Abraham cannot be rewarded for his righteousness, how much the more so can we not expect to be rewarded for our merits.
But there are other parallels. First, both Ishmael and Isaac are ultimately saved by God's intervention. The stern decree is averted. In each story, at the moment when all seems to be lost an angel appears and speaks to the parent in the drama. First to Hagar, when the water has all been drunk, and the bread consumed, and all hope is lost, she places her child under a bush and goes “a bow-shot” distance away because she cannot bear to watch him die. At that moment an Angel calls out to her and says, “Fear not...” and then we read Vayifkach elohim et eynav v'tereh be'er mayim v'telekh v'timaleh et ha'chemet mayim v'teshek et ha'na'ar “God opened her eyes and she say a well of water and she went and filled her water skin and let the boy drink.” And we all know how the vsheg story turns out. Just as the knife is about to fall an angel calls out to Abraham and tells him not to kill his son and then it says, “When Abraham looked up he saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns”... It is as if when all seems utterly hopeless God gives them a truer sight. God opens their eyes and they see a way out. If Abraham and Hagar are just inherently more open to God than we are, then there is no lesson here for us. But, if what they are demonstrating is faith; that even at a moment of supreme despair and peril they are open to receiving God, then we have something to learn from their stories. For that openness, that willingness to let down the ego and let God in, that is faith. As it says in Proverbs 9:10 “T'chilat hochmah yirat Adonai, v'da'at kedoshim binah) - “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the sacred is understanding.” But Yirah is more nuanced than fear. It is closer to reverential awe, or a realization of our own puniness in the face of God - it is faith. And that faith in God, that willingness to give in and to follow enables us - at best - to see a situation as it really is or - at least - gives us the strength and ability to cope.
I think the rabbis wanted us to read these stories and pay attention to them so we would be shocked out of the complacency of our every day lives. That is what these days are supposed to do. They are supposed to wake us up to the reality of our existence. I have grappled with the story of the Akedah for years and finally last year it made sense to me for the first time. Those of us who are parents are, each one of us, Abraham or Hagar. We have our children, we do everything we can to protect them and to bring them up right and safe into adulthood. But their survival is beyond our control. When they go off to school in the morning we don't know if they'll be hit be a driver who's not paying attention. We don't know if they will, God forbid, be stricken by a fatal disease, or be shot, or get hooked on drugs. Simply by the act of giving birth to them we place our children on the alter - just as Abraham did - and the only thing that keeps them safe is God's grace. The only thing that keeps any of us safe and alive is God's grace, because life is a gift. We exist because God allows us to do so. Each day is a gift from God given to us not on account of any merit of our own. That is for me the meaning of these two stories. And if like me you believe that to be the truth, then the only question that really matters is what are we doing with this precious gift of our lives? That is the reason we are here in schul today on Rosh Hashanah. Not to make an accounting of our lives or to settle accounts. We are here to remember the precious gift of life that God, the source of life, deigns to give us and then to focus on how to use it in the best way possible: in the service of God, which means to the benefit of all, to the best of our ability. In parashat Nitzavim, which we read just two weeks ago, it says in Deuteronomy 30:12: Re'eh natati l'fanecha ha'yom et ha'chayim v'et ha'tov, v'et hamavet v'et ha'rah “See, I place before you this day life and goodness, death and evil.” But Rebbi Nachman of Bratslav said we should read it simply as, “See, I place before you this day.” Because, in truth that is all we have, this day. We are not promised another. So the question before us today, the next 10 days and everyday for the rest of our lives is how will we use it?
Shabbat shalom and shannah tovah.
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