The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Rosh Hashanah Drashah – September 22 2017

When approaching the story of the akeidah, the binding of Isaac, many of us feel a mixture of bewilderment and dread.   Bewilderment at the idea of commanding Abraham or anyone else to sacrifice a child, and dread at the biblical and rabbinic approval of Abraham’s eagerness to do it.

But this year, there may be a greater opening to this story, because more so than other years, it feels like we are being tested on a daily basis, as individuals, as citizens of this country, as Jews who have recently seen and heard people who hate us.  And the question with regard to a test is how do we find the inner strength, the courage and the wisdom to meet the challenge?  And furthermore, is there a way of not just surviving but of wresting some growth or blessing, of making some good come out of our trials?

I want to explore two readings of this difficult story that can help us with that challenge, help us be resilient even as we are being tested, and help us take action, even when it seems there is not much we can do.

The first reading of the story is from Rabbi Joshua Heller of Atlanta who reads the Akeidah as a story about a common dilemma.

“Even though many struggle with the question of how to balance family time with work and professional life, the challenges are particularly vexing when one is involved in the work of communal leadership, or in one of the “caring” professions, responsible for the physical and/or spiritual well-being of others. …The urgent demands of the larger communal family threaten to overtake those of ones’ own, and many fail to find a point of balance. Abraham was perhaps the first, but by no means the only, Jewish leader to nearly sacrifice his children in the process of promoting the Jewish tradition.

… the Biblical text records Abraham’s many conversations with God and with foreign leaders, but only one with Isaac. That single conversation comes while they are on their way up the mountain, knife and wood in hand. …[When] father and son “walk together.”–Writes Rabbi Heller:  I have always perceived great tenderness and love in the way Abraham carried the dangerous objects himself, and the way he responded to his son with the same “hinneni” (“Here I am”)–the same”presence”–that he offered to God.

Rabbi Heller reads the akeidah as a story of competing claims, the claim of the community through the voice of God vs. the claim of family.  And he wonders:  if this was the only reported conversation between father and son, is it possible that it took an “unfathomable divine decree, for Abraham to be truly present with his son,” to have a tender conversation with him.  “Did it take the threat of the knife for Abraham to appreciate the relative importance of the single, unique soul that he and Sarah had made together, as opposed to the followers they brought with them to Canaan” (Genesis 12:5). And then he challenges us:  Will it take a moment of crisis before we walk together with those we love?

According to Rabbi Heller, in a sense, the actual binding is not the most important moment of the story.  Rather it is that walk up the mountain that is the key.

Although Rabbi Heller’s reading leaves many loose ends and doesn’t really explain the text as is, he does correctly direct our eyes and ears to those beautiful moments where the text says, vayelchu shneihem yachdav, the two, father and son, walked together.  The text repeats that phrase a second time, just to make sure we understand how important it is.

Rabbi Heller’s focus on the love between father and son is particularly helpful in suggesting why and how we can survive the trials of our lives.  Moments with the people we love can make life worthwhile even as we are being tested to the very core.  Because those moments of Avraham and Yitzhak together on the mountain, moments of true togetherness with the people we love most, are the key to any life well-lived.  The love and tenderness between parents and children, between spouses, between friends, those are our anchors, when the world around us seems to have gone mad.  The claims of love and the gifts of love can help us withstand the worst of times, and carry us until we reach safer ground.

A beautiful new midrashic reading of the Akeidah, by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical school has another compelling piece of wisdom to help us during trying times.

Here is what she writes:

The ram’s horn is silent at first
As is the ram.
Caught in the thicket,
Waiting for Abraham to lift his head and see,
It appears at the last minute,
Out of nowhere,
When it’s almost too late.

Of course, it was there all along.
Since twilight
On the eve of the first Shabbat, we are told.
It was there before darkness fell.
(We barely knew what darkness was then.)

It was there all along.
Waiting for us to open our eyes.
Waiting for us to see another way.
It’s not just our stubbornness that blinds us.
Sometimes it’s the commanding voice of faith.
Sometimes it’s the commanding voice of despair.
And sometimes it’s the thicket itself.
The thorny, tangled overgrowth of our lives.

It’s not that we’re blind,
We’re just busy.
Schlepping the wood,
Tending the fire,
Building the altar,
Trying to quiet the children –
Trying to answer their questions –
Even though God knows
We can’t answer our own.

Up until the angel calls out, and Abraham looks up, up until the ram suddenly appears, caught in the thicket, the trajectory of the story – the tragic momentum of the story – seems irresistible, irreversible, inevitable. The sacrifice has to be offered. The child will have to die.

This is the power of the ram’s horn. It beckons us back to this moment in the story. No longer silent, it calls us back to the ram from which it came and asks us:

Think about the thicket of your own life. What possibilities have you not seen? Think about a story you are telling yourself – whose outcome you think you already know. What alternatives have you not noticed? And think about the path we are all on together. The altars at the end of the road. The children we love but seem prepared to sacrifice.

Look up. Listen.
Incline your heart, your ear
To the hollow, bent ram’s horn
Through which human breath becomes a summons and a blast.
What might we hear? How might we respond?

In this profound and beautiful reading of the Akeidah, Rabbi Anisfeld succeeds in both interpreting the holiday we are in, and at the same time, giving us insight into our lives.  Her first line reads:  The ram’s horn is silent at first as is the ram.  For most of our service we don’t hear the shofar.  For most of our lives, the ram, symbolic of the options in our lives that we haven’t seen or haven’t listened for yet, are also silent because we haven’t imagined or become aware of them.

The ram is the possibility for this story and all stories to end differently from where the story seemed to be headed.  Rabbi Anisfeld tells us that the possibility is there all along, waiting for us to notice it and change the course of the story of our lives.

And why can’t we see those other options, why didn’t Abraham see the ram at first?  Because we were caught in the thicket, what she calls the tangled overgrowth of our lives, the job, the family, the rivalries, the petty distractions or even the important work that we do.  It all makes up the thickets of our lives, that become an obstacle for seeing other possibilities.

Our lives march on, seemingly logically, from point A, to point B. until an angel comes and calls to us.  That angel can be a difficult experience, or a joyful experience, or a moment of insight – whatever it is, we find ourselves woken up suddenly in a way we weren’t awake before.  That angel of a wake-up call, like the shofar, makes us look up, and see other possibilities that we couldn’t see while our head was buried in work, or worry, or worse.

That angel, the wake-up call, the potential impact when we truly listen to the shofar, that is the crossroads, the fork-in-the-road moment.  That is the moment when Abraham perhaps asked, and when we ask, “Is the way it is, the way it has to be?  Are there other options that we can find, if we can summon the strength to look for them, to listen for them, so that we can become the authors of our life’s story, instead of the victims of it?”

Rabbi Anisfeld’s reading of the story invites us back to that moment of a crossroad, where it looks like the sacrifice is going ahead, but when the reality is actually such that it can still be changed.  Her invitation reminds us that there is always such a moment, in every story and in every life.  And that moment is right now.

Rabbi Anisfeld’s reading of the Akeidah gives us an insight into the most fundamental premise of teshuva:  that until we breathe our last breath, the story can still be changed, our choices can cause the narrative to read differently.  But in order for that to happen, we have to raise our sights, we have to look up, we have to look for the possibilities that we know are there, even if we have yet to see them.  We need to search for them until we find them

All tests, like Abraham’s, are tests of faith.  Will we give up, or will we continue to search for the options that will change the story? Will we listen to the call of the shofar that tells us to persist, to continue to search for the options that we can’t see now, but we know as surely as we know anything, they exist.  The story of our lives, the story of the Jewish people, the story of this country, the story of our world – all of those stories can be changed, their outcomes are not inevitable, if we persist and if we don’t give up.  For the sake of clarity, let me just say:  It doesn’t mean that if we listen deeply enough, bad things won’t happen to us – they will.  It simply means how we incorporate what happens to us can make the difference between a life-giving life-story, and a life-story in which we merely exist, but don’t truly live.

When we are tested, it is never a convenient moment, in fact it is usually a moment when we are completely overwhelmed, when we are caught in the thicket.  But what Rabbi Anisfeld teaches us is that the shofar can be that angel for us, if we open our ears.  It can wake us up to the possibilities we haven’t seen yet, possibilities we haven’t taken seriously yet, or that we haven’t allowed ourselves to imagine yet.

Her poem reminds us of something very simple and enormously difficult at the same time, which is that change in our lives is really, truly possible.  Not easy, and surely not quick, but possible. She reminds us that there are always choices to be made, that the outcome of the story is not irrevocable, and that we are capable of impacting, challenging and changing our lives.

From Rabbi Heller’s reading, we remember the power of love to help us withstand our trials.  From Rabbi Anisfeld, we are reminded to listen to the shofar, allow it to wake us up to possibilities we haven’t believed were there, to persevere and ultimately to prevail in re-writing the story of our lives.

In this time of trial, may we remember both those lessons, and may they help us to meet our individual and communal challenges with wisdom, and courage and hope.    L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – May you and all of us be inscribed for a good, meaningful and growth-filled life.