Rosh HaShanah 5780 – The Akedah: Stop Killing the Future

Rosh HaShanah 5780 Akedah D’var Torah: Stop Killing the Future

 

Have you seen the Greta Thunburg helpline? It’s “for adults angry at a child.” The video I saw begins with a middle-aged white man who calls the helpline and confesses that he’s been screaming at the image of Greta addressing the U.N. Climate Summit.

 

Over 5000 attacks on Twitter, not to mention on Fox News and other right wing media, have targeted Greta with seriously hateful ad hominem attacks ad absurdum for her strong words declaring that world leaders are doing too little, much too late, to respond to climate change.

 

What is it about adults who do this? What causes people, old enough to know better, to turn on those who speak truth?

 

This is not a new problem: the ancient prophets of Israel were shouted down, beaten up and even murdered for predicting that the unethical social behavior would cause the downfall of the society. Greta is not the first to speak out; young climate activists have been organizing for years. Their voices are like those of the ancient prophets, and I marvel again at how the youth of the world speak and act in ways that are true, clarion responses to the world we live in, and suffer in.

 

I would like to bring this question as a lens with which to consider the Akedah, Rosh HaShanah’s very troubling Torah reading.

 

For many generations our people, confronting this text, have focused upon the three individual actors in the drama. When Sarah is focused upon, it is by feminists who ask where she was. If Isaac is mentioned, it is to argue over his age, and debate why he is not mentioned at the end of the story. And there are those who say that if this was a test by HaShem, Abraham failed it if he could believe that our G*d would ever command such a horror.

 

And yet…there are disturbing whispers of something else, something deep and true and horrifying, in old midrashim about this story.  Why, after all, were the rabbis of antiquity, whose lives were informed by those midrashim, compelled to designate the Akedah as a Rosh HaShanah reading for the ages?

 

It’s important to know that in Jewish tradition, a midrash is a text which explores the nuances of a Torah story, often in strikingly profound psychological ways. Some collections of midrashim are two thousand years old; some only a thousand. No matter when it was created, you can depend on a midrash to upend your understanding of a text; it invites you deeper, into meanings that are veiled, and which open up whole new possibilities of hidden truth.

 

There is one midrash, which scholars believe was partially suppressed already in antiquity, which asserts that Isaac “was bound on the altar…and was reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah.”[1]

You might ask why it was suppressed (the answer would seem to be that it contradicts the rest of the tradition, not to mention the Torah itself), but I want to ask something else: why does it exist?

Why, if not to confront us with a deep and disturbing truth? Why, if not to remind us that in ancient days people did kill their children as offerings to their gods, and that today some people do kill their children in offerings to their tortured sense of something inevitable, and that the rest of us come closer than we might imagine to such an unimaginable act – not as aware individuals, perhaps, but nevertheless as part and parcel of a larger social organism that still regularly offers up its children.

 

Poets have long understood something of this strange and terrifying truth. Consider this:

 

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

 

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

 

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

– Wilfred Owen – 1893-1918

 

I suggest to you this morning that the truth of the Akedah is that we are a short-sighted, self-centered, possibly outright suicidal species. The least we do is to force our children into compliance with the vision we have for our lives and theirs, be it war, or corporate profit, or some other kind of blind and devastating dead end.

 

Humanity’s self-destructiveness is insidious. It may be obvious and shocking to us when it happens to those to whom we can relate, but it is also happening on a larger scale.

 

There are so many examples of the future offered up as a sacrifice to that which is held in awe in the present:

 

*200,000 youth, mostly of color, enter the criminal justice system each year.

 

*We’ll never know how many young people have been torn from their parents’ arms – Native American, enslaved African, immigrant single mothers, incarcerated mothers – never to be reunited.

 

*Right now there are 11,000 children held in camps, more in other facilities throughout the United States.

 

When it comes to demonstrating what we value, society seems to act as if our future was of no concern to us. Parental leave to care for new babies is too often expensive and difficult to come by. School are as underfunded as if raising and educating children was not a vital activity for the health of our society. And gun control is still considered a bill that can wait, both in our state and in our nation’s capital, while this year alone there were twenty-two school shootings as of July 26.

 

What kind of species murders its future? Why would Abraham perceive that there was any good reason for him to kill his offspring?

 

Does Abraham see that Isaac is the future, a future that someday will not include him? Is he trying to kill his own death? In abusing Greta Thunberg and other children who show us clearly our own future, are we doing anything more complicated than simply closing our eyes and ears to what we don’t want to hear – at their expense and, of course, our own?

 

Perhaps this is the wisdom of the ancients: is this why they mandated that we read this difficult passage every year at a time when we are obligated to consider our acts, and their consequences? Is this why they chose to rub our noses in this horror every year?

 

So much commentary has been written to try to explain it, perhaps to explain it away. The most compelling for me isn’t an explanation but a sort of insight, in a midrash in which Isaac returns to Sarah and himself explains what happened:

 

The mother asked, where have you been, my son?

He answered, my father took me.

And if not for the messenger of G*d, kim’at shelo nishkhat.[2]

 

This is translated as “I was almost slaughtered.” But what it literally means is “a little more and I would not have been slaughtered.”

 

The vagueness of this grammatical construction is the only hope I have been able to find in this whole horrifying learning. Almost not slaughtered is, as if it were, almost slaughtered.

 

Children embody the future. In the Talmud they are called neti’ot, saplings. Like young trees, children respond honestly to nurturing, and they’re pretty good at surviving storms, drought, and being transplanted. On some very basic level, we are hard-wired to have them and, on a personal level, to protect them. But right now, the trees that are being destroyed through climate change are not only in the Amazon. Can we find the line between the two meanings of kim’at shelo nishkhat?

 

It only makes sense to prioritize and invest in our children’s well-being. Nothing else makes sense, if we love them, if we love life, if we love ourselves. What will it take, for each of us who lives in this brutalized society of ours, to get back in touch with the kind of vision that grows love, instead of fear? What will it take for us to say that perhaps this is the way it has been, but it is not the way it will be? What will it take before the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber, and schools get all the funding they need?

 

May our children help us to envision, in joy and in hope, the future we might share through them, and not just our own death.

 

 

[1] Shibbolei HaLeket, cited in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, 35.

[2] Rashi, parashat Haye Sarah, based on Tanhuma and VaYikrah Rabbah.

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Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.”  (Midrash Rabbah)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.

Shabbat Miketz: Life Comes At You Fast

This week’s parashah is Miketz, which literally translates as “at the end”. In the Torah’s context, it refers to the end of two years’ time during which Joseph languishes, forgotten, in an Egyptian dungeon. The word ketz, “end”, is short and sharp. It echoes another key word of the parashah, vayikatz, which refers to the way in which Pharaoh startles awake after a disturbing dream, not once but twice as the parashah unfolds its tale.

The overall impact is of language which startles with its abruptness. Life changes just that quickly: one carries on for endless days until, suddenly and shockingly, everything changes. Pharaoh is shocked out of sleep and complacency; Joseph is hauled up out of the dungeon with no warning, brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We go on day by day with our lives, consuming fossil fuels or throwing things “away”, until, suddenly, the reality of climate change bursts upon us, and we have to have emergency meetings in Paris.

Life seeems to change that quickly. Even when we have a sense of warning, and think we have time to prepare, the actual moment of impact can be shockingly sudden. 

But the work of that change is actually slow, even plodding, and full of blind alleys. What seems a sudden sprouting is really the result of greater forces at work than we can possibly manage, or even discern – not to mention the forces that grind themselves out before their impact can become known. Once again we realized that we are not in control of our lives, nor of what happens to us. 

As is often said, all we can control is our response. And we sabotage our responses in many ways: we become afraid to move, we underestimate our capacity to act, we let the momentary imbalance of the shock send us into a rabbit hole of panic. 

This all sounds very personal, but it is also global. We are who we are, regardless of the scale.  And it is true that, in ways we do not easily feel in our bones, our individual responses have meaning.

We can choose as individuals to join a march to express our individual convictions, to commit to some small act to lighten our single demand on the planet, to reach for a new degree of kavvanah, mindfulness, in all our acts – and in so doing discover that many others are marching, committing, and reaching in the same way. 

During this dark time, as we struggle with so many invitations to despair, I offer you one specific act to heighten the meaning of the Hanukkah menorah you light this year (I recommend doing it on the 8th night, when the menorah is fully ablaze):  https://www.vsgoliath.org/action/blacklivesmatter-chanukah/. One small way to say to the forces of evil that they will not win. We have their number.

Life comes at us fast – but Shabbat is here to give us a moment to focus, and that slows everything down just enough. This evening we mark T’ruah’s call for a national Human Rights Shabbat. Spend some time on this Shabbat, in shul with your community if you can, lighting a candle, and meditating in its light upon how together we can help each other not to panic, to recognize our ability to respond, and then, to do so to the best of our ability.

shabbat shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!