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 VaEra: To Appear, Perchance to be Seen

Our parashat hashavua (the week’s Torah text) describes the ultimate I-Thou moment, between Moshe Rabbenu (the way Moses is known in our tradition, as “Moshe our Rabbi”) and HaShem (the way G*d is known in our tradition. Out of respect, the word “adonai” is avoided, in speech and in print, outside of prayer).

‘וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י ה
G*d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HaShem.
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י ה’ לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘ה. (Exodus 6.3)
This passage, which gives our parashah its name, Va”Era (“I appeared”), drives the commentators crazy. After all, we can easily demonstrate that the Tetragrammaton (the polite Greek way to say “four letter word,” in this case referring to the personal Name by which Jews refer to our G*d) does appear in the texts describing the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what can this possibly mean? Does the book of Exodus not even know the book of Genesis? Who edited this collection of sacred texts anyway?
The brilliant medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, affectionately known by all Torah studying Jews today by his acronym Rashi, has a wonderful, mind-opening solution to the question:
It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name HaShem] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, HaShem], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. (Sefaria.org)
Rashi invites us to take a very close look at the grammar of the words here. It is not written “I did not announce My Name to them” but “My Name was not known to them.” How incredibly prosaic, how ironic, how every-day-inevitable this is! To “appear,” it seems, is not necessarily to “be seen,” much less to be understood.
We can all relate to the possible interpretations of the difference between these two phrases, which essentially can be expressed as the difference between “I said” and “you heard.”
It might mean that I keep telling you something but it does not sink in;
or perhaps that I said this but you heard that;
or that, as Rashi says, what you heard was a word that remains unfulfilled in your world.
Much of our Jewish ethical tradition is based upon the kind of listening that the philosopher Martin Buber described in his work I and Thou (his philosophy is full of his Jewish experience and wisdom). After all, we are a people which historically declares shema – “listen!” as our most central saying. Buber teaches that by closely listening to another, we come to really see who that person is, and not only in relationship to us.
This is a deliberate ethic of behavior which is easily overlooked in our daily running about. So much doesn’t sink in, sometimes because we’ve been so bombarded by harshness that we have developed our defenses against really listening. But Rashi’s insight, in the final analysis, indicates this: if we cannot really hear, then much will remain unfulfilled for us. We will hear what we perceive to be promises, but they will go unrealized. We will hear but misunderstand. It won’t sink in. Yet Jewish ethics insists that a word, once spoken, is sacred and must be fulfilled.
Va’Era literally means “I was seen.” Each of us needs to be seen – something we do best when we listen to each other carefully, compassionately, and  without thinking ahead to what we ourselves will say next. On this Shabbat, may you open up to your own deep and generous capacity for listening, and in so doing find the reassurance you need that you, also, will be heard, and seen.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Make It Holy

On this Shabbat we will do what we always do, and what Jews in all times and circumstances have done: we will carry on with that which makes our lives meaningful. We will celebrate Shabbat with family of origin and family of choice, and with friends both old, and those newly moved to be with us. We will share a meal and we will immerse ourselves in study and prayer, and in doing so together we will defy the evil we have known.
Jews don’t celebrate martyrdom; our tradition teaches that we should do all we can to live. But when we are killed because we are Jews, in the middle of practicing the rituals that give our Jewish identity meaning, our people recognizes this as kiddush HaShem, a way of making G*d’s name holy in the world. This is the way in which our people names the deaths of innocents in the Shoah and in the massacres, pogroms and inquisitions of our past: no one wants to die in this way, no one seeks it. But if it comes for us, may it be that we are strengthened in our sense of who we are and may it hold us in those last moments!
That which is holy, then, is that which is worth your death, and your life. As it has been said, if you have nothing worth dying for, you have nothing worth living for. But being able to name that for which you are willing to die is only the first step in living in a way that we call holy. We must also be able to name that for which we are living.
Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading for the week) is Hayye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The Torah text is summing up the life of the first Matriarch of our people. It begins with Sarah’s obituary, announcing that she lived for “seven years and twenty years and one hundred years.” The commentator Rashi suggests that the years of her life are counted this way because she was as innocent at twenty as she had been at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred as she had been at twenty. She created a holy life.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if upon our deaths it could be said of us that we were as innocent of cynicism and despair at twenty as we were at seven, and as beautiful in our being at one hundred as we were at twenty, and at seven?
In these times, we are realizing that there is no safe place, no guarantee, even as we will do all we can as a community and as families and individuals to keep ourselves safe. Anti-Semitism is real. It hasn’t disappeared any more than other forms of intolerance have. How can we maintain our innocence of cynicism and despair even now, when we are afraid for ourselves and our loved ones? How can we keep focused, despite everything, on creating the inner beauty that comes from a life lived in meaning, and with kindness?
For Jews, the Jewish response is found in tzedakah, in two meanings: first, to mark a person’s death by contributing to a cause which reflects that person’s life, and so to fulfill the Psalmist’s phrase tzedakah tatzil mimavet, tzedakah saves from death.” It does not keep us from dying, but it keeps our memory alive and active in the world. Giving tzedakah defies senseless death by declaring the meaning of a life.
The second way to understand the obligation to do tzedakah in memory of someone’s life is that now, in the face of these murders – not only the eleven in the Pittsburgh shul, but also the nine who died in the Charleston church, and the two who were killed in a Kentucky Kroger’s parking lot, and so many others whose lives were blotted out by senseless hate – we must seek to do tzedek, justice. These deaths occurred because of injustice – that of political corruption, of capitalist greed, and of selfish apathy. We must redouble our efforts to pursue justice and to do justice, in small ways and large.
We can’t do it alone. The more your practice of meaning brings you together with others in meaningful ritual moments, the stronger and more effective you, and we, will be.
Start right now by being kinder to others, and to yourself. Keep your heart open to the pain of empathy, lest we cease to empathize. Stay far from those who invite you to despair, lest you succumb. Come out of your fear and share Shabbat, and the holy moments of every day, with others.
Thus may we all come to know that life is not about simply living. Life becomes holy when we use it to build a life of purpose and of meaning. Whenever it is that you and I and all of us are dead, may others have been lifted up by the way we lived, and may they clearly see the values we meant to live by.
We are in mourning.
We will grieve our dead.
We will not give up our vision for a humanity united in peace.
Hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Ekev: Listen With Care

Which of us is not angry, disappointed, even resentful, of the way our lives have changed in the past few years? Aren’t we all getting very tired of the stress served up daily by the media, infusing our every interaction with each other?
Of course, there is more than one response to this situation. In Jewish tradition there is always more than one answer, even as the old joke goes: “on the one hand…and on the other hand.” The story goes that a Rabbi once listened carefully to two litigants, and after each finished her complaint, said, “you’re right.” A witness to the proceedings objected, “Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” The Rabbi turned to that witness and responded, “you’re right.”
The more carefully one listens to each person, the more we can hear some whisper of truth in that person – and then of course this leads to the realization that truth itself is complicated and difficult and always partial in our lives.
In mindfulness practice, we are taught to slow down, to take a breath, and to seek to balance the stress we feel with a spiritual teaching: 1. each human being is created in the Image of G*d, 2. you are not required to do all the work, just your part, or 3. all Israel are responsible, each for each other. In such a way, we can be reminded to take care to listen to each other with the respect we wish to receive ourselves – slowly, with kindness and mercy.
This week’s Torah text seems to urge us to take care, and listen carefully, as a mitzvah in itself. The parashah is called Ekev, which means “as a result of” or “therefore.” Specifically:
  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. If you will take care to listen well and do the mitzvot commanded to you, then HaShem your G*d will take care with you and the covenant and the mercy promised for all generations (Devarim 7.12)
The word ekev literally means “heel.” This led ancient scholars to comment that we are being warned specifically about the mitzvot that we generally “trample with our heels” (Rashi), i.e. those that we dismiss as not being important. Maimonides suggests that the mitzvot in question are those for which the reward will come only at the end, i.e. the obligation will seem thankless. An early modern Eastern European Rabbi suggested that the reference is to the generation which belongs to the “heels of the Messiah,” meaning a generation suffering the “labor pains” associated with the End of Days. That generation is considered to be the spiritually lowest of all those living in Exile.
On this Shabbat, consider:
what mitzvah do you trample by letting the stress get the better of you, turning you toward anger and away from mercy?
What mitzvah do you need to recommit to doing even though you don’t feel thanked for it?
To what voice do you need to listen more carefully?
We so much need to take care of each other and feel cared for ourselves. May it be that on this Shabbat we take another step toward finding consolation for ourselves, through offering it, in small and caring ways, toward each other.

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.

Shabbat VaEra: Revelation Hurts

The name of this week’s parashat hashavua is VaEra, “I appeared.” This, simply put and so very understated, is the epic moment in which Moshe experiences Divine Revelation. G*d becomes unmistakably, believably, manifest. All subsequent experiences of revelation in Jewish history fall short of it; as the last words of the Torah will put it many weeks from now,
 וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. Never again has there appeared a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face (Ex.34.10)
Interestingly, this is not the first meeting of Moshe and G*d – that happened last week, in parashat Shemot. This is different: Moshe has gone to meet with Pharaoh, and been rebuffed; his first foray into politics and social justice actually met with the opposite result. Pharaoh vindictively increases the Israelites’ misery by upping production quotas and withholding the necessary material. The Israelites turn on Moshe, blaming him for just making everything worse.
The Torah indicates, therefore, that it is only then, after failure, recrimination and demoralization, that Moshe experiences something deeper, and more revealing, about the holy touch he senses. What happened to cause this opportunity for deeper connection, greater revelation?
Jewish commentaries from Rashi to the Lubavitcher Rebbe are intrigued by the comparison G*d makes, as the Torah depicts G*d saying to Moshe
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name יה-ה I did not appear to them (Ex.6.3)
Our teachers note that El Shaddai can be translated as El “G*d” sheh “that is” Dai “enough,” in other words, they experienced as much as was enough for them. They did not question, they accepted the touch of G*d and did not ask for more. Moshe’s experience is different. To the Patriarchs G*d was revealed only as El Sha-dai, relating to them via their constraints and limitations within the created reality. But to Moshe and that generation, enslaved, suffering and miserable, G*d was revealed, for the very first time, in essential truth.
Revelation, in other words, hurts. When one is rocked back on one’s heels and feels that one’s efforts are for nothing, when one feels rejected and misunderstood, this is the moment  when one may actually be on the cusp of a deeper, more authentic opportunity. The moment of feeling hurt requires us to look within ourselves to see where our true strength lies – and only when the ego is diminished are we able to sense the real quality of our own connection to the rest of the world, and to the wholeness of the universe which we call G*d for lack of a better term.
As Rabbi Akiba once put it, why does the Shema command us to “place these words upon the heart.” Why not in the heart? Because the heart is usually so confident, so distracted, so unaware of its own need. On all those normal days, place the words upon your heart. Then, on the day when the heart breaks, they will be able to get in.
Moshe initially wanted nothing to do with the full depth of awareness of G*d which was offered him; it is not easy nor pleasant to have our minds and hearts stretched in such a challenging way. But our entire history hung upon his ability to step up. What history hangs upon ours?
Here is history offering itself to us: this coming Monday we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr on the Federally recognized day devoted to him. This year, I invite you to join me in supporting those who seeks to “take back” that memory and hear that prophetic voice to its fullest, essential truth. I offer you his Letter From Birmingham Jail as a place to start.
Yes, Shabbat is for rest and reflection – and regathering our energy to go back out there on Sunday, and Monday, and all the days ahead, to seek what happens in the space after failure, demoralization, and heartache. Let’s go back out there together.