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Yom Rishon, 2 Heshvan 5778

Scroll down for Rosh HaShanah 5778/2017: "Smarter Than Abraham: Don't Go It Alone."

 

Israel -- Kol Nidrey 5778/2017

 

    Shiru lanu mi-shirey Tziyon!  Eych nashir al admat neychar?

 

By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat,

and we wept,

remembering Zion. 

On willows in her midst

we hung up our instruments;

for our captors there asked us for songs,

and our tormentors, for amusement:

“Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.” 

How can we sing one of Adonai’s songs

on foreign territory? 

If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget;

let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth

if I don’t think about you,

if I don’t hold Jerusalem

higher than my greatest joy.[1]

This was a song of exiles; a poem written by someone longing for home and for a life they would never see again.  It’s about 2600 years old.

The following words were written in 2009, recorded by poet Warsan Shire — British-raised, Kenyan-born to Somali parents — after she visited with refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Congo in a deportation center.  One person said:

When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. … I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.[2]

“'Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.' How can we sing one of Adonai’s songs on foreign territory?"

The knowledge of exile is built into Judaism.  From slavery in Egypt to the Waters of Babylon, we have felt what it was to be an outsider.  Since the Roman 10th Legion suppressed the Judean Revolt and destroyed the Second Temple nearly 2 millenia ago, Jews around the world have described themselves as living in Galut — in Exile or Diaspora.  We have been strangers, outsiders, immigrants: sometimes welcomed and well-integrated, other times segregated and under pressure, periodically made the scapegoat.  (A word which comes from the ancient ritual for Yom Kippur, when the sins of the nation were symbolically sent into the wilderness on the head of a goat.)  However much we were at home in our host countries, we didn’t entirely belong.  Jewish separateness was usually also enforced by laws which treated Jews differently than members of the majority culture.  Sometimes the laws restricted where we could live and what jobs we could work at. Sometimes they required us to wear identifying clothing or pay a special tax.  Not until modernity did we have the privilege of being governed by the same laws as our non-Jewish neighbors.

Torah teaches us “Avadim hayinu l’Far’o b’Mitzrayim: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”  It commands us:

V’chi yagur it’cha ger b’ar-tz’chem…

“When a stranger” — an outsider, an immigrant, a non-Jew: someone not from your tribe or your culture, someone whose family probably speaks or recently spoke a different language.  “When an outsider resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.  The outsider who lives with you shall be to you like one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am your Eternal God.”[3]

Mitzvot regarding fair treatment of the stranger appear in 4 of the 5 books of the Torah.  They are fundamental to the Jewish understanding of who we are and how we are supposed to act: Do not use the power of being the majority culture to oppress the minority, because you know what that’s like.

The Book of Deuteronomy sets the bar even higher:  Tzedek, tzedek tirtof.  “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[4]   It is not enough simply to love and avoid wronging the “other”; we must actively seek justice.  The context makes it even clearer:

You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the inhabited areas that your Eternal God is giving you, and they shall judge the nation with courts of justice.  …  Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live, and keep the land as your heritage.[5]

Deuteronomy bluntly declares that administering justice is a basic requirement for thriving as a nation and maintaining a healthy connection between people and place.  In the world of power and politics, Jewish ethics teach:  Justice is something we must go out of our way to implement, and power must not be abused against the vulnerable. 

A favorite example:  About 3,000 years ago, when David became King over all the tribes of B’ney Yisra’el, the Israelites, he captured the independent city of Jerusalem held by the Canaanite tribe of Y’voos, and moved his capital there.[6]  After he had been king for some years, he received a prophecy directing him to make an offering on the threshing floor of one Aravna, a Y’vusi — that is, one of the original inhabitants.  King David went to Aravna and announced that he had come to buy the land in order to build an altar.  Aravna offered to give him both land and cattle, but the King refused, saying, “No, I will buy them from you at a proper price.”[7] 

The victorious monarch could have exercised eminent domain, but he did not.  He respected personal property rights, and treated the vanquished on the same footing as the victor. 

Beginning with the time of King David, the ancient Israelites had nearly a thousand years to work on putting this ethical stance into practice.  But during Galut, the Diaspora of the past two millenia, Jewish political power existed only inside the bounds of local Jewish communities.   In much the same way that Native American tribes have internal sovereignty, and tribal government has a direct relationship with the US government, so Jews in the countries where they were scattered had an internal self-government that dealt directly with the ruler of the host country.  

And then, in 1948, there was once again a self-governing majority-Jewish population in that same land King David governed.   And suddenly all the issues which had remained largely theoretical over the past 2000 years, issues of power and responsibility, the ethical treatment of minorities and the need for secure and defensible borders, became practical realities that had to be dealt with.

If you love Israel, this will be a difficult topic to listen to.  If you are appalled by Israel, this will be a difficult topic to listen to.  To quote Tikkun Magazine’s Passover Supplement from earlier this year, the issue of Israel and Palestine generates “apparently irreconcilable opinions and passions in the Jewish community as well as outside.”

So why bring up such a divisive issue on Yom Kippur?  Two answers:  Jewish community, and Jewish continuity

The deep differences in how we think and feel about Israel and Palestine make it too easy to disrespect and dismiss the “other side.”  If we don’t find ways to bridge our differences, we risk alienating portions of the Jewish community from each other.

That’s community.  Now continuity: If we don’t talk about Palestine and Israel honestly, we risk alienating the next generation of American Jews from the Jewish community entirely.  …You are activists, my friends.  You embody that passionate sense of justice that motivated our Torah, our prophets, and many in this room.  You call us to be true to Jewish values and ideals, to apply our ethics precisely when it is most difficult to do so.  You will not permit us to love Israel uncritically; and you won’t be part of a Jewish community that excuses cruel, abusive, or oppressive behavior, even toward people whom we feel we have ample reason to fear.

On Yom Kippur we look deep into our souls, seeking to hold ourselves to the highest standards.  This day declares that we need not be limited by the past.  We remember and honor and learn from our past; but we cannot let it dictate our future. 

Rabbi Hillel said:  Im eyn ani li, mi li?  If I don’t take care of myself, who will?[8]

For those of you who were raised, as I was, with the Socialist and agricultural ideals of the chalutzim, the mostly European Jewish pioneers of the early 20th century; who know that Israel was a refuge for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Sho’ah, the Holocaust, and feel safer knowing that if it ever happens again, we will have somewhere to flee that will automatically take us in; who marvel at the re-establishment of Hebrew as a language of daily life after hundreds of years of being used only for prayer and study, and take pride in the power of Jews to defend ourselves:   The realities of Occupation will break your heart.  For the past 50 years Israel has held Palestinians as non-citizens, without due process, free movement, or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives.[9]   It is terribly painful to see Israel’s failure to embody the highest values of the Jewish tradition. I have seen, and my heart has been broken. It hurts badly to acknowledge our own people as perpetrators of unnecessary violence.[10] 

It cannot be explained away as “security needs.”  Nor are these reports manufactured or merely taken out of context by “enemies of Israel” or “antisemites dressed up as antiZionists.”  The often-grim realities of Palestinian life in the territories are well-documented by Israeli, Jewish organizations:  B’tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; and perhaps most powerfully, the organization of former IDF soldiers, “Breaking the Silence.”

If you love Israel, reading their reports is an awful experience.  But not knowing will not lead to a better future.   It is important to make time and space for grief, and for understanding.  This is one of the things I hope to do this year at Berith Sholom.

Im eyn ani li, mi li? 

Uch-she’ani li’atsmi, mah ani?

If I don’t take care of myself, who will? 

But when my self-care morphs into self-centeredness, what have I become?

For those of you whose whose Jewish memory of being “strangers in a strange land” brings you to identify with the Palestinian people; whose commitment to pursuing justice demands that you recognize and work to end the everyday oppression of Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation:   You are probably appalled, as I am, by the refusal of portions of American and Israeli Jewish communities to acknowledge or prioritize the injustice that accompanies Occupation.  In the face of Israel’s vastly superior power, it may be hard for you to credit the trauma of Israelis along with that of Palestinians. If you see Ashkenazi Jews as protected by White Privilege, you may not understand the fear of antisemitismitic violence that many Jews still feel deeply —  though Charlottesville may have clarified that a little.

You may be uncomfortable with the concept of a “majority Jewish country” that privileges one ethnic group over others.  But as a recent opinion piece in “The Forward” reminds us: 

Israel is not the only country on earth to face a tension between its desire to protect and nurture one ethno-religious community and its commitment to provide equality under the law.  Many European democracies have immigration policies that favor a dominant ethnic group.  Many have crosses on their flags….

Our goal should be to minimize the tension between Jewish statehood and liberal democracy as much as possible, while acknowledging that you can never erase it entirely….[11]

 

V’im lo achshav, ey-matai???  And if not now, when? 

I think the need to address Israel and Palestine has come to the forefront for me particularly as the next generation of Berith Sholom leaders has stepped up.  While differences in perspective do not entirely follow generational lines, they play a part.  Both Jewish community and Jewish continuity demand that we find ways to be respectful with each other across disagreement.  Please let me know if you will help me plan educational events at Berith Sholom this cominng year.

We are supported in this difficult communal work by shared commitments to Jewish values:

We share an APPRECIATION FOR WHAT JEWISH TRADITION HAS TO OFFER.  We are not “prisoners of the 21st century”; we have literally millenia of stories, teachings, and experience to draw from.  The fact that you are here today tells me that you recognize that Jewish tradition is relevant to modern life.

We share a SENSE OF JUSTICE and a commitment to implementing it.  “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live, and keep the land as your heritage.”[12]

We share a commitment to DEFENDING THE VULNERABLE, even when we disagree about who is at risk:  “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”[13]

We share a commitment to PEACE.  Our Bible declares, “Seek peace and pursue it.”[14]

We share a COMMITMENT TO TIKKUN OLAM: To activism in its many forms.  Peace and justice are things we run after.  We do not sit back waiting for God to fix the world, we roll up our sleeves and jump in as God’s partner.

We share a belief in THE POWER OF INTROSPECTION in fostering personal and communal change.  This is why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur: Jonah’s message to the people of Ninevah prompted them to assess and change their own behavior, and in doing so they changed the course of their future.

If you should say to me, “It’s all very well and good for the Jewish community to do this work, but what about the Palestinians?”  I would answer:  It is not our job to be Jonah to the Palestinian people.  Whether or not the Palestinian people do their own internal work is up to them.  Our job is to be Jonah to our own community, or rather communities: To push us to be the best we can possibly be.

The most important Jewish prayer is not addressed to God, but to ourselves:  Sh’ma, Yisrael!  Hey Jews!  Hey Yisra’el!  Sh’ma!  LISTEN, and pay attention to Echad: the Oneness at the heart of all things; the Oneness of the human family. 

The second paragraph of Sh’ma takes it a step further.  V’hayah im shamoa tishma: “If you really, really listen … I will bless your land.  But if you don’t, then you will perish quickly off the good land that Adonai is giving you.”[15]

This kind of “really really” listening, in order to understand where the Other is coming from, is as much needed in the United States right now as it is needed in the Jewish community, in Israel, and in Palestine.  Deep listening is an indispensable part of bringing blessing to the land. It is basic to staying grounded, to being rooted in what is. 

When we take the Torah out, we sing Al shloshah d’varim ha-olam omed: The world stands on 3 things, Torah and worship and deeds of lovingkindness.  But there is another “3 things” that one of our ancient rabbis said the world stands upon: on Justice, on Truth, and on Peace.[16]  May we unite our commitment to Justice with the courage to seek Truth, in order to bring Peace.

 

If you should ask: Why title the sermon "Israel"?  -- it's because I'm talking to Jews about Israel: as it is, as it should be, and as it is perceived.  I'm not addressing beliefs or stereotypes nor teaching about Palestinians; those are things that will, I hope, happen in conversation and learning this year.   This is a preliminary, internal-to-the-community conversation.  I'm not talking to people who identify primarily as activists instead of as Jews; I'm addressing Jews who were in the synagogue for the Kol Nidrey service on Yom Kippur (and guests).

You may disagree with my decision about the title, but I want you to know it was not out of unthinking habit.

[1] (Psalm 137, dsg translation adapted from Sefaria.org)

[2] (From “Conversations about home (at a deportation center)” accessed on 4 October 2017 at https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/warsan-shire/conversations-about-home-at-deportation-centre.  See also this interview with the poet where she talks about the creation of her work: https://africainwords.com/2013/06/21/qa-poet-writer-and-educator-warsan-shire/)

[3] (Lev. 19:33-34)

[4] (Deuteronomy 16:20)

[5] (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

[6] (2 Samuel 5. The name Urusalim predates King David’s time by 500 years, as attested in the correspondence between its ruler annd Pharoah preserved in the Amarna letters.)

[7] (2 Samuel 24:17-25)

[8] (Pirkey Avot 1:14)

[9] (Peter Beinart, “Why Is One Pro-Israel Group Desperate to Keep You From Watching This Video?” in The Forward, JUne 30, 2017, page 18.  “The Jewish Daily Forward” was originally a Yiddish Socialist paper, and is still left-of-center.)

[10] (Tikkun Passover supplement 2017, p. 16)

[11] (Peter Beinart, “Why Is One Pro-Israel Group Desperate To Keep You From Watching This Video?” June 30, 2017, page 18.  http://forward.com/opinion/375214/why-is-one-pro-israel-group-desperate-to-keep-you-from-watching-this-video/

[12] (Deuteronomy 16:20)

[13] (Exodus 23:9)

[14] (Psalms 34:15 — though in its original context it’s a description, not a command.)

[15] (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

[16] (Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel, Pirkey Avot 1:18)


 

SMARTER THAN ABRAHAM:  Don't Go it Alone

ROSH HaSHANAH 5778/2017

 

We’re about to spend some time visiting with Abraham and Sarah, the ancestral couple of the Jewish people.  They have much to teach us.  They were active elders, known for their hospitality to strangers and their willingness to stand up for what they thought was right.  They had some amazing conversations with God.  Sarah laughed and dared to contradict God.  Abraham stood up for justice even when it meant arguing with God.

But many of their stories are about issues that arise within the family, and in those, their behavior can be seen to fall short.   As parents, and again as Older Adults facing the end of life, Abraham and Sarah may be better role models for us of what not to do.

Our tradition recognizes that parenting is hard work.  The rabbis of the Talmud gave a name to the tsuris, the troubles, that are inescapable when you’re a parent:  Tsa’ar gidul banim, “the sorrow of raising children.”

Those same rabbis gave very specific directions to children on how to carry out the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em, honoring your parents.  Much of the detail involves making sure that your parents continue to have their physical, social, and emotional needs met as they age, in a way that allows them to keep their dignity.  The very fact that such a mitzvah exists attests to the fact that it’s not always easy to treat our aging parents with honor and respect.

Jewish tradition also addresses the general challenges inherent in end-of-life communication and decision-making.

We will not all become parents, but we are each someone’s child.  And we will all, God willing, have the opportunity to experience aging.   Let’s see what insight we can gather from our first ancestors about how to travel these life stages with dignity, with compassion, and with grace.

To begin with, Abraham and Sarah did not have it easy as parents.  Before this morning’s story opens, they’ve had years of dealing with infertility, followed by surrogate motherhood and open adoption – a not uncommon scenario among wealthy people who needed an heir. 

But the family dynamics didn’t work out well, and after Isaac is born, Abraham and Sarah disagree about how to proceed.  In the end, adopted son Ishma’el and his birth mother Hagar are sent away.  I want you to know, though, that both Judaism and Islam preserve traditions of later cooperation and visits between these two sides of Abraham’s family.

This morning’s story is the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac: The moment when Abraham believes he is required to slaughter Isaac and offer his body up as a burnt offering. 

Responding to this awful situation is undoubtedly the biggest parenting challenge of Abraham’s life.  When the Torah reading begins in a few minutes, I want you to notice what he does immediately after he gets the command. 

Does he turn to Sarah, waking her if necessary, and talk it out with her?  Does he challenge God?  Does he speak openly with Isaac? 

No. 

The next thing we hear, he’s getting up bright and early, taking donkey and servants and son, and heading off for the mountain. 

He doesn’t ask for help. He doesn’t talk it over.  He makes the decision by himself, sometime in the middle of the night: exhausted from lack of sleep, wild with grief, and feeling undoubtedly betrayed by the God who promised him a child in the first place.

Of course, one can argue that God’s behavior in this story isn’t the best role model, either.  What kind of a God makes a demand like that?  For today, I’m thinking about God as representing “circumstances” — parts of life that you don’t have control over, events that you cannot change; your only choice is how to deal with them.  We all face such circumstances from time to time.

When you come to those moments, how do you go forward?  Like Abraham, are you so used to “going it alone” that it doesn’t even occur to you to talk to anyone else? 

We can do better than that.  As the late Pete Seeger said, “Learn from the mistakes of others: You can’t live long enough to make ’em all yourself.”  Having heard his story, we may be able to be Smarter than Abraham.

The end-of-life continuum is even more challenging to navigate, because lurking behind the day-to-day issues lies the inevitability of death.  Few of us like to contemplate that.   So it’s uncomfortable to think about our wishes for the last stage of our lives, and even harder to talk about it and make actual plans.

Abraham and Sarah avoid that conversation almost completely.  Right after the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, Sarah dies, without warning.  Apparently the couple hadn’t made any burial plans, because Abraham has to go to the local Hittites to buy a field and cave as a burial plot.  He does everything by himself.  He weeps and mourns for Sarah alone.  He buys the plot.  He buries Sarah.  If servants or other members of his household help him, we don’t hear about it.   There’s no report of him even contacting Isaac about his mother’s death!

Judaism has a lovely and long-standing tradition of conferring blessings on children in a parent's old age.  Isaac blesses his sons Jacob and Esau when he is too old to see very well.  During Jacob’s final illness, he formally adopts his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh and blesses them — with words we still use in blessing our sons, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.”  He gives specific instructions to Joseph about where he wants to be buried, back in Canaan in the cave with his parents and grandparents.  Then he calls together the rest of his children and speaks to each son in turn. 

When Joseph is a great-grandfather, he calls together his kin, now highly assimilated in Egypt, and requests that they take his bones with them when, in the distant future, they return to the land of their ancestors.  Moses fulfills this request, and the book of Joshua records Joseph’s burial in a family plot.

What a contrast with Abraham's priorities at the end of his life!  After Sarah dies, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has several more sons.  But Isaac is the designated heir, so before the end of his life, Abraham gives these other sons presents and sends them away.  And that is all that Torah tells us about the end of Abraham’s life, except that he dies old and contented.  There is no deathbed blessing, not even a conversation with Isaac about his wishes.  Only arrangements for the disposition of his property.

Fortunately, Isaac has lived in the area most of his life, so he knows where Dad wants to be buried.  He and Ishma'el, together, bury their father in the cave where Isaac’s mother Sarah is buried.

The dilemmas of being a human being haven’t changed a whole lot in the last few thousand years.  That’s why we keep reading these stories and learning from them.  The life challenges our ancestors faced, and the resources they could bring to bear, are more or less like our own.

But we have one huge resource that Abraham and Sarah did not:  A Jewish community.  They were one family; we have each other. 

And we have something else that they didn’t have:  Wisdom from our inherited Jewish tradition, about grappling with life’s difficult moments.

Because we have heard these stories, we can be Smarter than Abraham.  We can share our tsuris, our troubles, instead of feeling like we have to hide them.  We can benefit from the experience of others who have walked a similar road.

And sometimes, just knowing that you’re not alone lightens the load.  One of the most wonderful things one of my uncles ever told me, parenting-wise, was a story about a cousin, who is among the kindest, nicest, most thoughtful men you could ever know … a story about him as a 6-year-old boy, flat out on the dining room floor, having a full-blown temper tantrum.  It made me feel so much better about my children's behavior!  It gave me hope.

Raising all children requires hard work and commitment.  But some children are more difficult to raise and “launch” than the norm.  Some of our children need far more support, or very different accommodations, than other children their age.  Some will always need support.

Consider Isaac.  One would assume that he was a child in the story of the Akedah, walking up the hill trustingly with his father.  But rabbinic tradition says he’s 37!  And it’s a not unreasonable reading of the storyline, because the next thing we hear about Isaac is that he’s returning home to get married, at age 40.  Torah doesn’t tell us exactly how much time passes before he comes back, but clearly he was old enough to go off on his own, after that ghastly experience on the mountain.

But while it’s happening … he doesn’t act as you’d expect a grown man to act.  And certainly not like your average teenager.  Commentators have noted for generations that he’s not a very forceful character.  He’s an adult child who lives with his parents until he’s … let’s say, 37, at which point something traumatic happens and he leaves for a while.  Torah hints that he goes to stay with his half-brother Ishma’el.  He asks only one simple question during the ordeal (“Where’s the sheep?”), and never talks about it afterwards.  While he’s away, his mother dies and his father arranges his marriage.  He comes home, gets married, falls in love with his wife, and sets up housekeeping in his dead mother’s tent.

Rivka (his wife Rebecca) is an outspoken and decisive woman who makes things happen. Isaac, on the other hand, prefers to avoid conflict.  He generally reacts rather than taking the initiative; he’s socially awkward, and he seems to have difficulty reading body language.  (Look at Genesis chapters 26 and 27.)  He never really lives on his own. 

You can almost read him as a person with a developmental disability, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum.  One can only imagine the tsuris his parents had in raising him — because it’s never mentioned aloud.

When a child is different from the norm, parents can feel very isolated, and may also self-isolate.  When you’re parenting a child whose way of being in the world is not the typical one — a child with a serious medical diagnosis, a child with an IEP, a child whose strengths are hidden behind unpredictable or unusual or non-compliant behavior — there are just too many days when you’re so busy and overwhelmed, trying to keep your head (and your child's) above water, that you just have no time or energy left over to look for personal resources.  Sometimes, like Abraham and Sarah, you may not even feel you can turn to your spouse for support.

And particularly in the Jewish community, where we have a deep-seated respect for the power of education, children who don't follow the path of “graduate from high school, go to college, maybe get a master's degree or PhD, enter a career” are not always looked upon with understanding — and sometimes, neither are their parents.  So it’s often not easy to say, “My son dropped out of college” or “My daughter is in rehab.” 

 I’m proud that there is a great deal of compassion and plenty of room for difference at Berith Sholom.  Yet even so, it is still not easy.  I have felt for a couple of years that we need a support group for parents who find it difficult to speak of their children in public: a safe space, that’s easily accessible; one that’s here, in your Jewish home. 

I’m glad to announce that this year, Berith Sholom will be hosting such a group, a place to talk about out-of-the-ordinary tsa’ar gidul banim.  The stress and challenges of raising children whose lives don’t follow conventional paths.  I call it: “Smarter Than Abraham.”  He talked to nobody, but we can talk to each other. 

And we don’t have to create this all on our own.  Berith Sholom is one of 3 local congregations chosen by Jewish Family Services to be part of their pilot “JFS Without Walls” program.  It gives us about 7 hours of JFS staff time every week, to be used as creatively as we can come up with; paid for by our local Jewish Federation, without cost to Berith Sholom members.  Support groups?  Drop-in counseling hours?  Individual consultation?  Centering JFS’s work here, at the synagogue, instead of in downtown Albany, will leverage the power of community in supporting individual and family health.  We’re already working with a staff member to facilitate “Smarter than Abraham.”  Let us know if you want to be part of this group.

I have experienced personally the power of such a group in our monthly “Sacred Aging” meetings.  Over the past few years, Sacred Aging has supported Adult Caregivers in fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em, honoring their parents, by helping them be their best selves as they accompany their parents on the end-of-life journey.  Sacred Aging offers Jewish guidance  and gives us a place to share thoughts and feelings about illness, and grief, and death.

Like Abraham and Sarah, Americans talk very little about these issues.  We often encounter them for the first time when we ourselves are ill, or when suddenly we must make decisions after someone has died.  We’re like Joseph’s descendants in Egypt: We probably know more about mummies and pyramids than about plain caskets and simple shrouds, palliative care, and end-of-life conversations.

It would help us to be more like Jacob and Joseph, and begin The Conversation about our wishes long before it is needed.  It would help our children, and others who will care for us, to know ahead of time how we want to live at the end of our lives, what we do and don’t want for ourselves.  Apparently Abraham assumed that his sons knew where he wanted to be buried.  But we need to share our plans; and that means we need to think about them. 

A decade ago, Berith Sholom sponsored a series of learning sessions titled “Starting at the End,” offering practical and spiritual guidance in end-of-life issues.  We will begin again this October by joining the national “Conversation Sabbath,” a weekend sponsored by the Boston-based “Conversation Project.”  It’s an organization founded by columnist Ellen Goodman and others, whose mission is to help people have values-centered conversations with loved ones about wishes for end-of-life care. The very conversations that Abraham and Sarah did not have.

Let us learn from their mistakes.  May we prepare for our aging like Jacob and Joseph; may we be Smarter than Abraham about parenting our children.  May we strengthen our community and learn from our tradition in order to make this good and sweet new year, the best year possible.  Keyn y’hi ratzon: May God help us weave this hope into our shared reality.

 

 

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Interrupting Isolation, Widening Perspective

Rosh HaShanah 5775/2014

Our Torah portion this morning is among the most disturbing of the year.

I don't suppose that was the intention; in Jewish tradition, the Binding of Isaac is considered an example of human devotion to the divine command.  The shofar, in classic rabbinic writings, is connected with the ram caught in the thicket, which in the end was sacrificed instead of Isaac.  "Just as Abraham subdued his natural impulses (to compassion), and was willing to offer up his son, so," we say to God, "we pray that You will subdue Your natural impulses (to give us what we deserve for our way-less-than-perfect behavior) and grant us compassion."  That's one traditional interpretation of the shofar's meaning, though by no means the only.

Let's think about this for a minute.  Exactly 10 chapters ago, Abraham is told by God, "Lech l'cha" -- get up and go -- "el ha-aretz asher ar'eka" -- to the land that I will show you.  This vague command is followed by promises of blessing for Abraham and his family, starting at that moment and lasting for uncountable generations.  Abraham doesn't ask any questions or put up any argument; he simply complies, and the Jewish story is launched.

Today, Abraham is again told "Lech l'cha" -- get up and go -- "el eretz haMoriah" -- to the land of Moriah, which can be translated “the land of seeing" or “the land of vision" — and...  ...offer-up-your-son on one of the hills; I'll tell you which one when you get there.

Abraham’s prior experience of “Lech l’cha!” inclines him to unquestioning obedience.  But at other times he's been known to speak up and even challenge God:  When God lets him in on a preview of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is appalled.  "What if there are 50 righteous people in the city?" he demands.  "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  Abraham is mindful of his place as "dust and ashes”; nevertheless, he holds God to the highest standard of action:  "Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?!"  As you know, he bargains God down to 10 righteous souls to save the whole city.  In the end there aren’t that many, but Abraham speaks up for what he believes is right to the best of his ability.

That was a couple chapters ago, right after the announcement of Isaac's birth.  Now, some indeterminate time later, God calls to Abraham, and Abe answers "Hineini" -- "Here I am.” So far so good.  For the second time, God says "Lech l'cha" -- get up and go ... But this time God gives a stunning, outrageous command. Get up and go "el har haMoriah" -- to the mountain of vision ... and there commit a heinous crime.  Destroy this child that you and Sarah have waited so long for -- your beloved son Isaac, and her only child.

And Abraham is silent.

Where is his voice?  

Shouldn't he respond?  Challenge?  Cry out! demand justice! plead for the life of his son?  

Shouldn't he talk to someone?  Wake up Sarah?  Wake up Isaac, who by the way is probably not a child at this point?

But apparently he keeps it to himself.  It took exactly 2 verses to get Abraham’s attention and tell him what he was expected to do.  The next thing we hear, at beginning of verse 3, “Va-yashkem Avraham ba-boker" -- Abraham gets up bright and early next morning, to carry it out!  

There is a gaping silence between verse 2 and verse 3, where we long to hear Abraham’s voice.  But he unburdens himself to no one.

And although God stops the slaughter at the last minute, and even reiterates and expands the promises of future blessing, this traumatic seed of violent intent bears bitter fruit of destruction and alienation.  Abraham returns to his servants and they go back home; the Torah doesn’t say where Isaac is.  By the beginning of the following chapter, Sarah has died.  The next we hear of Isaac is when he returns home to meet his bride; and where is he coming from?  From the Negev, much further south.  He's moved out. 

In fact he's coming from a place called Be'er La-Chai Ro'i, "The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me.”  Before Isaac was born, when it looked like his mother Sarah wasn’t going to be able to bear a child, Sarah’s maid Hagar was pressed into serving as a surrogate mother. It didn't work out well between Sarah and Hagar, and Hagar ran away while she was pregnant with Ishmael.  God called to her in the desert and promised that her future son would be blessed with just about the same blessings that Abraham had been given, and Hagar named the place "Be'er LaChai Ro'i," "The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me." Then she returned to Sarah and Abraham and gave birth to Ishmael.  Later, after Isaac was born, she and Ishmael were sent away again, this time permanently.

So Isaac is coming from a place associated with his half-brother.  To me, this suggests where he might have gone after that disastrous day on the mountaintop: "Remember when Dad threw you and your mom out, sent you off into the desert without enough water, and you nearly died?  Well you won't believe what the old man just tried to do to ME!"  Who else could possibly understand, as well as big brother Ishmael?

One can imagine these two brothers bonding over the crazy treatment they endured from their well-respected father.  (In fact, they come together at the end of Abraham's life to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, alongside Sarah.)  Ishmael grows up as something of a wild man; Isaac, however, is a quiet fellow who assiduously avoids conflict, both in the family and outside.  The affection between Isaac and his wife Rebecca is noteworthy:  Torah rarely mentions love between spouses, but Isaac loves Rebecca; her presence comforts him after his mother's death.  Later, their public display of affection alerts the Philistine king that the pair are husband and wife, not brother and sister as Isaac claimed.  New Abraham had also tried to pass his wife off as his sister, twice in fact; but between Abraham and Sarah there's no mention of affection, or intimacy, in their relationship.  Isaac is different from his father in this way.

In fact, there's very little mention of Abraham's feelings in the Torah, other than the distress he felt at sending away his firstborn son Ishmael. Abraham is obedient, decisive, and generally scrupulous in his dealings (except for claiming that his wife was his sister.  She was, apparently, his half-sister; but not mentioning "wife” is a rather big omission!)  

Abraham is willing to challenge God on behalf of an abstract notion of justice in a situation involving persons unknown to him, in the matter of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  

But when it comes to his own family, he is mute. 

This is a man who had successfully convinced God to alter a violent plan!  He's spoken up, he's been effective.  But faced with a direct divine command to commit violence upon his own son, he silently complies. 

The effects of his silence are far-reaching.  As I read the story, Isaac moves out of his parents' house--ok, tent complex--and goes to stay with his exiled brother.  By the time Isaac returns home to meet his bride, his mother is dead and buried.  The last words recorded between him and his father is his question on the way up the fateful mountain: “Here are the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the offering?"

And Abraham and God never talk again.

Abraham lacked two qualities that can interrupt violent behavior and its consequences:  Connection and perspective.

Connection:  What if he’d talked to Sarah that night?  Perhaps she would have agreed, you have to do what God asked.  But maybe she would have insisted that she go along, so that the two of them would be together at that awful moment — and after.  Maybe she would have insisted that Isaac be told what awaited him on this journey, that he was old enough to face his destiny knowingly.  (In fact there is a midrash which has Isaac instructing his father to tie him securely, lest he twitch and spoil the sacrifice.)  Maybe the three of them would have fallen into each others’ arms after the command came to belay the terrible order.  Maybe the family wouldn’t have fallen apart.

Perspective:  Maybe she would have suggested that they slow down, take a day and think about it; pray about it, talk or argue with each other, talk or argue with God.  What’s the hurry?  Or maybe she would have challenged God:  "Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?”  With a second perspective, maybe Abraham could have seen a different option besides silent compliance; maybe the story would have turned out differently.  Maybe Abraham and God would have spoken again.

Abraham was missing another kind of perspective, too:  The inherited tradition that for Jews is embodied in the word "Torah.”  He was, so to speak, flying by the seat of his pants.  We can look back on three thousand years of stories, discussion, rules and decision-making in figuring out the best path forward.  Abraham and Sarah, however, had explicitly rejected their past in order to create a new way of being in the world.  The funny thing is that having direct conversations with God apparently does not give Abraham all the answers.  In fact, it seems to lead him to rely too much on himself, on his own interpretation and understanding of what’s going on.  And as a result, he is unable to distinguish between a genuine “Lech l’cha” and a call to walk in a dangerous direction. 

Violence is something of which we have seen too much this year:  Young, unarmed black men gunned down by police or vigilantes.  Three young Jewish Israelis murdered; one young Muslim Palestinian murdered in retaliation.  Bombs dropped on Gaza and rockets fired into Israel.  Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria.  Journalists beheaded by a violent, self-proclaimed “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria.  Eight homicides in Troy in the past year — most still unsolved.  And just in the last 2 days, the US and Arab allies began bombing the so-called caliphate in Syria.  There’s a lot going on.

But unlike Abraham, we have the benefit of much inherited wisdom to guide us — and we are not bound by a sense that when God calls, we are limited to blind obedience.  We are connected with a tradition that demands that we “choose life, that you and your children may live.”  (You will hear those words on Yom Kippur, in the Torah reading that Reform Jews read on that most sacred day.)  And so we have access to a wider perspective.   When violence occurs, we understand that there is more than one way to respond.

One of the most hopeful things that I saw during this violent summer was the response of two bereaved families in Israel and Palestine.  Naftali Frenkel was one of three Orthodox teens abducted and murdered while on the way home from yeshivah in the West Bank.  Mohammed Abu Khdair was a Palestinian teen who was kidnapped and murdered a few days later in East Jerusalem, while waiting for pre-dawn prayers during Ramadan.  During the respective periods of mourning, Naftali’s uncle Yishai spoke with Mohammed’s father Hussein; each family publicly rejected and condemned the violence committed toward the other, even as they mourned their own.  A delegation of Palestinians attended shiva at the Frenkel house, and was welcomed by Naftali’s mother Rachel; many left-wing Israelis paid condolence calls and were received by the Abu Khdair family.  

These families were able to make connections beyond the obvious ones, even in the midst of their grief.  Their voices sounded a note of hope in the midst of an otherwise horrible situation.  Drawing on their own traditions, they were able to transcend their differences to recognize the humanity of the "other.”  They did not remain silent in the face of violence.  

There is a program in Albany called SNUG — that’s “guns” backwards — a violence intervention program which uses street level outreach workers to mitigate conflict before it turns deadly.  It uses a public health approach called the Cure Violence model.  A doctor who worked for a decade battling infectious disease in Africa returned to Chicago and turned his attention to street and neighborhood violence in the same way: stopping violence, like stopping infection, requires intervening at the source so it’s not passed on.   Cure Violence has been implemented nationally and internationally, and in 7 cities in New York State; and Albany SNUG is now hoping to bring it to Troy as well.  It works because it brings credible messengers — usually, themselves, members of the target population — to dangerous situations and neighborhoods, offering better ways of communicating and resolving conflicts — a radically different perspective on how to live life. 


When it comes to violence, split-second decisions have life-altering consequences.   But in far less life-threatening situations, good decision-making still often requires gathering a wide variety of input.  How often do we make bad decisions because we consider things only according to our own, limited, perspective?  Even when we believe we are following a divine command, like Abraham.  Perspective and connection can help us make different decisions than we would on our own. 

Something as simple as talking aloud to someone else, using them as a “sounding board,” can interrupt one’s isolation and take one in fruitful directions.  The act of connecting changes one’s thinking.  If Abraham had gone to Sarah and said aloud the words, “God just commanded me to turn Isaac into a burnt offering!”, don’t you think that hearing those words come out of his own mouth would have given him pause?  Even if Sarah just held him sleepily while he struggled with it himself, he would have had to think of her, he would have had to think of her and Isaac, in a way he might not have if it was just he himself and his “dark night of the soul."

When I am contemplating a potentially life-changing decision, even if I already think I know my answer, I try to talk to people whose insight I respect, to see how their understanding of the situation corresponds with mine.  Often they mention things that I didn’t even think of.  — to use an example that benefits us all, my sermons improve their focus and direction greatly from feedback during the writing process.  Sometimes others understand what I’m struggling to say better than I do.  

None of us can possibly know every perspective; (if we did, then we’d be God).  So sharing our thoughts enriches everybody’s decision-making.  And if it were possible to say this, maybe even God could have benefitted from some human perspective in this story.  Maybe God over-estimated Abraham’s readiness to think for himself.  Perhaps God pushed Abraham too far, like a little kid poking an animal in its burrow to see what it will do.  Rather than pushing back, Abraham meekly complied.  It wasn’t a good outcome for anybody.

On this day, we begin (or continue) our review of our actions during the past year, in order to figure out how to go forward in healthier ways than before.  But we cannot be expected to know ahead of time all the decision points we will encounter, so how do we prepare to make better decisions in the year to come?  Abraham’s apparent failure guides us toward two techniques that may lead us to more success.  Resolve to consult not only our own wisdom and experience, but to share our thinking with others and invite their input.  Widen our perspective, for none of us has all the answers alone.  And practice turning to each other, for “in isolation there is no life.”  

May it be a year of good decision-making — for us, for our community, for our leaders, and for our world.