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Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Some folks have asked to see the text of the sermon I gave this morning, so I'm posting it here. Astute readers of my blog will recognize several of these ideas, metaphors, and references -- the sermon draws heavily on a few blog posts I made early in the month of Elul, and surely benefits from the thoughtful and engaged comments and questions y'all posed. Enjoy!

Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5765

The word we hear most often at this time of year may be teshuvah. My dictionary translates it as "answer, reply; return, repentance." Some translate it as "atonement," or "turning-toward-God."

As a kid, I learned that teshuvah happens during the Days of Awe. I was instructed to find everyone I might have offended in the previous year and seek their forgiveness. That practice has its root in the Talmud, which argues that for a sin committed against God, prayer and repentance can atone, but for a sin committed against another person, forgiveness must be secured from that other person before the prayer and repentance can do their work with God.

But there's more to teshuvah than apologizing to people one might have wronged. It goes deeper than that.

Teshuvah is a process of cleaning. Imagine a windowpane which hasn't been washed in a year. It's dusty; it's dirty; it's grimy. Maybe it's festooned with cobwebs. Maybe it's muddied. Though the sun may be shining outside that window, light won't penetrate until the glass has been made clear. Each of us is a windowpane, and though God is shining, we can't see that until we take the time to clear away what's clouding our vision.

Or imagine a small pond that boots have walked through, where animals have splashed around and stirred up the silt. Although the waters are naturally clean and pure, agitation makes them muddy. Each of us is a pond, and we want to be clean and clear, able to discern the source of light shining into us, still enough that rays of light can penetrate all the way to bedrock.

The mystics teach that the heart's desire is to come face-to-face with God. This goes deeper than the intellect; this is the desire of the neshama, the soul. The purpose of teshuvah is to prepare ourselves to fulfil that deepest desire of the soul, to turn towards God.

And we can't turn towards God until we've done our own spiritual housecleaning. Apologizing to people we've hurt is a good piece of that, but it's not the whole process. This is a time to ask oneself: what patterns am I re-enacting with the people in my life which are hurtful or which obscure what's really important? This is a time to ask oneself: how am I letting my own issues get in the way of relating the way I want to relate? This is a time to ask oneself: is my ego preventing me from being the person I want to be?

A surface reading of the Days of Awe tells us that this is the season to repent of our sins so that we can atone on Yom Kippur. But the English word "repent" carries different connotations than teshuvah; and "sin" carries different connotations than chet. Chet  is an archery term meaning "missing the mark." (As it happens, "Torah" can also be read as an archery term-which can be translated as aiming-toward-wisdom.)

It's not that if we sin less, we'll be closer to God: rather, when we become aware of ourselves as close to God, we'll be less apt to miss the mark. But how do we become attuned to God? How do we purify ourselves? How do we learn to face in the right direction?


Traditionally, we learn to face in the right direction by reading Torah. The Ahavat Olam prayer tells us that Torah is our proof of how much God loves us, which may sound a little bit like a backhanded compliment but really isn't meant that way. The mystics teach that the Torah is our ketubah, sign of the eternal commitment we made with God at Sinai. Maybe the Torah has answers.

Sometimes the Torah does have answers. But other times...not so much. Today's Torah portion isn't an easy one to draw clear teachings from.

The more I read this portion, the more questions I have. Near as I can tell, they're the same ones commentators have been asking for centuries: Why does God ask this thing? Does God ask it, or is Abraham hearing the wrong voices? Why doesn't Abraham talk back, as he does when God wants to do away with Sodom and Gemorrah? Why doesn't Abraham explain anything to Isaac? Why doesn't Isaac cry out when he's bound to the altar? What does it mean that the angel calls Abraham's name twice to stay his hand? What goes through Abraham and Isaac's heads during this macabre scene? Why is Sarah absent?

The first line of the portion tells us that God put Abraham to the test. If the test was the binding, and potential sacrifice, of Isaac, did Abraham pass? Was he supposed to go through with it? Was he supposed to resist? What was he supposed to do...and what are we supposed to learn from it?

Historically, the dominant interpretation has been that Abraham passed the test by being willing to sacrifice what he loved most. That's a common reading outside Jewish tradition, too; Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is an extended wrestle with that idea. Kierkegaard decided that the absurdity of the world requires a leap of faith. For him, the story is about submission to God's will, and binding Isaac for sacrifice was a sign of Abraham's faith.

But that's not the only interpretation. Others have argued that binding Isaac was an instance of Abraham's failure; that he blew it, he should have talked back. Right after this story, the Torah tells us that Sarah died; midrash holds that she died as soon as she heard what Abraham had been willing to do, because her horror was so great. The Talmud states that a command by a prophet in God's name to uproot God's law should not be obeyed; maybe Abraham wasn't supposed to obey because God's instruction here clearly goes against halakhah. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has suggested that God was unhappy with Abraham for his eagerness to obey the command to slaughter Isaac, and that's why God never spoke to him again after the Akedah.

There's a third interpretation. This one says Abraham was stalling for time. God gives him a one-line instruction, and Abraham takes days to get to the critical moment. He cuts his wood slowly. He loads his animals slowly. He plods as slowly as he can toward the mountains. In this reading, Abraham takes as long as he can because he knows, or hopes, that God will intercede. He never meant to kill Isaac; that's why he told his servants, "the boy and I...will worship and return to you." If it had come down to the last second, he would have stayed his own hand-but would have walked down the mountain having lost faith in a God Who would ask such a thing and genuinely expect him to do it. In this reading, Abraham is also testing God.

In that case, what do we do with the angel's statement, "For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son from Me?" It's that since that gives us trouble. Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky believes we can translate the line differently: "Indeed I know you are a God-fearer-but (now) you have not held back your son from me." In other words, "Abraham, I know you're righteous, so why didn't you act like it?"

The angel who speaks up at the end of the story doesn't seem to take these nuances into account. Then again, our tradition regards angels as essentially single-minded. They don't grapple with the yetzer ha-tov  and yetzer ha-ra, the good and evil inclinations, as we do; they can't know the capacity of a human heart. Angels exist to obey; they don't wrestle with questions like "what did God really mean by that?" In Judaism, angels are literalists. 

Some scholars have also argued that the end of the story, which is written in a different style from the rest of it, might be a later addition: it might have been added after the fall of the Temple. Without the second angel's tidy little speech, the story is much more ambiguous. That last paragraph might be the first-ever commentary on the original story; just one so old that it's been incorporated into the text itself.

Lipmann Bodoff wrote that Abraham's real challenge was acting as though the worst were going to happen, while knowing in his heart that it wouldn't. He compares it to the bravery shown by the Israelites walking into the Sea of Reeds. There's a midrash which says the waters didn't part until they had entered up to their necks; it looked like the Israelites would drown. But despite the available evidence, they knew in their hearts that God would keep His redemptive promises. And so did Abraham.

Then again, maybe we're focusing on the wrong part of the story. This portion isn't called "The Testing of Abraham"-it's called "The Binding of Isaac." Maybe this is a story about Isaac's acceptance of what binds him...and the paradox that as he accepts being bound, so he is freed by a new way out which nobody saw beforehand. Maybe we should emulate Isaac and acknowledge that we too are bound, knowing that struggling against our limitations only makes the ropes tighter, that the only way out is through. Maybe in binding ourselves to our tradition, we can achieve freedom from attachment, and what seemed like self-sacrifice will suddenly become clear as liberation.

The tricky thing about this story is that it supports all of these interpretations. The moral of the story could be, we should submit to the will of God. The moral of the story could be, people do terrible things to their children in the name of faith.

In this story Isaac might be a boy, or he might be a grown man; he might be a silent weakling, or he might be exercising tremendous strength of will. Abraham might be a maniac willing to do anything God asks (after all, he would have been "just following orders"), or he might be a wise man who stalled for time until God sent the ram to reward his reticence.

We don't know which interpretation is right, or which is true. It seems unfair, somehow, that the Torah-which is supposed to provide guidance, to help us live sanctified lives-is so unclear on this. The story is there, but Torah doesn't tell us what to make of it. So where do we go?


One place to go from here is up.

Imagine a tower that stretches infinitely high into the heavens. Inside the tower is a spiral staircase, with landings on every floor; at each landing, there's a window. The view from the lowest window is different from the view on the fifth floor, or the tenth, or the hundredth. As we climb the stairs and pause at the different levels, we see new things. Where on the ground floor we saw earth and stones, from the tenth floor we can gaze out over the landscape. After a long while we see stars. Maybe even galaxies. Eventually something vaster than we can imagine: what the mystics call the ein-sof, literally "without-end."

The view is different from different landings, but that view is always God. God is everywhere; maybe hard to see from the "lower" levels, but there nonetheless. What changes, as we work to ascend that tower, is us. As we ascend we become able to see more of God...but God is fully there on every floor.

Engaging with Torah is another way of looking out those windows. Depending on what window we're looking through, we'll find different things in the story of the Akedah. Maybe it's ambiguous for a reason: because the process of studying it is itself a way of learning to see God in difficult places.

What's important is that we're climbing the tower in the first place. That we want to find God in our lives, and in our texts, even if the process seems circular or seems like a lot of work.

Learning to see God through all of our windows is a lot of work. It takes focus, and life is full of distractions. It's easy to get wrapped up in our daily lives, emotional entanglements and personal challenges. To become cloudy, like that pond that's been walked-through.

And that's okay; that's human. Judaism doesn't teach renunciation of the world: we're supposed to sanctify ordinary life, not withdraw from it. The process of teshuvah helps us look around, remember where we are and where we want to be going, and take one more step toward the next window, the next insight, the next face of God.

May your year be full of windows and insights. And may you be blessed with the willingness to seek God wherever you go, knowing that what you're looking for is right there, waiting to be found.