As those of you who have shared Rosh Hashanah with us over the years know, every Rosh Hashanah morning I dedicate my sermon to a theme born of this morning’s Torah portion – the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac. Over the years, I have drawn many lessons from various aspects of this text. I have found meaningful messages in the roles of Abraham and Isaac, the roles of the servants who accompanied them, whom are tradition identifies as Ishmael and Eliezer; I even have found meaningful messages in the roles of the donkey and the mountain. My Akeda sermons have been finessed and nuanced in numerous ways. However, this morning I want to do something just a little different; a little different yet something old and classical.
I want to turn to one of the primary interpretations of this Torah text, as found in our tradition. For the ancient rabbis were quick to see this strange story of Abraham and Isaac on top of Mount Moriah as being first and foremost a story about sacrifice. That is what I want to talk about this morning – sacrifice.
There are those who say that this account was included in the Torah as a polemic against human sacrifice; a practice that was very common among many Near Eastern religions in Abraham’s day, and throughout the biblical period. In fact, just beyond the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is Gei-Hinnom – the Valley of Hinnom. As testified to by such great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was in that place that Canaanite idol worshipers offered up their children to Moloch, the god of fire. For the ancient Israelites, it was a place of fear because of the horrors that took place there. It is even said that one of the ways Israelite parents would discipline their children was by telling them, “If you’re not good, I’m going to send you to Gei-Hinnom!” It is spoken of in the Talmud as Gehenna, and there it is considered a frightening place of fire and death. Indeed, Christianity would draw heavily upon these images of Gehenna as it fashioned its own concept of Hell.
Therefore according to some interpreters, this morning’s Torah text is meant to serve as a powerful Jewish rejection of those sacrificial practices. For there is Abraham, willing to serve his God by physically sacrificing his child just as so many around him actually did sacrifice their children in the service of their gods. Yet, at the very last moment, as the knife is about to fall, God’s angel shouts out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy nor do the least thing to him!” in a crystal clear statement that God is not interested in human sacrifice; that such an act is abhorrent to God. For God, animal sacrifice is quite sufficient as Abraham finds a ram to offer in place of his son.
That is one interpretation of this story.
Yet for many of the ancient rabbis, this text was so much more than a proof text as to why Jews don’t practice human sacrifice. For understanding, they ask an all important question: If God did not want human sacrifice, why did God ask it of Abraham in the first place? God simply could have said to Abraham: “I forbid you and those who follow after you from sacrificing children. It is abhorrent to me, even worse than bacon!” For these rabbis, there had to be more to the story than just a rejection of a religious practice which was common among Abraham’s neighbors.
For these rabbis, the heart of the story rests squarely on God’s request and Abraham’s response. God asked of Abraham to surrender that which was most precious to him – “Take your son, your only child, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on a mountain that I will show you” – and Abraham was willing to do it without question or doubt because he believed in God so completely that even in this he would obey. For these rabbis, this text challenges us, asking, “Look what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in the service of God. What are we willing to sacrifice – not only to God, but also generally in the name of those ideas, or principles, or causes, in which we claim to believe and to which we claim to be committed? Indeed, are we willing to give to anything until it hurts? Even more simply, are we willing to give as well as to take, and if so, are we willing to give as much as we take, or even more?
These questions remain as pertinent today as they did when the ancient rabbis first posed them; perhaps even more so. We are Jews who live in a time and a place of extreme blessings, and not just as Jews but as Americans. No matter how much we complain about the state of the economy and taxes and the cost of gas at the pump, our lives are far more comfortable than the vast majority of people on our planet. They are also far more comfortable than most of those of the generations that came before us. I think of my own parents, of blessed memory. It was only toward the end of their lives that they were able to enjoy such luxuries as an air conditioned home or a microwave. Going out to a restaurant was a real treat for them while admittedly, I eat more meals in restaurants than I do at home. For them, a vacation was going camping in the woods while for me, a vacation usually involves getting on an airplane. I can only speculate as to how amazed they would be if they were around today to witness the marvels of dishwashers and K cups and computers and printers and cell phones and I Pads and cable or satellite tv – My father loved to watch tv.
We are a people whose pantries are filled, whose refrigerators and freezers are filled, whose closets are filled, whose garages are filled, whose lives are filled with a bounty of plenty. Yet when it comes down to it, how much of that plenty are we willing to give up in support of those causes which we claim to be important to us? How much are we willing to sacrifice? Abraham was willing to give up his beloved – his only – son because God was important to him. What are we, who have so much, willing to give up because anything is so important to us?
In this day and age, that is an uncomfortable question for many. We have so much, but we have grown so accustomed to having so much that we resist letting any of it go. We do not wish to impair our comfort or even take the risk of impairing it. While we are willing to give, how many among us are willing to give until it hurts? How many are willing to give of their bounty to such an extent that it will actually alter, even if just a little, their lifestyle? How many of us are willing to make such a sacrifice that as a result we would need to deny ourselves one less meal in a restaurant each week or each month, or we would need to hold on to that car for another year or so, or take one less vacation every few years, or find ourselves needing to wear some of last year’s fashions this year?
Now do not think that this whole question of sacrifice is about surrendering material possessions. Of course that can be part of it but it is far from the whole. In fact, many find that giving materially is far easier and far less demanding than giving in other ways.
I remember one year when Shira was in college and it was time for the students to move out of their summer apartments and into their winter ones. Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where Shira went to school, every student moved out on the same day and every student moved in on the next. So I went up to Madison to help her move. It was chaos and it was exhausting. On the second day, as we were moving Shira into her winter quarters, I took a break outside of her apartment building. Soon I was joined by a set of parents of another student who was moving in as well. In shared agony, we struck up a conversation in which that student’s father commented, “These two moving days make paying tuition seem relatively painless!” And he was right! For while giving away or spending money may be momentarily painful, chances are good that we will be earning more money and the pain will quickly fade.
Giving time. That’s a whole other story, for our time is not a renewable resource. When we spend it, it is gone and it is not coming back. Trust me. When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder where it all went, and how did it fly by so quickly. Time is a precious commodity, so it stands to reason that many would prefer to give money than to give time. But even as our time is precious to us, it is also precious to others.
Our time is most certainly precious to our family. So many of us claim that our family is the most important thing in our lives. But is it really? A good measure is to be found in how much of our time do we devote to them, and how much do we spend in other pursuits. It is a source of a certain amount of embarrassment to me that when Shira was young, there were too many occasions when she had some special event, and I missed it because I was here at the Temple teaching a class or attending a meeting, or whatever. What do you think about a dad who lets his neighbor from across the street escort his daughter to a Dad-Daughter Date Night at school? That dad was me. However by the time it was Helene’s turn, I came to recognize how incongruous that was with my values. I discovered that I could say, “I’m sorry, I cannot attend that meeting because Helene has such-&-such an event” or “I’m sorry but we will not be holding class on this or that date because I need to be with Helene for a program.”
Not only is our time precious to our family but it is precious to others as well. Worthy organizations with noble goals are always starving for volunteers. Whether or not people step forward to fill those spots can make all the difference in the success or failure of those organizations, and more importantly, whether or not those noble goals are met. Just think about our own efforts when it comes to addressing world hunger. Is there anyone here who would say that they do not give a hoot or a holler about all those people starving across the world? Of course not. We all think that it is a shame; a travesty. We all wish that everyone had enough food to eat. Yet how many of us are willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon in October to walk in the CROP Walk? The more people who walk, the more money we raise. The more money we raise, the more lives we save. It is all a matter of sacrificing a little time in order to make a great difference in the lives of many people. And yes, pledging some money as well.
We can give of our money. We can give of our time. But what about giving of ourselves? That, perhaps, is the hardest sacrifice of all, save literally giving of our lives. To give of ourselves means to truly care about something or someone other than ourselves. It means being willing at times to put them first, before us and our wants and our needs. It means being willing to step forward, be counted, and even take risks on their behalf. It means stepping off the sidelines, stop being an observer, and start being a participant in the quest to bring about righteous change in the world.
Walter Friedlieb was Susie Rothbardt’s father, Greg Rothbardt’s grandfather. Walter was also one of those German Jews who was able to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late. He knew first hand what it meant to be on the receiving end of prejudice. I remember so well his telling me with great pride about how he and his Chicago rabbi, David Polish, went down South to participate in a civil rights demonstration, and how, as a result, they wound up in jail. He could have stayed home in Chicago, reading the newspapers and watching the news, sharing with others his disdain for racial discrimination in conversations over cups of coffee but he chose to act instead of just talk. He chose to put himself on the line in the cause of racial justice. He chose to help make change happen rather than just hope for it to happen. He chose to give of himself, willing to accept the consequences of his sacrifice. And he did help to bring about a positive change in his world. How many of us can say of ourselves, we have done the same?
Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything – and believe you me, Isaac was everything to him – because he believed it was the right thing to do. To this day, the story of Abraham and Isaac which we read from the Torah just a short while ago, challenges us to ask of ourselves, “What sacrifices would I be willing to make in the name of those people and ideas and values and causes which I hold to be near and dear? What sacrifices would I be willing to make in order to do my part in making this world a better place for all who live here?”
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