Archive for the ‘Genesis’ category

Sacrificial Offerings

September 17, 2013

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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Family Feud

September 18, 2012

Every year on Rosh Hashanah morning I base my sermon on the text of the Torah portion; the story of the Binding of Isaac.  Every year, I attempt to look at the story from a different angle and draw a different lesson from this remarkable account.

Two years ago, I focused my remarks not on Abraham and Isaac but rather on the “na’arav,” the servants or youths who accompanied them to Mount Moriah.  At that time I pointed out that the rabbis who wrote the commentaries and the Midrash were in general agreement that these two special young people who had the privilege of accompanying Abraham and Isaac were none other than Eliezer – the servant Abraham ultimately would send to acquire a wife for Isaac – and Ishmael – Isaac’s half-brother; Abraham’s older son from Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.

As I did two years ago, I wish to turn our attention to Ishmael, for Ishmael is a unique and very important character in the story of our people, not only then in our early days, but today as well.  For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, the Arab world traces it lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael.  Arabs and Jews, we are family.  We are all the children of Abraham.  While we Jews have followed the path of Isaac, the Arabs have followed the path of Ishmael.

As we all know, in this world there are families and then there are families.  There are families in which their members are bound one to the other by indestructible bonds.  Then there are families in which their members each go their own separate ways, acknowledging their connections, one to the other, but not really feeling those connections in their hearts.  And then there are families in which their members are steeped in bitterness and anger one toward the other because of old wrongs, both real and imagined; families at war with themselves.

Sad to say, our family is just that; a family at war with itself.  Arabs and Jews, we find ourselves caught in the midst of a family feud, the roots of which are thousands of year old.  The roots of which go back all the way to the days of Isaac and Ishmael.

In the very same Torah portion in which we find the text of the Binding of Isaac, we find another account as well; an important text in understanding the roots of our family feud.  According to this text, Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and it distressed her greatly.  Indeed, she was so distressed that she went straight to Abraham and insisted that he send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away and do so immediately.  And so he did.

One of the questions the rabbis ask is, “What is it that Sarah saw?”  The Torah text simply states that she saw Ishmael “metzachek,” which in modern Hebrew simply means “playing.”  As you can imagine, it is the meaning of that term, “Metzachek” over which the rabbis have struggled throughout the ensuing years.   We do not have to look very far to get a taste of their debates.  We only have to look to the trans­lation or translations of the Torah most popularly accepted by the English speaking Jewish world; those published by the Jewish Publication Society.  Many synagogues, mine included, provide copies of the Torah translation for the worshipers to refer to while the Torah is being read.  Those translations more often than not are the most recent one published by the Jewish Publication Society.  It is the most recent but it is not the first.  Rather it is the third.  The translation in those books was first published in 1962.  Prior to that, the Jewish Publication Society published two other translations; one in 1884 and the other in 1917.  In the 1884 translation, “metzachek” was translated as “mocking” while in 1917 it was translated as “making sport.”  It was not until 1962 that it was translated as “playing.”

Why is the translation of “metzachek” so important?  Because it is the key to understanding why it was that Sarah insisted that Abraham tear his family apart and create the rift which is the foundation of the family feud which we experience to this day between Arabs and Jews.  The 1884 translation reflected the interpretation that Sarah witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac while the 1917 reflected the interpretation that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac.  While the 1962 translation does use the word “playing” still in the Midrash and commentaries that support the use of that interpretation, there is found the opinion that while Ishmael may have been befriending Isaac through play, he was also using his friendship to exert an undo influence over him.  Whichever way the rabbis fell in the debates over the meaning of that one word, where they all came together was that whatever Sarah saw, in it she saw that Ishmael posed some significant threat to Isaac’s well being, and therefore needed to be expelled from the camp; ousted from the family circle.

Ishmael’s supposed threat, along with Sarah’s & Abraham’s very painful rejection, sowed the seeds for the animosity we experience today between Arabs and Jews.  For 4,000 years we have each looked at the other, with anger and with hatred, as the enemy; as the one who has done us harm in the past and will do us harm in the future.  This has become so ingrained in us that even if we seriously looked back to the roots of this hostility, seeking to understand its genesis, still there are so many years of ill will that it seems near impossible to repair it.  Here in America we look to the Hatfields and the McCoys as a classic example of a family feud, but when compared to the Arabs and the Jews, they were mere novices.

Now reason dictates that we should be able set aside our differences and seek a peaceful resolution to our conflict.  However, reason plays a very small role in what goes on in the Middle East.  Indeed, much of the hatred which exists is pure mindless hatred.  It is hatred based upon generations of hatred.  While we American Jews would like to believe that Israel is more open to seeking reasonable solutions with its neighbors, still there are many in Israel who hate the Arabs as virulently and as blindly as the Arabs hate us.  Literally a month ago, on August 16th, there was a despicable incident in Zion Square in Jerusalem, in which a mob of Jewish teenagers beat a 17 year old Palestinian boy to within an inch of his life while hundreds of Israeli merely looked on, doing nothing to intervene.  While 8 teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 19, have been arrested for this attack, one of them, a 14 year old whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, and who is considered to be the one who delivered the critical blow to the victim, shortly after his arrest, said to reporters, “For my part, he can die; he’s an Arab.”

In addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict, we Jews have always been quick to point an accusing finger at all those Arab imams who week after week preach bloody hatred of Jews from their pulpits, and we have been completely justified in doing so.  However, in the aftermath of the beating of this Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, our attention has been turned in another direction as well.  It has been turned toward rabbis who likewise preach hate.  Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center, has challenged the Israeli government to take criminal action against some 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis, not the least of whom is none other than Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of S’fat (Safed), who regularly preach anti-Arab hatred from their pulpits, in blatant disregard for Israeli law which clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense.  But what else can you call it when these rabbis deliver messages such as “don’t rent or sell apartments to Arabs” or “All Arabs have a violent nature”?  So blind hatred is not exclusively the purview of the Arabs.  The Jews have enough of it to go around as well.

All that being said, in the Jewish world, and in Israel in particular, we do hear more voices of moderation.  There is more hand-wringing and soul searching after events such as what happened in Zion Square than when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  For there are those who recognize that this cycle of violence, this cycle of anger, this cycle of hatred has to be broken.  If only there were more in the Arab world that shared such a recognition and were courageous enough to be outspoken about it.  But even if there are, the anger and the hatred is so deep-seated in the Arab world that to so speak out is to literally put one’s life and the lives of one’s family members at risk.

So more often than not, Israel finds itself with no choice but to act defensively in the face of unmitigated hatred.  Their desire for peace does not, nor should it, require them to commit any act of national suicide.

Such is the situation in which Israel finds itself today when it comes to Iran.  While Israel would prefer peace; would prefer to put an end to this family feud, the political leadership of Iran will have none of it.  For years now, the Ayatollah leadership of Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab have spewed upon the world their messages of antisemitism and hatred of Israel.  Time and again, they have not threatened but promised to wipe Israel off the map; to utterly destroy what they call “the Zionist entity.”  True to a history of deep seated prejudice, you never hear them explain why they feel this way.  They just do.  Hatred of Jews – hatred of Israel – is simply a given in their lives.  When it comes to Israel, they see no alternative but to seek out its destruction, for they are lost in the family feud; caught up in the cycle of hate.

It has been to this end that the Iranian government has avidly pursued the development of nuclear weapons and they have made it abundantly clear that they have one goal in mind; to use those weapons in their quest to wipe Israel off the map.  This goal they have never kept secret.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, just last month a member of the Iranian Parliament announced, “This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”  Echoing those same sentiments, President Ahmadinejad said, “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.”

As we all know, the Iranians are not the first to proclaim as their goal the desire to wipe out the Jews.  There is a laundry list of others who have preceded them: the Crusaders, the Cossacks, the Nazis.  And each of them tried their best to accomplish their goal.  So for us Jews, when there are those who threaten to destroy us, we have good cause to take their threats seriously.  How much the more so should Israel take Iran’s threats seriously, taking into consideration that they are born out of our 4,000 year old family feud!

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a conference of 120 rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish religious life, sponsored by AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  As you can imagine, the main topic for consideration was the immediate tangible threat which Iran poses to the continued existence of the State of Israel.  That day we heard from many speakers, both from the left and from the right – speakers of note such as William Cristol and Dennis Ross, not to mention Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.  What was remarkable was that despite their varying political orientations, with nuanced differences, they arrived at the same conclusions.  And their bottom line was that unless the Iranian leadership can be convinced to break out of this lockstep mentality of hatred for Israel – unless they can be convinced to break out of the family feud mind set – there will be a war and it will be soon, perhaps even before our November elections.  For no matter what the United States chooses to do, Israel will never and can never permit Iran to take its nuclear development to a point beyond which Israel will no longer be able to take actions to stop them.  The frightening reality is that today in Israel, those who make plans are planning for several scenarios, all of which include the likelihood that no matter which way Israel turns, she will have to endure a significant number of civilian casualties.  For if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will have to conduct a counter-strike.  Yet if Israel doesn’t strike Iran, and Iran is permitted to continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions, the cost in Israeli casualties will be phenomenally higher.  As the cycle of violence continues, both sides may find themselves drawing blood and bleeding as the result of a 4,000 year old family feud.

As hopeless as the whole matter seems, our meeting closed with an excellent presentation and a ray of hope brought to us by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic.  Wieseltier reminded us of a statement once made by David Ben Gurion.  Back in the 30’s, when Ben Gurion was asked what the Jewish community in Palestine was going to do about the British White Paper, which eliminated Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when European Jews desperately needed to flee from the Nazis, Ben Gurion responded: “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler, and we will fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper.”  What he was saying was that we Jews do not have the luxury to face one issue at a time.  We have to face and juggle them all.  In other words, as long as this family feud presents us with fundamental threats to our continued existence, we must confront those threats.  However, even as we confront those threats – militarily, if necessary – we still must commit ourselves to make every effort to bring to an end this family feud and break through the walls of hatred, on both sides, which have been erected over 4 millennia.

May God help us find a way to transform age old anger into peace.

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder.  According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night.  So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow.  While asleep he had an amazing dream.  He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven.  On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down.  God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven.  And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.

As I was pre­paring my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth.  Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist.  For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God.  I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence.  Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot.  I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real.  I also know that I am not alone in having such experience.  People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites.  It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage.  Beit El is but one of them.

When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text.  For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down.  Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around.  As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations.  So I wish to add mine to the list.

Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens.  Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.

If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob.  Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones.  There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.

Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue.  Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.”  Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site.  Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.”  But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven.  Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.

How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished by many individual acts of will.  It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site.  We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention.  We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God.  Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us?  Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us.  Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”