Archive for the ‘Sacrifice’ 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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Fueled By Regret

September 16, 2013

I wish I was perfect.  Not so much “perfect” in that I would be the handsomest man alive or the most intelligent or a phenomenal athlete or a virtuoso musician or vocalist, or even the most eloquent speaker and writer.  Rather I wish I was a perfect person, personality and character-wise.

I wish I always was attuned to others and sensitive to their needs.  I wish I always knew the right thing to say and when to say it, and when to keep silent.

I wish that I could more appropriately express what is on my mind and in my heart, sharing what I think and how I feel in such a way that I don’t permit the emotions of the moment to take me where I really don’t want to go yet still be able to communicate effectively enough that my messages are not misread or misinterpreted by others.  I wish I was better at telling people how much I love them, how much I care for them, how much I appreciate their being in my life.

I wish I could better channel my anger; not extinguish or bury it but channel it toward productive ends rather than disruptive or destructive ends.  For anger is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be a force for good if it inspires us to confront injustices – small or large – and work for constructive change.

I wish I could be truer to my values, doing a better job at “practicing what I preach” so to speak.  It is not that I don’t really believe what I say, but it is so easy to get distracted and re-directed, often misdirected, and then there is all that ego which so readily gets in the way.  Indeed, I wish I could do a better job at putting my ego aside, spending less time thinking about myself and my wants and my needs and more time thinking about the wants and needs of others.

I wish I was both more consistent and more flexible.  I know that seems like a contradiction in terms but it really isn’t.  Ideally, consistency should rule.  In every situation, we would know where we stand, and others who know us, would be able to anticipate it as well.  In our consistency they would come to trust us.  But life isn’t ideal.  Life can be messy.  The rules don’t always provide the best answer.  So at times we have to be able to bend and go with the flow.  We have to be able to adapt.  The trick is in knowing when to be consistent and when to bend.  The rabbis of the Midrash tell us that when God was considering creating humanity, there was a heated debate among the angels.  They were divided into two camps, those who opposed the creation of humanity and those who supported it.  Those who opposed humanity’s creation did so on the grounds of justice, in that they foresaw that often human beings would be unjust.  As for those who favored humanity’s creation, they did so on the grounds of mercy, in that they foresaw that many would be the times when human beings would demonstrate great compassion.  In the end, God decided to create humanity but to do so in a balance between justice and mercy.[1]  That is still my challenge.  How can I better balance justice and mercy in the decision making of my life?

Speaking of balance, I wish I could better balance my time.  Time management has never been one of my strong suits.  Days seem to fly by, yet when I consider how much time I have frittered away, one way or another – time which could have been used far more productively – I have no choice but to realize that I have no one to blame but myself.  Yet our time is such a precious commodity, all the more precious for the demands upon it far outweigh the supply.  Everyone wants a piece of our time and everyone deserves a piece of it; our family, our job, our friends, our community, our world, and of course, also ourselves.  Yes, we need to make time for others but we also need to make time for ourselves.  So how do we make the most of the little that we have?  How do I make the most of the little I have?

I wish I could be more organized.  One look at my desk provides ample testimony to what degree chaos rules my life.  I look at those whose desks are clear and neat, where you can actually see the wood of the desktop and I am filled with wonderment.  How can they do that?  Life can be a hectic and overwhelming enterprise.  In one way or another we are all jugglers and it seems that the number of balls we are ex­pected to keep in the air at any given time only increases.  Rarely, if ever, do they decrease.  Some people prove to be great jugglers.  Others not so much so.  Most of us fall somewhere in between. Oh, but to be one of life’s great jugglers!  What a pleasure that would be!

I have many regrets.  So many things I wish I could have done better.  So many ways I wish I had taken the opportunity to demonstrate myself to be a better person.

I have regrets.  We all have regrets.  I suspect that many of us have shared regrets; that some of my regrets are also some of yours and that some of your regrets are also some of mine.  And if there is anyone among us who thinks to him or herself, “I have no regrets!” then surely they are deluding themselves.  For we all are human beings, and part of our nature is that we are imperfect.  We make mistakes.  We do not always live up to our potential.  There are always ways in which we can do better.  We all have, or should have, regrets, and if we don’t that is not because we are so perfect but rather because we are so flawed that we have blinded ourselves to our own shortcomings.

This somber holy day of Yom Kippur offers us a very special gift; the gift of the possibility of a new beginning for our lives.  We can come to the synagogue and sit and pray, and maybe even fast, and suffer, and then leave, walking out of this building’s doors the same person who entered through them.  Un­changed.  Or, we can choose to take the message of Yom Kippur to heart and believe that we can change; and embrace the opportunity to change – change for the better.

But how do we begin that process of change?  We begin with regret.  Before we can change, we have to confront our lives, as we have lived them so far, and acknowledge that we have been less than we could have been.  We must acknowledge that we have regrets.  More than acknowledge them, we must number and catalog our regrets; creating our own personal laundry list of them.  For until we are ready to come face to face with our regrets, we can never change.  We can want to change.  We can hope to change, but we can never really change.

I know that it is hard to face the fact that we have been less than we could have been.  Believe you me, it was no easy task for me to lay out before you my regrets, and harder still knowing that the list I shared with you is incomplete; that there are those which are buried so deep, I could not even give them expression.  But nobody ever promised us that there is an easy path to change.  Change is hard, and it can be painful, but if we are willing to face the hardship and endure the pain, it also can be well worth it.  Anyone who has ever worked out at a gym or gone on a diet knows from whence I speak.  But truth be told, while strengthening our body is a good thing, strengthening our character is a wondrous thing of manifold greater significance.  For while all the efforts that we invest in diet and exercise may make us thinner, healthier, and stronger, they do not change the people are; only the bodies we inhabit.  Yet traveling the path laid out to us by Yom Kippur – the path that begins with regret and moves toward repentance, atone­ment, and hopeful forgiveness – can make of us better people.  When you think about it, if you had to make a choice, which would you prefer?  To be known as a thin person or a good person?  A strong person or a decent person?  A physically fit person or a person worthy of respect?  Of course we don’t have to choose between them.  We can, if we so choose, be both thin and good, strong and decent, physically fit and worthy of respect.  But even if we possessed both, of which would we be prouder?

So let us seriously take this Yom Kippur opportunity to consider those aspects of our lives which we sincerely regret.  Let our sense of regret fuel our energy for change.  Let us commit ourselves to the work of making ourselves, not perfect, but better in the coming year.  Let us commit ourselves to transforming today’s regrets into our building blocks with which we will build of ourselves better people as we march into our future.


[1] BERESHIT RABBA 8.