Rosh HaShanah: Whose Test is it Anyway?

Rosh HaShanah: Whose Test is it Anyway?

God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” So, early the next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. (Genesis 22:1-3)

Wait, what did that last sentence say?

Did it really say that Abraham awoke EARLY the next morning?

Waking early for something reminds me of how kids have trouble sleeping the night before a trip to Disneyworld, and they just can’t wait for the new day to start. When we want to avoid doing something the next day, we often, in a lovely passive aggressive fashion, tend to sleep late and put it off. But, no, Abraham woke up early on the day upon which he was to set off on a journey that would culminate in the sacrifice of his beloved son, Isaac. Isaac, borne by his wife, Sarah, whom God had given to them when they were both about 100 years old.

So, wait, what was the next part of that shocking sentence?

Abraham saddled the donkey himself? He apparently had servants who could have done it for him. Why wasn’t he paralyzed by the weight of what he was about to do? How did he have the strength or motivation to prepare for the trip on his own?

We are taught to see Abraham’s act as the ultimate expression of faith. Here is the first Jew, ready to do whatever God asked, even to kill his baby boy. HOWEVER, we also know that Judaism would not ever, EVER condone such an act. This leads me to ask, what was this really all about? Was there something else at play here?

What could have been going on in Abraham’s mind when he heard this command? A wise man named Robert Zimmerman, otherwise known, of course, as Bob Dylan, also seems to have wrestled with this troubling moment:

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61

As you may know, historically, Highway 61 travels from Minnesota down to New Orleans, and at its junction with Highway 49 in Mississippi is the mythic crossroads where Blues musician Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Though many of Dylan’s lyrics are often enigmatic, Highway 61 in this song seems to refer to a place where difficult decisions are made, and where human beings often have to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong.

The question therefore arises – what was the nature of Abraham’s choice in this moment? Was Abraham just following God’s command because there was an inherent threat against him? Did Abraham feel that he had any choice in the matter? Let’s take a moment and put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes. He had just begun to learn of God’s power, and had just seen some of God’s miracles, particularly in the birth of Isaac. Abraham had just signed on to this thing called monotheism.

And then, God springs this demand on Abraham, and the text tells us explicitly that God was testing Abraham. But, my friends, perhaps the real question is this: is it also possible that Abraham was testing God?

Let’s take a look at this text from both angles.

First, the idea that God was testing Abraham. Was God testing Abraham’s faith? Or perhaps, as Bob Dylan suggests, was God frightening Abraham into this act and testing his response? Maybe if Abraham hadn’t gone through with it, God would have destroyed Abraham, as well as the whole genetic line which would lead to the Israelites. But, seriously, what kind of a test is this? What kind of choice is this?

Frankly, the God that I believe in would never expect a father to sacrifice his son at his own hand, and I firmly believe that our faith would never have survived if this kind of action was expected or valued.

I would prefer to think that, had Abraham actually begun to harm his son, then God would have turned away, told Abraham, “Thanks, but no thanks” – and that God would have found someone else – someone more ethical, someone who doesn’t blindly follow cruel commands – to start off our religion.

Therefore, let’s next take a look at this test from Abraham’s point of view. And, let’s give him a bit more discernment in this matter than we normally do.

What if Abraham, with quite a bit of chutzpah, wanted to see just how far this God would take this whole “sacrifice your son” thing? What if Abraham knew deep inside that he would never subscribe to a system of belief that randomly gave children to a long-infertile mother, then demanded that they be murdered by the father’s hand? I picture Abraham smirking through the story, thinking to himself, perhaps in Dylan’s words, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on…” I imagine Abraham further thinking, “Are you kidding me, God? I am not actually going to lay a hand on my child!”

So, what if we presume that Abraham woke early, and saddled his donkey, because he was not AT ALL afraid of losing his child. He knew that he would raise the knife, and hold it there as long as he had to, waiting and waiting and waiting for God to tell him to stop.

The text reads,

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ׃

And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.

But it doesn’t tell us how long his hand lingered up there.

The immediate next verse is:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֜יו מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

Then an angel of the Eternal called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”

 

God sent a messenger at that very next moment to say, “Abraham, Abraham, do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to harm him.” (Genesis 22: 11-12) So imagine that Abraham paused, hand held high, with no intention of slaughtering his son. And in that pause, both parties, God and Abraham, passed the test.

God, at that moment, saw that Abraham was dedicated to God and to Judaism, but that Abraham was not going to blindly follow such a horrifying request. Abraham paused, hand in the air, and was pleased to finally hear the angel of God calling out to him, “Abraham, Abraham!” God thus passed Abraham’s test. Abraham, at that moment, showed the future generations of Jews that we can indeed challenge God, we can question, we can quarrel with God. Abraham could now sign on, with full faith, to this new religious system, knowing that God would be there for him, to protect him, his children, and his children’s children.

The incident began a deepening of the connection between human beings and God –  we learn that God wants a true partnership with us. We can have a mutual, complex, and reciprocal relationship. We can argue, and get angry, and then seek resolution when we have issues with God.

Here we are, thousands of years later, sitting at Rosh Hashanah morning services at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek. Abraham set up a paradigm through which, even today, we are invited to interact with God.

Even so, many of us read a story like this one in Genesis 22 and think, “Well, if this is God, then I want nothing to do with God.” We get stuck on the image of God presented in the Torah, which is from more than 3500 years ago, and we cut ourselves off from even trying to build a bridge to God. We get stuck on an interpretation of God which we may have picked up as children in religious school, and which we’ve never, ever explored as adults.

Writer Sarah Hurwitz, in an essay published earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, entitled, “Religion for Adults Means Embracing Complexity,”explains that, though she became a Bat Mitzvah at age 13, it took her another 25 years before she “finally became a Jewish adult.” In an Introduction to Judaism she took in her thirties, she,

“encountered a wildly diverse array of Jewish God concepts. God isn’t a being in the sky, but rather God is everything, and we’re all interconnected. God is the force that makes for self-actualization, the process by which we become our highest, truest selves. God is what arises between two people in moments of profound relationship, when each encounters the other in their fullest humanity.

I had learned none of this in Hebrew school. I don’t know how you would even begin to teach such things to children. And therein lies the problem. Many of Judaism’s most profound teachings are accessible to thoughtful adults. And this challenge isn’t just limited to Judaism…

We would never do such a thing in a secular context. If someone told us that they found their sixth-grade science or history classes to be dull or overly simplistic, and thus entirely stopped learning about those subjects, we would be appalled. But that is precisely what many do with religion, including plenty who continue to show up at our places of worship and go through the motions. We’ve rejected the kiddie stuff but never bothered to replace it with an adult version. And that’s a real loss, because mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible answers, but push us to ask the right questions. Not just, “what does it mean to be happy or successful?” But “What does it mean to lead a truly ethical life? To be part of a community? To serve something greater than one’s self?”

So, here we are, a group of Jewish adults, and I suggest that if we flip our most common interpretation of this morning’s Torah text. When we do so, we might find ourselves with a vision of God which allows human beings, and Jews, much more agency and connection. This text could be teaching us that Judaism does not want us to follow our tradition with blind faith. We need not accept ancient teachings which are antithetical to our core beliefs or values, or which exclude certain members of our community from participating or leading us.

We are encouraged to question. We are welcome to doubt. Our Torah study blessing, which thanks God for commanding us “to engage with the words of Torah,” does not tell us to memorize them and read every word as doctrine. Rather, we must engage, we must interact – we are supposed to wrestle!

We can therefore choose to accept a relationship with God which is meaningful, rich, and constantly evolving. Abraham’s story, and this particular interpretation, encourages us to ponder how EACH ONE OF US interacts with God. So, I ask:

What kind of relationship do YOU personally have with your Jewish heritage?

And, maybe the even more intimidating question –

What is YOUR relationship with God?

One of my favorite Jewish theologies (and, yes, that is plural – there are many different and legitimate theologies in Judaism, not merely the one presented in the Torah) is that which was taught by Martin Buber.

(Visit this site for a brief explanation)

These relationships with others function in the same way that our relationship with God functions. God is the ultimate YOU, what Buber called the “Eternal Thou.”

We all get in fights or disagreements with those we love. And, particularly during these High Holidays, we reflect on our past conflicts and look for ways to reconcile. We come to accept arguments or tension with our loved ones as part of the total package of caring for someone, because we are in a mutual, three-dimensional relationship with them. We hope that they accept our flaws, and we aim to accept theirs.

And yet, why is it difficult to look at our relationship with God in the same way? Why do we resist allowing our relationship with God to mature, change, or grow? Buber’s mutuality invites us to accept God in all of God’s deeds. We are created in God’s image, and we are constantly developing and learning. Isn’t it possible that God develops and learns along with us?

For me, it all comes back to Tevye. I picture Tevye, arms raised up toward God, talking as if they were best friends, even family: “Oh, Heavenly Father, why do these things happen to me? Is it so hard to bless me like you bless others?” It’s the kind of deep relationship that takes all sorts of ups and downs. Tevye shows us that it is alright to question, and even to argue, with God.

I welcome you to consider partaking in the many adult learning opportunities offered throughout the year here at CBSRZ, including our weekly Torah Study group, Holy Scrollers, each and every Saturday morning at 9am. Sean Konecky leads a group through the Books of Prophets most Sundays at 11am. I offer two different book groups which meet monthly. There are films, classes, series, and more, and I’m sure that something will catch your eye and spark your interest. Something will take your current understanding of Judaism, no matter where it is, and lift it to the next level.

What’s most important here?

Keep the conversation with God going. Keep the phone lines open. Try not to see God as an IT, as something far away, distant, disconnected and irrelevant. Make God into the ultimate relationship, through which you reach all other relationships in your life.

This New Year, 5780, when we are thinking about bettering ourselves, repairing broken relationships, and repenting for our past deeds, let us also wrestle with God.

There is a Chasidic question – who is closer to God? One who has never sinned or one who has sinned, but now repents? It is the repentant sinner who gets closer to God than the one who never sinned. Why? Because the cord of connection between her and God has broken. But, then, it must also be repaired. How do we repair a torn rope? We retie it, thus bringing God and the sinner closer than before.

Know that you can close your eyes, and God is right there.

You can open them, and God is still with you.

Open the lines of communication, and the rest will fall into place.

Be prepared to learn things which are problematic, which are controversial, and with which you disagree.

But also be prepared to learn things which reach your very soul and change the course of your life.

Be prepared to challenge God – just as we sometimes do with those with whom we are most intimate.

Be prepared to sometimes keep a sense of humor about things.

Be prepared to learn to accept your flaws, because God will.

God is always ready for us to approach, to return, to reconcile.

Teshuvah – returning – to God is woven into the very fabric of our universe.

And the relationship will be filled with holiness, for it is written, “You shall be holy for I, Adonai, am holy.”

 

As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes,

“Entrances to holiness are everywhere.

The possibility of ascent is all the time.

Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.

There is no place on earth without God.”

Amen.

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