The Whole World is Blessed by You
Rosh Hashana Day 1
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
The story of the Akeidah is the most famous of Torah stories because it is read every Rosh Hashana and because the topic is child sacrifice. For those who don’t know the story, Abraham is called by God. He responds simply with “hineini, here I am” ready to accept whatever is to come. God tells him to take his son to the spot God will show him and offer him up as a korban. Without a word, he begins the process. Along the way Isaac asks, “Father, I see you, I see me, I see the wood for burning, I see the knife; where is the ram for the korban?” Abraham replies, God will provide it. They arrive, Isaac is bound –the word akeida means binding- Abraham lifts the knife. At that moment, at just that moment, God calls out to Abraham and again Abraham answers simply, “hineini, here I am” ready to accept whatever is to come. And now God says, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him. For now I know you have not withheld your son, your favored son from me.”
Phew! This is a crazy story, a maddening story. It is praised as a test of faithfulness and condemned for its abhorrent cruelty. It is seen as a dramatic break with the reality of child sacrifice; this new faith would never have it. But couldn’t God have made that point more succinctly? Did God have to sweat the old man?
There are many, many questions to this story. Rabbis at Rosh Hashana have been mining it for a millennium finding something new. For me, there is one more line that has always bothered me. It is a moment that comes at the end of the story. By now, at this dénouement, we are so relieved we barely care about anything else so the pasuk doesn’t get much attention. It begins with God giving this promise in reward for Abraham’s fealty: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.” It concludes, “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command.”
What does it mean that the nations of the earth will be blessed by Abraham’s descendants? I understand how we, the descendants of Abraham, might be blessed. The merit of Abraham was so great it passes down to the Jewish people through the generations but how would the other peoples of the earth benefit?
Maybe the other nations are blessed because we ended child sacrifice. This story was a massive break from what was commonplace. Or, perhaps we bring blessings to the world through the example of our practice and our values. We Jews, committed to living with others in the modern world and mindful of being a minority aren’t prone to bragging but perhaps we should just take a moment and be proud of what we have brought to the world. Let’s start first with the gift and novelty of Shabbat.
We brought the Sabbath to the world and through that taught two ideas. One, we are not slaves. We are not slaves to a master, we are not slaves to a clock, we are slaves to no one. We have this reminder, this insistence, this very commandment from God to remove ourselves from work so we can be appreciative of what our labor has given us, and share that with family and friends. Secondly, we have taught the world that the spiritual, that which inspires the soul is just as important as the physical. God did not create the world in six days with a day off. God created the world in seven days. The point of that story is that rest is not slacking off. Rest, appreciation, inspiration, reflection is part of Creation, is part of what makes the world great. A life without Shabbat, a life without a day to appreciate, to spend time, to indulge, to relax, is the life of the slave. A life with Sabbath rest is the life of the fully living.
Perhaps we ought not to forget that we brought the idea of monotheism to the world. In our own Jewish way we have multiple ideas of what God might be but if we believe, we believe in just one God. And that seems to have worked well for Christians and Muslims who added their own approach to that idea. Billions of believers are blessed in the type of faith that we began.
We brought a sense of justice and ethics as proof of loyalty to God in place of killing our children. We taught the world that justice and ethics, the insistence that morality is what God wants. Ritual, yes, but ritual only when it serves to teach and make manifest the justice and ethics God truly wants. This idea surely has been a blessing to the world, although lost to those have gotten lost in their piety.
Not that the Jewish people were perfect. We did have moments in our history of killing and violence. And we still have segments of our people who are dismissive, even a little racist towards others. We are not perfect. But when we strayed, the prophets reminded us the end goal always was to live a life of ethics and justice. You can argue we failed from time to time but you can’t argue it wasn’t the goal. We brought to the world an aspirational approach to living. The world is imperfect but we must make it perfect. The world is filled with injustice. We must bring justice. We must live in such a way, witness in such a way, be a role model in such a way that the peoples of the world are inspired to bring justice to the world. In that way we are a blessing. Some of us fail in that goal. But many, many Jews live each day with that very notion in the forefront of our minds. Many of us do try to live a moral life because it is right and because our neighbors, our friends, our children are watching and we want to model right behavior and we want to be positive exemplars of the values of Torah.
These are all things we have brought to the world and we should all be proud of that. There is one more thing we brought that is still fairly unique to us, the idea of belonging to a people, not just a faith.
In many other religions, you are in or you are out based on what you believe. Jews developed a more open approach, an understanding of our selves grander than the specifics of faith; our approach is peoplehood. We have Jews who have firm belief in God. We have Jews with no belief and Jews with everything in between. We have Jews who are proud because of our history or our commitment to study or our meaningful holidays or our passion for justice. We have Jews who love being part of the Jewish people for our culture. And we have non-Jews who love being part of the Jewish people. Some have converted, some are planning to convert, some are thinking of maybe converting and some are happy as they are, happy to be part of this big wide ranging tribe. We have all these people tapping in to the vast repertoire of Jewish life and they, you, find meaning there.
We’ve used this idea, this open, expansive understanding of peoplehood to lead us towards the partnership model at Temple Beth Jacob and I want to say a few words about how it’s going.
This place here along the Hudson River has been blessed since 1854 to have Jews and Jewish families contribute their time, energy and money to keep it going. We know that outside of Israel, if we want to be part of a Jewish community, we have to make that community real. We need our institutions, our buildings, our staff to keep things going. And you all have risen to that challenge. You have accepted that you are partners in this ongoing adventure to keep Jewish life alive in the mid-Hudson Valley. You have understood and accepted the challenge that stated plainly, if you want this place to exist, you have a personal stake in keeping it here. And I want to tell you, our partnership program is working. The idea that you can determine your support is working. In an earlier day, some would have had to show a 1040 or have an embarrassing conversation or, truth be told, would have walked away because they didn’t want to be embarrassed. And now these families, whoever they are, understand they are wanted. That is the most important aspect of the partnership program. Because you contribute whatever you can, big or small, you commit to keeping us going.
The biggest concern synagogues have when thinking about a partnership model is the fear that everyone will chip in $100 and be done with it. For the most part, that didn’t happen because you, our partners, understand what Temple Beth Jacob means to you and your family. But we do have some problems. Some of problems are systemic. We have had problems getting pledge cards out and making sure they come back in. Some people don’t contribute because the synagogue no longer sends bills, as it were, so they don’t receive the expected prompt. Some people put off deciding what they will contribute and then they just forget to do it. And some people, a few, are assuming they can just contribute a minimal amount even though they could contribute more. Now that’s fine but if those who can do more contribute a bare minimum, we will shut our doors. The market will decide if there is value here.
Unlike the dues model, you can’t carry a balance. If, for whatever reason you didn’t make a contribution for last year, we have to assume you are no longer interested in being a partner in our community. Your support, whatever that is, means you support the idea of Temple Beth Jacob being here. Now, we know that some people just forget so the Board members make phone calls to remind you but that is not the goal. The goal is to build the habit and understanding that your contribution is just that, yours and we hope you will fill out your card promptly and follow through. No one on the Board wishes to be a nudge. As we get better with the partnership approach, we hope to eliminate the need for the nudgy calls.
As each year goes on, the Board will look at our budget and let you know what we need. Don’t expect someone else to make sure Temple Beth Jacob continues. Each household has the responsibility to contribute as best as it can. You hold the future of us in your hands. That is a powerful and sacred privilege.
And by the way, you should know that I get a couple calls a year from other rabbis asking how we did it. We are known out there as a model of success. I hope you take pride in that.
Enough with business. After a lovely summer, we come back together as a community, this corner of the Jewish people, for a whirlwind of holidays and celebration.
The partners have gathered for a partners meeting to discuss the future of ourselves. How did we do? No guilt, no shame; just a fair question. How did we do? Where did we succeed? Where did we go wrong? This afternoon we will glory in the astonishing beauty of the Hudson River and the Beacon hills as we cast our sins upon the water. Tomorrow, we get out of this room, get up from a chair and get out into nature for a hike. We are taking a lovely stroll at Manitoga in Garrison. Our hike is not just for the people in tefillot in the morning. Everyone is welcome for a judgment free easy hike.
After the hike we are in the ten days of reflection. Give yourself some time to really think about your life. Talk to a spouse or child or friend. Reconnect with a sibling. Try, really try, do the work, to think about where you have gone right and where you have gone wrong. Be a role model to your friends and family, to the whole world that we Jews have a way to break through stubbornness and a way to embrace contrition even if it is hard. Engage the challenging questions of 10Q.
Next, take the fast of Yom Kippur seriously, spend your time in this room seriously. Adopt a contrite attitude and you will soon feel contrite, you will soon feel repentant. And then we get out of this room once more. If Yom Kippur is about spending time inside the sanctuary, Sukkot is a demand to be outside. We are commanded to set up a hut outside the sanctuary. For seven days we are commanded to live in the sukkah so we are going to do our very best to do that. October 4, erev Sukkot, our annual, wildly successful pot luck dinner in the sukkah. And no complaining if it’s cold. Sukkot is called the season of joy, not whining so wear warm shoes and be joyful to gather in our beautiful sukkah. October 5, the first full day, come over to the sukkah with your own lunch. If you don’t have your own sukkah, pack up dinner and come eat in ours. The sukkah is open from the outside. Unless it’s raining, there will be tables and chairs. Plug the lights in and enjoy dinner outdoors with the family. Bring dinner or order a pizza to be delivered. Seriously. No reservations. Just bring your dinner.
October 7 we are having our first Sukkot Dine Around. Hors d'oeuvres in the sukkah, dinner in someone’s home, back to the sukkah for dessert. This is going to be a very fun, very lively time. October 8 Sisterhood has a tea in the sukkah and the Sunday school will be in their shaking the lulav. October 9 the JCC has their lunch and learn in the Sukkah. So many activities, so many chances to be joyful.
And then we wrap it up with Simchat Torah. Once again, we are cleaning a Torah. We had a big crowd last year grab erasers and go to work cleaning the actual parchment. It was very moving and very joyful. This year Nefesh Mountain, a Jewish bluegrass band, will help us celebrate. The band will be playing as we dance the Torah scrolls out of the ark, into the social hall where we’ll stretch the scroll over long tables so everyone can get in and clean it. You do not want to miss this. That which is most precious, most holy is turned over to you so that you can truly be a steward of Torah. The protection and maintenance of Torah as our way of life is most literally in your hands. Never more powerfully does the meaning of partnership become so clear. We are partners, all of us, in protecting and promoting Torah. You do not want to be a silent partner. In our hands is the thing we have died for and the thing we live for. In your hands is the responsibility to clean the scroll so that you become like art conservators, protecting this for the next generation.
And here, again, we become a blessing returning us to the promise of the end of the Akeidah. We show the world that what is most precious is not to be kept behind glass but to be engaged, to be handled. What is most precious should be challenged and should challenge us. What is most precious may also be difficult but we do not shy away from difficulty. We are here to live out our promise. We are here to proclaim that the Jewish holidays have a claim on our souls that their message inspires us. We are here to say, when the call comes, hineini, Here I am, ready to be a partner, ready to be a Jew. And when we do that, each one of us in our own small way becomes a blessing to the world.