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Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

09/11/2018 09:47:21 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

“Lift Up Our Eyes”

In a few moments, after I’m done speaking, after Avinu Malkeinu and a hakafah that is either too long or too short, depending on your point of view, we will settle in to our Torah service, and hear the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, chanted beautifully by our congregants. We will hear about how God asks, no, commands Abraham to take his son, the only of his wife Sarah, his miracle child, his child of laughter, and sacrifice him. This is no metaphor; Abraham must take a knife and slit his son’s throat, and place him on the fire as an offering; a test, we are told. As many of you have frequently observed, it is a deeply, profoundly uncomfortable text. Why on earth are we reading this text on Rosh Hashanah? The Sunday School answer is, of course, because of the ram Abraham will see and sacrifice instead of his son, and the source of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that we sound on this day. But in light of the cruelty of the story, it seems pretty weak. Why couldn’t we read the Ten Commandments, say, or the seven days of creation, or literally any other text but this one, where a father nearly murders his child on behalf of his God?

I used to think that the pivot point in the text was the dialogue between Abraham and Isaac as they go up the hill. When Isaac asks where the sheep is to sacrifice, Abraham answers that God will see to it, a wink and a nod to the readers that all is not lost. But lately I’ve been thinking that it’s moment that is the key to understanding this text and why we read it on the first day of the New Year.

Throughout the story, the word “see” is used over and over again; it is a leitmotif of the text as Abraham sees things, God shows things, God sees things, and the like. But twice Abraham lifts his eyes, vayisa et einav, and sees…something. First the mountain of Moriah, and then the ram in the thicket. When we read that Abraham lifts his eyes, it is as if what he’s seeing wasn’t there before; that is, this isn’t just that he didn’t notice or wasn’t paying attention, but rather that what Abraham sees was literally not there a moment ago, until his eyes were opened. In fact, the Talmud lists the ram in the thicket as a miracle, created at the beginning of all things, waiting for its moment to save Isaac. And what he sees is not just a place to offer his child, or a ram to offer in his stead. What he sees are choices, moral choices. As I’ve shared with you before, a way to read this text is to see it as Abraham being given and failing a test; instead of challenging God, Abraham submits, and God must stop the test. While I still think that’s true, I increasingly believe that these two moments where Abraham lifts up his eyes are the moments where the test happens; Abraham has the choice to take Isaac up to Moriah, or do something else, anything else to protect his son. Likewise, Abraham, seeing the ram, recognizes the opportunity to save his son.

When Abraham lifts up his eyes, it becomes moment of moral clarity.

And so it is with us today. This story shocks us on the first day of the New Year. Good. It horrifies us on a day when we should be enjoying honey cake and hearing that same story from our uncle for the umpteenth time at dinner, but we listen anyway because we love our uncle. Good. It is a story to shake us, to challenge us before we go back to the mundanity of our lives, before we hear the shofar, giggle at the tekiah gedolah, and go home to watch the ball game. As it is for Abraham, it is a moment of moral clarity for each of us, a moment when we should be opening our eyes to what is going on and asking ourselves what am I doing? What are the limits of violence, of indignity, of pain, that we are willing to tolerate in our midst.

So let me make the question explicit: what are your limits? Where is your moral clarity? I ask because we are being challenged as a people and a nation as never before. Every day brings its new sin of bigotry and malice. Whether it’s a guard at a swimming pool throwing people out because they are people of color or children as young as one year old defending themselves in immigration court, trying to plead for asylum, our moral clarity is being tested. When we see the working poor, including men and women in uniform, increasingly left adrift by a nation that doesn’t want to lift the tide to lift all ships, our moral boundaries are being tested. And surely we are challenged when we do turn to help, when we go to rally with our allies and friends, and all too often are told that we aren’t wanted because of our Zionism.

It is not that these issues weren’t there before, of course. Many of us have been fighting this fight for a long time, have been knee-deep in the fight against poverty, bigotry and depravity. But now it feels like the fires are burning out of control, and no one is bringing any water. We are as a society at the moment between when Abraham raises the knife, and God’s voice emerges from the heavens, and like Abraham, we don’t know if the voice is coming. We can’t see the ram.

So what do we do? What can we say? What is our task?

It was Nachman of Bratzlav who said, “the entire world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is to not be afraid”. Today he might qualify that statement and say, “the important thing is to not feel helpless”. We may, in fact, feel helpless, feel that there is nothing we can do except stare at what is transpiring in our community, our nation and our world with that pit in our stomach. But helplessness is as much a learned behavior as is anything else, and action is a learned behavior too. We cannot wave a magic wand and make everything all right; that’s not how the world works. But we can choose to set down our sense of powerlessness, and take up whatever action our minds, our bodies and our capabilities allow. We must—we must—remember that we have agency, and so long as we have agency, the power to choose and to do, then there is hope.

Our task, therefore, is to open up our eyes, and act. We cannot wait for the ram to appear or for the voice of God to stop the knife. We cannot wait for someone else to step up.  We must act without ambiguity, but with full moral clarity in our actions.

First, we must be civically engaged. We must challenge our elected leaders, even when we like them. We cannot wait for the exact right time, the exact right legislation, or the exact right person; we must challenge them and push them to alleviate the pain in our communities. And we have an opportunity to do that. On September 17th, next week, the JCC and Jewish Federation along with Hadassah will be hosting their Candidate Forum. There will be a handout with a link to resources from our Religious Action Center with questions to pose to the various candidates, Republican and Democrat, about our values as progressive Jews. If you are free that evening, look at the questions, perhaps you have a few of your own, submit them in advance, and go and be present, press them. And whether you can go or not, start asking tough questions of our Senators, our Congresswoman, our governor, every elected official. Write emails, go to forums, vote for the people who will stand up for our values, and then continue to reach out.

Second, we must challenge our friends and neighbors. We all know people who are happy to re-share a meme or re-circulate an email; are they registered to vote? Are they volunteering their time? Are they giving of themselves to causes in our community and country that will make a difference? Could they be more generous with their resources? Are they working to make this world really better, or just mouthing off? I know how engaged and civically minded this room is, how many of the people in this room take the time to research candidates and vote. It was a joy to watch all the pictures of congregants posting their ‘I voted’ selfies on primary day. In addition, I am asking you to reach out to your friends, your neighbors, and push them to do the same. Get one more person—a family member, a friend—to reflect on the issues they care about, learn about the candidates, and go to the polls in November and vote their conscience.

Finally, we must challenge ourselves. We need to truly show up:  to march, to speak out, to work and work hard for the kind of community we believe in. If our eyes are truly open to what is, and what ought to be, then we need to put ourselves truly into the work. I have been immensely proud of how our congregants have marched, and written letters, and given of their time and wealth. But marching and protests, civic engagement, writing letters, all that only goes so far. It’s important, it’s critical, but it isn’t relieving the pain right now, it isn’t fixing what is broken right now. We need to act: what will we do?

Last night I mentioned the words written on the walls of this synagogue, words written on the walls of this very sanctuary: Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With thy God. These words were and continue to be a call to action. Our congregation has a long history of working to alleviate poverty. If you’ve ever experienced poverty yourself; perhaps because of your own experience growing up, or you’ve done something like the SNAP challenge where you attempted to live on the meager resources provided by our safety net, you know how much pain and suffering food and housing insecurity causes. And we know how much need there is in this community. According to our friends at the Food bank, one in eight Delaware families are food insecure, and one in six children. That’s over 114,000 people. We’ve seen the need, and we’ve answered the call. We’ve partnered with Family Promise for several years, helping house and support homeless families, and have another opportunity to do that work two weeks from now, starting on September 23rd. We have joined with our brothers and sisters of other faiths to pack Thanksgiving meals in November. Our Sisterhood and confirmation classes have partnered with Ministry of Caring to support their soup kitchens. We have supported our congregant Brennan Stark, who, at age 19, is building sustainable housing for low income families here in Wilmington, and heaven knows he needs our help. All of that will continue, but I also want to commit to something else, something new that will support this neighborhood, this community. For 10 years we have gathered food as part of Project Isaiah at the High Holidays, filling a truck with grocery bags, hundreds of pounds of food which are then taken to the Delaware Food Bank. Not this year. This year, it’s going in our own, new Food Pantry. Thanks to our administrator Jon Yulish and our social action committee, Starting in November, once a week, coordinated with other support services in the community, we will open our doors to those in need around us, providing emergency resources for individuals and families who are trying to make ends meet. Perhaps they’re on SNAP and the month is running out. Perhaps they’ve lost a job or had been sick. Perhaps they don’t have transportation to get to the market. Whatever their circumstance, we are going to be here. And it needs to be ‘we’. We’re going to need volunteers to help stock and sort, to help our new friends ‘shop’ for their groceries. And we’re not going to stop there. The vision is to be able to expand, to offer other resources; perhaps perishable food, perhaps having a social worker here who can help our guests get the support services they need, perhaps having medical professionals here who can do screenings and other support. Perhaps there are needs out there that we are unaware of, and as we get to know our new friends, we will find a way to step into the breach. We are going to make our spiritual home a place that supports the people around us. Because we have to. We must answer the call. We must respond to the crippling needs we see around us. To do otherwise would be an act of idolatry, a rejection of the image of God present in each person. If we pretend that this space is only for us, that we are helpless in the face of poverty, if we look in the mirror tonight and say, “there’s nothing more I can do for my community”, then we might as well give up calling ourselves Jewish, because Jews act, and Jews don’t wait for permission.

As you collect your shopping bags there will be new instructions on what we need and how to volunteer to help. And, on Erev Sukkot, there will be a special program for anyone who wants to participate, and we’ll need all hands on deck for this. Finally, as you depart, you can take a quick peek at the space we’ll be using in all its glory, just before you exit the building—WITH your shopping bag! Every year we collect a truck and a half, and I’d love to see us bring in six months’ supply for the pantry! And from this point forward, let that shopping bag (or two, or five) be your starting point, not the end point. I offer you to be generous in spirit: that every time you enter this building, you bring some non-perishable food for the pantry. That we find time, every one of us, to help in some way, whether it’s stocking shelves or actually being present to help our soon-to-be new friends. That we ask our friends and neighbors to also bring us what we need to bring out.

Our eyes are lifted up; they are open. The task is before us. What shall we do? Do we embrace the choice before us, or do we sacrifice that choice on the altar of hopelessness and helplessness? At Camp Harlam, before the Amidah, they often sing words written by songleader and friend Julie Silver: “Open my eyes to truth, open my hands to give freely, open my lips to good words, to pure words, open my heart to love.” Our eyes are open; may the rest follow, and follow soon. Amen.

If you are going to the Candidate Forum on September 17th, or would like to participate more fully in our Civic engagement work, please visit HERE to find resources, including sample questions.

Wed, December 6 2023 23 Kislev 5784