Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh Hashana speech: 5751

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7)

"...and I am called wise... but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, 'He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing'." (Socrates in Plato's Apology)

There are few stories in Tanach as striking as Akeidat Yitzchak. And there are few more troubling. It tends not to sit well with modern sensibilities, but I would assume that the image of a father holding a knife above his son’s bound body, ready to strike, would chill the blood of a reader in any place or time. It is a central story in our tradition and liturgy. Althought often skipped or rushed through, it is part of the daily service. But it is really accented on Rosh Hashana, where the story featured as the Torah reading, referred to in the mussaf, and alluded to by the ram’s horn shofar. Why is that? What makes this piece of text so central to Rosh Hashana in particular?

I don’t know.

But the answer may lie in exactly the aspects of the story that make us, 21st century modern Orthodox Jews, so uncomfortable. Sure, there’s the violence, but we’ve grown pretty comfortable with its appearance in various media. I think that what really rankles is Avraham’s submission of his logic, ethics, judgement and emotion to the Divine will. This may have sounded less troubling in the Middle Ages, and that is precisely the sticking point. The transition from the Midevil to the modern is defined by the progress that came from the move from religious/magical thinking to humanist/rational thinking. There is no question that civilization has progressed because of this paradigm shift. In fact the very idea of civilization’s inevitable progress, (exemplified, for instance, in the assumption that our grandchildren will have easier lives than we will) is a direct result of this change.

So Avraham’s behavior is disquieting to us. We have a strong culturally formed intuition that tells us to trust our own judgement over the rules of religion. But of course, this too is folly. Every time that we do this, and trust ourselves over Torah, we are pitting our own wisdom against God’s. along with thre thousand years of the accumulated wisdom of our sages. Fundamentalist religious thinking that eschews moral and rational thought leads to disaster. But the 20th century was replete with man made disasters that destroyed millions of lives. Rational, bright, well intentioned decision makers is three successive American administrations waged the war in Vietnam, which perpetrated horrors on the indigenous population, and cost us dearly in blood and treasure. Modern, rational thinkers brought horrific damage to their own country, and accomplished nothing. The damge was so great, because modern science and technology allowed destruction on a scale that would have been unimaginable three hundred years earlier. And this is, of course, but one example.

It is hubris to believe that we can fix the world without relying on received wisdom. Judaism characteristically demands a balance. There is no simple formula to resolve every percieved conflict. But presumably. Avraham found that balance. Note that he responds to both God and Yitzchak with the submissive, “Hineini - I am here”. This indicates that he has not absolved himself of paternal devotion, but has weighed it on the scales with his role as servant to his Creator. The same man who go into an ethical argument with God Himself over His plan for Sdom, submitted completely when given a direct command. The word mitzva does not mean “good deed”, it means commandment. Of course, Avraham chooses to follow the Deity whom he calls the “Judge of all the earth”, and trusts Him to choose good. Once the brit is entered, the terms are to be kept unequivocally, and commands are to be followed. 

Establishing this firmly in our minds is key to the process that we begin on Rosh Hashana. It is often observed that while we have begun the Ten Days of Repentance, there is little mention of that topic in the liturgy. What role does Rosh Hashana play in this process?

Firstly, I would argue that teshuva itself is a means, not an end. The goal of this season is to bring ourselves as close to God as we can, achieving a deep union by Neila of Yom Kippur. In the time of the Temple, we would send our representative into the King’s inner sanctom sanctorum on that day, a deeply intimate religious act. The Ten Days of Repentance are needed to bring us to the point where such an event is possible. How can we stand before our Creator, filled with sin as we are, without at lest acknowledging our wrongdoing and resolving to improve?

Rosh Hashana is the beginning of this process, because it establishes the terms of the relationship. The Torah simply refers to it as a day of trua, but int the time of Ezra and Nechemia it clearly became the time to publicly establish the terms of our relationship with God, in order to create the context for teshuva. (in order to grow close to God) The sages crafted to liturgy of the mussaf service in order to make that context foremost in our minds. The three themes of malchiot, zichronot and shofrot are meant to do just that. Each of these sections begins with explicationm of the theme, followed by illustrative verses and sealed with a shofar blast. The sages divided the different meanings of the shofar sound over these themes.

Malchiot establishes God as King, and humanity as his subjects. As Jews, we are priveleged to attend the annual coronation, and the shofar here represents the celebratory horns at this event. Zichronot deals with God as the Judge who remembers all deeds, as well as the terms of the covenant that He has with us. At this point the shofar is the alarm and reminder that we are entering the season of judgement and will be found wanting if we fail to redress our behavior. Lastly, Shofarot deals with God as the Revealer of truth, Whose word is wisdom and law at the same time. At this point, the shofar functions as the echo of the revelation at Har Sinai, where the senses of Bnei Yisrael where overwhelmed when reality itself was pierced by the presence of the Most Holy.

The Akeida represents all of these awesome themes in one small story. The terms of our relationship with God as King, Judge, Revealer and even Partner in a covenant are all expressed in this one chapter. The reward for this act of Avraham is stated explicitly. 'By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, 17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.'

This is precisely the decree we ask for on Rosh Hashana. A powerful Jewish nation, free from the threat of enemies, becoming the kind of beacon to the nations that Avraham was to his neighbors. This is the result of the successful process of teshuva, when accomplished by us as individuals, families, communities and nation. At this juncture between the reading of the Akeida, and the beginning of mussaf, let us focus and work to create true Hagshama, an actualization of the values that are expressed by Rosh hashana and the ten days of repentance. 

Ktiva vechatima tova.

P.S. Obviously, the spoken version of this was different, i.e. more questions at the beginning, more colloquial language, etc.

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