Life on a See-Saw: Yom Kippur Morning 2016

From the big picture window in our living room, Don and I are blessed with a beautiful view of Reservoir Park. To the right are walking trails that lead back to the municipal pool and the roller-hockey rink from which, on a cool day with the windows open, we can hear the clank of skates and sticks, and the laughter of camaraderie.

In front of us is the reservoir itself. On sunny days, the surface is like antique glass, rippled from the wake of the resident ducks and bubbles from the fish for which they dive. And to the left, there’s the playground. When the weather turns warm each spring, and then cool again in the fall, parents and grandparents spend hours with the kids, helping them navigate the jungle gym, pushing them on the swings, and catching them at the bottom of the slides.

But one piece of playground equipment sits solitary, unused, its paint flaking. I never, ever see anyone on the see-saw.

It never occurred to me until very recently, when I read an essay by Carole Leskin, who recalled that, when she was a little girl and her father would take her to the playground, she loved the swings and hated the seesaw. The swings, she wrote, “were magic carpets for me . . . I could fly! If I wanted to, I could pump my little legs really hard and soon I was up in the clouds.” But, she wrote, when her dad took her to the seesaw, she was terrified. He’d put her on one side and he – tall and lanky – would sit on the other and tell her: “Here we go, Carole, Hang on!” She remembers hanging on for dear life as she was shot into space, afraid that she would come crashing down to the ground.

Carole Leskin is writing as a woman in old age. And when she thinks about the schoolyard now, she imagines that terror on the seesaw as a struggle between her, trying to keep a level head and her feet on the ground, and Father Time, trying to fling her into the air, where she has no control.

But when I see that lonely old seesaw in Reservoir Park, I think about it a little bit differently. And I wonder about the message it sends, not just to children but to all of us at all stages of life.

You see, when little kids first come to the park, they don’t know how to navigate the playground. They need the help of grown-ups: to push them on the swings, to catch them at the bottom of the slides. But slowly, they develop their own skills. They learn, as Carole Leskin did, how to pump their little legs so that they can propel themselves into the sky on the swing set. They learn how to climb up and down on the jungle gym without falling or getting bruised or scraped. They learn how to plant their feet at the bottom of the slide so they don’t go tumbling head-first into the dirt.

But you can’t do that on the seesaw. The seesaw is the one thing in the playground you can never learn to navigate all by yourself. If the goal is teaching children that they can learn to do everything without anybody’s help, then no wonder the see-saw sits alone.

Aye, but here’s the rub: You cannot go through life thinking that you can accomplish everything all on your own, without help from anybody to boost you up, keep you steady, or wipe off the dirt and dress your wounds when you slip and fall.

The seesaw, I would argue, is the single most useful and necessary piece of equipment on the playground. It should get the most use, not the least. Because it teaches us we ought to learn to navigate life like we do the playground – with help from somebody else.

It seems natural for little kids to want to be independent, and that’s a good thing. Don’s granddaughter Rachel visited our house when she was 18 months old, and the two phrases that came out of her mouth were “I do” and “I eat” – both with an exclamation point at the end. They learn, over time, to get on the bus by themselves, to navigate going from class to class with different teachers and different classmates, to keep their own schedules and their own checkbooks, to pay their own bills and make their own way in the world.

But I wonder if we do kids a disservice if we emphasize independence at the expense of co-dependence. Not in a negative, clinical sense, but in the sense that we create healthy lives for ourselves when we learn to trust and help others, and let others trust and help us.

Columnist David Brooks calls this “being in covenant” – just the language we use in Judaism. It’s language he draws from a new book by Marcia Pally of New York University, which I mentioned last week when I spoke on the binding of Isaac. In Commonwealth and Covenant, Pally suggests that what we really want in life is what she calls “separability amid situatedness.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we want to go off and do our own thing and explore the world in our own way – but we want to do all of that knowing that we can come home to healthy, loving, families and welcoming communities that give structure and meaning to our lives. And this, too, is fundamental to Judaism.

On the see-saw of life, it’s the comfort of knowing that there’s somebody on the other side who’s there to keep you balanced and safe.

As Brooks points out, we live in a world where autonomy and individuality reign supreme, where people are increasingly separated and isolated by social and economic forces, yes, but also by new technologies like the internet. People spend more time alone, either because they’re forced to or because they choose to. Individuality was supposed to empower people, but Brooks sees the opposite happening. “People are often plagued by a sense of powerlessness, a loss of efficacy,” he writes. “It turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are – when they have firm identities. Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.”

That’s where covenant comes in. And it’s a different type of relationship than we are accustomed to in our society, where the art of making a deal can be a best-seller but the craft of creating covenant is relegated to the back of the bookstore, in the more obscure realms of sociology and religion. As Brooks puts it:

“People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts. Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”

Living in covenant with other people is, as it turns out, as important in the secular parts of our lives as it is in this sanctuary. It’s just more obvious when we are in a religious setting, overtly talking about commitments of faith.

This morning’s Torah reading – “Nitzavim,” from The Book of Deuteronomy — re-emphasizes the spirit of the covenant by challenging us to stand up for what’s right and just. The Torah deliberately uses the plural in the Hebrew: Each of us has a responsibility, but we fulfill that responsibility in community. And in the afternoon reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus chapter 19, we are challenged to see covenant in all of our relationships – faithfulness to family; support for the disabled, the poor, the hungry; justice in judgment. Not because we have contracts with these people but because we have a covenant with them through God:

קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

You all shall be holy, as I, Adonai Your God, am holy.

Once again, the command is to each of us, but the Hebrew is in the plural. Twice over, the Torah brings us this “separability amid situatedness.” As Marcia Pally writes, “God’s spirit of righteousness and care is given to the nation through the gift of the commandments to help it carry out what God knows it can (be righteous and a means to the blessing of humanity).”

Torah’s repeated message of “separability amid situatedness” is fundamental to the way we live as Jews. Not just here in this sanctuary, where we speak the language of covenant most openly – but, most importantly, when we leave this overtly holy space and time and create holy space and time the rest of the year, in the rest of our lives.

As Marcia Pally notes, a contract protects interests, but a covenant protects relationships. That’s exactly what the prophet Isaiah expressed in the Haftarah of consolation and hope just a couple of weeks ago, in the lead-up to the Days of Awe:

For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall the covenant of my peace – the b’rit sh-lomi – be removed, says the Eternal who has mercy on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

Isaiah’s message prepared us for the commitments we make today. That’s the thing about a covenant: you can always count on it in a way that you cannot with a contract. Contracts can be broken, dissolved, nullified. But covenant stands fast. When you are in covenant with the person on the other end of the see-saw, you know he or she will be there to keep you balanced and safe.

It is covenant, David Brooks notes, that “preserves individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity.” Today, we Jews reaffirm the covenant with God that is reflected in our behavior toward others. But for the world to be redeemed – for the world to be a better, safer, more peaceful place like that playground across the street – we must be challenged to create covenants with others that stretch across the ties of family, community, religion, race, and income.

If we are to be the holy people that God commands us to be, we must understand that it does not matter that the person on the other side of the see-saw is a family member, a close friend, or just someone who relies on us to see to their sense of safety and balance.

When I was a kid, I used to see other kids sitting on one side of the see-saw, waiting for somebody else to come and play. And we always did, whether we knew them or not. It was a way we met new people, and build new relationships – based from the beginning on mutual trust. We didn’t understand the language of covenant when we were five years old. But that’s what we were doing. Maybe it’s time to put a fresh coat of paint on the see-saw, oil the squeaks out of it, and make it important again.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


“Redd Up Your Life” – Kol Nidre 2016

Let me start out by saying that Fay Schmitt is one very smart lady. Many of you know her as Snookie, and she was one of Norma Sevel’s best friends for a very long time. It was Snookie who helped smooth Norma’s transition from her beloved New York to Central Pennsylvania when she and Bernie married. And that included helping Norma understand the local lingo, fondly known as Pittsburghese.

As Snookie told the story at Norma’s 85th birthday party in our social hall a couple of years back, she early on had Norma flummoxed by her use of a phrase that’s pretty common around here. She said she couldn’t go out with Norma just at that moment, because she was in the middle of redding up her house. Redd up the house? You know, said Snookie. Redd up your house. Tidy things up. That’s the way we say it here.

It’s one of those many colloquial expressions that pop up in conversation. Like “Yinz better redd up the dining room and put out the chipped ham whenever company comes.” Like that.

I’m particularly fond of the “redd up” phrase. To me it sounds like a shorthand for “get things ready” or, even better, “get yourself ready.” Because today, on Yom Kippur, our focus is not on redding up the room, but redding up our lives.

Let’s be clear. This is not going to happen in a day – even on this holiest day. Yom Kippur – the entire Ten Days of Awe, really – is designed only to give us a time and a place to start. Prayers to openly acknowledge our failings. Music to fill our hearts with gratitude at being part of this Temple family – a family that’s here for us even with all of our flaws. Time for silence, to contemplate where we are and where we want to be.

But when it comes to actually implementing a plan to tidy ourselves up, well, that’s up to each of us.

Fortunately, there’s never a shortage of self-help advice in pop culture. And the current craze for redding up is called the KonMari method. It comes from a best-seller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Now, it makes sense that this should be so popular in Japan, where tiny living is not a choice but a necessity. These days, Japanese architects are building on odd parcels of city land as small as 300 square feet, with the task of making the homes as airy as possible.

But KonMari has become an obsession all over the world. And I think it’s because the message is universal. KonMari focuses not only on relieving clutter but also the emotional baggage that results from it: tension, lack of focus, frustration, even anger and resentment. And the author herself is aware of the implications:

“From the moment you start tidying,” she writes, “you will be compelled to re-set your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”

Tidying is a just a tool, not the final destination. And it has both a physical and an emotional element to it. It’s a parallel to our engagement with ourselves, our bodies and our souls, on Yom Kippur.

To put this physical challenge in its emotional context, we turn to Christiane Northrop, a physician who dispenses health and wellness tips in books, on TV and on the web. She’s a big fan of the KonMari method and suggests three main steps:


Second: LIGHTEN UP what you have


First things first: What does your life’s clutter symbolize? Dr. Northrop says it makes sense to see where it is, what it is, and what it means.

If our main living spaces are a mess, for example, maybe we are trying to hide ourselves from the world, because no one will be welcome there. If we stuff things into closets, maybe we are unable to really see ourselves as we are, hiding things away from sight. If we clutter the bathroom, maybe that’s a sign that we lack self-worth, because that should be a space of both privacy and luxury. And dumping everything in the garage, to the point where we can’t get our cars in and out easily, may be a sign we are having difficult moving on with our lives. Maybe it’s due to a trauma, or a loss, or just plain exhaustion. But all of these places of clutter tell us something about what’s getting us stuck.

Marie Kondo says the first step to understanding the emotional clutter is to put all the physical clutter in one place. Clear out every room and really look at what we’ve accumulated. As she puts it, “There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions: face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

So let’s say we face them now. What are we likely to see? My guess is that it’s a lot of stuff that contain memories of people and places in our past who may not be part of our present. Maybe it’s a favorite shirt that belonged to an ex-boyfriend. There’s a good reason he’s an “ex” – but the shirt may remind us that we had good times too, that the relationship was not a complete mistake. A photo album full of pictures of a neglectful, or even abusive, parent reminds us that this person’s life was not all bad. We might keep the photo as a way of saying kaddish for someone when we cannot bring ourselves to actually recite the words.

I was really glad, after my father’s death, to discover he’d kept a few things from each of our childhoods. I have my baby book, old Polaroid pictures, a letter to me as a newborn from his boss, about what kind of dad I had. A couple of the birthday and fathers’ day cards I hand made for him. A few report cards, where I can see that my verbal skills have always been good, and my handwriting has always been rubbish.

It’s all in a little box I keep in my office at home, within easy reach when I need my dad close. But a few things are just enough to help me jog the memories. If I kept too much, I wouldn’t be able to sort out what’s really important. And I wouldn’t be able to find what I want, when I want it.

We all, I think, tend to hang onto the past in some way. Maybe we’re trying to keep children as babies, when they were dependent on us. Or keep our aging parents as young and vibrant, when they were not dependent on us. Or maybe, like me, we hang on to old clothes from when we were younger and thinner. But as Marie teaches, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

So we have to make choices. We have to take the next step and LIGHTEN UP.

But here, too, there’s a really important emotional component to the KonMari method. Because it teaches us to focus, not on what we get rid of, but on what we want to keep. It’s not about what we lose. It’s about what we re-discover.

So here’s how we do that. We pick up each item, one by one.  We hold it. We stroke it. And we ask ourselves: Do we love it? Does it spark joy? If yes, keep it. If not, let it go.

I can’t imagine there’s a person in this room tonight who isn’t holding onto something that has outlived its usefulness. It might be a grudge against somebody who said something unpleasant. Or bottled-up anger against a slight, whether it was intentional or not.

Did somebody else take credit for a project you worked so hard on? Or did you have to do more than your fair share? Are you still thinking about a mistake you made six months ago, when everybody else has forgotten about it? Are you feeling ignored by your spouse, or disrespected by your children? Does it sometimes bring you to the verge of tears to think about it? Do they even know?

Chances are the other person isn’t even aware of what he or she has done, or at least what it’s done to you – because most of us walk away from a confrontation or a bad experience. We simply swallow the bad feelings, and then they sit like a rough pebble in the pit of our stomach. Because we think – probably incorrectly – that it’s easier to try and ignore it, or internalize it, than to have the conversation about it. Not accusing, not blaming – but simply explaining you how feel.

And now you’re faced with this question: Do you love that feeling? Does it spark joy? Is this the way you really want to live?

Answering those questions is really important today, of all days. We use rituals during these Days of Awe, to symbolically rid ourselves of what we no longer need or want. We cast our bread on the water, to wash away the sins. We beat our chests at each admission in “al chet” litany of shortcomings. Many of us, if we can, fast, to purge our bodies as a symbol of the way we can purge unhappy thoughts, and disrespectful words, and destructive behavior.

But Yom Kippur also calls on us to go beyond the rituals and symbols – and to really let go of the anger, and the grudges, even if we do not feel appeased. A traditional Yom Kippur prayer called the T’fillah Zakah reads, in part:

I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has gossiped about me or even slandered me. So, too, to anyone who has injured me, whether physically or financially, and for any human sins between a person and their neighbor . . . I grant complete forgiveness.

Granted, true reconciliation is still the goal – so much so that the tradition also speaks of two friends on Erev Yom Kippur, standing face to face and asking each other for forgiveness – even if the offense was only perceived, or unintentional.

But I think the author of T’fillah Zakah recognized that, in reality, this often doesn’t happen. A lot of the time, we just need to act on our own. Because when we leave the break-the-fast tomorrow and head back to real life, we really do not want to go back to a messy house, full of all the stuff that’s suffocating us.

Redding up our lives requires facing all that stuff, keeping only what brings us joy, and letting go of the rest. Only then can we move to the third and final step: VISUALIZING OUR NEW LIVES. The future as we want it to be.

Dr. Northrop encourages us to be very explicit about this. It can’t be just: I want to be a better person. We have to have a specific path, and set ourselves specific tasks, to make that happen.

And here too, Yom Kippur shows us the way, in the two Torah readings we will share tomorrow. The reading from Deuteronomy, Nitzavim, gives us the general outline, the mitzvah of being ready to act on God’s behalf. I think it’s where we stand after the purge. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem: You stand here, all of you today!.”

But the Holiness code from Leviticus is very detailed in laying out a path for the future. It models for us proper behavior at home and at work, in public and in private. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Do not lie. Do not defraud your neighbor. Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Do not reap everything you can from your vineyards and fields – the corners belong to the poor.

Every single one of the Torah’s specific examples from thousands of years ago translates into what we do today. And every single one of them is a reminder that the best way to rid ourselves of clutter – is not to hoard it in the first place. The best way to make amends – is to be more careful about what we say and what we do, to start with. Chances are, we are going to mess up. We are going to let the clutter creep back in. And we’re going to have to do this all over again a year from now. But maybe then the clutter will be a little less overwhelming, the purging will be a little less painful, and the spark of joy will come a little bit easier.

Marie Kondo warns us that the path on which we embark tonight will not be an easy one. “The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful,” she writes. “It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we have made in the past.”

But the fact of the matter is that we cannot get to step three – visualizing our future and making it real – without confronting our past and purging ourselves of that which no longer sparks joy. And if we can embrace that spark in ourselves, we will be a light – a veritable beacon – of joy for others.

May the journey on which we embark tonight lead us to such a future. May the act of redding up our own lives inspire others to do the same. May this be God’s will and our own, as we say together: Amen.


©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


“Where Does Our Story Begin?” Rosh Hashanah Morning 2016

I recently got another one of those occasional emails from someone looking for other Korotkins. Usually they are distant relatives, children or grandchildren of a great-great-uncle that I never knew existed. Once in a while I have run into Korotkins at national Jewish gatherings. And I actually found the remnants of the old Karotkins’ Furniture Store in downtown San Antonio, Texas. It’s been closed for years, but it was run by the branch of the family that we’ve discovered was routed through Galveston instead of Ellis Island about a hundred years ago.

Despite prodigious digging, though, none of us has been able to trace the family back past three generations, beyond my Grandpop Mike’s father Sam, and his bevy of brothers.

We get hints, sometimes. We knew that a few of the brothers had returned to Russia, disaffected by life in the New World, where the streets – promises notwithstanding – were not made of gold. The trail went cold until a few years ago, when I found the family name in a genealogy display at a Jewish school in a suburb of Moscow. It gave me hope – but no further leads – about their survival.

We also have, on occasion, been the subject of folk legend. My father was once informed by a Russian colleague that the Korotkins were leaders of the White Russian uprising against the Bolsheviks. Since the guy turned out to be a KGB agent under surveillance by the FBI – he must have the lowdown, right?

And then there was the time I was introduced at old Bowie Race Course to the itinerant great-great nephew of Leo Tolstoy who – when he heard my last name – swooped down in a big bow, kissed my hand, and proclaimed that I was a Russian princess.

So there’s that.

But the bottom line is that my family tree, as we can sketch it out now, is pretty scrawny. Which leaves me wondering: Where does our story begin?

Many of you have the same issue. The Old Country just didn’t keep good records of Jewish families, so we’re left to family stories and, if we’re lucky, some photographs. It is said that we Jews are long on memory. And maybe it’s because our own personal family histories are often so sketchy that our history as a people is so important. But even then, we ask, as a people: Where does our story begin?

It’s the question that my colleague Rabbi Neal Gold asked in a recent Torah Commentary about the section of Deuteronomy that includes the statement, “arami oveid avi” – “My father was a fugitive Aramean.” That fugitive, that wanderer, says the Torah “went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there he became a great and very populous nation” (Deut. 26:5). These are, of course, the words we read in the Passover seder every year.

So there might be a strong argument that this is where our national history begins – if only we could figure out exactly who the “arami oveid” was. Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Joseph? Any of them would fit the bill.

But our national history might just as well begin elsewhere.

If you’re a maximalist, it might begin with the initial call to Abraham from God to embark on a journey of faith and fate. If you’re a minimalist, you might choose 1948, when the modern State of Israel was proclaimed.

In between, you might choose Jacob becoming Israel after struggling with the angel. Or Moses taking the Israelite slaves through the Sea of Reeds and bringing them to Mount Sinai, where they invoked a covenant with God.

You might think our history as a people rightly begins with the settlement of the Promised Land by Joshua, or the building of the First Temple by Solomon. Or the period of the Second Temple, for which we have ample archaeological proof beyond the Biblical and Rabbinic sources.

All of these are valid suggestions. But I’m going to argue this morning that our history as a people begins with the Torah portion we will read this morning – Akedat Yitzchak, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac.

Because, despite the fact that it is referenced nowhere else in the Torah, this troubling and enigmatic episode becomes the foundational narrative of our people and our faith, in post-Biblical Judaism.

The Rabbis say that God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son is the 10th and final test of his faith and trust in the Divine, and that Abraham answered the 10th call just as he did the first, with a simple, “Hineini: Here I am.”

What happens after that has fascinated, troubled, and challenged Jews, and later Christians and then Muslims, for centuries.

In a three-part adult learning program on Saturday mornings this October and November, we’re going to look at the profound impact on this chapter on all three faith traditions. For now, I want to focus on what Abraham’s response means for us on today of all days.

Let’s keep in mind that Abraham and Sarah had waited decades for a son. And when God fulfilled the promise of the angels – when Sarah became pregnant and Isaac was born – the elderly couple knew that they had received a great blessing, but also a great responsibility. God had told Abraham: “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.” It meant they had to raise their child with the same deep faith, and faithfulness, and courage that they had shown in serving God.

So why in the world would a God that gives such a blessing, then turn around and take it away? Why does God make them go through the agonizing prospect of losing this beloved son, only to turn around and give him back again? And why do we read this story on Rosh Hashanah?

Abraham believes he is being forced to choose between his faith in God and his love for his family. You know the expression “all in”? Party tonight? I’m all in. Climbing to the top of Machu Pichu? Yup, I’m all in.

Well, Abraham, I think, takes that literally and maybe too far: that being all-in with God means being all-out with the people he loves. As Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has written, Abraham’s choice highlights “the dilemma of perceiving our relationship with God as conflicting with our relationship with the people we love.”

Even though God talks with Abraham, and guides his steps, somehow Abraham sees God as divorced from his day-to-day life. And that’s where Abraham makes his most serious mistake. Rabbi Scheinerman writes:

“When we see God as wholly other and divorced from the immediate world of our relationships with human beings, we fail to recognize the God within us and the divine spark within others. God becomes splintered and deformed, and our moral lives do as well.”

The prophet Isaiah (43:12) proclaimed: וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה וַאֲנִי־אֵל “You are my witnesses, declares the Eternal, that I am God.” Every time we fail to witness God, to see God in everybody and everything around us, then God – as it were – ceases to be. When we think that God doesn’t care about what we say or what we do, we take God, not only of our lives but out of this world. And when we do that, we run the risk of treating other people, and treating the earth itself, as something ordinary or expendable or unimportant – instead of seeing the earth and everything and everybody on it as precious and unique and blessed. And that is where we make our most serious mistake.

I don’t have to tell you that there is a lot of ugly in this world today, ugly that comes from not seeing that divine spark in others, and not igniting it in ourselves. Ugliness based on ignorance or downright hatred, of the color of her skin, or the religion of his family, or which button she pushes in the voting booth, or how he expresses his gender identity.

Ugliness that spawns the belief that the only people who deserve to be with us are the people who are like us.

And I’m here to tell you that this is not at all God’s idea of how the world should work.

The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teach:

“Every human being on earth derives from one human being, created for the sake of Shalom ha-Briot, peace among God’s creations. So that one person could not say to another: My father was greater than yours. For if a man strikes many coins from a single mold, they all resemble one another. But that’s not true of God, the Holy One of Blessing, who fashioned every human being in the stamp of the first – and yet not one of us resembles another. Therefore, every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake.”

The world was created for my sake. And yours. And yours. And yours. Each one of us shares equally a spark of the divine light that filled the days of creation, which we celebrate on this Rosh Hashanah, this New Year. Each one of us stands equally before God, on this Yom Ha-Din, this Day of Judgment, bearing responsibility for our own behavior, and for the future of humankind.

The binding of Isaac represents the beginning of our story as a people, because Abraham finally understood, in Isaac’s redemption at the hands of an angel, that his relationship to God could not be separated from his relationship with the ones he loved.

As author Marcia Pally recently wrote, in Commonwealth and Covenant, child sacrifice was part of the surrounding cultures in Abraham’s time, so it would not have surprised him for his own God to ask for his son. Abraham’s faith, writes Pally, “lay not in agreeing to the ordinary (to the sacrifice request) but to the unusual – to stopping the sacrifice mid-act, as it would violate the covenant between Abraham and Isaac, and thus between Abraham and God. On this view, the lesson lies not in Abraham faithfully agreeing to sacrifice, but in Abraham understanding that covenant is in keeping relationship alive.”

That’s it! That’s the very moment when our story begins. The moment when that knife was raised, and Abraham heeded the call of the angel to STOP!

That is the moment that Abraham realized that God was in his life, not just through prophesy and miracles, but through the way divinity is expressed in the world. That the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham and his offspring, not for the sacrifices they would make on an altar, but for the commitments they would fulfill, and the promises they would keep, and the leadership they would accept, in helping shape a world that is more kind and more caring and more peaceful than it otherwise might have been.

Yes, there is a lot of ugly in this world, which comes from us not seeing the divine spark in others, and not igniting it in ourselves. But without this story, which begins the history of our people, it could be worse. At least we understand where we make the mistakes. And if we cannot fix them on our own, we are compelled to call on our leaders to act.

God is not in the wind, nor in the earthquake after the wind, nor in the fire after the earthquake. God is, as the prophet Elijah discovered, in the “קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה  the “still small voice” within each of us. The voice of conscience that whispers to each and every human being, each and every day, that God is both with us and in us, and that what we do – for good or for bad – can have cosmic consequences we cannot even imagine.

As we hear the blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is a reminder of Isaac’s redemption at the birth of our nation, let truly awaken us to promise, to potential, and to peace. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.                                              ####

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin