“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


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