Rosh Hashanah Morning 2020: “The Story of Us” and Revelation

Deep in the recesses of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem stands a small chapel, called the Latin Chapel, revered by Christians around the world as the place of Jesus’s Tomb. On the south wall is a mosaic depicting one of the most hauntingly memorable scenes from the Bible.

It is not, as you might expect, a scene of the crucifixion. It is the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Torah reading from Genesis 22 that we read this morning.

In this mosaic, Abraham has his arm raised, knife in his hand, prepared to slaughter his most beloved son Isaac, God’s gift of his and Sarah’s old age. Below him, Isaac lies bound on the altar, staring up at his father. In front of him, an angel has his hand raised to stop the slaughter. And behind him is the ram caught in a thicket by its horns, which God has sent to be the substitute sacrifice.

In a 16th-century manuscript from Ottoman Turkey, a colorful miniature image also shows Abraham sacrificing his son. But the son here is not Isaac but Ishmael, his first-born son by the handmaid Hagar. Muslim tradition substitutes the younger for the older, although the name of the son is not mentioned at all in the Quran.

Both of Judaism’s daughter religions have adopted and adapted this story to fit their own religious narratives. For Christians, the story is one of ultimate sacrifice. For Muslims, it is one of ultimate submission.

For we Jews, the binding of Isaac is only one part of a lengthy narrative of the life of Abraham – only the last of ten trials beginning with God’s call.

For us, Abraham’s is not a story of an “ultimate” anything. It is, rather, the beginning of Judaism and of the character of the Jew: Complex, brave, incomplete, inspiring.

In this series of sermons that I’m calling “The Story of Us,” I draw this morning on Bari Weiss’s words about Abraham in her “No Hate, No Fear” speech in New York last winter:

“I am a Jew because of the audacity and iconoclasm of Abraham, the first Jew of all. The whole world was awash in idols and he stood alone to proclaim the truth: There is one God.”[1]

Think of just how astonishing the whole concept is! The world into which Abraham was born was one of pantheism: a belief that different gods controlled different forces in nature. Ancient peoples worshiped and fed the gods of the sky and the sea, the dew and the harvest. It was their way to explain the miracles of nature that make it possible for us to exist on earth.

Abraham knew differently. He had been called to serve by a God who vowed to him: “I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). Only a God that controlled everything in the universe could make such a promise. And only Abraham could see such a God.

But the one-ness of God was not all that Abraham understood. Implicit in that first promise – and all the promises that followed – was not ultimate sacrifice or submission, but something a lot more complex. Something more human.

God had a plan for Abraham and his descendants: to make them a treasured people who would live a life based on kindness and ethical decision-making.

We see this first in the welcoming of the three strangers by Abraham and Sarah, who promise these wayfarers a morsel of food and some water, and who deliver an enormous feast. Nobody demanded, or even asked, for them to go to so much trouble. It was clearly in their natures to do so.

And we see it most explicitly in what follows – in God’s “aside,” as God muses with God’s self before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

 “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do – since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט to keep the way of the ETERNAL by doing what is just and right, in order that the ETERNAL may bring about for Abraham what has been promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19)

God went ahead and told Abraham everything – allowing Abraham to actually argue with God (!) to spare the lives of at least some of the people of these cities of sin.

Even this early in the Abraham story, here’s what we know: Abraham and Sarah are naturally kind and generous people. And through them, God is creating a people of justice and righteousness.

As the great Bible scholar Jon Levensen put it, “As the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.”[2]

For generations, this mandate has been described as “chosen-ness” – that we Jews are God’s “chosen” people. And while it may a valid way to describe our mission, it has gotten us into trouble. We have been persecuted in both the Christian and Islamic worlds as heretics and parasites. We have endured exclusion, blood-libel, exile and genocide.

And yet, we are not a people who have shed the blood of others in return. Yes, there are times in the Tanakh when God calls the Israelites to war and commands them to slaughter every person and burn every building. And, yes, there are times in modern Israel’s history when Jewish behavior toward non-Jews has been arrogant, discriminatory, and even deadly. We are troubled, to say the least, to acknowledge that this, too, is part of our history.

But in general, we are a people just trying to get along. Whether under submissive terms in medieval Christian and Muslim lands, or free in our own land after two-thousand years of exile; whether in the Jewish homeland or in the lands many of us Jews call home – we are a people who hold ourselves to a high moral standard. A standard founded in the mission of Abraham, structured in the mitzvot of Torah given to Moses at Sinai, and re-stated 27-hundred years ago by the prophet Micah:

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the ETERNAL requires of you: Only to do justice. And to love goodness. And to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

And as Bari Weiss declared in her speech last January: “I am a Jew because our God commands us to never oppress the stranger.”

Abraham was not a perfect human being. He’s not supposed to be. Human beings are not perfect creatures. We have failings and flaws and we make mistakes.

But we, like Abraham, rely on our faith. And our faith teaches us that we must turn – in this season of turning – toward a life that is kinder and gentler and more honest; that respects the dignity and unique worth of every human being; and that calls on us to speak up for those who are not treated with the dignity they deserve. A life in which we are commanded to stretch out our hand to the poor, the needy, and the stranger. A life in which we never take for granted that, as Jon Levensen wrote,

“God’s singling out of the Jews, foreshadowed in the call of Abraham is irrevocable . . . their specialness and uniqueness in the eyes of God do not depend on their fulfilling any mission, but they do have a mission to fulfill nonetheless – namely, to share the universal and transcendent truth that has graciously been disclosed to them alone.”[3]

To them – to us – is Abraham’s bequest given. And that’s true whether we are born among the traditional descendants of Abraham and Sarah or choose to become so, making Avraham v’Sarah part of our names as they are forever part of our lives.

We, like Abraham, will be forced to endure trials in our lives. If it weren’t for the trials we are undergoing right now, we’d all be in the sanctuary together this morning. Trials like these may temporarily scare us, or isolate us, or sicken us. But if we brave them together, as the heirs to Abraham and Sarah, they will not defeat us.

In this moment, we are living in a world of great tumult. There isn’t a neighborhood in this country where people are free from fear and confusion and frustration. There isn’t a family in which parents don’t worry over their children, and children for their parents.

We know very well from our history the danger that fear will turn to anger, and frustration to violence. We know very well from our history that innocent victims will suffer.

And we know very well from our history that every single one of us can and must be the voice of reason, and calm, and compassion. Like Abraham and Sarah – and like every generation of Jews since – we, too must heed God’s command לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט – “to do what is just and right.”

As Bari Weiss closed her speech in January:

“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

Ken Yehi Ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.

###

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[2] Jon D. Levensen, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 24.

[3] Levenson, p. 33.

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