on Friday, 07 October 2016.
Posted in Rabbi
In Mary Shelly’s most famous novel, ship captain Robert Walton encounters a man named Victor Frankenstein, somewhere near the North Pole. Frankenstein tells Walton the story of his life. As a child, mystical philosophers and alchemists, and their pursuit of the elixir of eternal life, fascinated him.
Eventually, Frankenstein enrolls in University where he meets a professor who berates him for wasting his time on non-academic, non-serious subjects such as mysticism and alchemy. The professor suggests a more modern course of reading, but Frankenstein has little interest – that is, until he meets another professor, who introduces him to new possibilities through the study of modern chemistry.
Frankenstein devotes himself to study day and night. After two years, he discovers the secret for which he has sought: the principle of life. He imagines creating a new race of humans who will hail him as their creator. And then, as we all know, on a perfect gothic November night – using body parts taken from exhumed corpses – Frankenstein succeeds in bringing life to lifeless matter. He creates his monster.
Frankenstein, the novel, is a great work of literature. It is tragic while invoking empathy. And more than anything, it highlights that very precarious line between life and death, between what is and what isn’t, between what can be and what can no longer be.
Our Torah portion this morning, the story of the binding of Isaac – called the Akeidah – brings us to that point somewhere between life and death. The Akeidah is possibly the most disturbing text in all of the Torah. Many people have asked how it could be a part of our sacred narrative. What were the redactors of the five Books of Moses thinking of when they included this story? As if it isn’t difficult enough to read it once a year when the Torah cycles around to Parasha Vayera – which contains the Akeidah – why must we read it again, on one of the holiest days of the year?
We will never know the answers to these questions. We can speculate. We can guess what was going on historically, most notably the rise of Christianity. We can develop hypotheses on the underlying spiritual message. But in truth, we may never find satisfactory answers to the questions of why God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, why Abraham would seemingly comply, and why Isaac would remain silent. Perhaps, if nothing else, this portion reminds us that we are Yisrael – “God wrestlers” – and we must never stop asking questions about God and our traditions.
The ancient Rabbis also struggled with the story of the Akeidah. Their struggles are often found in the Midrashim, commentary on the Biblical text. In two of those Midrashim, the line between life and death is completely blurred. In the first, Abraham does not hear the angel call to him until after he has done the deed God commanded him to do. It reads:
When the sword touched Isaac’s throat, his soul flew out of him. And when God’s voice was heard from the angels, saying, “Lay not thy hand upon the lad,” the lad’s soul was returned to his body. Then his father unbound him and Isaac rose, knowing that the dead would come back to life in the future; whereupon he began to recite, “Blessed are You, Adonai, who resurrects the dead.”
The second Midrash continues this theme. It reads:
By virtue of Isaac who offered himself as a sacrifice on top of the altar, God will resurrect the dead in the future, as it is said, “God hears the groaning of him who is bound, and God will open up release for the offspring appointed to death.” “Him who is bound” refers to Isaac bound on top of the altar. “Will open up release for the offspring appointed to death” refers to the dead whose graves God will open to set them on their feet in the World to Come.
This Midrash dates from the 4th century, when Judaism was losing adherents to Christianity. Many Jews were converting to a religion they found attractive for several reasons, not the least of which was the presence of a resurrected messiah. In this Midrash, the Rabbis are saying, “You don’t need to convert to Christianity for resurrection. We, too, have a tradition of resurrection.”
Even if the idea that Isaac actually died on the altar can be traced back to the Rabbis, most of reject this reading of the story. It seems to make the unimaginable even more unimaginable. It seems Christian. And it seems to contradict the biblical text itself. But as uncomfortable as we may be with the notion of resurrection of the dead, it has long been a part of Jewish tradition. In the Book of Ezekiel, for example, God tells the prophet to give God’s message to the dry bones lying in a valley. God promises:
That the bones will have breath breathed into them, they will be given sinews, flesh and skin, and they will live again. Ezekiel does what he is told, and God brings the bones back to life.
Our ability to come back to life is an essential part of our story. The Rabbis assigned this prophetic text to be the Haftarah portion read during the week of Passover. In the eyes of the Rabbis, God’s redeeming us from a life of slavery in Egypt was nothing short of our resurrection.
The Rabbis who authored the Midrashim were the same Rabbis who wrote the prayers that eventually came to make up our prayerbook. The central part of our worship is the Amidah. The second prayer, the g’vurot, speaks of God’s power. It begins in our prayerbook, ata gibor l’olam Adonai, m’chayeh hakol, “you are mighty forever, Adonai, you give life to all.”
That’s how it begins in our prayerbook. But if you were to return to the time it was developed – or head down Manchester to the Conservative or Orthodox synagogue – you would hear something different. There, the prayer’s words are ata gibor l’olam Adonai, m’chayeh maytim, “you are mighty forever, Adonai, you give life to the dead.”
The 19th century Reform rabbis who created our liturgy made many changes to our prayers. They removed repetitions; references to the priesthood, the Temple, and sacrifices; and language that denigrated life in the Diaspora. They also changed prayers longing for a personal messiah to prayers hoping for a messianic era. Closely related was the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Those references, too, were removed. And so for nearly 150 years, Reform Jews have prayed to a God who “gives life to all,” rather than one who “gives life to the dead.”
Mishkan T’filah, our current non-High Holy Day prayerbook, was published in 2007. When it was still in test form, many hundreds of congregations, including TBJ, experimented with it and then provided feedback to the committee writing it.
One prayer received the most comments. Which one? The g’vurot. Why? Because the prayerbook authors decided it was time for our movement to revisit our objection to the notion of resurrection of the dead. It’s not that they necessarily believed in the literal meaning of the phrase, but they wondered if we could pray it metaphorically.
The g’vurot prayer contains m’chayeh – “who gives life” – four times. In the test form of the prayerbook, they retained the phrase m’chayeh hakol – God who gives life to all in two places, but reinserted the original text, m’chayeh maytim – God who gives life to the dead – in the two others.
Reform rabbis debated the change. Some vehemently objected, wondering what had happened to Reform Judaism. Others understood its inclusion, acknowledging that Reform Jews are sophisticated enough to pray metaphorically. Still others fully embraced it, claiming that the Reform version stemmed from a time when the liturgy reflected our embrace of rational thinking. We no longer live in such times, these rabbis claimed, and our liturgy should acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers.
The first few times I prayed out of the prayerbook in test form, I had trouble praying to a God m’chayeh maytim – who gives life to the dead. In fact, before the test version of the prayerbook was distributed, a few students at my seminary who had just returned from their year in Israel changed the language on their own. I don’t know why. Perhaps they had prayed at many different synagogues in Jerusalem and had simply gotten use to hearing it.
Or perhaps, after living through a year of horrific violence in Israel, they prayed m’chayeh maytim hoping that it had all been a nightmare and that they could pray the dead back to life. After living through 9-11 as a rabbinical student in lower Manhattan, I could understand this.
The final edition of Mishkan T’filah retains the historic Reform text with m’chayeh hakol, who gives life to all, while parenthetically including maytim, for those who prefer “who gives life to the dead.” The hope is that we will experiment and possibly embrace the maytims as a way of acknowledging that God’s world is truly beyond our understanding.
There are many ways in which we experience a resurrection of life. Let’s return to the text of our Torah portion. While Abraham lays down the knife before touching Isaac, in some ways, Isaac did die on that day. His relationship with his father ended. They are never together again in life. According to the Torah, the next time Abraham and Isaac are in the same place at the same time is when Isaac buries his father.
Yet, Isaac is reborn as a man for whom family is paramount. When his father dies, he does not bury him alone. He shares the task with his brother, Ishmael, from whom he has long been estranged because of his parents actions. He also marries Rebecca and fathers Jacob and Esau.
It is also said that Isaac’s vision dies on that day – that he loses his sight from seeing the radiance of the angel who stopped his father from performing the sacrifice. In response to this death, Isaac’s other senses experience their own rebirth and growth.
Near the end of Isaac’s life, he is prepared to give his sons blessings for their future. Our biblical text tells us that Rebecca tricks him into giving the blessing for the first born to his younger son, Jacob.
I don’t believe that Isaac was tricked. I think that because of the rebirth of his senses of smell, taste, hearing, and touch, he knew exactly what he was doing. Yet he was able to preserve a relationship with each son by having them think he erred due to his diminished eyesight.
We have experienced resurrections of the dead in our own world, in our own time. Many of our ancestors came from Russia or other parts of the former Soviet Union. For centuries, Jewish life there was at worst persecuted and at best ignored. In 1981, a Soviet Refusenik wrote:
We are a community based on memory. By denying us the right and ability to transmit our heritage to our children, Soviet authorities are bringing about the destruction of our most precious possession.
And yet, at the start of the 21st century, the former president of my seminary and our last year’s Shapiro Lecture series speaker, Rabbi David Ellenson, visited the region and wrote:
The destruction [that the Refusenik spoke of] miraculously has not taken place. I literally witnessed the miracle of Jewish rebirth and care in the former Soviet Union. We visited chesed societies that attempt to provide a social safety net for poor elderly Jews. We met kindergarten, elementary, and high school students, as well as Hillel students and leaders of the small but growing Progressive Jewish community. Perhaps the most moving moment was hearing young Russian Jews sing, “Am Yisrael Chai,” “The people Israel lives.”
Rabbi Ellenson likened what he saw to a prayer included in one of the earliest Reform prayerbooks: May God soon bring blessing and wholeness to the four corners of the earth. I would liken what Rabbi Ellenson saw to Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones. God has literally breathed new life into this near-dead community.
There have been moments of resurrection during tragedies as well. I mentioned earlier, 9/11. On that day, my cousin was working on the 87th floor of the second tower. After he saw the plane hit the first tower, he ran through the halls of his office and demanded that everyone leave, thereby saving his entire company. After he exited the building, he dragged himself to the west side of Manhattan and got onto a garbage tugboat that took him to New Jersey.
He started walking the 35 miles to his house. Covered in soot and ash and looking like the shocked shell of a human that he felt like, he was stopped and picked up by a stranger who drove him home. When he walked, his wife nearly passed out in seeing her husband returned from the dead. He and his wife took early retirement and they live in upstate New York where they garden and volunteer.
Where else do we see rebirth and resurrection in our lives? When the teenager, lured to drugs, turns her life around. When the executive, laid off from his job, starts a new business and thrives. When family members, estranged for years, come together to help a sick loved one.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, too, are about rebirth – or birth – and resurrection. On Rosh Hashanah, we say the words, hayom harat olam,” “today is the birth of the world.”
We come to synagogue, emerging out of the Hebrew month of Elul, a month in which we are given the opportunity to consider our deeds from the past year, make amends, plan to improve, and begin the road of our rebirth toward t’shuvah, or change.
In ten days, we will return for Yom Kippur, the day each year that we prepare for our death. We do not eat. We do not work. We do not go to school. We withhold from ourselves the pleasures of daily life. Many Jews wear only white, and do not wear leather. These are all signs that death is imminent.
Yet, we do not die. Instead, as the day progresses, we slowly return to life. By the afternoon service, we are chanting Torah in the weekly melody, not the special High Holiday melody. We pray a yizkor service – but it memorializes the actual dead, and has nothing to do with our own mortality. We conclude with N’ilah – the gates are closing and we have one final moment to repent, to be resurrected, to start afresh.
Ultimately, rebirth and resurrection are about hope. They are about the hope for recovery, the hope for acceptance, the hope of rebuilding, and the hope for life renewed.
In one of our closing prayers, we say:
As evening falls, lights dawn within us; hope and trust revive. The shadow that darkened our spirit is vanished; and through the passing cloud there breaks, with the last rays of the setting sun, the radiance of Your forgiving peace. We are restored, renewed by Your love.
Perhaps this prayer answers the question of why we read the story of the binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah. Isaac’s story is about hope, lifting the shadow that darkens the spirit, experiencing God’s radiance, and restoration and renewal.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us that we forever live on that precarious line that separates life from death. With hope, trust, and God’s helping hand, may we pull ourselves out of the depths, to experience rebirth, resurrection, and life renewed.
Pirkei de-Rav Eliezer 31
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