D’Var Torah – Rosh Hashanah Day 2
Before I begin, I would just like to take a moment to thank Stacey, Colleen, and Rabbi Robin for inviting me to deliver the D’Var torah this morning. It is an incredible honor and while I’m not viewing this as the culmination of my “re-association,” if you will, with TBJ these past few years, it is certainly a high point and one that I’m especially grateful for.
If I’m being honest, I struggled with this. I wanted to make sure I had something of substance to offer to the congregation, but also something that was authentic and heartfelt. Even though I know she would have helped, I didn’t want to bother the Rabbi with questions about what to speak about. I drew inspiration from lots of places; scripture, personal experience, one-off conversations… I even googled “how to write a compelling D’Var Torah,” though that ended up not being particularly helpful. I’m not sure if the request to speak in front of the congregation was some kind of new board member initiation or rite of passage, but as I grappled with topics and finally started putting words on the page, I realized how much I was enjoying the journey. It made me think about my relationship to my faith, and try to answer questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask. What I’ll share with you this morning is not necessarily a finished product, but perhaps that’s representative of what all our associations with our religion should be: an ongoing discussion, a sentence that ends with an ellipsis and not a period.
“I can’t stand that Torah portion,” said my mom, fumbling with a tuna fish sandwich. No family is without some kind of tradition surrounding the High Holy days, and the Selesnicks are no different. We try, and often fail, to show up on time for services on Rosh Hashanah, following services we debrief at In A Pinch over salads and sandwiches, and every year we hear the same trope from my mom. “I mean, how can God demand that Abraham slaughter his son?”
I don’t know that I ever put much thought into my mother’s loathing for this particular part of the Torah. It made sense that a story about a parent preparing to kill their child would be unsettling. I’m a parent now, and (Mom, you’re right!) the thought of taking one of my children and sacrificing them in the name of God is sickening.
We all know how the story ends; the angel of the Lord stops Abraham at the last second, God sees what lengths Abraham is willing to go to prove his loyalty, and blesses him with many descendants. So is that the message of this story? That if we aspire to be as great as Abraham, one of the patriarchs of Judaism, we too should follow the word of God no matter the decree? In the words of Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “This story suggests that there is no alternative to the acceptance of God’s will and that the human role in the covenant is submission.”
But its not that simple. What kind of relationship dynamic is that? Abraham is a God-loving and God-fearing man who maintains a dialogue with the almighty. I want to know why in this instance, he doesn’t stop once to contest such an outrageous request.
The Torah juxtaposes the story of the Binding of Issac with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah just a few chapters before; a portion in which Abraham repeatedly challenges God on the decision to destroy the two cities. “The Torah’s inclusion of both stories teaches that the Jewish way cannot be reduced to either perspective,” concludes Kula. “By itself, the deeply autonomous thrust of the Sodom and Gomorrah story would lead to a Judaism in which the human conscience would eliminate anything that offended it. God, Torah, the tradition would become synonymous with whatever human beings want. Every person would decide what is right and wrong. But reducing the Jewish way to the deeply submissive thrust of the Binding of Isaac would lead to a fanaticism in which no act, no matter how repugnant, could be ruled out.”
So here’s Abraham; the same Abraham that went ten rounds with God just a few portions earlier, in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. The same man who was praised for standing up to God’s decree is equally lauded for his blind obedience. Why would he stand up to God to save the lives of thousands of complete strangers, but cower to God’s will with his own flesh and blood?
Rabbi Kula goes onto suggest that there was intent in the two stories being included in the Torah “…“ yoked together and held in creative tension. “Both challenging and submitting to God are authentic covenantal responses to the dilemmas of Jewish life. The covenantal question addressed to each generation and even each person is when to act in which way.”
So, if its my three-year old daughter trying to determine when she should challenge authority, my answer is “Never. Now brush your teeth and go to bed.” Outside of that particular scenario, however, my answer is much different. While WE collectively may not have the opportunity to challenge God on a regular basis, we all have the opportunity, and I believe the RESPONSIBILITY to challenge our relationship with God, or our relationship with our faith, frequently and purposefully. If the covenantal question is indeed put on humans to determine when to challenge and when to submit, as Kula suggests, I don’t know that I can think of a scenario where the latter should even be considered.
For a large portion of my life, I took the “binding of Issac” version of Abraham approach to my religion: finding some meaning in my involvement, but never asking why I was doing what I was doing. Even during my Bar Mitzvah training and in the years I spent afterwards tutoring students in Hebrew School, I don’t know that I ever seriously questioned or challenged my actions in regards to Judaism. As children, we are often taught to obey our teachers, listen to our elders, and respect authority figures. And then, sometime around high school or college, that turns into: challenge authority, don’t accept the status quo, and question EVERYTHING.
So which is it? Obedience or defiance? Blind faith or skepticism? I would argue that universal acceptance is easier; there’s less to consider and a clear path to follow. Challenging what you had previously held to be absolute is far more gratifying in the end.
For the past decade or so, I have enjoyed dialogues with my wife, my brother, and my mom about our relationships to our faith and challenging certain practices and traditions. My wife in particular has helped me to define my own Judaism, and shape our family’s relationship to Judaism as well. Raised in a Christian household, she loved the holiday traditions she grew up with, but never had a particularly strong tie to her faith. She saw me taking off work for Rosh Hashanah, not eating on Yom Kippur, and going to great lengths to keep the Passover fast and had two reactions: 1. I want to join you, and 2. Why are we doing this?
It was a fair question, and for years, I’m sure I answered it with “I’ve always done this,” or “this is what I grew up doing.” And for years, that was a good enough answer for her (probably because she had a thing for me).
As our relationship grew and we started discussing marriage and children, it became apparent that those responses weren’t going to cut it anymore. Not for either one of us. If we were going to raise our children in a Jewish household, we wanted to be intentional about it, and have a firm resolve when their questions about God and Judaism inevitably started coming. As leaders of the Pre-K program here at TBJ, we regularly look at our Jewish values at their most basic levels, infusing what we learn in that process into our own customs and traditions. I don’t practice Judaism the same way I did growing up, and I love it that way because it means my faith, while shaped by my family and community, is truly my own.
So in this season of reflection and repentance, I encourage all of us to take some time to evaluate our relationships with God and with our faith. When we are back here nine days from now, in the waning moments of Yom Kippur with dry mouths and aching stomachs, ask yourself why you’re fasting. Ask what it means to you. If your answer is “because I feel obligated” or “I don’t know,” push yourself to dig deeper.
My brother posed that same question to me a few years back. My response to him? “It’s when I feel the most Jewish. The most connected to my faith.” I know exactly why I abstain from food on the holiest day of the year, and it’s only because I’ve questioned why I do it. It’s what I wish for my fellow congregants, for everybody really, and for Abraham in the Binding of Issac; the strength and gumption to question the word of the almighty as well as the desire to do so. And by living our lives intentionally, with meaning and purpose, taking time to assess that which we hold dear, we can engage in our traditions, our pastimes and our new endeavors with clear heads and full hearts.