Monday, September 17, 2012

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Abraham's Daughter:
Abraham took Isaac’s hand

and led him to the lonesome hill,
while his daughter hid and watched

she dared not breathe she was so still.

Just as an angel cried for the slaughter,

Abraham’s daughter raised her voice.

Then the angel asked her what her

name was she said, “I have none.”

Then he asked, “How can this be?”

“My father never gave me one.”

And when he saw her raised for the slaughter,

Abraham’s daughter raised her bow.

“How darest you, child, defy your father?”

“You better let young Isaac go.”

That song comes from the movie, “The Hunger Games.”  It is played during the closing credits, and though it ends the movie, it is very fitting for the beginning of the Jewish year.
On Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the Akeidah from the Torah.  Tomorrow morning we will read about how God tests Abraham.  God commands him to take his son, his special son, the one he loves, Isaac, and brings him up a mountain to sacrifice him to God.  In the story from our Torah, Abraham binds Isaac, puts him on a pile of wood on an altar, and raises a knife to slaughter his son.  At this point in the story, our only comfort comes from knowing how it ends.  Until now it’s an awful story.
“Sacrifice your only child” is not something we want to hear from a God who has promised us innumerable offspring in future generations.  If Abraham sacrifices Isaac, from whom will these multitudes spring?  After all, he’s over 100 years old.  So he trudges up a mountain and Isaac even asks him, “I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  Abraham’s haunting reply is, “God will provide the sacrifice, my son.”
They get to the top and Abraham seems to be about to plunge the knife into his son.  In the Torah, an angel stops him.  An angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” and Isaac is saved.  A ram is offered from the bushes and God knows Abraham has complete faith in God.  We read this on Rosh Hashanah for many reasons, including the symbolism of the ram, whose horn we blow on Rosh Hashanah.  When we hear the sound of the shofar, according to Rav Huna in the Talmud (B. Rosh Hashanah), we are reminded of the binding of Isaac.  We put ourselves in his place, and we ready ourselves to make sacrifices for the coming year. Isaac is saved, but God wants us to give of ourselves, as fully and willingly as Abraham does in Genesis.
It is difficult to think of a story that we are familiar with as having a different ending or added character.  Usually when this happens we treat it as a comedy or simply reject it.  In this case, the change is a positive one, but it takes a little digging to let it seep in.  This unnamed daughter of Abraham is given a voice by the band Arcade Fire, and she becomes the angel that stays his hand—not by calling his name, but with action.  Violent action, granted, but not nearly as violent as child sacrifice.
In the Torah, Isaac is saved by an angel and a ram.  In the song, Isaac’s savior is his sister: a young girl that the Torah does not mention.  An archer, like the heroine of the Hunger Games, who bravely stands up to anyone who would condemn an innocent child.  Of course, it was written to illustrate the parallels between the movie and the biblical story.  The movie (and the books) occur in a world where the government sacrifices children for a game that makes Survivor look like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  Abraham’s daughter calls attention to the girl who stands up, bow in hand, to defy the establishment and who will eventually (SEQUEL SPOILER ALERT), topple the corrupt system.  In addition to drawing a fascinating parallel to our sacred text, the song is a Midrash, a story that explores Torah in a new light.  It changes the story.  Abraham can still be the faithful servant of God, Isaac still survives, and the Jewish people can grow as numerous as the stars in the sky.  But the catalyst is no longer a Divine voice, but a young woman.  Arcade Fire creates this unnamed daughter of Abraham that has never been heard of before.  Or has she?
Actually, the Talmud writes a similar Midrash.  In a discussion about Gen. 24:1, “God blessed Abraham in all things,” the rabbis wonder what “all things” means.  R. Judah says that he was blessed in all things because he had a daughter [who is not mentioned in the Torah] (B. Baba Batra 16b).  So sometimes we make changes to our tradition.  It’s just the way of Judaism.  We alter, update, modify, react, struggle, and occasionally reject the stories of our ancient tradition.  We read the Akeidah year after year on Rosh Hashanah, and our tradition gives us permission to change details in the story to import meaning to it.
Sometimes these changes can be disturbing.  Listening to an pop song and calling it Midrash might be a little much for a traditionalist, but we must acknowledge our need to make Torah relevant in our own day.  Baba Metzia (59b) tells the story of the Oven of Achnai, which all the rabbis agreed was "unkosher" except Rebbe Eliezer.  Eliezer performs all these miracles to prove his point.  He makes a tree move, a river flow backwards, the walls of the study hall move, and a voice from heaven declare that he is correct.  Rebbe Yehoshua then shouts to the heavenly voice, quoting from the Torah portion we read just yesterday, “Lo bashamayim hi!”—“It is not in Heaven!”  It does not matter what a heavenly voice says, because the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai to us.  It is now in our hands.  We have the right—no, the responsibility—to constantly plumb the depths of our tradition in the hope that we can make Torah speak to us today.

No matter how correct or learned a person might be, we have to make concessions to reality.  The way things really are is the way we must react to them.  Though Eliezer does amazing feats of wonder in this story, Yehoshua is the true hero.  Even God laughs at this event, saying “My children have bested me, my children have bested me!”  When the student can use the teachings of the master to best the master, it is the greatest joy a teacher can have.
So today we understand that the interpretation of Torah is up to us.  The Torah is not about the past, it is about today and how to deal with our world and its realities.  We are not instructed to hide ourselves away from reality, but to choose life and live.  We have a responsibility to learn from Torah, to apply its teachings to this world, and to pass the teachings to those who will someday best us. 
We come from a thousands-of-years-old tradition of altering our sacred texts.  We need to make these changes in order to keep them relevant.  The rabbis of the Talmud did it, scholars and writers for centuries have done it, and even bands like Arcade Fire do it.  We need to do it too.
Change helps import new meaning into tradition.

Very often when I am at a shiva minyan, it is the first time many of the people present have ever been at any kind of service outside of the High Holy Days.  They have some basic familiarity of the rules, but usually these are informed by hazy memories of grandpa’s traditions.  So when I pass out prayer books to women, it never ceases to amaze me how often they look at me like, “You mean I get one, too?”  Some women will even say things like, “We can’t start until a few more men show up.”  To which I will respond, “It’s ok, you count here too.”
Change can bring the uncounted back to the community.
Going back to Abraham’s Daughter, this Midrash also brings a new voice to light.  If this daughter has been around this whole time, as the rabbis of the Talmud might suggest, where has she been?  What has she been doing?  Why hasn’t the Torah bothered to mention her?
Usually the Torah doesn’t ever mention someone’s daughters unless she has a significant role to play in the plot.  We know of Jacob’s daughter Dina, Amram’s daughter Miriam, and all five of Zelophechad’s daughters.  We know Lot had two daughters, but the Torah only names them as “the older one” and “the younger one.”  Like Abraham’s Midrashic daughter, they go unnamed.  The same is true with many of the wives of our biblical heroes.  The joke around our Torah study table when someone asks, “Did she have a name?” is to answer, “Yes, it was eshet.”  Eshet means “wife of…”  Most of the biblical women don’t get a name and are known only as their husband’s property.
And yet, the Torah tells us over and over again to speak out for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan.  These are the people who have no voice, and who need others to stand up for them.  So why is it that half of the biblical world has no voice?  Thankfully for the last few generations we have begun to give women an equal voice in our society.  We still have a little farther to go, but we are getting there.  Our society has spent the last few hundred years changing into a world where women and men have equal voices.  From what is sometimes called the proto-feminist movement as early as the 15th century; to Florence Nightingale and her struggle with career equality, to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her works on women and their role in religion in the 19th century; to the 19th Amendment in 1919; to the millions of women working toward equality in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In 1972 Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi ordained by Hebrew Union College, and by the time I became a rabbi the women outnumbered the men 3 to 2.  And we’re still trying to work on bringing women’s voices to the table.  Workplace equality and reproductive rights are battles currently being waged on a daily basis, because many men would simply prefer that women remain silent, unnamed, non-participants in the public arena.
We are changing, and the road has been long but we can see the day when the voices that were previously silent will be heard.  Not just women, but all minorities.  All colors, races, religions, sexualities, abilities, classes, tastes, and styles will be treated with respect and dignity.  We will all be heard because we are pushing for such change.  We push because our tradition tells us to.  Speak out for the orphan and the stranger, the widow and the poor.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Do not put a stumbling block before the blind nor insult the deaf.  Since it began Judaism has spoken out for the silent, and as we advance we open ourselves up to more and more voices that were silent for too long.
Change gives voice to those who were previously unheard.

Real change is neither fast nor easy.
We are going through a lot of changes this year in our congregation.  Some of them are physical.  Did you notice the beautiful new roof?  It doesn’t leak—look, the bimah is dry!  That’s a very positive change, even if we all have to chip in to make it a reality.  Have you noticed all of the beautiful programs we are offering?  Some of them are new versions of old favorites.  Mitzvah Day is around the corner (October 21!), and we are going for a family-friendly atmosphere where children and parents will be able to work together to do good around our community. We’re having sushi in the Sukkah—that the dads are getting together to build.  Our teens are going on their Tikkun Olam trip to New Orleans for the fifth time, and we’ve invited two other Miami congregations to join us.  And for the first time, your rabbis will battle it out Iron Chef style this winter.  There are all sorts of changes happening at Temple Sinai.  Check out the bounty of fliers in the loby to see what interests you.  Of course, these activities will best make our community stronger if we all join together.
Lasting change can be like physical therapy.  It can be pretty rigorous.  There are stretching and strengthening exercises, small weights and elastic bands, electrodes to attach to muscles, and hours spent at physical therapy clinics.  If it is done right, the body can heal and transform into a better version than it was previously.  It hurts, and it is difficult, but it makes everything after it so much better.
Change can be painful, but if it is done right it will make us stronger.

Just this morning I was listening to an NPR story about high school students in Urban Chicago who are re-learning how to learn.  Author Paul Tough suggests that success is not about test scores and IQ, but about how young people build character.  He has mentored and intervened with young people who had not been nurtured as young children.  Of course, their performance in school suffered, probably because of this.  So he selected a group of inner-city kids and counseled them instead of tutoring them.  He focuses on what he calls non-cognitive skills: character strengths like tenacity, resilience, impulse control.  Tough claims these are at least as important or even more important in a child’s success.
Today many of these kids are successfully building toward college diplomas.  Among his group of high school freshmen, 85% went on to graduate college, compared to the average in those areas of 6%.
This is a huge change, and there is no way it was easy on these kids.  They are certainly better off for the change they put in to themselves.

The most important changes are right in front of you.  What do you want to change about yourself?  We all have flaws that we want to make better.  We all have changes we want to make in ourselves.  How can we help you become the best version of yourself?  Come during the week and sit with your clergy for a little bit.  Talk to us when we can really give you the attention you deserve.  We just might even be able to help.
Let’s use 5773 to change together.
This is the time of year when we take stock of our lives and make the changes we most need.  Like the stories in our sacred tradition, we can be jarred when something within us changes.  But change brings us into today, allows us to face the future with strength, and with a voice that we might not even know is within us.
May we all work hard for the changes we desire for ourselves and our community this year and always.
Shanah tovah

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