TAKE HIM DOWN
I’m sure you’ve heard this one: It’s the High Holidays in an old shtiebel in Eastern Europe and the chazzan is pouring his heart out before the open ark, beating his breast and chanting,”Oy, avinu bashmayim, Gott in Himmel, I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing….”
The rabbi standing next to him on the bima is so moved that he joins in the act, himself chanting “O God, hakadosh barukh hu, I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing….
Then the shul president is so taken that he too starts chanting “I am nothing, I am nothing…”
They’re all going at it when another plaintive wail is heard from the rear of the hall where the shammus (the building custodian) is so moved that he starts chanting and beating his breast davenning passionately, “O Lord, I am nothing, I am nothing…
And the guys on the bima give each other a side glance, roll their eyes and mutter – “Hmmmh! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
I think for Bernie Bernstein and Stan Segal that joke would have been “number 58”
Oh --- there are so many ways in which that joke is so politically incorrect --- but it’s still a surefire way to get a laugh because it plays up some of the mixed up messages of the High Holidays.
And by mixed up messages – I mean that in a good way….
What are these mixed messages? On the one hand – These are the Yamim Nora’im/ The Days of Awe – And yes, the noun yirah [יראה] and the related adjective nora[נורא] – mean both “awe” AND “fear” --- 2 English concepts -- but one Hebrew concept that embraces both.
There’s a real seriousness to our gathering together. We stand in judgment before God and before our own consciences --- knowing full well that we have not lived up to the potential of what we COULD have accomplished since Rosh Hashanah 5773 to bring love, healing and justice to our fellow creatures and to our world. Tradition refers to Rosh Hashanah as “Yom Ha-Din” – the “Day of Judgement” – and midrash imagines a celestial book in which we --- through our own deeds --- inscribe our own fates. As the piyyut Unetaneh Tokef declares ---- Vitiftach et sefer hazichronot umeyalav yikarei vechotam yad kawl adam bo.” “God opens the Book of Memories, and it speaks for itself, for each person, by his or her deeds, has inscribed it with their own hand.”
But -- on the other hand – these Days of Fear and Trembling are also Days of Hope and Promise: Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world and the re-coronation ceremony for its Divine Sovereign. A time for us to be thankful to be together with one another; a time to have hope for the future; a time for returning to our better selves.
As we are taught by the Prophet Jeremiah in the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah ---
טו כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה מִנְעִ֤י קוֹלֵךְ֙ מִבֶּ֔כִי וְעֵינַ֖יִךְ מִדִּמְעָ֑ה כִּי֩ יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙ נְאֻם־יְהוָ֔ה וְשָׁ֖בוּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ אוֹיֵֽב׃
Thus says the Eternal: Take away the weeping from your voice, the tears from your eyes; for there is a reward for your labor, declares the Eternal, [Rachel’s children] will return from the land of the enemy. (Jer. 31:16).
To anticipate rebirth and renewal ----- Even when the trees are poised soon to shed their leaves and the birds will soon migrate to warmer climes --- and the days will soon grow short --- and the winds will soon blow cold -- that’s what hope is about.
But back to the fear and trembling: The words of the Hineni prayer, which I sang before the open ark a little while ago, set that mood: Hineni he’awni mima’as, nirash venifchad, mipachad-yoshev-tehilot-yisra’el (“Here I am, poor in deeds, trembling and apprehensive in fear of the One who dwells amid the praises of Israel.”) Bati la’amod ulehitchanen lafanekha al amkha yisra’el asher shelachuni, af al pi she eyni kheday vehagun lechakh. (“I have come to stand before you to plead for your people Israel who have delegated me, though I am neither fit nor worthy…..”)
In other words – I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing ----
We’ll all have our chance come Yom Kippur to beat our breasts over and over again – Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibarnu Dofi ---- We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have deceived….. And we will ask:
What harm have we done by our actions?
What healing have we failed to do by our failure to act?
As Jews, we can certainly be hypercritical of ourselves and hyper-vigilant about the injustices in the world. But we also cultivate hope and confidence that we can bring about better days.
The words of the Aleinu --- which originated as a Rosh Hashanah prayer but since the time of the Crusades has been part of every Jewish prayer service – envisions a world in which idolatry has been swept away “letaken olam bemalchut shaddai”/ “in order to bring tikkun olam – repair of the world – under the sovereignty of the Almighty.”
This hope --- this faith in the possibility of a world of justice and compassion in which all are individual yet all are one ---- sustains us even in the face of loss.
And indeed, this is a time of year when our losses, both recent and long ago, stir our hearts. Rosh Hashanah itself is also known as “Yom Hazikaron”/ “The Day of Remembrance” and “zikaron”/ “remembrance” --- with the root letters zayin-kaf-resh [זכר] – is related to the word “Yizkor” which means “May [God] Remember”). So our dead are in our thoughts and our hearts not just when we recite Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon, but on Rosh Hashanah and the days in between as well.
And yes, I know that for those who have experienced profound loss, those losses may be in our thoughts and hearts every day of the year.
But still, this time of year is when we try to put it all into context --- the cycle of life goes on its inevitable course. And so Psalm 27, traditionally recited throughout Elul and up through Yom Kippur – declares ---
י כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי.
10 though my father and my mother have abandoned me, Adonai will take me in. […]
יג לוּלֵא--הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְהוָה: בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים.
13 If I had not believed that I would see the goodness of the Eternal in the land of the living!--
יד קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה.
14 So, hope in the Eternal; be strong, and let your heart take courage; and hope in the Eternal.
Here Am I!
Each and every one us searches for a way to make that declaration within our own heart. It’s the essential response to the first question posed by God in the Torah. God’s existential question to Adam in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:9
“Ayeka?” / “Where are you?”
Adam hesitates and obfuscates but ultimately learns (as must each of us) that we must strive for self-knowledge. We must be able to answer --- Hineni! / Here I am! –
On a personal level, my own “Hineni” (“Here I am”) – my own personal answer to the question “Ayeka?” (“Where are you?) --- is that I feel a growing sense of rootedness in this community.
I’m grateful for the confidence that Temple Israel has shown in me in entering into a five-year contract renewal agreement with me.
I feel an ever-deepening sense of gratitude in my life for the opportunity for us to grow together in spirit and to accompany one another on our Jewish journeys.
And I feel blessed by your support during the personal life transitions that I was experiencing in the past year.
That’s where I am tonight as I speak to you from this bima.
And what does “Hineni”/ Here I am” mean in your life right now? Right now --- how do you --- in the depths of your soul --- answer the fundamental question: “Ayeka?” “Where are you?”
Wherever you are – emotionally, medically, financially, psychologically, spiritually – know that just as we learn that the angel told Hagar – אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם /Al tiri – Ki Shama Elohim et kol hana’ar ba’asher hu sham/ “Do not fear! -- For God has hear the voice of the lad where he is.”…
So too do we have faith that God hears each of our voices – where we are.
Mixed messages: Even in these Days of Awe and Fear and Trembling and Judgment --- We also know NOT to fear… and NOT to doubt in the power of repentance and return – the power of teshuva – to recalibrate our path for the new year.
That solemn declaration --- הנני/“Hineni”/ “Here I am” --- appears several times in the Torah.
Moses responds “Hineni” when God calls to him from the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:4). Joseph answers “Hineni” when his father Jacob calls upon him to go on a fateful journey to check up on his jealous brothers. (Ex. 37:13)
But on Rosh Hashanah, it’s most likely that the first Biblical “Hineni” that comes to our minds is Abrahams’ “Hineni” in the story of Akedat Yitzchak – “The Binding of Isaac” -- which we read on the Second Morning of Rosh Hashanah. This is a disturbing tale that opens in a chillingly understated way:
וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.
“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying “Abraham!” – and he said: ‘Hineni’ – ‘Here I am.’” (Gen. 22:1).
I’ve always had problems relating to that story. Who wouldn’t? Remember our hometown troubador Bob Dylan’s take on it?
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done ?"
God says. "Out on Highway 61".
Or, even more starkly, we have the words of Wilfred Owen, the young English poet who fought and died in World War I. In his poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, famously set to music by Benjamin Britten in his “War Requiem,” Owens writes:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Wilfred Owen’s question: When does zeal for a cause turn into murderous obsession? --- is one that haunts us to this day.
My own take on the Akedah is that Abraham failed God’s test. I think the point of the story is that God wanted to test Abraham to see if Abraham could think for himself. To see if this ardent believer had truly absorbed the ultimate lesson of all true spirituality which is this ---- CHOOSE LIFE.
But Abraham gets it wrong -- He is poised to choose death. Blind obedience has become more important to him than clear-eyed compassion. He has crossed the line.
So God understands that this trial has to be cancelled -- and sends an angel who calls out again to Abraham – this time not just once but twice “Avraham, Avraham” --- to call off this macabre spectacle.
And Abraham snaps out of it --- he comes back to his senses – and , with the knife still poised to kill his son --- Abraham says the magic word once more – the word that shows that he has returned from the place of violence, torture and abuse to the place of love, compassion and relationship:
“Hineni”/ “Here I am.” (see Gen. 22: 9-14).
To my mind, the rest is irony and sarcasm: God bestowing divine blessing on Abraham and his seed is not a reward for Abraham’s willingness to murder his son --- but rather a concession to his imperfection in spite of having failed the test.
At any rate, that’s my modern midrash on it all…..
But I also like how the sages of old confronted this difficult text: In particular, that awful directive:
וְלֶ֨ךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּֽרִיָּ֑ה וְהַֽעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃
“Get yourself into the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a burnt offering there on one of the mountains which I will designate to you.”
But notice that our machzor (High Holiday prayer book) “On Wings of Awe” also offers and alternative translation: “bring him up there for a going-up” (instead of “offer him up as a burnt offering there”).
That alternative translation hearkens to a commentary by Rashi, which Rashi takes from the classic midrash collection Bereshit Rabba: In this midrash Abraham is confused about what is required of him and God explains to Abraham: לא אמרתי לך שחטהו אלא העלהו, אסקתיה אחתיה (“I did not say to you, ‘Slaughter him,’ but rather, ’Bring him up.’ You have brought him up; [now] take him down.” (Rashi on Gen. 22:12 quoting from Gen. Rabbah 56:8)
(In case you didn’t follow that, the linguistic ambiguity which the midrash is riffing on is that the word “olah” [עולה] – normally translated as burnt offering, and the verb “leha’a lot” [להעלות] – normally translated as “to offer up” or “to sacrifice” are both derived from the root letters ayin-lamed-hey [עלה]– like in the word “aliyah” [עליה] which we know means ascent or going up, like an aliyah to the Torah or making aliyah to Israel.)
The editor of our machzor, Rabbi Richard Levy, puts it this way in the second of the discussion questions that he suggest for this Torah reading: “Why do you think Abraham translated it in the most extreme way (“offer him up as burnt offering”) rather than the more benign one (“take him up for a hike up the mountain.”)? Do you think Abraham misunderstood what God wanted?” (On Wings of Awe, revised edition, Ktav Publishing House, 2011, p. 169)
That idea really resonates for me: That the Binding of Isaac can be seen, at its core, as a huge case of misunderstanding on the part of Abraham and Isaac and God.
And so, when we come to the story of the Binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah, what we really should learn is:
Let’s not kill our children. – Let’s just go for a hike up the mountain.
TAKE HIM DOWN! --- Is not a murder directive on a crime show – No, “take him down” --- is a call to protect one another from harm.
No true God would command us to kill our children.
The true God is the loving spirit --- kevodo malei olam --- whose glory fills the world.
And so what we have in the story of Akedat Yitzchak/ The Binding of Isaac is a huge misunderstanding….
A huge misunderstanding…
I think that’s also a helpful way of coming to grips with the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
George killed Trayvon because he had a huge misunderstanding of what was going on during that fateful night.
It was all so tragic, all so stupid, all so unnecessary.
Where was the voice of the angel to come down from Heaven to cry out to George Zimmerman --- אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה / “al tishlakh et yadkha el ha na’ar, v’al ta’as lo me’umah!”/ “do not stretch out your hand against the lad; don’t do anything to him!” (Gen. 22:12)
Oh yeah --- there was such a voice – that of the Emergency Dispatcher who asked George:
“Are you following him?”
To which George answered “Yeah”.
To which the dispatcher replied “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.”
To which George replied. “Okay.”
What happened after that is the subject of conflicting testimony.
The prosecution claimed that George went in pursuit of Trayvon who had been running away.
The defense denied this, and claimed that shortly after the phone call with the dispatcher, Trayvon accosted George, knocked him down, and was slamming George’s head against the concrete sidewalk when George fired his gun in self-defense and killed Trayvon.
The jury believed George.
Lurking in the background of this tragedy was the presence of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law --- which stated that if George Zimmerman thought he was in danger he had the right to stand his ground and shoot to kill the person who came to attack him – even if he were not in his own home, and even if he could easily retreat to safety. And, indeed, it seems that the existence of the Stand Your Ground law may have been one of the factors in the unseemly delay on Florida’s part in charging George Zimmerman with any crime.
However, as the case developed, George in fact did NOT seek a “stand your ground” preliminary hearing. And he did not invoke the “Stand Your Ground” law in his legal defense at his criminal trial. Rather, he claimed, and the jury believed him, that he shot Trayvon in self-defense in a situation in which there was no opportunity to retreat to safety. Not while he was on the ground with his head being smashed into a sidewalk.
And so, in the ruling that came down from the trial, it didn’t matter whether or not the “Stand Your Ground” law would have said he didn’t have to retreat -- since the jury found that George did not in fact have any possibility of retreating.
“Stand Your Ground” is still a sick law. It’s still a law that increases the likelihood of violence all for the sake of a peculiarly American ideal of machismo.
But it turns out that the case of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman did not actually involve the “Stand Your Ground” law.
But it’s a tragedy all the same.
If Trayvon Martin did indeed attack George Zimmerman, as the court found, and if George Zimmerman had died – Trayvon would have had a powerful self-defense argument as well: He might have argued that he feared for his life – because he was being followed on a dark rainy night by a stranger with a gun who mistook him for a potential burglar.
And as for George Zimmerman --- What would “Hineni” --- “Here I am” mean to him? Last week it was reported that he is petitioning the Florida courts for reimbursement of his court costs. Under the law of Florida he is entitled to do that as a person who has been acquitted of a criminal offense. But I’m reminded of the words of singer-songwriter Ben Folds, in the chorus of his song “Evaporate” -- the last cut on one of my favorite CD’s: “Whatever and Ever Amen” by the Ben Folds Five:
Here I stand,
Sad and free.
I can't cry,
And I can't see
What I've done.
Oh God what have I done?
I’ve backed myself into a homiletical corner here --- leaving you with such a downbeat Rosh
Hashanah sermon that started so promisingly with a joke…
But that’s okay –
Now is the time for Tikkun Atzmi/ Repair of Ourselves and of our still broken social fabric.
And now is the time to remain hopeful and engaged towards Tikkun Olam/ the Repair of [our] World.
And now is the time to heed the Psalmist’s call:
חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה / be strong, and let your heart take courage; and hope in the Eternal. (Ps. 27:14)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr famously said in 1963 – 50 years ago: “I have a dream” --- and he drew upon the exodus narratives of Torah and the justice calls of the Prophets to infuse hope into his dream.
So today as well, may we be among the rodfei shalom va-tzedek/ the pursuers of peace and justice. May we all be safe from harm in a world where misunderstandings don’t turn lethal because in that world we will have become united in friendship and trust.
May we not lose hope.
Keyn Yehi Ratzon/ May this be God’s will.
And, in the meantime, L’shanah tovah tikateyvu – May you be inscribed for a good year --- l’shanah tovah u’metukah – a year of goodness and of sweetness.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5774/2013