Self Centered Thinking: Challenging Our Assumptions
There are many interpretations of the story of the Binding of Isaac. No few of those interpretations involve Abraham’s thought process. How could Abraham go through with the action demanded of him? What was he thinking as he went about his task?
I have spoken in previous years about my interpretation of the story, of my questioning whether or not Abraham was tested by God or simply proving himself a proper father in his time and culture, only to find that being different, not following the convention of sacrificing the firstborn, was his true path.
This morning I would like to offer another explanation of the story and a lesson or two, more in keeping with the traditional interpretation of the story. First, let me share another story with you, a poem by Valerie Cox, which will put my own drash into context. The story is called, “The Cookie Thief.”
The Cookie Thief – By Valerie Cox
A woman was waiting at an airport one night
With several long hours before her flight
She hunted for a book in the airport shop
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop
She was engrossed in her book but happened to see
That the man beside her as bold as could be
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene
She munched cookies and watched the clock
As this gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by
Thinking "If I wasn't so nice I'd blacken his eye"
With each cookie she took he took one too
And when only one was left she wondered what he'd do
With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh
He took the last cookie and broke it in half
He offered her half as he ate the other
She snatched it from him and thought "Oh brother
This guy has some nerve and he's also rude
Why he didn't even show any gratitude"
She had never known when she had been so galled
And sighed with relief when her flight was called
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate
Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate
She boarded the plane and sank in her seat
Then sought her book which was almost complete
As she reached in her baggage she gasped with surprise
There was her bag of cookies in front of her eyes
"If mine are here" she moaned with despair
"Then the others were his and he tried to share"
"Too late to apologize” she realized with grief
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief
So why THIS story? First, it is a story to which all of us may connect. Have any of us never made a false assumption about another and been angry at them because of it? All of us have made false accusations even if only in our hearts. Perhaps, we have taken things a step or two beyond the theft of a few cookies. We may have spoken ill of another. We may have wrongly accused in public or even taken action against an innocent person. As parents, we may have punished an innocent child. Certainly, all children have felt unduly punished at some point in their lives.
How many of us have suspected innocent others, possibly even friends, of spreading gossip about us? We must make assumptions to live our lives effectively. Imagine having to treat every encounter without calling upon our past experiences and making assumptions about what is going on in the present? Yet sometimes we do not make correct assumptions in spite of our best efforts. We simply do not have all of the information.
Another reason why this story is good is because it demonstrates one of the themes of the High Holidays, right and wrong conduct. Until the end of the story, the woman assumes that the man’s conduct was wrong, that he was stealing HER cookies. Yet, angry though she was, she did share reluctantly and she did not act upon her anger. How much more embarrassed, how much more distressed would she have been, if she had spoken aloud of her distress? Imagine if she had yelled at this man? Perhaps, called security? So she was not entirely in the wrong. She did restrain herself. Her assumptions were wrong, her thought process was wrong. In many ways her conduct was not. But now, look at the man’s actions.
He sat beside a woman who greedily took his cookies without asking. Yet he shared willingly and even split the last cookie, laughing, enjoying the moment shared by the two. He seems to have seen her not as thief, but as fellow hungry traveler or perhaps as an overt flirt, taking her action totally out of its context. That is, perhaps, until she left without saying thanks or better yet, apologizing. Certainly, this last action caused some dismay and even hurt.
On this Rosh Hashanah, how do we atone for such actions? How do we atone for making false assumptions and acting upon them? This leads me to the third reason that this story is a good one for today.
It is a story about sin and atonement. The woman in the story commits two sins for which she would like to atone. As she felt that the man was stealing from her, surely later on she felt that she had stolen from HIM in spite of the fact that he seemed to enjoy sharing his cookies with her. Yet the second sin, that of making false assumptions trumped the first one. This is a good example of a time when there are greater sins than the violation of even one of the Ten Commandments. Taking the cookies, stealing, paled as a violation in comparison with her conduct at the end.
Her feelings, as well as his most likely, about the fact that she acted rudely and ungraciously when she left were strong. Clearly the man had not held HER to be a thief, not been upset about her taking some of his cookies, but perhaps even had been flirting with her: smiling, laughing, and sharing. The woman’s realization came too late for her to act as she knew she should have, as she would have wanted to act had she had the correct information. She may have caused pain to this nice man, a man who was willing to share what she was NOT willing to share. That thought brought her the most grief.
Next week, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read the words of the Al Heit prayer acknowledging our sins. Among the words we will say are these, “For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts and for distorting facts to fit our theories.” Al heit shehatanu. Perhaps we have not stolen cookies from a fellow traveler, but we have all assessed situations and actions incorrectly at times. So rabbi, why read this on Rosh Hashanah and not on Yom Kippur? That brings me to the final reason why I shared this story with you today.
It is a story that progresses from assumptions to awareness. Throughout the story, the woman was under a false set of assumptions that were altered suddenly. It is here that our Cookie Thief meets Avraham Avinu and why I feel that this story not only connects to the themes of the High Holidays, but to the story of the Binding of Isaac directly.
The story of the Binding of Isaac is full of assumptions that drive the action. At the start God asks Abraham to take his beloved son to Mount Moriah. Our story tells us and Abraham clearly hears, “Yaalehu sham,” “Offer him up.” Yet, there is a second theme running through the story in which God’s intention is clearly NOT for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but for him to sacrifice a ram. Interestingly, this is also Isaac’s assumption up until the point when Abraham binds him. Let’s look at the story.
Abraham assumes that he is supposed to sacrifice Isaac and throughout the story his thought process is directed at that goal, including misrepresenting the situation to his son and his servants. Isaac goes along with his father even inquiring about the ram for the sacrifice as they headed up the hill.
Isaac was like the man in the story, accommodating his father, while not understanding the nature of his thoughts and actions. He did not believe them to be malicious. Isaac assumed that his father was going to sacrifice a ram. Why would he assume otherwise?
Abraham even indicated to Isaac that they were sharing the same assumption, saying that “God will provide for the lamb, my son.” The two of them walked together. They shared.
Then on Mount Moriah, Abraham suddenly abandoned any attempt to maintain the shared assumption. He bound Isaac. It was suddenly revealed to Isaac that they did not hold the SAME assumptions. They were NOT sharing an effort to offer a sacrifice to God as Isaac had assumed. Just as the man, abandoned rudely by the woman abruptly leaving for her flight, realized that she did not hold the same assumptions about the sharing of the cookies that he held.
In the story of the Binding of Isaac, of course, an angel steps in and stays Abraham’s hand. Then Abraham looks up and sees a ram.
Think about this from Isaac’s point of view for a moment. He assumed throughout most of the story that the intention of his father was the same as his, to sacrifice an animal to God on Mount Moriah. Suddenly his father’s intentions were revealed as totally other, to sacrifice HIM! Then just as suddenly a ram appeared and the original assumption was proven correct.
I am not going to tell you that the story is a perfect fit. Most certainly, it is not. The character of the woman in The Cookie Thief does not align perfectly with either Abraham’s or Isaac’s characters. But the story might as a whole. It ends with the realization that the original assumption, the one guiding the narrative of the story is wrong. In the case of the Akeidah, it seems that God intended for Abraham ultimately to sacrifice a ram. Tradition certainly believes that God has a plan and God’s plan was not for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I am not about to tell you that this explanation touches on all of the concerns in the narrative or the rabbinical traditions about it. It is a modern drash, a modern interpretation, but it does connect. In both stories, at the conclusion, the characters are aware of truths that eluded them at the start but which proved vital to understanding the events as they unfolded.
What does this teach us?
Throughout most the Jewish year, it may be no problem for us to go about our way viewing our world as if the sun circled our earth, as if the planets and stars revolved around us to please us. No snickering at those who are sitting beside you this morning or standing upon this bimah, please! Okay, a little.
We all do this on occasion, or even frequently—but TODAY, this time of year, when we take an accounting of our souls, a Heshbon Nefesh, we need to look at ourselves from outside of ourselves as well as from within. We need to try to see the big picture, how we fit into the world that we affect and that affects us. We need to look around for rams in the thicket, to check to see if perhaps our bag of cookies was somewhere other than where we thought we had placed it. We need to question our assumptions. Not only should we be willing to find the ram should we stumble upon one, but we should look for it. We should look for those things that run contrary to what we think of ourselves and our world.
Bonnell Thornton, an 18th Century English essayist and critic, said, “Some often repent, yet never reform; they resemble a man traveling in a dangerous path, who frequently starts and stops, but never turns back.” Without Heshbon Nefesh, without looking at the paths we are on, seeing from where we have come and looking in the direction we are headed, we may make the wrong decisions blindly. We may not know that there are alternatives or that proceeding with our plans is worse than turning back. We may simply repeat our errors, our sins, having to atone again and again or we may amplify our errors and commit worse sins. Making atonement without having performed Heshbon Nefesh, we may well never change our ways because we do not truly understand where we are or to where we are going.
Heshbon Nefesh requires us to ask ourselves: Are we being the best spouse, partner, father, mother, son, daughter, friend that we can be? Are we being the best person for ourselves and for others that we can be? Is our perception of our world accurate? Are we holding ourselves or others in our lives accountable for what is truly going on? That is our first job during the High Holidays, one that must be accomplished before we can consider atonement. We must perform Heshbon Nefesh, taking a step back and trying to perceive our lives as they truly are.
Then, and only then, may we begin to talk of teshuvah, of repentance, of repairing what is wrong in our lives or perhaps choosing an entirely new path for our lives. Then, and only then, are we truly entitled to criticize, because only then, having seen ourselves from without, may we properly act from within. Then, and only then, when we are sure of where we are, will we have the ability to choose to change the direction of our lives.
Hopefully, we will not need an angel to descend from the heavens shouting our name, not once, but twice, to make us lift up our eyes and see what was hidden, to see the ram in the thicket. Shanah Tovah.