In Today’s Torah portion, we read the story of how Isaac came to be spared so that the blessings promised to Abraham’s descendants could be passed on through him. In the past, I have discussed this story from a number of different perspectives. I have asked questions and offered some of my own answers to the challenges they pose. The test itself is problematic. Why would a righteous and benevolent God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, even if God knew that the event would be interrupted by an angel? How can Abraham be considered righteous if he ever intended to go through with the sacrifice?
Many of you have heard my argument that in fact the sacrifice was an expectation of the times and that Abraham’s devotion to Adonai as his God and as the sole divinity of his descendants is the result of Adonai stopping him from going through with the task which he assumed to be expected by the divinities in which people commonly believed at the time. It’s certainly a different reading of the story, but that explanation makes me feel better about the character of Abraham and about God’s role in the story.
Often when we read this story, we miss seeing the forest because of the trees. We miss the fact that the story is principally about how the blessings of what came to be the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people were passed on from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to his children and then to generation after generation of the people who came to call themselves Jews because of their historical connection to the land of Judah. But we’re still not looking at the bigger picture even when we consider that. The bigger picture of the Torah’s narrative from Abraham through the entry into the land is about how and why the Jewish people are “chosen”, to use the traditional language, or why we have chosen a “special,” “different,” “unique,” or “important” religious path to employ terms that progressive Jews might choose to use.
The Jewish Tradition essentially argues that Isaac’s life was preserved so that the Jewish people would eventually come into existence. We see this idea also in the interaction between Isaac and his sons, Jacob and Esau, and between Jacob and his sons as well. The Torah tells us again and again of the difficult circumstances and challenges overcome in order for those blessings to be passed on to the next generation with the understanding that we are the beneficiaries of the prior generations. Our people’s history over the past hundred generations adds greatly to that narrative of overcoming adversity, challenge, and difficulty. The ongoing survival of the Jewish people is amazing. Some go so far as to say that it is “miraculous” that there are still Jews in the world today.
The overriding theme of our tradition at times seems to be, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”
While it is certainly true that we do like to eat and that is a funny joke, all of this history and all of our experiences as a people, however, including the miraculous narratives in our ancient texts, do not truly focus on our continuing existence on food.
The questions that we must ask ourselves today, based upon the Akeidah, are centered on one theme, “Why does it matter that we survived?” That is certainly something that we here today should appreciate. That said, three questions, which I will endeavor to answer, are the ones before us as Jews today.
What is so important about Judaism that it needs to a part of our lives?
Why should we care about future generations being Jewish? and
What do we want those generations to hold sacred?
I believe that the order of the questions that I just asked is how we normally might consider them. We probably ask them of ourselves slightly differently. We may start off asking, “Why should I be Jewish or do Jewish?” Then “Why should I care if future generations are raised as Jews, if I’m not sure of my own Judaism?” Those who can’t answer the first two questions with at least some satisfaction, probably would not ask the last question, “What do we want those future generations to hold sacred,” in the context of Judaism. They would think of it in more general humanistic terms and I think miss some exceedingly important things only found in the context of Judaism.
I believe that this order of asking the questions often leads to a misleading result, to the devaluation or even rejection of a stripped down version of Judaism devoid of most of its most important teachings, certainly as Reform Judaism would present them.
So let me start off by answering the last of these three questions first and then I will address the first two. “What aspects of Reform Judaism, its beliefs and practices, at least in my estimation, would I like future generations to hold sacred?”
To answer this question, I think it makes sense to go back nearly 130 years and see what aspects of Reform Judaism found in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism we still hold dear today.
I see the following both as valuable principles and as remaining true of us today.
Although, we see our own traditions as the best way for us, we respect other religious traditions. Our concept of truth as individual Reform Jews is one to which we personally hold dear, but not as the only valid way and not as the only possible truth.
We believe that science and the Jewish tradition are not antagonistic. As our understanding of the nature of the world in which we live changes, our Judaism, Reform Judaism, adapts with that understanding.We maintain and promote work with those of other faiths as we seek to improve our communities and to advance the cause of righteousness.
And to use the words of the 1885 Platform, “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”
We care about making our world a better place.
There is so much more to add to the words of that platform: both actions representative of who we are and principles that guide us. Let me share some of these things that I think we should hold sacred beginning with the start of the 20th Century.
We shouted our condemnation at the treatment of the workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, demanding change, and we have stood fast against the exploitation of laborers ever since.
We protested for women’s suffrage and have championed the cause of women’s rights and equality.
We, and now I’m speaking about the Reform Movement, hosted the drafting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the conference room of the Religious Action Center in Washington DC. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism continues to be a leading force advocating for the principles in which we, along with other progressive religious communities, believe.
Whenever we have heard the cries of the suffering and oppressed in communities whether across the world or right here at home, Reform Jews have spoken up and taken action.
We are individuals and groups who have marched for justice and righteousness in cities across America from Selma, Alabama and St. Augustine, Florida in the 1960s to Washington DC and Ferguson, Missouri in recent times, having been inspired by the words of the ancient prophets of Israel and living modern ones.
When we heard the words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream,” we felt it was our dream too. When we heard the words, “Free at last,” we remembered that we were once enslaved in Egypt.
Why? Because we hold Passover Seders where we remember that we, ourselves, were there and then, journeying from slavery to freedom. And we’re reminded at every service and even more so during every festival that we need to be thankful that we’re still not enslaved strangers.
We’re the people who construct Sukkot. Even if we don’t have one of our own or spend any time in one, we should be reminded why they exist. It isn’t just so that we have a way to use tree clippings, to create pretty multi-colored paper chains, or to show off our beautiful gourds. Our Sukkahs remind us that there are still those who sleep outside, sometimes in dwellings without four walls, in tents and in boxes, exposed to the elements, not by choice. Moreover, our Sukkot remind us that we were once like those people.
We’re also reminded during the Festival of Sukkot how to treat guests and that sometimes people who are strange to us, whom we do not know, can bring us blessings because of our care and generosity.
We are the people thankful that a little flame lasted as long as we needed it to last. Think about that. The miracle of Chanukah is not that the light blazed forth like the sun. Not that the light lasted for weeks or months or a thousand years. We’re thankful that a light which we needed to last for eight nights did so. We are the people of “Dayeinu.” Thankful for having enough, even when we know full well that what we have isn’t enough for us, much less for all those in need.
We are the people who believe that everyone is created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the divine. For us, people of all races, no matter their sexual orientation, should be treated not only as of value in our world and to be respected, but even as holy, as representations of the divine made incarnate.
We are the people who offer thanks for our very existence, our creation, during every worship service, while remembering that when we were created, we were given the job of being stewards of the rest of creation, charged with keeping our world a fit place for animals and plants as well as for our descendants. Caring for the environment is not just smart, it is a holy task for us, sacred work.
We are the people who believe that the world in which we live is in dire need of repair and that acts of justice, righteousness, and kindness can help make it the way that it should be, better than it ever has been before.
We are the people whose holy texts may be summed up as Hillel did, “Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”
We are the people who believe in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, that, “While we may be unable to complete the task, neither can we avoid working to accomplish it.”
We are the people whose holiest days are spent, not in feasting, but in Cheshbon Nefesh, a time for an accounting of our souls, during which we consider how we might improve ourselves in the year ahead. And we engage in teshuvah, a process of turning ourselves away from paths and actions that do not help ourselves or our world, while directing ourselves anew toward paths of righteousness.
We are the people who speak from the experience of centuries of suffering endured so that the current generations can live in peace, security, and prosperity.
We are the people who know that individuals can make all the difference in the world. For us, not only is the life of one worth the life of the whole world, but the actions of one person can change the whole world.
We are like Nachshon, marching into waters that have not parted, but believing they will, just as Abraham Joshua Heschel marched into waters that had not yet parted in Selma, Alabama alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We are the people who generation after generation in spite of suffering hardships and setbacks that have could have, perhaps should have, caused our people to abandon the task, stubbornly believe that we can change this world and turn it into a Garden of Eden.
We are the people who do not just pray and sing about a better world, we volunteer, give, and build a better world: from homeless shelters and food pantries, to hospitals, social services, and schools, from environmental and social action programs to the arts of all kinds. We don’t just talk about making our world better, we make it happen.
We are the people who risk our lives to make matzah out of meager rations in concentration camp barracks, because the mitzvah of remembering and being thankful that our ancestors were sustained in life empowers us even there and then, in the most horrible places and times.
We are the people who sing songs around candles lit in the midst of darkness. Not only lit in darkened rooms during the festival of Chanukah, but lit during humanity’s darkest times and often while under threat.
We are like the people of the nation of Israel, often first on the scene with medical help after major disasters and whose doctors perform life-saving surgeries on children from Gaza even while in the midst of war against their parents.
We are the people who brought socialist ideals to deserts and swamps and made them bloom into one of the world’s leading economies and an agricultural marvel.
We are the people who have survived and thrived in a tiny nation, surrounded by enemies, on land that takes a bit of effort to get to flow with milk and honey.
We are a people who know that we and the nation of Israel have faults, but instead of ignoring them, we discuss and debate, march and protest; and we speak out for peace and tolerance, justice and righteousness, even when war and conflict is the easy answer.
While we are the people willing to sit in the dark and to joke about it.
We are a people whose anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope, and who strive to spread hope and light wherever there is despair and darkness.
All of this and so much more about our tradition, I would like future generations to hold sacred and to preserve for their children and to improve upon for the sake of humanity. None of this requires blind faith. None of this requires a belief in a kind of divinity at all.
This brings me back to the first two questions? Is this all reason for future generations to be Jewish? For us to be Jewish ourselves? I think it absolutely is, if we these ideals to be held sacred. They will not be or will not be to the same extent if they are not connected to the Reform Jewish tradition or to the Jewish tradition in general.
Preserving them requires participation in Jewish life, having Jewish experiences and receiving Jewish education. It means that we have a task, a mission if you will. We must take part in transmitting these ideals to future generations and to do that, we must be a part of the Jewish community.
They say, there is no I in “Team.” Well, there is no “Judaism” without U. The Temple and the Jewish community will be better if all of us take part in its life and our role in the broader community will be enhanced, if we are all involved. We would certainly love to have you add your voice to our congregation during services, but also your smile and words of joy, congratulations, support, comfort and consolation to our community members before and after them. Come and be a part of social action projects, educational programs, and social programs. You will help make our Reform Judaism better.
I know that there are many members of our community who are not Jewish. No few are here today with their families. Many of our loved ones and friends who are not Jewish regularly attend our services and programs. We appreciate and honor all of them. Our congregation has long lived by the philosophy that it should be a welcoming spiritual home for every member of our families.
And so let us take a moment to thank our family members and friends who support us on our Jewish path and support our congregation. Thank you for your love and companionship, for your care and support for us individually, for our families, and for our congregation. You are an integral part of our lives, our congregation, and our community. Thank you. Thank you.
On this Rosh Hashanah day, let us renew our commitment to supporting what we hold sacred, strengthening our congregation and our own commitment to Reform Judaism. Together, we can change our congregation, our community, and our world for the better.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu!
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year!