Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rosh Hashanah: The Failure of Abraham

When I lived in Los Angeles in the late 90’s, I tried out for a few game shows. For many of the quiz shows like Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune, they give you a written, 20-question test before you even walked in the door. For one of these tests, I was sure I got all of the questions right, but I never got a callback. While complaining about this to a friend in the industry, he told me that usually they only take contestants who score between 75-95% on the tests. If I got the 100% I expected, therefore, I would not have been chosen. They didn’t accept contestants with a perfect score.

Disappointed as I was, I was not surprised, because I was familiar with the concept of rejecting perfection. When I was in high school I worked as a tutor for students preparing for their standardized tests. There, I learned that colleges often do not want applicants with 800’s on their SAT’s. A university’s role is to teach. Universities are not looking for perfect students, because the perfect student has nothing to learn. A perfect SAT score does not demonstrate what a university can provide for the student.

God also rejects perfection. We know this from today’s Torah reading.

Abraham is called. God tells him, “Go and sacrifice your son on a mountain I will show you.”
Abraham takes a three day journey with his son, sees Mount Moriah, and brings him to the mountain.
Isaac carries the wood and the firestarter, and asks Abraham, “Dad, I see the fire and the wood, but where is the sacrifice?”
Abraham says, “God will see to the sacrifice, my son.”
At the top of the mountain, Abraham binds Isaac, puts him on the wood, and raises his knife to slaughter him as a sacrifice to God. An angel calls out to him, “Abraham, Abraham!”
And Abraham stays his hand, unties the boy, and sacrifices a ram in his place.

It is a familiar and disturbing story. Known as the Akeidah, Hebrew for “binding,” rabbis and scholars have been trying to parse and explain it for centuries. We try to shave away the discomfort that is inherent in this tale of child sacrifice interwoven with tender moments between father and son. We explain away certain parts of this rich text because some pieces are very difficult for us to understand.

Of the many Midrashim on this story, one of my favorites is known as “The Ten Trials of Abraham.” Pirkei Avot declares that Abraham was tested 10 times, but does not list what those ten times are. The 12th Century Spanish scholar and rabbi known as Maimonides, who lived among mathematicians and who did not know that numbers didn’t always mean math, lists them in his commentary on the Mishnah as follows:
God tells Abraham to leave his homeland and go to an unknown land, which eventually is revealed to be Canaan.
As soon as he arrives in Canaan, it is struck with famine.
The Egyptians capture his wife Sarah and bring her to Pharaoh.
Abraham bests four kings and their armies with 300 men because they kidnap his cousin Lot.
He cohabits with Hagar after not being able to procreate with Sarah.
He circumcises himself at an old age on God’s command.
The king of Gerar kidnaps Sarah.
God tells Abraham to send away Hagar, Ishmael’s mother.
He also has to send away Ishmael.
He is told by God to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Different sources suggest different lists, but regardless of how we count them, each test is put forth by God to demonstrate that Abraham is worthy of being the progenitor of Judaism, and of the blessing, “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on a beach” (Gen. 22:17).

The first nine trials of Abraham test his faith, his physical prowess, his cunning, his commitment to his family, his willingness to self-sacrifice, and more. From the first chapters that tell us of Abraham’s life, we learn that he has many qualities from which we can learn. He is faithful, doing anything God asks. He is hospitable, willing to give his very best to anyone who would enter his tent. He listens to his wife, sometimes to her own consternation, as it was when she told him to make a baby with Hagar. He listens to her when he does not want to, as he does when he casts out Hagar and Ishmael.

The tenth trial is not a test of faith. God already knows that Abraham is faithful. He proved it when he left his homeland, and when he stayed in the strange land despite the famine that threatened Canaan. He proved it when he circumcised himself at 99 years old as a sign that he would uphold the covenant between him and God. He proved it when he convinced every male in his house to do the same. Abraham never, ever in the Torah says to God, “You want me to do what to my what?!?”

We already know that Abraham will do whatever God tells him to do.

The tenth trial is not a test of Abraham’s faith.

It is a test of Abraham’s fundamentalism.

And he fails.

Earlier in the Torah, God tells Abraham that Sodom is going to be destroyed. God even wavers about whether or not to let Abraham know about the impending destruction. From the text:
Adonai said, “Shall I hide from Abraham the thing which I [am about to] do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed by him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Adonai, to do justice and judgment…”
(Gen. 18:17-19)

Sure enough, when God reveals that thing that God is about to do--destroying Sodom--Abraham argues, “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (v. 23). Abraham bargains with God asking that God spare the city for fifty good men, and God acquiesces. Abraham whittles the number down until God eventually agrees to save the city for the sake of ten righteous men. Of course, there is only one. Only Lot, Abraham’s cousin, who immediately tries to protect the angels as they approach the town. Only Lot is righteous in this wicked place, and so only he and his family are saved.

It can be argued that Lot is saved only because of Abraham’s desire to have the town tested. Only because Abraham challenged God about the plan to destroy Sodom that he was able to go in and save Lot and his family. Yet this episode is not listed among the tests of Abraham. It happens in between the 6th and 7th tests, so God was in the midst of trying Abraham, but this does not count as one of the trials according to Maimonides, Rashi, or any other rabbinic source regarding the ten trials. Nevertheless, we can understand that human lives are important to Abraham. God even declares that Abraham has a strong sense of justice. So when it comes time for Abraham’s tenth trial, God is probably sure that Abraham will do even more to save his own son’s life. It is Abraham’s good nature, after all, to try to save lives. God knows this, and perhaps does not need to test it.

But Abraham does not stick up for Isaac. He does not bargain that his son’s life be spared. He does not argue. He simply says, “Ok,” and takes his son up the mountain. This is not the answer God wanted. Abraham fails the final test.

And that’s ok.

It’s better than ok, it is exactly what God was waiting for. Now we know Abraham’s weakness: blind faith. He has an unquestioning willingness to do whatever God says, even if it goes against his good nature. God wants us to value human life above all else. Abraham should have said no, should have at least questioned God at this point. But even after a three day journey, Abraham still raises the knife to his son, and has to be stopped by an angel from completing this horrible task.

Abraham fails, because he would not stay his own hand from killing Isaac. God does not want us to believe that whatever we believe comes from God is automatically correct. God wants us to think about our religion and make choices based on the combination of our faith and our reason. Abraham does not think in this episode. He only does what he is told.

If Abraham had passed this test, God might have kept testing him. You see, just like the game shows and universities, God is not looking for perfection. God knows we each have obstacles that prevent us from becoming all that we are destined to be. And we know that some of those obstacles are self-inflicted.

Thankfully our tradition has a prescription should we choose to address these hindrances: the gifts of Repentance, Prayer and Charity. Rosh Hashanah compels us to determine how to use gifts to better ourselves and to identity how we can be better family members, friends and members of this sacred community.

It is in that spirit that the Board and I have launched a visioning partnership. Together we are taking stock of the many areas as a congregational family in which we shine. Equally important, though, we are taking stock of where we are falling short of perfection, and falling short even of our own expectations for ourselves. We ask ourselves the same questions that frame our individual High Holy Day observance: What defines us and what tools should we highlight to help us get to become our higher selves? Communally, we have asked this third question: What must we keep in our field of vision as we build toward the next decade and beyond?

We have started on a 5-year plan that we are referring to as our “2020 Vision.” We hope to continue to grow CBT building on three major strengths, and keeping them at the heart of our vision. These three things fall under the umbrella of being a Reform Jewish community, and we view each of them through the lens of Reform Judaism. We hope that everything we do as an organization will be informed by at least one of these three things.

The first is education. Six days a week there is educational programming at CBT. We have a fantastic committee that helps plan special events and regular classes for adults, and we have a vibrant Religious School with an amazing team of teachers led by Pam Rosen. And I know I am not teaching you anything new to say that she runs a fantastic program with passion and resolve. For the young and the young at heart, there is always something to be learned, and we constantly find new and wonderful things for the whole community to discover together.

The second is justice. A congregation with the name “B’nai Tzedek” has that name for a reason. Our mitzvah day is an unparalleled experience that everyone should be a part of, and we are at the beginning stages of planning a trip to New Orleans this spring. Every student who becomes B’nai Mitzvah on our bimah takes on mitzvah work that becomes their own personal expression of justice that will go beyond a simple project and become a way of living Jewishly.

The third is a little harder to name. Borrowing a page from Alison Fine’s newest book, we are calling it “Matterness.” Matterness is the idea that everyone who walks through our doors with the intent to worship, learn, and do justice with us will be welcomed with open arms. We make people feel as if what they say and what they desire matters to us, even if we don’t always see eye to eye. Everyone here matters.

Like Abraham, we know we are not perfect. We have made mistakes, and we will keep making them, but when we do we will have our vision in mind. Education, Justice, and Matterness will be at the forefront of our vision, and as we move forward to 2020 and beyond, we will continue to make our community the greatest that it can be.

But never perfect.

May we all use this High Holy Day season to move away from perfection and toward greatness.