Rosh Hashanah 5776 — Sept. 14, 2015
Battell Chapel, Yale University
Some of the greatest truths that we experience are from texts and terms so well-known to us that we sometimes do not see their power. They are like the color of water or the taste of air — hidden, as it were, in plain sight. The entire trope of the High Holy Days is one of t’shuvah, often translated as “repentance” but literally meaning “to return.”
But why are these days about returning and not going forward? In fact, returning is literally a revolutionary act. While we often assume that the meaning of “revolution” means a dramatic change of direction, its original meaning, as in the “Glorious Revolution of 1688,” was intended to be a return or revolving back to an earlier time and place. On Rosh Hashanah and the days leading up to Yom Kippur, to where are we seeking to return?
For me there is a personal meaning to t’shuvah and returning today. The last time I spoke at Battell Chapel was erev Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre night, in the fall of 1979. I am privileged to be here today, and to speak about returning in a broader and more universal sense.
Abraham and his relationships
Rosh Hashanah liturgy, especially the readings from the Torah on the two days of Rosh Hashanah, focus on Abraham and the major kinship ties in his life. On the first day, we read of Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael; on the second day, of course, Isaac. The other major figure in his family life, his nephew Lot, has removed himself from the picture at this point; more about him shortly. Each of these stories, along with so many other powerful stories from Abraham’s life, focus us on individual relationships in his life — and how these relationships worked or, more to the point, did not work.
I want to pick three such moments in Abraham’s life — one that we associate so strongly, indeed essentially, with Rosh Hashanah and the Yomim Noraim, and the other two that set up our readings on the first two days of Rosh Hashanah and, I will suggest, set up much of the narrative of our texts going forward over the years and indeed centuries.
The first is Abraham, actually still Abram, dividing up the land with Lot; the second is the revelation of the birth of Isaac; and the third is the Akedah, which is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
Lot, Abram’s nephew, is part of his uncle’s entourage as he comes into the land of Canaan. In Genesis 13: 7-11, we learn of Lot’s men and Abram’s men not being able to get along. Recall that this takes place prior to the birth of either Ishmael or Isaac, and thus there is some possibility at this point that Lot will be Abram’s key descendant. Abram suggests that they separate but does so with very evocative language.
In Gen 13:8, Abram says there is no reason for fighting as we are ”kinsmen”; the Hebrew “ki anashim achim anachnu” is better rendered as “we are all brothers.” But Lot agrees to separate — and Abram is silent. We can only imagine what was going on in his mind. It must have been a rhetorical question. He was waiting for Lot to say, “No, I would never leave you.” But Abram does not protest, nor does he express his disappointment or emotion to Lot. Why does he remain silent here?
Does he ever repair this rift? Even when he rescues Lot from kidnapping, Abram never actually speaks to Lot. Well, never is a long time — we will return to this below.
Revelation of the birth of Isaac
Isaac’s name, Yitzhak, is from the root “to laugh” — why is laughter so central an aspect to the birth of Isaac that it would be the basis for his name? The difficulty of this question is compounded by the fact that when Sarah laughs about getting pregnant at her advanced age of 90 — and Abraham at 100 — God gets very angry. Three angels have come to Abraham’s tent and, in his characteristic show of hospitality, he entertains them generously. One announces that Sarah will have a child in a year’s time; when she hears it from the door of the tent where she is standing, she laughs “within herself” (Gen. 18:12). God’s reaction is swift: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too great for the Lord?” (vv. 13-14). Sarah denies laughing, but the omniscient God contradicts her: “But you did in fact laugh” (v. 15).
To understand the significance of laughter here, we have to go back in the story, to Genesis 17, in which God makes a key set of pronouncements to Abram:
- there is the promise of the covenant with Abram and his descendants;
- Abram’s name shall be changed to Abraham;
- Sarai’s name shall be changed to Sarah;
- the mitzvah of circumcision is given; and
- the land of Israel is promised to Abraham’s descendants.
All of these draw little attention from Abraham. It is as if he is just taking notes. But then, in verse 17, God promises Abraham a son by Sarah. Not surprisingly, Abraham laughs. This is no laughing “within himself” as we saw with Sarah — this is liberally a falling down on your face kind of laughter, va’yipol Avraham al panav v’yitzhak. Abraham manages only a “May Ishmael live before you,” as if to say, “I know that I can’t have another son, one with Sarah, so may my son with Hagar, Ishmael, clean up his act and be worthy to follow in my footsteps.” The divine reaction is one of caring and intimacy: You’ll have a son; you’ll call him Yitzhak, and he will be the one to carry on the covenant. And yes, I’ll take care of Ishmael, too, but it is Yitzhak who will take over from you.
Now we can return to Chapter 18 and read it more closely, with an insight for which I am indebted to Rabbi Saul Berman. The angels come — Abraham gets Sarah to prepare the meal, but then she is not in the tent when the discussion happens. Her absence does not go unnoticed. The angel says, “Where is Sarah?” One answer would be: “Let’s bring her here; what is happening here is important to her, too.” Instead, Abraham’s answer is, “She in the tent.” The angel then proceeds to announce that the child will be born and Sarah laughs. When God says, “Why did Sarah laugh,” the text explicitly says that He was speaking to Abraham, not to Sarah (v. 13). How is it possible, God wants to know, that Sarah did not know about this? The only reason she would be laughing would be if this were the first she had learned that she would conceive and have a child at her advanced age. Sarah, reading the situation, tries to get Abraham off the hook. ”I didn’t laugh,” she says. Only then does God speak to Sarah, and He says, “Yes you did.”
God’s frustration with Abraham is clear: Revelation is not a private business. It is about relationships. Our relationship with God is directly connected with how we relate to and communicate with each other. Abraham has yet to learn this; he is the same person who did not speak to his nephew Lot. Here, on the crucial matter of the birth of his son, he did not speak to his wife, Sarah.
The name Yitzhak refers to both cases of laughter, which God wants Abraham never to forget — the intimate revelatory moment between Abraham and God, and the recognition that he should never have excluded Sarah, as she should have had her own intimate revelatory moment with her husband. Human intimacy should mimic that with God: close and respectful, even if challenging.
There is no text more closely associated with the Yomim Noraim, the High Holy Days, than that of the binding of Isaac. I will not address the heart of this story, known so well, but rather emphasize only one particularly telling, indeed haunting, part of the story, one of particular relevance to our discussion of communication. Where is Abraham’s communication here? It is significantly lacking. Isaac, observing the fire and the wood, asks, “Where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” Does he know all too well who the intended sacrifice is? And is Isaac’s question a desperate attempt to get his father to open up to him? Abraham famously never discusses it with Isaac. “God will provide the sacrifice” (22: 7-8). And perhaps most telling of all, after the angel of God stays Abraham’s hand and after the ram is found in the thicket and sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, Abraham and Isaac leave the mountain together but they never speak. Indeed, they never speak again.
Where is the redemptive part of our story? When does Abraham learn?
The redemptive element of our story begins with the understanding that it is our relationships with each other that are at the heart of our relationship with God: the need to engage with each other in a serious and constructive way.
The challenge is not new; it is as old as Abraham. And older — think about Cain and Abel. And the lesson is hard to learn. Abraham, the man who did not speak to his nephew and did not speak to his wife, at the crucial moment did not speak to his son. But the promise is an incredibly powerful one: the essence of revelation from God and the beginning of the redemption of the world lies in something very much within our control — how we communicate with those around us.
In our time it is not just about whether we speak, but also how we speak. Indeed, it is all too easy to “speak,” in the sense of directing words at others — especially electronically in a host of ways. The essence of our communication with each other is the language we use and the way in which we actually engage with each other. Our tradition teaches us three things:
- real communication validates the other and requires listening to the other — it is not just what we say to others but even more so what others say to us;
- real communication seeks common ground, not just the making of points and staking out positions; and
- real communication does not demonize the other.
We have been living through a debate within the American Jewish community where this has been a particularly difficult challenge and where the consequences are particularly devastating. There is a universal aspect to this to be sure, but right now I am thinking of communication within our own community. We will never fulfill the mission to be or l’goyim, a light to the nations, until we are able to be or l’Yehudim, a light to each other.
This kind of communication should govern how we approach each other across the seminar table and across the dining room table, and through social media, and across the world. For our community to survive the conflicts of the past months and emerge whole, a different and yet ancient form of discourse must govern how we discuss, wrestle and disagree about significant and fundamental issues. We can debate each other without devouring each other. Recall that the Second Temple was not destroyed because of a lack of religious observance — far from it. It was destroyed due to sinat chinam, causeless and incommensurate hatred of the other, indeed, of our fellow Jews.
T’shuva as a Revolutionary Act of Return
T’shuva, I said earlier, is the literally revolutionary act of returning, but of returning to what? Yes, returning to God, but also returning to each other. To understanding that none of us is as smart, or as good, or as productive, or as important as all of us.
When did Abraham heal his relationships? It is an eternal process. I shall leave it to the reader to consider how the relationships with Sarah and Yitzhak were healed, but I will conclude with how the relationship with Lot was ultimately healed:
Abraham’s descendants are through Isaac, and Jacob, and then in particular through one of Jacob’s twelve sons, Judah, whose linear descendant, Boaz, whom we read about in the book of Ruth. Lot’s descendants are, through his daughters and his grandchildren, Ammon and Moab, and through the latter, the Moabites. Perhaps the most famous Moabite is Ruth herself. When Ruth marries Boaz, at long last, Abraham is reunited with Lot. And from the union of Ruth and Boaz comes King David, and ultimately the Moshiach, the Messiah, may He come speedily and in our days.
Frederick M. Lawrence