Sermon, Rosh HaShana 2nd Day 5784
Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue, Natanya Israel
Rabbi Reuben Modek
וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃ (בראשית כב״ א פרשת וירא)
Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, ”Hineni”, Here I am.
What was the test?…. The binding of Isaac. God instructs Abraham to go up to mount Moria to sacrifice his son Isaac. Furthermore, Isaac is the son that God had promised would continue Abraham’s lineage and legacy when his progeny become the Jewish people. Abraham agrees to carrying out the sacrifice. But at the last moment God stops Abraham from actually executing, literally and figuratively, and Isaac’s life is spared. God then pronounces:
...כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃ (בראשית כ״ב, יב)
“now I know that you fear Elohim”, (your obedience has been proven).
If there ever was a test, this one tops them all, doesn’t it?
Why does God test Abraham? Why does God test any of us? What is the purpose of the test, the desired outcome? Is this simply a test of faith as the narrative suggests, or is there more? What can it teach us about the tests we are experiencing right now in Israeli society and politics? What can it teach us about our own personal tests and travails?
Rashi offers two possible explanations to why God decided to test Abraham: … “Of all the banquets (to celebrate the weaning of Isaac) which Abraham had prepared, not a single bull nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to You (says Satan). God replied to him: Does he do anything at all except for his son (Isaac’s) sake? Yet if I were to ask him: Sacrifice him (Isaac) to Me, he would not refuse’’ (Tractate Sanhedrin 89b). Second explanation, “... Ishmael... boasted to Isaac that he had been circumcised when he was thirteen years old without resisting. Isaac replied to him: You think to intimidate me by mentioning the loss of one (small) part of the body! If the Holy One, blessed be He, were to tell me, ‘Sacrifice yourself to Me’ I would not refuse” (Tractate Sanhedrin 89b).
אחר הדברים האלה. יֵשׁ מֵרַבּוֹתֵינוּ אוֹמְרִים (סנהדרין פ"ט) אַחַר דְּבָרָיו שֶׁל שָׂטָן, שֶׁהָיָה מְקַטְרֵג וְאוֹמֵר מִכָּל סְעוּדָה שֶׁעָשָׂה אַבְרָהָם לֹא הִקְרִיב לְפָנֶיךָ פַּר אֶחָד אוֹ אַיִל אֶחָד; אָמַר לוֹ כְּלוּם עָשָׂה אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל בְּנוֹ, אִלּוּ הָיִיתִי אוֹמֵר לוֹ זְבַח אוֹתוֹ לְפָנַי לֹא הָיָה מְעַכֵּב; וְיֵ"אֹ אַחַר דְּבָרָיו שֶׁל יִשְׁמָעֵאל, שֶׁהָיָה מִתְפָּאֵר עַל יִצְחָק שֶׁמָּל בֶּן י"ג שָׁנָה וְלֹא מִחָה, אָמַר לוֹ יִצְחָק בְּאֵבֶר א' אַתָּה מְיָרְאֵנִי? אִלּוּ אָמַר לִי הַקָּבָּ"ה זְבַח עַצְמְךָ לְפָנַי, לֹא הָיִיתִי מְעַכֵּב.
A Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (55:1) offers another explanation:
“… It is written (in the Psalms [60:6]), ‘You have given a Nes (flag, banner) to those who fear You, that it may be displayed [lehithnoses] because of truth [koshet]…’. (What does the Psalm mean?) This means, trial after trial, greatness after greatness, in order to test (Nisa) them... and exalt them in the world like a ship’s flag. And why all this? … so that the attribute of (courage to do) justice [din] may be... (established)... in the world…. If you ask…: ‘Can you do what Avraham did?’… (as) it was said to him: ‘Take, please, your son, your only son’ (22:2), yet he did not refuse. This is (the meaning of) ‘You have given a flag to those who Fear You (or have courage to follow Your ways of justice), that it may be displayed’.
בראשית רבה נ״ה:א׳
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם (בראשית כב, א), כְּתִיב (תהלים ס, ו): נָתַתָּה לִּירֵאֶיךָ נֵס לְהִתְנוֹסֵס מִפְּנֵי קשֶׁט סֶלָּה, נִסָּיוֹן אַחַר נִסָּיוֹן, וְגִדּוּלִין אַחַר גִּדּוּלִין, בִּשְׁבִיל לְנַסּוֹתָן בָּעוֹלָם, בִּשְׁבִיל לְגַדְּלָן בָּעוֹלָם, כַּנֵּס הַזֶּה שֶׁל סְפִינָה. וְכָל כָּךְ לָמָּה, מִפְּנֵי קשֶׁט, בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְקַשֵּׁט מִדַּת הַדִּין בָּעוֹלָם, שֶׁאִם יֹאמַר לְךָ אָדָם לְמִי שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה לְהַעֲשִׁיר מַעֲשִׁיר, לְמִי שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה מַעֲנִי, וּלְמִי שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה הוּא עוֹשֶׂה מֶלֶךְ, אַבְרָהָם כְּשֶׁרָצָה עֲשָׂאוֹ מֶלֶךְ, כְּשֶׁרָצָה עֲשָׂאוֹ עָשִׁיר, יָכוֹל אַתְּ לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ וְלוֹמַר לוֹ יָכוֹל אַתְּ לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמוֹ שֶׁעָשָׂה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר מֶה עָשָׂה, וְאַתְּ אוֹמֵר לוֹ (בראשית כא, ה): וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן מְאַת שָׁנָה בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ, וְאַחַר כָּל הַצַּעַר הַזֶּה נֶאֱמַר לוֹ (בראשית כב, ב): קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ וְלֹא עִכֵּב, הֲרֵי נָתַתָּה לִּירֵאֶיךָ נֵס לְהִתְנוֹסֵס.
This Rabbi doubts that Abraham’s test was about Satan’s challenge, nor due to a teenage argument between Isaac and Ishmael about who is braver. Was the test about promoting courage to follow justice? Perhaps. But most likely, more than anything else, it was about Abraham’s unyielding hope against all odds. Let me explain. Throughout this ordeal Abraham never forgets or ceases to believe in his original purpose, which is to “be a blessing”…. He never ceases believing the original and formative message he received early on, that God’s ultimate nature is blessing. As we read in Parashat Lekh Lekha:
ב וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.
ג וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃ (פרשת לך לך בראשית יב: 2,3)
I will bless those who bless you, and curse the one who curses you; And all the families of the earth, shall bless themselves by you.”
What a powerful and hopeful message?! The core of Abraham’s covenant with God has entirely to do with “being a blessing”, as is God. Thus, Abraham is conscious of the original truth about God, even though it seems hidden behind the veneer of an awful test. The truth that God is “Blessing” and the source of hope. He remembers at every moment that God’s overarching essence is Blessing… blessing for Isaac… blessing for Abraham… blessing for all of humanity. Abraham knew that inside a mind-boggling, soul torturing test, there was concealed a God of hope.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz author of Mei HaShiloah illustrates this idea very beautifully. He asks, who exactly is Abraham demonstrating faith in? He points to God’s response at the end of the test: “...now I know that you fear Elohim”. Abraham is obedient specifically to Elohim, not to Adonai... in other words, Abraham may have demonstrated obedience to Elohim, but was ultimately faithful only to Adonai. Elohim and Adonai are not the same according to the sages. Elohim is the challenging and testing aspect of God. The aspect to be feared. But Adonai is the God aspect of compassion, blessing, and hope, which according to the sages, supersedes everything else. The stubborn adherence to this principle, that compassion, blessing, and hope supersede all challenges was Abraham’s greatness. He believed in hope above all, even when called to obey from fear. And so do we.
As a Jewish people, we have endured many tests over the centuries, from without and from within, yet we clung to hope. That is why we are still here to tell the story. These days of political and social turmoil we are being tested again, primarily from within. Our systems of governance, our very democracy are facing an unprecedented crisis. As a society we are disagreeing about the fundamental rules of the game. We are dangerously divided. We need to take decisive actions in order to resolve the crisis, there is no choice. The process is stressful and frightening. Yet, especially today on Rosh HaShanna, we remember that we are ultimately here, in this test, in order to tell Abraham’s story, a story of unyielding hope against all odds. It is not even an option, telling the story of resilience through hope is in our DNA… it defines our Jewish mission. There will be a hopeful ending to this test as well.
In our private lives too, health challenges, family challenges, work challenges, spiritual challenges, we need to seek help and find solutions but also, like Abraham, we must cling to hope. Hope is Adonai’s essence … and Adonai’s expectation of us.
This is why today’s Haforah ends with the famous verse from Jeremiah:
הֲבֵן֩ יַקִּ֨יר לִ֜י אֶפְרַ֗יִם, אִ֚ם יֶ֣לֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִ֔ים, כִּֽי־מִדֵּ֤י דַבְּרִי֙ בּ֔וֹ זָכֹ֥ר אֶזְכְּרֶ֖נּוּ ע֑וֹד, עַל־כֵּ֗ן הָמ֤וּ מֵעַי֙ ל֔וֹ, רַחֵ֥ם אֲֽרַחֲמֶ֖נּוּ, נְאֻם־יְהֹוָֽה׃ (הפטרה ליום ב’ ראש השנה ירמיהו ל״א כ)
“Truly, Ephraim (a euphemism for Israel) is a dear son to Me (Adonai). A child that is dandled! Whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts (Adonai’s thoughts) would dwell on him still. That is why My heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love, declares Adonai.”
I started my comments with the verse from today’s Torah reading:
וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃(בראשית כ״ב, יב)
“God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, “Hineni”, I am ready, because I am full of hope. Are we?
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah
1+ 80 + 200 + 10 + 40 = 331 אפרים 7
60 + 30 + 10 + 8 + 5 = 133 סליחה 7
300 + 6 + 2 + 5 = 313 שובה 7
400 + 100 + 6 + 5 = 511 תקוה 7