Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Robinson

Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection, a time of reevaluation, a moment to decide who we want to be in the coming year. It is meant to be a time when all our choices come into sharp focus, as we analyze and evaluate what we have said and done. It is perhaps, then, fitting that we read the Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, for Rosh Hashanah. Abraham, commanded by God to offer up his beloved, precious son, takes Isaac to a place they do not know, almost a grotesque parody of Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the promised land six chapters earlier. Isaac asks where the sacrifice is, and Abraham explains that God will provide, and bind Isaac, raising the knife only to have his hand stayed by God at the last possible minute, and offers a ram instead. Horrified, we analyze and scrutinize every word of this parsha, and everyone’s choices: Sarah’s absence, Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and God’s. And as we do so, as Rabbi Shai Held writes in The Heart of Torah, we, like Isaac, encounter God (and Abraham) at their most uncompromising and inflexible. And so, we find ourselves encountering that same Unbending God in our liturgy at Rosh Hashanah; we want God to be all sweetness and light, only a God who is close, as Jeremiah seethes, but in this moment, we encounter the God who will not be moved by our excuses and compromises; the God who challenges us as to whether we are truly doing what we are supposed to.

Compromise is not, in and of itself, a dirty word. As a political term it has, at times, being lauded; that is a key pillar of “The Delaware Way”, as I understand it. The idea that we might recognize the other’s needs and create space for them, and receive the same treatment in kind, is a concept that we as Americans have embraced in the past. Frequently, a compromise means an end to conflict, whether between nations or rival politicians or family members, allowing a kind of peace to settle, a release of tension, as everyone holding their breath finally lets out a sigh of relief. We like compromise because compromise de-escalates conflict and helps us feel good about our relationships. As a species, we are social creatures, and that means, to some degree, being people pleasers. We do not want to set a boundary that is going to get us yelled at or ostracized.

However, there are times to be entirely uncompromising, especially when it came to our health and well-being, or that of our friends, or family, or fellow community members. And this past year, we experienced that, with some measure of conflict. Last night I spoke about the issue of moral injury, about how so many of us were confronted with choices that traumatized us. We asked family and friends to stay away from gatherings because they had covid-like symptoms. We urged people to stay away from one another, even though it was profoundly painful, for everyone’s health and safety. Some of us have left jobs because we felt unsafe—at least two of my son’s teachers retired in the middle of last year for that exact reason. We have wrestled with whether to send our kids to school, and which school, and under what circumstances. And we took the time to think deeply about our values as a country and individuals: where we invest our resources, our time, our energy, our focus, whether we are uplifting our fellow human beings or seeing them as purely a means to an end, another cog in the machine. While there was certainly conflict surrounding those choices, what was remarkable in many of those moments was how we gave each other the benefit of the doubt and granted one another some measure of grace. If someone said they did not feel safe, or set a boundary, even when it inconvenienced us, we relented, at least for a little while. And, I think, some of that firmness that we expressed and encountered in others gave us the opportunity to think about who we really are and what we are really about? What are our non-negotiable values? What do we actually care about?

This might sound like an easy set of questions but let us remember that at the end of our portion, Isaac disappears. While at the beginning he and Abraham walk off together (it is repeated twice), only Abraham returns to Be’er Sheva. Isaac, having confronted God and Abraham at their least compromising, vanishes from the text, traumatized and terrified by his encounter. When we encounter him again, we find a man who refuses to engage in conflict, avoiding it at all costs. And that could be us again, willing to compromise and tolerate under any circumstances, so as not to create waves or conflict.

We have a new year before us. It would be a shame if we entered it without learning anything from the previous year, going ‘back to normal’ without engaging any of what challenged us, and continues to challenge us. Let our choices, then, come into sharper focus. Let us allow ourselves to reflect deeply, and through this text, and the memory of the last two years, examine what are our boundaries and limits, look past our excuses and justifications, and decide truly who we want to be. Amen.