This story was well illustrated by Nik Wallenda during his recent walk high across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Over the course of his 22 minute highwire trek, he used his faith to provide himself with focus, giving thanks for each step that he took along the way. His successful and daring feat was televised worldwide. I am sure that, even now, over two months later, people still marvel at his amazing abilities to maintain his concentration and his balance.
A famous mentor in one of the most widely-watched movies of all time affirmed for his new student, named Luke, the importance of concentration and dedication: “Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi….A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. (Heh.) Excitement. (Heh.) A Jedi craves not these things.”
I imagine that we don’t have any aerialists in our congregation, although I know of members with pilot licenses and there may be some former gymnasts among us. I am 100% certain that we have no real Jedi Knights.
And still, there are times in our lives when we feel that we are walking on a tightrope, high above the ground, or even facing a dialoblical adversary, with only our self-confidence, creativity, ingenuity and concentration keeping us from falling or failing.
When we face tests and trials in our lives, we don’t choose to undergo those experiences for publicity. Such challenges are usually unplanned, especially in terms of their timing. When Rhonda and I traveled to St. Louis this summer to help her mother settle into new surroundings, we had the opportunity to speak to other people whose parents had made the same move. We discovered that whether from across town or from a great distance, an adult child wants to know that his or her parent is safe and receiving excellent care every moment of the day.
And some of us have likely been the parent picking up a child at school who has been hurt or has suddenly become ill. The parental response in that moment is one of focus and commitment to provide a safety net of protection and comfort by dropping everything and being present. We had that experience once when our son Adam was in seventh grade. I was called to leave work to join him in the school nurse’s office until his severe asthma attack subsided. It was scary for him and for me – and for his mom who wasn’t there. For any parent who has been there for his or her child in that way, there is a great likelihood that, one day, that child will be doing the same for you, turning aside from his or her own tasks to be of help.
The image of a lone individual walking on a tightrope represents only one part of the story of our lives. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav offered yet another interpretation of the journeys we take with this well-known saying: KOL HAOLAM KULO GESHER TZAR M’OD – The entire world is a narrow bridge; V’HA-IKAR LO L’FACHEID K’LAL – the most important and underlying principle of our lives is not to be afraid.” Sometimes we aren’t only like tightrope artists working alone. We are walking across a narrow bridge with other family members, or friends, or community members.
I have been thinking about some of the journeys and marches in which I have participated this year. Walking with the local NAACP chapter on a Sunday in January connected everyone present with the ideals and dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I offered this impromptu prayer to begin that march: “Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of us all, we thank you for this opportunity to come together. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness- only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred- only love can do that.’ May the steps we take today bring light and love to our community.”
I have met with people over the last year facing foreclosure of their home, deportation, serious illness, loss of a job or a living wage, and too many types of discrimination. At the National Leadership Training of the PICO Community Organizing Network, some of my fellow participants spoke about unending gang violence in their communities. A Muslim woman there told me about instances when she and her family faced stereotyping and profiling.
When a difficult situation can’t be resolved, we feel as if we are walking on a tightrope with nothing below to catch us. It is only when other people are present to show us concern that we feel that we are crossing a narrow bridge and we are not alone.
In recent months, we have heard about people across the world whose narrow bridge seems to lead nowhere, even though they are members of a community. There are Coptic Christians in Egypt who are the victims of violence at the hand of some fellow Muslim citizens. There are members of Christian communities in Israel whose churches have been attacked by the TAG M’CHIR –Price Tag – group that begrudges their presence in the Jewish State. There are people in Syria who have no security in the midst of that raging conflict. There are Jews all over the world facing threats to their well-being due to prejudice and hatred that has emerged from religious beliefs, cultural misconceptions and extremist political ideologies. Living in an Israeli town that is within reach of rocket attacks from across the border is a trial that we hope will end once there is peace.
To successfully overcome any of these trials and challenges takes more than one person walking on a tightrope. It requires that people join together to make a difficult crossing by first overcoming fear and then by moving forward with confidence and resolve. The images of the tightrope and the bridge both relate to AKEDAT YITZCHAK, the story of the binding of Isaac, our Torah reading for this Rosh Hashanah morning. This tale raises so many questions. Was Abraham alone in this trial? Was Isaac truly a partner in this test? How does this story apply to us, given that we likely won’t hear a similar call from God? Or….will we?
Rabbi Bradley Artson’s new book, Passing Life’s Tests, offers many levels of interpretation of this tale of the binding of Isaac. When speaking about God in the AKEDAH, Artson distinguished between the two words used for God in the story. The command to take Isaac came from ELOHIM. Rabbi Artson suggested that ELOHIM signifies God’s attribute of strict justice. ELOHIM may also point to the reality of random events that occur in our lives. Death, suffering, and evil are a part of life and creation. They make us feel that the world is a place of chaos that only causes us despair and elicits fear in our hearts and souls. How do we get beyond that fear? The name for God in the last part of the tale is YUD-HAY-VAV-HAY, ADONAI, the One who is Eternal, who causes all of creation to exist. This name represents God’s mercy, compassion, support and comfort. It is the ANGEL of ADONAI that stops Abraham from taking this test of faith to its inevitable end. At the conclusion of this passage, Abraham named the site of this test ADONAI YIR’EH – the God of mercy will see, not ELOHIM YIR’EH – the God of randomness and strict justice will see. This interpretation is echoed in the Talmud. The rabbis suggested that God prays. What is God’s prayer? “May it be that my attribute of strict justice will be overcome and overtaken by my attribute of mercy.” As it is with God, so it should be with us. Yet, there are times when we, as individuals, as parents, employers, employees, or friends, may put someone else to a test to see how he or she responds. Or we may be the one who is tested. In fact, the tests and trials never end. What is important is how we act at that moment. It is crucial for us to hear the voice not only of pure objectivity and strict justice but also the still, small voice that leads us to mercy and even forgiveness of others and of ourselves.
The story of the binding of Isaac is a tale of faith and, ultimately, of love. And while there is almost no dialogue between father and son along this journey, there is so much in between this story’s beginning and end.
In the context of this tale, Rabbi Bradley Artson defined faith as the ability to view every encounter as a test of our integrity. We have the power to choose how we are going to act when we face an unexpected divergence from our normal path. Faith offers connection and trust, but faith doesn’t mean that we will get a better deal because of our piety. It means that we have to be up to the challenge at hand. Abraham was asked to do something unimaginable to him or to any of us. Take away the content of his trial, the command to sacrifice his son, and we can begin to relate to Abraham. We are often called to give up something. The sacrifice may be precious moments that we thought we could devote to family, or friends, or a project we needed to complete, but we were, on the spur of the moment, called to fulfill another purpose. Such an experience puts us in Abraham’s position. Rabbi Artson explained that “life's tests come unannounced and unlabeled. Recognizing that a challenge or a tragedy is also an opportunity for community, faith or personal growth is the first step in passing the test.” Life’s interruptions, both major and minor, can teach us new lessons about ourselves, our beliefs and our character. What may seem to take us off of our planned itinerary may actually lead us to our true destination, including a deeper understanding of ourselves. This will only happen if we accept the duty of the moment. The command LECH-LECHA, go forth, can mean “go for yourself” – take this path so that you will grow in a way you never expected. It may be a walk on a tightrope, all by yourself, or you may end up on a bridge with traveling companions who will make you see yourself in a new light.
In this case, Abraham’s traveling partners were Isaac and two servants. Some commentators claim that Isaac could have refused to go with his father in the first place, or that he could have stopped the test as soon as he was bound on the altar. Isaac may have been acting in solidarity with Abraham, based in trust and in love. This passage marks the first time that the word AHAVAH, love, is used in the Torah. As soon as Abraham raised the knife to complete the test, a voice called out his name: “ABRAHAM! ABRAHAM!” The first call was to the Abraham who acted solely out of faith. The second call was to the Abraham who had gained a new spirit, a fresh understanding of himself. He realized that he could go the distance in a difficult trial, but he also recognized that he didn’t have to finish what he had started. He remembered that there was a component of faith and trust that hadn’t occurred to him until that crucial moment: LOVE - AHAVAH. The cry of the Angel of Adonai reached the loving father, who put down the knife. And what new insight did God gain from this test? Rabbi Artson asserted that God learned not to test love. God pulled back from the demand that we offer exclusive devotion to a higher cause by setting aside everything else. God recognizes that we each do the best we can, balancing busy schedules, multiple relationships and separate commitments. And it may be that the tests of our lives, the most difficult situations we face, will deepen our character so that everyone around us will benefit. At that point, we will join our family and community, walking across the narrow bridge of life, without fear.
So what do we learn about Judaism and Jewish life from this tale? One of Rabbi Artson’s concluding statements in PASSING LIFE’S TESTS was this: “Religion is true when it can produce godliness among its practitioners, justice among its disciples, and a deep sense of belonging and peace.” Producing godliness, justice, belonging and peace requires us, at times, to set aside our plans to take on tasks that will benefit our community and from which we will grow. And when we work for godliness, justice, belonging and peace, our children will see and learn from us. When we strive for those ideals, are we not doing it for the children of our world, wherever they may live, so that they will have a secure future, just as Abraham hoped for his son Isaac? In Rabbi Artson’s words: “Our children are our still, small voice. They summon us to put down our plans, set aside our studies, attend, and live.” Seeing our future in the eyes and smiles of children can give us hope, resolve, courage, focus and balance in the present and in the days and years to come.
A local church recently put this message on their congregational sign: “Prayer is the bridge between panic and peace.” For Abraham and Isaac, it was their bonds of faith and love that took them to their destination and through their shared trial, from panic and uncertainty across a bridge to peace and hope for the generations to come.
At this time of year, we think of our own challenges, our tests, our trials, and our triumphs. We consider where we have been and where we have to go. We hear the sound of the shofar that calls us to turn all that we have done into a foundation for the future that will lead to our own personal improvement and to the betterment of our world.
In this New Year of 5774, may we continue to walk across the narrow bridge of life, together, without fear, journeying towards the place where ADONAI YIREH: where God will see and where we will see, as well, that we CAN make real the best that we can be. So may we do and let us say amen.