Thursday, September 25, 2014

“WHAT (is required of us)? – Sermon – Rosh Hashanah Morning (Revised from 5765/5767) – September 25, 2014

Every year is like one part of a journey, providing images, stories and moments along the way that we will remember, hopefully for the good.   We may not think that our life's path resembles, in any way, the tale in the Torah reading today, where Abraham and Isaac traveled together and experienced moments that changed both of them for the rest of their lives – but perhaps we are not so different from them.
    The question on my mind this year as I thought about this test of Abraham and Isaac was, “What is required of us?”  What is it that we have to do in life to be decent human beings who are strong, caring, steadfast and committed to our community and to our relationships?
     What is required of us is to be present.  I first learned about the Biblical Hebrew word for presence, "Hineini," from my first Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Esther Kleiman.   She would call the roll in class and we would use this ancient response to indicate that we were sitting in the classroom, hopefully present in body, mind and spirit.   The next year, the Cantor's wife, a creative educator who introduced us to a more modern Hebrew, taught us instead to say "po,"  which means "here."    So, at this moment, if you asked me where I am, and I said "po," it would mean, "I am on the bimah, standing beside the Torah - where else should I, the rabbi, be on Rosh Hashanah morning when I am ready to give my d'var Torah?"   However, if I said, instead, "Hineini," it would mean, "I am on the bimah, joining you in prayer and celebration, standing beside the Torah in order to share with you lessons that we can take into this new year of 5775."
The word “Hineini” has many levels of significance, especially whenever it appears in a Biblical story.   We know the first part of the word as "Hinei," here - behold, as in the familiar phrase from Psalms,  "Hinei mah tov u-mah naim," Behold - how good and how pleasant it is."   The suffix adds the part of the word that means "I" , "Ani."  "Hineini" expresses an awareness, an ability to see a situation with open eyes, and to recognize that I - ani- may have a responsibility or task that requires my personal attention, concern and commitment.  I never thought that my simple response in Hebrew class could encompass so much meaning, but Mrs. Kleiman was, I believe, trying to teach us that the study of our heritage is at its best when it comes from deep within our soul – from that place of "Hineini," and not just "po."
  My annual struggle with interpreting the Akedah - the story of the binding of Isaac - must necessarily be an exercise in "Hineini" and not "po."  It is unwise to deal only on the surface with this tale of a father and son and their God who, apparently, commands the father to sacrifice his son to demonstrate unwavering faith.   In his book HINEINI IN OUR LIVES, Rabbi Norman Cohen collected statements from rabbis and scholars who told of "hineini moments” from their lives which they related to Abraham’s dilemma as he journeyed with his son Isaac to an uncertain fate.  Some of the contributors to Rabbi Cohen’s book offered stories from their personal experiences that they viewed as actual tests of faith, real examples of "Hineini."   I would agree with the interpretations in that volume that urge us to explore the use of the statement "Hineini" in the Akedah in order to place the entire story in its proper context.  There is something pivotal about each instance in which Biblical characters say "hineini" to God or to one another. That is especially true every time this word appears in Genesis chapter 22.   In each case, Abraham was required to act in consonance with what he believed, even if the request seemed to be pushing him to the limits of his faith.
 The first "Hineini" in the Akedah story was spoken by Abraham as he responded to God's double call of his name, commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.  On one level, we are at least surprised, if not shocked, to hear what Abraham was supposed to do to prove his dedication to God.  We wonder how God could apparently ask for a human sacrifice from a person who had shown only focus and commitment to God's direction until that point.  This divine demand on Abraham can signify for us situations that come to us in our lives, often without warning.  This particular "hineini" moment is relevant to each of us when unforeseen circumstances or events put us in an unexpected place.  At such a moment, we have to drop everything, put our lives on hold, and attend to the tragedy or challenge before us.  This requires all of our energy at a cost of personal sacrifice and, perhaps, the unfortunate, but, hopefully, temporary loss of connection with those who depend on us the most.  There are times when we feel that we must attend to the needs of a particular family member or friend at the exclusion of others who would benefit from our presence.  There are days when work may pull us away from home or friendship or personal pursuits.  We try to address and fulfill all of our responsibilities, but sometimes we cannot even say "po,"  much less "hineini."  There is no choice in some instances but to make a choice, however difficult, if only for a brief time, so that we can later respond with an eventual and heartfelt "hineini" to everyone around us.  In the case of the Torah reading, Abraham felt the pull that he perceived from God, on one hand, and his family on the other.   He chose God and embarked with his son and his servants on a three-day journey to Mount Moriyah.
The second time Abraham said “hineini” in this portion was in response to Isaac's call and question,  "Father?"  Abraham replied, "Hineini, v'nee - here I am, my son."  Isaac asked, "Here is the firestone and the knife, but where is the ram for the burnt offering?"    That exchange was a potential moment of truth between parent and child that tested Abraham's faith, and, even more, the trust between Abraham and Isaac.   What could Abraham say?  He didn’t say, "God has commanded me to sacrifice you, Isaac, and you know that God is most important in my life, and I have to do what God tells me to do – you have to come along with me."   Nor did he say, "I am going along with God's command to sacrifice you, even though I know that I have been promised many descendants through you.  This is tearing me apart, and I hope that I don't have to go through with this. "  Nor did he say nothing.   Abraham said, "God will provide a ram for the burnt offering, my son."   There was, in Abraham's response, a note of slight resignation, but also a hint of optimism that he and Isaac would somehow get through this trial.   Abraham had to say something to reassure his son so that they could continue on the path to the mountain.   The text at that point declared, "VAYAYLCHU SH'NAYHEM YACHDAV - THE TWO OF THEM WALKED TOGETHER."  Neither of them knew exactly what was going to happen, but they had each other and trusted each other as they moved along a road towards an uncertain end.  
    As I consider this conversation between Abraham and Isaac, I think of adults who have been required to leave their parents, spouses and children in order to engage in work, military service or other necessary personal commitments. I think of those individuals dealing with the death of a loved one who are attempting to create a new perspective on life that offers a measure of comfort to other family members.  I think of individuals who must overcome challenges to their physical, emotional or mental well-being in the presence of their closest relatives and friends, assuring them that their support is valuable even if they sometimes are unable to show appreciation for the help they provide.  To move forward while facing a difficult situation, we are called upon to say "HINEINI", to be there for each other and to walk together, like Abraham and Isaac, with one mind and one heart.
     Abraham said “hineini” a third time in Genesis Chapter 22 as he responded to the call of the angel that directed him to refrain from sacrificing Isaac.    He heard the urgent command, “Do not set your hand upon the boy, and don’t do anything to him, for it is now known without a doubt that you revere God, since you have not withheld your only son.”   We are supposed to feel relieved as the dramatic tension is resolved with the angel’s timely arrival, Isaac’s survival, and Abraham’s successful completion of this trial of faith.  It may have seemed that everything was back to normal. Yes, Abraham would have many descendants through Isaac – God’s promise of progeny was totally intact.   Yet, Abraham and Isaac changed during this traumatic experience.   We have no sense that father and son closely interacted with each other ever again.   Some commentators imagined that tears from the angel that came to stop the test touched Isaac’s eyes, causing his sight to be dim at that moment and increasingly clouded as he grew older.   For us, any test and any challenge to our well-being or to our notions about our own reality will necessarily alter our perspectives on life.    Hineini, at this point in the Torah reading, meant, for Abraham, “I am ready to accept the role of being a loving parent with realistic expectations, a dedicated believer in higher truths, and an example for generations to come of what it means to face, with faith, life’s unexpected trials and tests.”
     When we encounter difficult situations, we are like Abraham, and our Hineini is at least similar to his, if not the same.   We don’t expect everything to be as it was before.  We do change when we deal with illness, the death of a relative or friend, loss or change of employment, surprising shifts in our closest relationships, or events beyond our control.   What is most important in any case is to hold on, to stand up, and to hear the angel calling our name, to which our response of “hineini” will signal that we are present in the moment and ready to take the next step on our journey, incorporating our new knowledge and experience into our outlook and character as we try to make ourselves whole again. 
          At the foundation of who we are, whatever tests we face, are values embodied in texts and sayings from our tradition.   In the last several weeks, I asked our Religious School teachers, Religious School committee members, students and congregants to express what they believe are values that can enable us to say, with confidence, HINEINI - here I am.   Here are some of our own pearls of wisdom that can support us as we face the tests that life inevitably places before us:
Come and learn; act kindly.
Bring your best self; be a friend.
Every day is a new start.
Think before you speak and listen intently to what others have to say.
We should speak less so that we can listen more and hear the voices calling for us to be present.
Know before whom you are speaking and with whom you are living in community - and remember that you are part of that community.
When everyone around you is behaving badly, be a mensch, a decent person.   
Think positive thoughts and apologize if you hurt someone's feelings.
Use quiet voices and kind words.
Find a friend to help guide you through life.
  Those guides are all around us to help us to know when and how to say HINEINI.   Sometimes, after knowing well that THEY have been a beacon for US, we may be required to return the favor.  In one congregation, there was a girl named Emma who was diligently studying several years ago to become Bat Mitzvah. She had started on that path very late because she hadn’t enrolled in Religious School until she was in 7th grade. Still,  she was making great progress and on track as a quick study and a highly motivated student. Emma had many strengths, intellectual, athletic and a deep concern for the welfare of her community and the world. Her peers thought of her as an unassuming leader-by-example and a good friend.    About two months before her Bat Mitzvah date, Emma was hit by a car while skateboarding near her home.  She spent several months recovering at a major hospital over an hour away from where she lived, and then at a facility closer to home.   Once she had made progress on her road to recovery, she was able to resume her studies at school and to continue her participation in Lacrosse and soccer.  The Bat Mitzvah service didn't happen, but Emma's return to her life was like a rebirth, an unplanned coming-of-age milestone in which she had successfully, and with flying colors, faced a difficult challenge.   Two weeks ago, Emma was driving her car with a friend in the passenger seat. She turned onto a major road from a side street and her car was struck by another vehicle.  The passenger survived, but Emma died.  The news spread throughout the community. The principal of her high school commented, “Emma really was a young woman with great potential who was such a good role model for her classmates in terms of the positive attitude that she put forth, her kindness, and her constant striving to achieve.” Emma’s father commented that she had been born, and reborn, and now, he hoped that she would be reborn again in spirit as she endures in the memories of her friends and loved ones. Emma’s peers, out-of-town relatives and school district staff and faculty overwhelmingly responded to the call of HINEINI to offer crucial support.  The family called the only rabbi they really knew, Emma’s Bat Mitzvah tutor, to take part in the funeral.  I was the rabbi who was Emma’s Bat Mitzvah tutor, and while I couldn’t attend, I spoke to Emma’s dad at length and sent my remembrance that was shared at her funeral.  What lasts from the life of such a person – in fact, of any loved one who dies -  is the legacy that remains, and the realization that it is our response of HINEINI at a moment of need that can keep fresh and alive the memory of a treasured soul.  
     In a moment, we will listen again to the tale of Abraham and Isaac, which is, more than we realize, as challenging as some of our own experiences in life. The shofar will call us to remembrance of our actions, to forgiveness of ourselves and others and to the realization of our capacity to change for the better and to step forward to act at a moment's notice, not only to say “po,” that we are present in this space, but also “hineini,” that we are here in the fullest sense.  May this be a year in which we respond to life’s challenges and trials from the depths of our being with new resolve and wisdom, performing the tasks required of us by being prepared to bring our best self to every moment of our lives.   At those times, may we be totally present, with a confident and heartfelt “hineini.”  So may it be – and let us say amen.

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