Monday, September 14, 2015

Extraordinary Faith - Sermon - Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776 - September 14, 2015

   A father and a son are together at home.   The father stands over the son, knowing he must do exactly what he has been told.   The son looks up into his father's eyes.  He seems ready to accept what is about to happen.   Among those looking on, peering from various vantage points at this meeting of parent and child, some are certain they know the father and the son and their fate.   Others are not so sure what to make of the scene before them.   And still others, gazing at this father and son, believe that it is how they will tell the story that will make all the difference in the world.      
     The father at home with his son is the biblical progenitor of a multitude of nations –  Abraham.   The people looking on are Jews, Christians and Muslims, who all agree on the father’s identity.    But who is the son, where is the home, and what is it that the father knew he must do?  That depends upon whom you ask. 
In Judaism, the son was Isaac, whose name, Yitzchak, means “he will laugh.”  The home was not the family tent, where Abraham and Sarah showed their well renowned hospitality to all passing travelers.  Home, in this case, was a spot on a mountain in the heart of Jerusalem – Mount Moriah – upon a rock known as the “even sh’tiyah” – the foundation stone of the world – the spiritual center of Jews throughout the centuries.   That is the place where, according to our tradition and to archaeologists – our ancestors made pilgrimage to worship at their sacred Temple.
       What was it that the father knew he must do?  What was the act that he was commanded to carry out in order to pass a crucial test?   We know this text all too well. It perplexes us year after year both on Rosh Hashanah and when we read it in the weekly portion Vayera about six weeks later.  We call it the AKEDAH, the binding of Isaac, because Abraham bound his son on an altar so that he could offer his son as a sacrifice, the act he believed God asked him to do.   We will read in a few moments that Abraham was ready to slaughter his son, but that an angel stopped him at the last moment and told him that he had successfully proven his faith by following all of the divine directions he had received.   A ram caught in the thicket nearby to sacrifice instead was offered to God as a sign of Abraham’s devotion to his creator.  
   Some Jews in later generations believed that Abraham actually did sacrifice Isaac.  They saw Isaac as an unfortunate victim like so many Jewish men, women and children who lost their lives in brutal attacks on their communities, violence that was rooted in hatred and prejudice.  At those dire times, Jews saw their suffering as a sign of their steadfast faith and of God’s continuing favor.  The challenges and threats to their survival were actually signs that they were blessed.  Jewish commentators added an element of hope to that potentially pessimistic perspective.  They asserted that Isaac was brought to life again by God and that the ram was slaughtered as the angel called out a second time.   Our ancestors had faith that they would eventually find greater acceptance in the world as more and more people learned to truly love their neighbors as themselves. 
       In Christianity, which shares with Judaism this Genesis passage as sacred scripture, the son was Isaac, and “home” – the location -  was Mount Moriyah.  Or was it?  Perhaps not.   For Christians, the story of Abraham and Isaac foreshadowed what became their foundational tale told later by the followers of a particular first century Jew, likely known as Yehoshua bar Yosef.  They declared that, long before there was an Abraham and Isaac, the Ruler of the Universe had ordained that one human figure would meet his demise by human hands for a purpose that God intended for the benefit of all humankind. It was for that reason that early Christians read this story and replaced AKEDAH, “binding” with another word – “sacrifice.”  From the Christian perspective, the fact that Abraham loved God so much and had so much faith in the divine that he would sacrifice his favorite son prefigured the central tale of their scripture: God loved humanity so much that God would sacrifice one particular favorite son.  The wood of the altar at Mount Moriah became the wood of a cross placed at a site called Calvary to crucify the man known as Jesus of Nazereth.  Christians focused upon this story in relation to their observance of Easter, also known as Pascha, the holiest time on their spiritual calendar.  
 It was not until over 600 years into the common era that a new faith joined the two others in commenting on the meeting of that father and son on a mountain.  A new personally-proclaimed prophet named Muhammed asserted that people could best express their faith through total submission to the One God – ‘Allah.  The Arabic word for submission was – and is – Islam.   Many Muslims saw themselves as familial descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, son of Abraham’s maidservant Hagar.  And they, too, told a story of a son nearly being sacrificed by Abraham in their holy book, the Kur’an.   In that passage, Abraham dreamed that he was asked to sacrifice his son, and then, when he awakened, he told his son about this vision.  No name was given for the son bound on the altar in Abraham’s dream.  Some surrounding texts in the Kur’an point to Isaac as the son who was nearly sacrificed.  After several centuries, most Muslim scholars and teachers identified the son as Ishmael and called the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son the DHABIH, from a verb that means “to cut or tear.”   Muslims commemorate the slaughter of a ram in place of the son during their feast of sacrifice, ID AL ADHA, a ritual that concludes the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the HAJ, one of the holiest times of the year in Islam.  Muslim pilgrims gather for this feast in the valley of Mina, just outside of Mecca, to recreate this event which was no longer associated with Mount Moriah.  The Kur’an and Muslim commentators agreed with Jewish and Christian interpreters that the son was eventually a willing participant as God tested Abraham’s faith.  Abraham or Ibrahim gained great merit because he was ready to give himself over to God’s supreme will.    
     What began as one narrative about a father and a son became at least three.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have either marveled at the common threads of their respective versions of this tale – or, some have accused the other of corrupting the details of the episode and then claimed they and only THEY have the real account, the REST of the story.  
      Author Bruce Feiler traveled extensively in the Middle East to gather information for his best selling book, Walking the Bible.  The tragic events of September 11, 2001 led him to put on hold all other projects and to return to Israel at a time of great tension.  He decided that, in order to understand the religious underpinnings of conflicts emanating from the Middle East, he needed to explore the figure Abraham and what he meant to Jews, Christians and Muslims.   He wrote ABRAHAM: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THREE FAITHS to find an Abraham that could bring people together rather than drive them apart.    I was fascinated by Feiler’s interweaving of the wide range of interpretations about Abraham from across the spectrum of faith and time.    The explanations I have shared related to our Torah portion for this morning are all contained in Feiler’s book, which became, for a time, a source for Jewish/Christian/Muslim dialogue groups. There are several lessons that stand out in my mind from reviewing the various perspectives on Abraham and this tale of afather and son.  
       If there is anything we have learned in recent decades, it is that we cannot ignore the role of belief in people’s actions that may lead to destruction or to reconciliation.  The aims of the attackers of 9/11, the actions of the Islamic State fighters, the “Price Tag/Tag M’chir” group in Israel, and what we could call “homicide” bombers for any number of causes could certainly be described as political, but some of their motives emerge from an exclusivist interpretation of particular religious texts. Such narrow approaches dismiss the beliefs of others as inconsequential or incorrect.  This attitude of ”one-upsmanship” or competition, as with the struggle among three faiths to “own the true Abraham,” has no place in a world where each of us must strive to truly find our own faith and spiritual path.   Political leaders and Muslim clerics have issued a constant stream of claims that there was never a Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and that Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel.    They hope this modern-day propaganda that denies the sincerely held beliefs of Jews for generations will enable them to achieve political gains – that is, no Jewish presence in Jerusalem or, perhaps, no Jewish state at all.   There are religious overtones in the calls of some individuals for total control of that land between the Jordan and Mediterranean.  Such claims do nothing to further a deepening of a personal relationship with the Holy One.  
      The story of Abraham and his son at the altar does offer a potential basis for common interpretation among the three religions that hold this story to be sacred. In his book, Bruce Feiler presented a multitude of portrayals of Abraham related to episodes throughout his life as recounted in the Bible and the Kur’an.   This morning’s Torah reading alone tells of a father and son who moved forward together with a sense of trust and unified purpose.   They were both part of a test of the relationship between humanity and the greater truths of life.  Bruce Feiler suggested that Abraham was, in fact, testing God, because he knew that God’s command to sacrifice Isaac contradicted the promise that he would have many descendants through both Isaac and Ishmael.   Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would likely agree that we, like Abraham, are tested constantly in our lives as we make choices that relate to our work, our family ties and friendships, and our place in the community.   There is a sense in all three faiths that Abraham was focused on his mission, but not so intently that he was oblivious to everything around him.  He was aware enough to heed the angelic voice that directed his ultimate action on the mountain.    We can learn from Abraham how such intention is important in everything that we do, but that we must be able to hear other voices that might lead us towards a more positive and productive result.   In his book, THE CHUTZPAH IMPERATIVE, Rabbi Ed Feinstein pointed out how it was Abraham who  provided one of those different voices, but not for himself.  Just a few chapters before this episode in which Abraham was silent, the same patriarch challenged God when he heard of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.   Abraham’s humble but steadfast protests to God reverberate in our ears when we recall the story:  “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?  Far be it from You, God, to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!  Far be it from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”   God answered, “I will forgive the whole place for the sake of the fifty.”  And Abraham continued, asking if God would spare the cities for 45….40…30…20….and finally, 10 innocent people.   Abraham’s test of God in this case comes down to us to teach us to open our eyes and strive to find good and righteous people in any community and any country, and to recognize the balance they bring to the resulting goodness of the human family.
      Finally, in his exploration of this tale, Bruce Feiler discovered, as have philosophers of past generations, that all three religions see Abraham as taking a giant leap of faith as he journeyed toward Mount Moriah.  In a way, the fact that he did not sacrifice his son was a leap in and of itself, because peoples in the Ancient near east did engage in child sacrifice.   We see Abraham deciding or learning that such a practice was not appropriate in any case, especially in the worship of One God.    The presence of both father and son on the mountain assured that this lesson would be passed down through the generations.  We learn from the story of Abraham and his son on a mountain that life is precious as is the willingness to submit to God – but that taking a life in the name of the divine is not what God desires.    Judaism and Islam share similar statements to the effect that if you destroy one life, it is as if you have destroyed the entire world, but if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world entire.  The future of the world rests on Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as people of all religions or spiritual persuations, to walk a path along which they will dedicate themselves to the values of both life and peace. 

     A father and a son are together at home.   The father stands over the son, knowing that he must do exactly what he has been told.   The son looks up into his father's eyes.  He seems ready to accept what is about to happen.   Among those looking on from the outside, adults and children together, there is a decision to enter the home to speak to the father and son, to tell their stories, to listen to one another with respect, and to commit themselves to a shared leap of faith.  They know that it is how they will tell the story that will make all the difference in the world.  May this journey with a father and son up and down the mountain ever be a journey towards understanding, respect and extraordinary faith that we will share together.

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