Last night, we began our service with the opening verses of Psalm 121 – ESAH EYNAI EL HEHARIM – I lift my eyes to the mountains – MAY-AH-YIN YAVO EZRI – from where does my help come? EZRI MAY-EEM ADONAI – my help comes from the Eternal One – OSAY SHAMA-YIM VA-ARETZ – Maker of Heaven and earth.
We sing these words every year to begin our High Holy Day worship. I read this Psalm at funerals and in the yizkor or memorial services on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. As I was considering what I wanted to convey to you on this Rosh Hashanah morning, Psalm 121 was foremost in my mind. You are probably expecting me to give another sermon about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. I have to tell you that you are right – I will get there. Yet, to REACH Mount Moriyah, we will begin, this time, with Psalm 121.
As I read this Psalm passage, I wondered why the Psalmist was looking at the mountains. I pondered which mountains in the land of Israel had caught the eye of the composer of this ancient song. I probed for a connection between the first two lines – I LIFT MY EYES TO THE MOUNTAINS - WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF MY HELP?
The first phrase – ESAH EYNAI – I lift my eyes – is echoed in the story of Abraham’s and Isaac’s nearly fateful three-day journey. Genesis Chapter 22, verse 4 reads – BAYOM HASH’LEESHEE – On the third Day – VAYISA AVRAHAM ET AYNAV – Abraham lifted his eyes – or looked – VAYAR ET HAMAKOM MAY-RACHOK – and he saw the place from afar. Lifting our eyes and taking a look at what is around us is the first step to recognizing what challenges or perils lie ahead. This is not the only time that words related to sight appear in the tale of the binding of Isaac. As they neared their destination, Isaac asked Abraham, “I see the stone and the knife, but where is the ram for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “ADONAI YIR’EH LO HASEH L’OLAH, B’NI – God will see - or provide – for himself the ram for the offering, my son.”
Lifting our eyes to what and who is around us reveals to us our own resourcefulness and insight in any situation we may face. Making eye contact, lifting our eyes towards another person, demonstrates openness and self-confidence. Before September 11, 2001, there seems to have been an unwritten rule in New York City, especially in Manhattan – don’t make eye contact with anyone. Yet, on that day, 15 years ago, everything changed. One of the more creative responses to the events of last September 11, 2001 is the book WITH THEIR EYES. This collection of writings presented a series of monologues prepared by students at Stuyvesant High School, located several blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center. These teens interviewed peers, faculty and school staff to create a dramatic presentation of the testimony they gathered about the events of 9/11. In the midst of these collected stories is this comment from one student: “I remember on the first day…makin' eye contact with everyone. If you're from the city, you know you don't make eye contact when you're walkin'. But this was the only way you communicated for the first couple of hours [after the planes hit the towers] because everybody had masks on (due to the dust and smoke). Everybody was [actually] looking at each other and I was like, this is amazing.”
We can only imagine how looking into the eyes of other people, perhaps for the first time, gave New Yorkers comfort and reassurance on September 11, 2001, and in years since that time. On that day, if they had looked at the buildings that had been damaged or leveled, they would have focused only on the chaos and uncertainties of that horrific day. By lifting their eyes towards each other, they began to realize where they could find order, support and even kindness.
In Genesis Chapter 22, when Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the mount from afar, he began to understand that he would soon discover the outcome of this test of his will and faith. For the Psalmist looking at the mountains, perhaps the sight of God’s majestic creations signified the strength and help that could come from the One who made the mountains and the heavens and the earth.
Some commentators believe that the mountains in Psalm 121 and the mountain to which Abraham set his sights were one and the same. Rabbinic legends identify the site of the binding of Isaac as the Temple Mount itself. In Psalm 121, I LIFT MY EYES TO THE MOUNTAINS could indicate that the Psalmist was in Jerusalem, looking at the Temple Mount. Then the next phrases of Psalm 121 would logically follow – I LIFT MY EYES TO THE MOUNTAINS – THAT IS, THE MOUNT OF THE ETERNAL ONE - FROM WHERE DOES MY HELP COME? MY HELP COMES FROM GOD, MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH.
Psalm 121 proclaims that God is a tried, true and dependable source of strength and assistance. Yet, when we consider God’s role in the story of the binding of Isaac, we are left with more questions than answers about God’s role in our lives. Most theologians, philosophers, and ethicists wonder how a good God, One who teaches us to value life, could ask Abraham to take the life of his son. Wasn’t this a cruel command? Didn’t God know that, if Isaac died, the promises to Abraham of many descendants would go unfulfilled? Perhaps God was just trying to encourage Abraham to stand up for himself and his son. Why didn’t Abraham refuse to take Isaac with him or simply stay home? Were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, on whose behalf Abraham had so persistently pleaded, more important to him than his own son? We don’t know why Abraham didn’t protest. Of course, if he had refused to go, there would have been no story to tell, no lesson to learn. Some scholars believe that this tale was the ancient Israelites’ way of saying, “Well, our neighbors do sacrifice their children to their gods, but that is something WE will NEVER DO!” In that case, God may have required Abraham to go through the motions and emotions of taking his son to be sacrificed so that he would know why no one should take the life of his or her child as part of worship or for any other reason. There would then have been a special purpose for God to send an angel to tell Abraham to stop what he was doing.
It may be that Abraham was simply not able, on that day, to meet God’s challenge with protest. There are many times when we do stand up for ourselves, our family, our friends, or our community. Yet, if we are tired or spent from all of those other times when we stood tall, we may find ourselves taking the path of least resistance and simply accepting what we are told. At such times, it takes someone else to act as our angel, to tell us to stand up for ourselves once again.
In his book GOD AT GROUND ZERO, Chaplain Ray Giunta shared his conversations with many people that he counseled in New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and tragedies. Chaplain Ray related the following story of escaping danger, one where a woman gave an external source of strength credit for taking her to safety. He said:
“One woman…shared her experience in a rush of words. On September 11, 2001, she was commuting from New Jersey on the subway that runs…to a station underneath the World Trade Center. She took an earlier train than she normally would have. And because she did, she stepped out of the subway train and onto the underground platform just as the first plane hit.
She and her fellow passengers suddenly found themselves unable to exit. Although she didn't know why at the time, the plane's impact had cut off the power. The subway gates had locked down. People didn't know what to do; the crowd around her was beginning to panic, crushing up against the locked gates, pushing harder and harder against each other as more people got off the trains…She was in grave danger of being trampled.
‘I know this sounds crazy,’ she told me, "but you [as a chaplain] should understand. You see, I felt I literally heard God say to me, `Turn around, stay to the left, and don't look back.’
By staying on the left, while [other] people walked where they usually walked – on the right – she was able to quickly move underground away from the World Trade Center area….Blocks later, she found an open entrance and rushed toward the daylight. Finally, at street level, in the sunlight again, she moved under a nearby steel awning. [She then] looked up at the World Trade Center just as the second plane hit.”
We know that, on 9/11, not everyone made it to safety. We do know that relatives and friends of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, even 15 years later, continue to respond with fortitude and courage. Many of them have continued to stand with each other, finding comfort in their common experiences touched with tragedy and sadness, in their shared sense of memory, and in their combined strength to go on in the spirit of those people close to them who did not survive that day.
As we face challenges in our lives, we do what we can to stand by each other. Every day, we encounter dilemmas that emerge from our jobs or our family relationships. We struggle with crucial personal decisions that will affect our security and well-being. In our families and among our friends, we try to help each other when we have to make choices about colleges, careers, personal behavior, activities, finances, work, and care for relatives who need assistance to attend to life’s daily routines. At those times, when our problems remain unresolved, we may wonder if God is with us at all.
As he journeyed to Mount Moriyah, Abraham somehow knew that God was with him and with Isaac. It is likely that Abraham hoped – and even trusted - that he would not have to sacrifice his son. The composer of Psalm 121 was even more certain that God would be present along the way, even in difficult times. That Psalm declares: “MY HELP COMES FROM THE ETERNAL ONE, MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. GOD WILL NOT LET YOUR FOOT GIVE WAY, YOUR GUARDIAN WILL NOT SLUMBER. GOD IS YOUR GUARDIAN, YOUR PROTECTION AT YOUR RIGHT HAND. THE SUN WILL NOT STRIKE YOU BY DAY, NOR THE MOON BY NIGHT. GOD WILL GUARD YOU FROM ALL HARM, GOD WILL GUARD YOUR LIFE.” We might think that such certainty is hard to come by in our lives. I believe that the Psalmist knew that God’s protection would not prevent all physical harm, but could take us through the times when we feel that life has broken our spirit. It is said of the healing prayer, the Mi Shebeirach, that we may not always receive the complete physical recovery we desire. Yet, our prayers may help us sustain a positive outlook that can bring healing to our spirit and soul, even when an illness persists. Chaplain Ray spoke to one relative of a victim of the September 11, 2001 attacks about where God was on that day. He suggested, as many have in relation to the Holocaust, that God was with not the perpetrators, but the survivors, helping them find refuge in the face of disaster. And, one might even believe, in a very Jewish way, that God was the victims, guiding their souls back to the source of creation. This theology echoes Jewish prayers that speak of God protecting the souls of our loved ones who have died and binding the wounds of those who mourn.
I believe that the essence of the story of the binding of Isaac is reflected in a phrase that appears twice in Genesis chapter 22. The text says VAYEILCHU SH’NAYHEM YACHDAV– the two of them – Abraham and Isaac - walked together. It is at that point that Isaac asked about the ram for the sacrifice. When Abraham assured his son that God would provide the ram, the Torah repeated the phrase, VAYEILCHU SH’NAYHEM YACHDAV- the two of them walked together. Biblical commentators have explained that the first time that phrase appeared, it meant that they were walking physically together, on the same path, side-by-side. When it used the phrase a second time, it signified that they were together on a spiritual level, moving forward with one heart.
I have always been inclined to favor this statement of parent and child united as the most meaningful verse in this tale of tragedy averted. As I read Chaplain Ray Giunta’s book GOD AT GROUND ZERO when it was first published, I discovered a modern echo of that ancient bond between parent and child hinted at in the Torah reading. The chaplain shared this moving episode from 15 years ago: “Today I met a man whose nephew was killed in the attack. The nephew worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a company in the WTC that lost almost seven hundred employees. On September 11, 2001, the man’s nephew arrived early and took his place on the 105th floor. We don't know the details, but we know he was there when the plane hit the first tower. How do we know? Because his mother also worked in the building. On that day, she was late and did not commute with her son as she usually did. As she was coming to the building, she received a page. The digital pager displayed an instant message sent from her son trapped high in the sky: ‘Do not come in or near the towers. Mom, I love you.’”
Such a close connection can exist between parents and children, friends, fellow community members, and between anyone who is willing to look another person in the eye and say, “you are my fellow human being and I must care about you because God created you.” We can lift our eyes to the mountains to think of God as the source of our help, but we can also turn to one another for the assurance and support to continue with confidence along our journey.
As Rhonda, my Mom and I sat with my Dad and his doctor in my Dad’s hospital room one day in late August of 2002, we discussed the possibilities for my Dad’s care during the days that would follow. My father had suffered a stroke a few weeks before, and the combination of a variety of health challenges had taken their toll on him. As we talked, we saw my Dad muster his last surge of strength to share the best of himself. He responded to the questions put to him with insight, thoughtfulness and humor. As I bid him goodbye that day, he grabbed my hand - and wouldn't let go. I thought maybe he wasn't physically able to let go - but I realized that the meaning of his grip related to the final words of Psalm 121 - ADONAI YISHMOR TZEITCHA UVOECHA MAYATAH V'AD OLAM - May God guard your going out and your coming in now and forever. My Dad died less than three days later, but I still feel his presence and encouragement always with me to this day.
The belief that God can be with us wherever we go during our lives and as we begin and end our time on earth can bring great comfort to us. That conviction based in faith has brought me a sense of hope and support on my own personal journey which reaches 62 years today. The binding of Isaac ends with God sending an angel to tell Abraham that he did not have to take his son’s life. We hope that God is with us when we make pivotal decisions that will affect our own lives and the lives of people important to us. We welcome the presence of friends and family members who can be our treasured companions or who can serve us like angels who will lead us to where we need to go. And we pray that we will walk together as partners along life’s paths with hearts and eyes turned towards one another so that we can bring each other healing and peace. So may we do - And let us say Amen.