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Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2020

Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE
Temple B’nai Israel, Oklahoma City
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5781/2020

In the early morning hours a mother awakens her child, helps them dress for the day, makes sure they have a good breakfast, backpack, lunch, water bottle, mask. The child is dropped off at school, “I love you, have a good day!”

And the mom wonders if this is the day her child might be exposed to the virus, and will they bring it home, and who will get sick, and how fortunate she is to have a job right now and how terrifying it is to wonder if she is sacrificing her child by sending them into a crowded building even with every educator’s best intentions for health and safety. It seems like the best thing to do.

Or the child has a good breakfast, turns on the lights, clicks the computer awake, signs on to school. “Good morning boys and girls, we’re going to have a great day. Remember: no virtual backgrounds. Oh, wait, let’s mute you with your dog barking. Oh, wait, let’s unmute you so we can hear what you have to say.”

And the dad in the next room wonders if this is the day he might find a new job, but how will he interview, and what if the company is not strict about masks and distancing, and how long will their savings hold out, and how fortunate they are to have savings, and how much his child misses their friends, and is he sacrificing his child by keeping them home and in virtual school which just is not the same. It seems like the best thing to do.
And on the news some young adults stand shoulder to shoulder laughing and drinking. And on the news some elected officials dismiss the advice of doctors and even the severity and risks of the disease. Do we sacrifice public health and safety for economic stability or the rights to individual autonomy and free speech? What is the best thing to do? Judaism, of course, says health and safety reign supreme, hands down. But we do not live in a society that makes decisions based on Jewish values; that is left to us to choose, as Jews.

Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac is, for me, one of the most upsetting texts in Torah. I want to reconcile physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by our esteemed forefather. To say, “Those were different times,” or “Even our biblical heroes have flaws,” diminishes abuse. Even if Isaac wasn’t killed, even if this story is not history, Abraham’s actions sacrifice something in us. Akedat Yitzhak brings for me a deep sadness about what humans are capable of doing to each other; after all, if we can dream it, we can do it. And I fear that if Abraham can be the parent who lovingly and methodically sacrifices his child believing it is the best thing to do - then can’t any of us?

Rashi and Genesis Rabbah explain that Isaac knew what was happening and he accompanied his father with a willing heart; they say this scene shows Isaac’s devotion to God.

Others say when the angel says “Don’t touch that boy,” it demonstrates Judaism’s rejection of human sacrifice. Others propose Abraham did kill Isaac and Isaac was resurrected.

Others note that when Abraham says to Isaac, “God will see to the lamb,” it is a subtle prayer God answers with the ram.

Our tradition looks for ways to understand Akedat Yitzhak because this story hurts us, and we want to make it better. We might say we want to forgive: forgive Abraham for the way he hurts Isaac; forgive Torah for making us confront the pain of the human condition.

Today we live with a continuum of circumstances that cause hurt. Limited gathering means some of us have been denied access to hospitals to be with our loved ones, or we have foregone rituals of grief and mourning when a loved one died, or we could not celebrate weddings and birthdays and babies.

Some of us watch as others gather without masks or social distancing, and our anger hurts.

Some of us resist outside authorities trying to regulate the spread of the virus; resistance borne of hubris is an often overlooked self-righteous kind of hurt.

We are piling this on top of families and friends tearing each other apart over an election that took place four years ago, while we prepare for an election in which I expect every eligible member of this Temple family to vote because it is our privilege as much as our right as Jewish people in the United States of America to have a voice in this land, and we are piling this on top of significant populations of this country that say Black Lives Matter - not because other lives don’t matter, but simply because Black Lives Do Matter - and when we engage sacred listening we learn that too many People of Color have too many experiences where they have been told otherwise.

And we are piling this on top of Oklahoma being number two in the nation for people who do not have health insurance, which means Oklahomans not getting preventative medicine to improve quality of life. And we are piling it on top of fires and floods and hurricanes … as one astute man whom I greatly respect recently said to me, “It’s not that I can’t breathe just because I am African-American. I can’t breathe because of so much that is happening in our world right now.”

In all of this, where do we each feel responsible for causing hurt and for healing? Where do we each feel wronged? Am I ever Abraham waking early with the belief I am doing the right thing, and the angel is calling out: No? Am I ever Isaac, tied up and nearly sacrificed?

We may look at Abraham after Mount Moriah and say, “Abraham! What were you doing?” Can we also look at him and say, “He was doing his best. His best missed the mark.” And if we can have compassion for Abraham’s failure, can we also forgive him that failure?

Forgiveness is complicated. We have different ideas of what it means to forgive.

To me, the first level of forgiveness begins with releasing another person from my healing. It helps for someone to do teshuvah. Summarizing teshuvah: they acknowledge they hurt me, give recompense, vow not to hurt me again, and apologize - once someone does the steps of teshuvah it is easier to release them with forgiveness, even if I am still in pain.

But I may determine they will never make teshuvah; if I release their obligation to help heal my pain, then in this definition I have forgiven them.

Maybe I can get to a higher level of compassion and peace beyond, “there is nothing more for you to do,” but forgiveness begins with releasing their obligation.

And if I seek to be forgiven, then I begin with what the other needs from me to release me; seeking forgiveness begins with teshuvah.

Right now in the Temple lobby we have a special exhibit called The Forgiveness Project. If you come this afternoon for the picnic, put on your mask and come inside to see it, keeping distanced from others, or call Torie to make a reservation during the week, or look at on-line. Perhaps one of the following statements from individuals highlighted in The Forgiveness Project will help you to think about the role of forgiveness in your life in these times. These are four quotes from four different people’s experiences:  

First you have to deal with anger, then with tears, and only once you reach the tears are you on the road to finding peace of mind.1

You do forgiveness for yourself, because it moves you on. The fact that it can also heal the perpetrator is the icing on the cake.2

I used to think there was only one way to know truth – the divine way, the infallible way. But now I believe that the most dangerous thing in life is to let people become convinced that truth has just one face… At the root of forgiveness and tolerance is the belief that truth has MANY different faces and that the face you see of truth is not in any way of better value than the faces others see… I don’t believe you can have forgiveness without justice, but justice doesn’t mean revenge.3

And some people can’t forgive. But that doesn’t mean they’re weak, or that they’ll be consumed by bitterness or anger. I’ve met people who haven’t been able to forgive, but who haven’t allowed the event to paralyse them. It just means that as human beings they’ve been hurt beyond repair. Who are we to say they should forgive?4

Imagine [b.r.e.a.t.h.e.] what it feels like to think someone else was doing what they believed was right even when you see or believe it was wrong, to explore compassion for them, and to release their responsibility for healing our hurt, even when it is hurt they caused; imagine what forgiveness could feel like [b.r.e.a.t.h.e.]. Imagine we are capable of compassion and kindness. Imagine we deserve compassion - from each other and towards ourselves. Imagine we give compassion and kindness; what do we learn about another person’s faith or priorities or strengths or brokenness?

We like to say hindsight is 20/20. I’m not sure that is true, because I do not see the Binding of Isaac with clarity. However, I do try to see it with compassion, as in my best moments I try to see others, as in my worst moments I hope others try to see me.

And maybe we can see our future with clarity. Not what will happen, that is certainly fuzzy, but how we want to get there. A future with compassion. A future with forgiveness. A future when compassion and forgiveness heal the brokenness we carry


1 Camilla Carr, In April 1997, Camilla Carr and her boyfriend, Jon James went to Chechnya to set up a rehabilitation centre for traumatised war-children. Three months later they were taken hostage by Chechnyan rebels. Their ordeal lasted 14 months, during which Camilla was repeatedly raped by one of her jailers.
2 In 1995 Azim Khamisa’s only son, Tariq – a 20-year-old student – was shot and killed while delivering pizzas in San Diego. His killer, Tony Hicks, became the first 14-year-old to stand trial as an adult in the state of California. He received a 25-year prison sentence.
3 As a teenager Khaled al-Berry belonged to the radical Egyptian Islamist group, el-Gama’a al-Islamiya.
4 Alistair Little joined the Protestant paramilitaries at the age of 14. Three years later, too young to receive a life sentence, he was detained under the Secretary of State’s Pleasure (SOSP) and served a 13-year prison sentence in Long Kesh and H-blocks.

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783