5772 — Rosh haShanah, Day 1 — Mt. Moriah: The Steep Mountain

11/10/2011 at 19:57 Leave a comment

“Mt. Moriah: The Steep Mountain”

 

Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

29 September 2011

 

Last night, as we entered into our New Year, we began to explore the significance of mountains in our tradition.  We gathered as if we were coming together again at Mount Sinai for an experience to share together – and we realized too that while we appreciate and are made better by living in community, our experiences are essentially personal and at the end of the day, we are more like the prophet Elijah, who took flight into a cave alone, within the mountain of Horeb, while an angel asked him the vexing question, ma lecha po – why are you here?  Elijah was challenged — you may have deeds that you have done that you are not proud of – you may have frustrations because people are not moving in the direction that you’d like, you may have disappointment because your life is not what you thought it would be – and now looking in a mirror, you see so much time vanished — that has run down the sprouting wrinkles in your face; so within the public experience at Mount Sinai, we wrestle with our interior worthiness and significance inside Sinai, at Mount Horeb.

 

And now, our Torah is leading us on a journey — today’s Torah portion leading directly into tomorrow’s – where Abraham brings his son Isaac up onto another mountain – this one called Moriah, with the abject purpose of killing him through a divinely sanctioned sacrifice.  It gives us pause, that as we celebrate the beginning of our New Year – as we appreciate turning over a new page in the Book of Life, our Torah presents an incredibly sobering account of relationships gone wrong, mixed up in a mélange of bewildering divine invitation, for Abraham to bind and offer his precious son on an altar in utter obeisance.

 

Our Midrashim teach that the prophet Elijah is here, also – perhaps walking with Abraham and his entourage as they make their way to the mountain, all the while reciting the words of the prophet Malachi that makes Elijah’s life and prophecy so compelling to me – v’heishiv leiv avot al banim, v’leiv banim al avotam pen avo v’hikeiti et ha’aretz heirem – and [Elijah] will turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents – lest I come and smite the land with destruction.

 

Why should we be reminded of unpleasantness on this day of rejoicing?  Why should our hopes and our newly refreshed commitments, unsullied like the New Year that has just begun, be punctured by this alarming description of a man offering his boy up for slaughter, at God’s supposed command?  What is the Torah really trying to teach us as we are determined to have a good go at it in 5772 – to do better, to be better, to somehow this year, get it more right?

 

Something to consider: on what level are we repairing and renewing?  Are we merely going through the motions, making superficial changes, processing just the words on the page while the thorniest issues of our lives still burn, remaining unaddressed?  Do we enter into a certain exterior relationship with our concerns, dealing with things as they present, without delving deeper into why our lives are not improving, even if we keep moving, divorcing, or trying something else, new?  Maybe the real answer is that it is not someone else who makes us happy or unhappy – who makes angry or grateful – just as we are Elijah the prophet, as we saw in last night’s story, we too are the truest agent of change that determines the ways of our life.

 

In these days of turning, we recognize that we do not suffer from a simple estrangement.  Akedat Yitzchak, or the story of the Binding of Isaac is right in front of us to remind us that in order to have meaningful teshuvah, we must accept how we regularly throw others under the bus for our gain – and usually those whom we sacrifice, are those most dear to us.  This sacred drama enacted by Abraham is for our benefit – to see him hike to Mount Moriah every Rosh haShanah reminds us that we too are on a journey, to a place only God knows.  What is strapped to our back?  Who do we carry, and as we set them down and bind them, what benefits do we think we receive?  Amid our gratitude of reaching this year alive, the challenge is clear — what kind of real healing must we do with our family, beyond telling them that we love them?  What true reconciliation must parents do with their children, and children must do with their parents?  And when is it too late – too much water passed under the bridge – too many days spent as remarkable ships passing unrecognized in the night?

 

Sometimes in our family relationships we find ourselves alone without the benefit of a true reciprocating love – a hand that is held without feeling, or the realization that in a time of need, one’s friends, lovers, children, or partners didn’t respond well.  And as I speak, I speak with a bit of pain – elderly or sick parents who are nearly abandoned in a nursing home by their children – or not adequately cared for because of a the professed squeeze of a busy schedule.  Over the years I have been with people on their deathbeds with no one around to be with them in their last moments – I have spoken with our youth who were relentlessly bullied without a friend or an ally to stand up for them.

 

When we think back on the past year, it may be relatively straightforward to identity a few big mistakes that we have made – and that we regret and are resolved to repair.  The much more difficult task, and the one that Abraham is calling out for us to notice is to look for the moments of our carelessness, of haste, and inattentiveness, especially as we think that we are acting in a bigger cause — times when we have caused damage without intention and even without awareness.  How do we sometimes punish our loved ones with our own premeditated or even, thoughtless recklessness and neglect?

 

So, let us think of Elijah walking with us as we carry our commitments and our responsibilities on our back, as we walk towards the mountain of our just deserts.

 

There once was a little boy who wanted to meet God.  He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so one day he packed up his backpack with soda and chocolate cake, and he started off on his journey.

 

When he had gone about three blocks, he entered the park, and there, he met an old woman sitting on a bench, who was just staring at some pigeons.  Without thinking the boy sat down next to her and opened his backpack, taking out a root beer.  He was about to take a drink, when he noticed that the old woman looked a bit hungry, so he offered her some cake.  She gratefully accepted them and smiled at him.  Her smile was so pretty that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered her some more to eat.  Once again she smiled at him.  The boy was delighted.

 

The little boy and the old woman sat there, all afternoon, eating chocolate cake, drinking root beer and smiling, never saying a word.  As it grew dark, the boy realized that he should return home – he got up to leave, and before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the old woman and gave her a big hug.  In return, she gave him her biggest smile yet.

 

When the little boy opened the door to his own home a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look on his face.  She asked him, “what did you do today that made you so happy?  He replied, “I had lunch with God.”  Before his mother could respond, he added – “you know what?  She’s got the most beautiful smile that I’ve ever seen.”

 

Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home – her son was stunned by the look of peace of her face and so he asked her, “Mother what did you do today that made you so happy?  She replied, “I ate chocolate cake in the park with God.”  And before her son could respond, she added – “you know, he’s much younger than I expected.”

 

Does this story illustrate hesheiv leiv – a turning of the heart between parent and child, or between generations, or does it exacerbate things as they stand in our lives – knowing that somehow, this kind of interaction, while quaint, is not possible?

 

On Rosh haShanah, this majestic turning of the year, our tradition gives us an astonishingly tactile reality to work with – for really, if not now, when?  The Akeidah disturbs us because it is a display of recreational, almost casual violence to a cause – a ferocious act committed in the calm of a normal day.  Throughout the year, we are taught to cope – and to apply our best skills to go after what we want, while we learn to manage to get through the day.  And in our coping, we can be dismissive and impatient and we can still be dissatisfied and unsettled in our relationships.  And also, when those whom we seek to have a relationship with, or even love, become fixed in a moment in time, unable to change, unable to move out of an accustomed familiar place of resentment or selfishness, what are we left with – really, what does hesheiv leiv mean?  Where is our heart supposed to turn?

 

The founder of Hasidic thought, the Ba’al Shem Tov, teaches that the world is full of wonder and miracles – and yet, we take our hands, cover our eyes and see nothing.  Yet, with a recognition that if we see the world as if through an eager child’s eyes, we can remake our eyes for wonder and discover too that we have a turned heart, and consequently, magnetically pulled towards a particular person, or towards healing a difficult dynamic within a relationship.

 

So, elders of this congregation – in this upcoming year, alight upon a child from whom to learn.  Watch their exuberance and while not co-opting their energy for your own, find radiance in their liveliness that encourages you to move past any stuck fears and bitterness – celebrate life with one who loves to live and who loves, unselfconsciously and beautifully, in fullness and feel as the burden of years melts away.

 

And children of our congregation – listen to the stories of our elders – even as they might repeat, and you will find tolerance and a deeper appreciation of this world.  Pay attention to the most defenseless among us.  Allow yourselves to gently touch the deep furrows of a cheek, or the interesting coarseness of skin on an arm and know that not only moments, also too, years of life are precious. Do not be deterred by limited mobility and you will find forbearance and self-control.  Give attention, meaningful, compassionate attention, to those more mature around you – it is a desired tonic that heals.

 

May this be a culture that our congregation develops in this coming year – to be more understanding of each other and to link our generations together – as a colleague of mine writes, he was recently contacted by a man who was dying – who requested that he call his children with whom he had not spoken in over ten years.  The man asked the rabbi to assemble the children so he could tell them how much he loved them and how he wished to beg their forgiveness for waiting so long, until his dying moment to reconcile with them.  So the children came from all parts of the Western United States – and many brought their own children, some of whom had never met their grandfather.  The reunion in the hospital room was powerful – regrets and bad memories were soon overpowered by love and appreciation.   In our own lives, let us not wait so long.  It is a steep mountain that we rapidly descend.  Let us not wait until there is a gigantic mountain above us that casts a shadow onto our life, let us not wait until we are holding a knife above a child’s vulnerable throat and an angel has to shout at us to call us back to our senses.

 

Together as we reach across our community, expanding out from the more limited circles of people that we know, all of us will discover a generosity of the heart that will continue to turn in all directions towards everyone that we encounter.

 

Let us adopt each other in all of our imperfections and incomprehensible proclivities.  Hadesh yameinu k’kedem – let us renew our days karan or panav – in the glowing of each other’s faces, and from there will come an extraordinary shift that will bring us more capacity, pleasure, contentment, and blessings from our God.

 

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah – Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

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5772 — Erev Rosh haShanah — Mt. Sinai/Horeb: The Magic Mountain 5772 — Rosh haShanah, Minchah — The Fiery Bear (Talmudic Interlude)

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