The following is a transcript of the Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah morning by Austin Zoot at his student pulpit in Kokomo, Indiana.
We just read one of the most intriguing passages of the Hebrew Bible, the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac. In this episode, Abraham is told to take Isaac, his son, and sacrifice him before God. So the next day, Abraham gets to work. They journey to Mount Moriah, where Abraham binds Isaac and begins to ritual of sacrifice, only to be stopped by an angel of God, telling him that he has demonstrated his faith and that Isaac is not actually to be sacrificed.
When I was in Sunday school as a child, we discussed this narrative as the ultimate test of faith. Abraham believed so completely in the notion that God would look out for him and for his family that he was willing to do whatever he was asked, regardless of the gravity of the situation. Imagine that for a moment: a man who was willing to sacrifice his only son to a God who had promised him offspring as numerous as the stars.
This level of faith, unyielding and blind faith, seems foreign to many of us. And that’s because it should. A willingness to throw away even one’s own family for a belief in God is something that, today, would seem outrageous, too dramatic to be stomached comfortably. And there is evidence that while God was pleased with Abraham’s faith, God was also disturbed by it. According to the text, this was the last time that Abraham and God conversed, and the divine relationship passed to Isaac from that moment on. God asked Abraham to do something as a test, and seems almost disturbed by Abraham’s willingness to follow through with it.
What are we supposed to do with this? Abraham is our very first patriarch, a figure of honor and respect from which all of Jewish tradition derives. What do we do with a flawed patriarch? How do we come to terms with an individual who we know has flaws, who we know has tendencies of extremism, and yet is supposed to be a role model for us?
First, we are asked to look at what it means to be asked for actions based on faith. During the High Holidays, a time when we talk about who shall live, who shall die, who will be inscribed in the Book of Life, it is easy to say that blind faith is the way to go. Let go of the wheel and let God take over, so to speak. And yet, this story tells us to stop, to reconsider. We are told that, in this instance, Abraham’s willingness to do what is asked of him is acknowledged with a promise for a rich and blessed future, but it also comes with it the departure of God’s connection, a loss of direct communication with the almighty. The Torah is, in essence, warning us about the potential ramifications of what a total and blind commitment to divine decree can lead to if it goes unchecked by reason and understanding of context.
This is especially complicated when we take a look at an earlier story in the Bible. When God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God, negotiating exactly how many good people need to be present in the cities in order for God to spare them from destruction. In this case, Abraham isn’t blindly trusting in God’s decree; he is demanding that God do what is right, even if that means being willing to put his own standing as God’s chosen emissary at stake. Why is it that Abraham was so willing to compromise in one narrative, while so singularly focused in another?
We read this text on Rosh Hashanah for a number of reasons. One is to show us what it means to have faith in God’s plan, to know that, as we are about to be inscribed in the book of Life, that there is some notion of faith in what God has assigned to us. Another is the notion of coming to terms with a flawed character in our lives. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we set out to ask forgiveness from those in our lives against whom we have sinned, those who we have hurt and those who we have not fully appreciated. At the same time, we are asked to forgive others, allowing them the full repentance that we ourselves seek in our own work to be better than we were a year ago.
In that regard, Abraham continues to be a role model for us, although in a decidedly different way. Abraham as a flawed character allows us to see what it means to both be the best we can be, as well as to struggle in certain areas. We are able to see Abraham in a moment of faith, doing what God has asked him to do without question and without compromise. That is a huge act of commitment, and a worthy virtue for us to embody. And yet, his unyielding determination, and his refusal in that moment to look thoughtfully at the consequences of the matter show to us the humanity of our ancestors, of our leaders, and to remind us that if Abraham was able to make this kind of mistake, then certainly we, too, may err and make a full return to goodness.
As we begin the ten days of awe, we first are asked to forgive Abraham for his blind faith. We see what it means to believe in God, what it means to be willing to go to great lengths to do what is asked of us, and yet we are forced to come to terms with what happens when we get carried away, when we go too far in our pursuit of our own selfish desires. Once we have started the process with Abraham, we turn our attention to those in our own lives, those far more complicated situations of virtue and sin.
It can be difficult to forgive those in our lives who have made mistakes. We are hurt, we are angry, we are struggling to figure out how to find those values of forgiveness and understanding in ourselves. Sometimes it is loved ones who hurt us. Sometimes, we struggle to forgive ourselves, to let ourselves off the hook for the mistakes we have made. The Torah gives us Abraham as a guide, a model by which we are to understand our own inclination to extreme behavior. If we have it within ourselves to forgive our patriarch for his actions, and still see the virtue in him, then so too must we be able to find within ourselves the values and good intentions that sometimes lead us to misdeeds and mistakes.
Over the next ten days, it is our responsibility to go through our lives and take stock of the moments where we missed the mark. We are meant to improve ourselves as people, to ensure that we learn something from where we messed up, and to find the places where we can improve ourselves the next time around. But I am not a believer in the wrath of God, the notion that humans are inherently sinners. I’m not a believer in T’shuvah as a forced admission of guilt. It is, rather, an opportunity, a chance to look back and discover parts of ourselves that we like, and that we cherish, and to ensure that our misdeeds do not overshadow the good things that we do for ourselves and for the world.
The Torah portion gives us the chance to see this in action. We are able to see what happens when our virtues go to extremes, to see when we go beyond what is healthy in terms of devotion. It helps us to establish the line, to learn where goodness begins and ends. And, as a result, it also teaches us a valuable lesson about what it means to forgive, to overcome character flaws and continue to serve as a role model, as a leader. If we can learn this morning from Abraham, learn to forgive him and to understand him, we have already begun the process of forgiving one another and ourselves.