Paradox

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5774

On a fairly regular basis, I am invited to speak to church groups, university classes, and social clubs to come and teach something about Jews and Judaism. Sometimes the topic is merely, teach us what Jews believe, which is of course impossible to cover in the 45 minute time span I am given. Sometimes the topic is a little more focused like, teach us about Jewish death rituals, but I still end up spending the majority of the time answering questions about why Jews don’t eat bacon and why some of them do anyway and they still get to call themselves Jews.

Many years ago I was invited to a Bible study group that took place in the participant’s homes on a rotating basis. They had invited me to come because they had begun studying the book of Leviticus and they didn’t understand it. So they thought I might be able to explain the sacrificial offerings and all the bits about the different bodily fluids that made the Israelites ritually unclean.  Of course they were quite shocked to learn that we no longer practiced animal sacrifice anywhere among any Jews. I think they were actually a little disappointed about that. Mostly though, we talked about midrash, about the ways that the rabbis had explained text by filling in the parts they didn’t understand with their own stories that made things clearer, and also how competing midrashim which seemed to offer opposite explanations were all considered to be true even though we know the rabbis made them up and even though they don’t agree, we still believe they are true. Because sometimes when we read the text one explanation seems exactly right, but a year later when life might be very different, the other explanation seems to be exactly right. While our perceptions and understandings may change over time the essential truth of competing explanations doesn’t change even though we may not fully understand them.

At the end of the session, one gentleman looked at me and said, “I guess that’s why Jews are so smart, they have to be able to hold competing ideas in their head at the same time.” I agreed that either made us smart or some special form of nutty. But he was right. Obviously about the smart part, but also about the requirement to hold competing ideas in our heads at the same time. This is an important ongoing Jewish struggle, the need to see different answers all at once and the ability to hold opposite opinions at the same moment and see the truth in each of them.         Paradox. The dictionary defines it as, a statement, proposition, or situation that seems to be absurd or contradictory, but in fact is or may be true. Some of its synonyms include, “inconsistency, absurdity, irony, contradiction and oxymoron.” Is it so absurd to believe contradictory things at the same time. I have had moments when I am so furious with someone—usually a family member—that in the moment I hate them and I want nothing more than to be away from them. But at the same time there is something so essentially that person, so powerfully them going on that also I understand at that moment, exactly why I love them.

I also understand evolution to be a scientific fact of the history of the earth and all species that live on earth. I have seen the dinosaur bones in museums, I have learned about our shared DNA with apes and others. One of my rabbinical school roomates is the daughter of the physicist Arno Penzias who was awarded the nobel prize for finding sound wave evidence in space for the Big Bang. He is a very nice man, and I don’t think he lied. I do not question the truth of this scientific history. I also read and love the stories of Genesis, the description of creation in six days of Godly work taking chaos and moving it into order and causing life to spring up. I think these stories too are true. In these stories I read the beautiful descriptions of the way God gave every living thing the ability to reproduce so that once the system was set in order God wouldn’t have to keep coming back to make it expand. The stories teach us about our human need for partnership and love, about our mission to be God’s partner in completing the work of creation, of helping to perfect the broken places in the world. I believe in both evolution and the Torah. I don’t need both stories to fit into each other nor do I need to have one be wrong for the other to be right.  Also, I don’t really think I’m the only one with the ability to hold contrary ideas in my head at the same time. Or even to act on those contrary ideas when necessary.

Our ancestor Abraham distinguished himself from the others of his generation in one very important way. He entered into a covenant with God and every action he took from that moment on was informed by this covenant. Abraham argued with God, disagreed with God, and interceded with God on behalf of others. But when God commanded Abraham, Abraham followed through. God tells him to leave his home and his father’s house and to wander the land and he does. God commands him to circumcise himself and his son, and he does. In return for this behavior, God promises Abraham that a great nation will come from him. In Genesis 21:12 God tells Abraham, “It is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.” It is a promise from God that there will be grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren, etc. etc. all going through Isaac. Abraham heard this news and felt comforted. Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90. They had waited a long time for that child. And so the comfort of hearing that not only did they have this wonderful son, but that he would grow to adulthood and have his own children, must have been significant.

Then just one chapter later, God puts Abraham to the test, “Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as an offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” (Gen 22:2). How can this be? How can it be that Abraham’s line will continue through Isaac and how can it also be that before he has wed, before he has fathered any children, Abraham is to sacrifice him on a mountaintop?

This test for Abraham is confusing. What was it that God was testing? Was God testing his love for his son and his ability as a parent to protect his child, this child that took so long to have? If so, then Abraham clearly failed the test. Not only did he not protect his child from this decree, he woke up bright and early and ran to fulfill this command. He even made Isaac carry the wood on his back that would be used to cook the sacrifice, that is, cook Isaac.

Or, if that wasn’t the test, perhaps the test was about Abraham’s faith in God. Whether his faith was strong enough that he would do anything God asked including sacrificing this son. While Abraham did get up early to begin the journey to sacrifice Isaac, he had to spend three days walking together with his son to get there. Three days of focused time with Isaac to think about what he was about to do. To look at his son’s face and still be sure it was the right thing. If the test was about his faith in God regardless of what is asked, then Abraham’s behavior was exactly what God was looking for, and he clearly passed the test.

But what if the test wasn’t quite as obvious as these two possibilities? Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson suggests that the test was about paradox and Abraham’s ability to “take the tension inherent in human existence and use that tension to generate growth, insight, and depth.”[1] God wanted to see if Abraham could hold onto and believe in his brit, his covenant with God of a future people born through Isaac, his highest hopes for the future, while at the same time do what God asks of him right now. In essence could Abraham hold on to a dream of a better world while at the same time doing the work in the current world, which seems contrary to the dream.

Holding onto the dream of perfection while doing the work in the world as it is. This is how I feel throughout the months of July and August as I begin to prepare sermons for the High Holy Days. I imagine how brilliant I might be if there were nothing else to do except research and write. How smart and compelling my words would be with nothing else pulling at me. But the truth is, even had I written the most brilliant words in June and spent July and August merely polishing them, the world turns and we would still find ourselves here staring at the possibility of another war. And I don’t have any words brilliant enough to make sense out of that.

So I wondered some more about Abraham’s test and his ability to live within paradox. “During that three day journey, he must have pondered some of the same questions we do today: How can a loving God who is the religious foundation of ethics and proper conduct possibly want me to commit this terrible act? And on the other hand, who am I to argue with the One who has chosen me to be the family through which God’s word will permeate a thousand generations from where I am today? He must have realized, ‘I have an obligation to honor both God and the life of my son—they are equal in weight—and I can do neither.’”[2]

We as a country face many of these same challenges when we consider the situation in Syria. On the one hand we have a despotic leader who it seems to have been proven used chemical weapons against his own people killing rebels and children and civilians in the thousands, and that is unbearable. It is illegal according to international law, it is completely unethical, and such horror must compel us to act. On the other hand the rebels who we would be aiding are jihadists who would limit the rights of women, certainly behave as enemies to Israel, and most likely would not be US allies in the future regardless of the aid we give them. In which direction should we go? Which path is the most moral? If we act, Assad has promised that an attack from us will be answered with an attack on Israel, as if that makes any sense, and how do we risk another enemy using gas to once again kill Jews? And we also risk an Israeli response to such an attack and the further instability to Israel’s ongoing safety that would create.  We also know from recent history that it is often much easier to enter a conflict than to exit it. If we do not act, we have sat on our hands and allowed a vicious government to behave in the most unethical way, to murder and murder again in order to maintain it’s own power. And by allowing it to happen we too are guilty.

It is easy to feel paralyzed. We read the stories on both sides. We hear from the rebels and Assad’s victims and we believe that what they say is true and we want to support them. And we hear from Assad’s supporters about what it is exactly that the rebels are fighting to change, and we believe that what they say is true as well and it seems that standing against those goals might also be just. Just as when we read midrash, there’s also a part of us that knows these are all stories created to fill in the gaps of our understanding created to sway us a certain way, and yet we also know there is truth there even if it is a contradictory truth. It is hard to live with calm and equanimity within the paradox that requires life and death decisions. To decide between doing the killing or watching as others do the killing.

Rabbi Cy Stanway wrote recently that, “when we say ‘Happy New Year’ to someone else it is, of course, a blessing and a wish that they have, well, a happy new year. But individual happiness is often acquired at the expense of someone else. Being happy is a fine result, but it is not the fundamental Jewish goal, especially in the new year. Rather, our real wish is for a Shana Tova—a good year, a year of goodness. Goodness, as opposed to happiness, is communal. It is shared. Our joys become the joys of others. Our sorrows are carried by everyone. A good year is one where our lives are shared, not merely lived for our own sake.”

So this then is our essential Jewish paradox. How can we be good in a world so filled with evil and, more often than not, have no apparent way to confront it and remove it? How do we decide what to do when faced with only terrible choices.

On their way to the mountain where Isaac would be sacrificed, there is only one recorded conversation between father and son. Isaac asks, “Here is the flame and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7) The traditional translation of Abraham’s answer is found in our machzor, Abraham says, “God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8) However, the Torah has no punctuation, and by repunctuating, the verse can be read differently and in a way that gives us some hope. Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman offers this reading, “God will see. (period) He has the lamb for the offering my son.”[3]

Of course this turns out to be true, at the moment when Abraham seems fully prepared to sacrifice his son he sees the ram caught in the thicket and the ram is offered instead of Isaac. “God will see.” He said. What was it that Abraham wanted God to see? I believe Abraham wanted God to see his actions. God will see that I am doing what has been asked and God will reward us both by providing another way. Abraham knew that he had a covenant with God, which required children through Isaac. He also knew that he was doing exactly what God commanded, but he believed completely that God would uphold the agreement even while it seemed like he was being forced to make a choice between God and his child at the moment.

On Rosh Hashanah we are taught to step back. To take time to be thoughtful about our lives, our beliefs, our actions. We must evaluate who we are and what kinds of actions will help us to live the most authentically to make choices that keep our values in place. Choices that allow us to sleep at night.

Abraham lived a long life after this incident on the mountain. He moves to Be’er Sheva—which can be translated as the “Well of Oath or Covenant.” Abraham draws strength from that well as he recommits his life to his family and his covenant with God. After Sarah dies he sees that Isaac is married, he remarries, has more children and rejoices in his grandchildren. When he dies at 175 years old, the Torah tells us that he is “Old and contented.” He lived his values even when they required something unthinkable of him. He believed in a God who would always be there for him even when the opposite seemed true. He believed in his covenant with God regardless of the absurdity of what was being asked of him and he lived his life with integrity comfortable with the choices he had made because his actions were always aligned with his values.

It is hard to live with Paradox and it requires more than hopes and good intentions. Every choice we have in front of us about Syria is bad. I have no idea at all what the correct choice is, at this moment I have no idea which is the choice that perfectly lines up with Jewish values or a universal morality. I wish I did. It would make choosing what to do so much easier. What I do know is that all of our choices are right, and all of them are wrong. When we are clear about our values then we become more clear about the best course of action. Our values of integrity, faithfulness to family, faithfulness to our covenant, the holiness of the community and the efforts to turn enemies into friends is are our command. These values must be our guides in deciding the best course of action.

Our choices about Syria for the coming year will challenge us just as Abraham’s choices challenged him. Our choices in all aspects of our personal lives may also challenge us. But I also know that each of us has the potential to live a life of integrity, which aligns our values with our actions. Each of us is smart enough to hold competing ideas in our heads at the same time and see the goodness and the evil in each.

Yehuda Amichai wrote,

Anyone who rises early in the morning is on his own.

He gets himself over to the altar, he is Abraham,

he is Isaac, he’s the donkey, the fire,

the knife, the angel,

he’s the ram, he is God.[4]

When we are tested with paradox we have to consider every side, every angle. We have to put ourselves in the place of everyone and everything who will be effected by our decisions. Living a life of integrity isn’t easy. Some days we are the knife and some days we are the angel. I pray that on this Rosh Hashanah morning God accepts the prayers of our hearts that carry trouble and pain. I pray that we all pass the tests placed before us to live lives of integrity even when we are faced with the tests of paradox. And I pray that we always maintain our covenants of faith with our own families and with our family of human kind, And may we always know that when we commit fully with all of our best intentions and most thoughtful actions, God will always be with us. Ken Yehi Ratzon may this be God’s will.

[1] Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, DHL, “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the The Trial of Abraham, The Binding of Isaac,” Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont, 2013. p. 49.

[2] Rabbi Cy Stanway

[3] Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, DHL, “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the The Trial of Abraham, The Binding of Isaac,” Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont, 2013. p. 50.

[4] Yehuda Amichai “The Bible and You, The Bible and You, And other Midrashim,” trans., Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.