Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5771
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, D.H.L.
September 9, 2010

I am just wondering: you listened to the story of Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on the altar.
Did you remember this story?
Do you like this story and look forward to it every year?
How many of you hate the story and don't understand why we read about a father sacrificing his son on one of the two holiest days of the year?
How many of you find this meaningless, and you don't even listen?

Here's our patriarch, Abraham, experiencing the final and greatest of ten tests of his faith in God. He takes the son he loves, the son of his beloved Sarah, the one destined by God to continue the covenant promised to Abraham's descendants, and very nearly slaughters the boy on a sacrificial altar following God's order.

Walking up the mountain, Isaac asks what they are doing. He’s not stupid. He sees the knife, the wood and the fire for the sacrifice, but there's no animal. And he asks his father, "where is the lamb for sacrifice?" "Ayeh haseh l'olah," Abraham refuses to answer fully, "The Lord will provide a sacrifice, my son." "Adonai yereh ha-seh l'olah, bni,"

I’m thinking Isaac sounded pretty nervous. Why's Abraham avoiding and clouding the issue? Maybe he doesn't want to worry the boy? Isaac seems to sense that he, himself, is the sacrifice.
You know the story of the chicken and the pig walking down the road? They're passing a restaurant and the chicken's hungry. The chicken sees a sign that says, "Ham and eggs," and says to the pig, "Let's go in here and get something to eat." The pig says, "No, I'm not going in there." The chicken asks, "Why not, I'm hungry." The pig answers, "From you they want a donation; from me they want commitment!"
Perhaps Abraham just has faith that everything would come out all right. But Isaac's life was on the line. God tested Abraham, but Isaac had skin in the game and he had a right to know what was happening. Abraham acted like the sole actor in a drama touching other lives.

Abraham's faith triumphs. But what of Isaac? And how about Sarah, Isaac's mother, the woman who gave birth to him, who loved and fought for him to protect his right to inherit as a patriarch of the Jewish people? Did Abraham even broach the subject with his wife? Was there a word of conversation? A discussion of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice HIS son rather than THEIR son? The Torah is silent. Abraham acts as though he has to share nothing! Apparently we have a more modern story than we thought! It's all about him!

But our commentators are not obtuse. The question begs answering. Abraham stood over Isaac, bound him to the altar, and only when Abraham begins to bring his knife hand downward toward Isaac does God stop him, "Abrahaham, Abraham." What terror must have leapt through Isaac's heart, watching his father not only prepare the altar, but actually commence the sacrifice? It’s Oedipus in reverse! The midrash asks the question, what happened to Isaac? And provides the answer: He left the scene without even returning home, and goes to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever to study Talmud. The midrash's anachronistic historical comment gets it. Isaac fled!

And what of Sarah? Imagine! Abraham does not return home. Sarah lives in Hebron. Abraham bypasses Hebron for Beer Sheva. But we can imagine that the two lads who accompanied them went back and snitched the story to Isaac's mother. Sarah dies at the beginning of the very next Torah chapter, and the Rabbis view that as her reaction to hearing what occurred to her only child. She suffered a heart attack and died.

God does not demand that Abraham remain silent about what he is about to do! That's all Abraham's doing; Abraham keeps his eyes on the prize, and while God rewards Abraham's faith, Abraham's goal directed mission emasculates Isaac and fatally shocks Sarah.

What do we learn? We might learn that men should share their intentions with other members of their families affected by their business, that they should not just keep the bad news to themselves. But that's not the only lesson here. You see. This really was Abraham's business, between him and God. But Abraham's mistake that led to disastrous consequences for Isaac and Sarah was that he assumed that's all it was.

Turns out, we don't experience ourselves as being so much like Abraham as we do like Sarah and Isaac, people to whom bad things just happen, regardless of how much we prepare. Abraham controlled his life, but that’s a privilege that neither Sarah nor Isaac managed. And we don’t get much control either.

This economic disaster known as the Great Recession didn't just lower lifestyles. Our broken health care system isn't just an inconvenience. Many of us now worry that we will not receive necessary health care, despite our insurance coverage, either because we have pre-existing conditions or we can't afford the medications or the co-pays. Some of you have been out of work multiple times, or for more than a year. Some people are running out of money, worried about their children's higher education, about providing so that their children will be successful in life. Our lives feel out of control!

We invited Beth Torah members to come together to share what keeps them up at night. People came prepared with personal stories about suicides in their families, about parents and children needing care and the sandwich generation being caught in between. Over 60% of the stories were about some sort of health care need. These are not trivial concerns. Something has changed, and we feel more and more vulnerable, less and less able to manage the rabbit punches coming at us from behind.

And you know, we Jews do not readily share our vulnerabilities. I was sitting at home and received a telephone call that a member of Beth Torah had been hospitalized. I called the family. They wanted to know how I knew, so I told them someone saw them and called me. Their next question: why are people talking about me? In other words: although the informer called out of genuine concern, the person experienced my knowing as exposing their vulnerability to life's problems and therefore an embarrassment and an intrusion. "We'll handle it on our own," came the response.

And it's not just them. People came to these sessions prepared and therefore happy to share. They knew what injury they felt comfortable talking about. They picked it themselves. They prepared themselves emotionally to share, so they felt prepared and perhaps even safe. And the other people in the room, who also came with vulnerability stories, also came prepared to listen, because that was the deal. And when all were done, and everyone had their chance to talk, and everyone listened, and when each person felt accepted and safe and recognized for who they were: everyone in the room felt exhilarated. Why? Because they were known and accepted for exactly who they are.

We are not used to feeling known, accepted and safe. We compete all the time. People feel vulnerable so they get angry, or withdraw, or mentally remove ourselves from the situation in some fashion. Psychologist Leon Seltzer described it this way:

It could, for instance, relate to sharing ourselves personally in a way that exposes us to the other's indifference, disapproval, or anger. When we confide our thoughts and feelings in another, we may also fear that our sharing won't be reciprocated. Or that it could be used against us. Or that it won't be empathized with, or validated. And our deepest sense of vulnerability arises when we find ourselves in situations that tap into primal fears of abandonment. Or evoke its opposite, engulfment--where our personal boundaries feel so threatened that we fear losing our very self. (Psychology Today, Oct. 3, 2008)

So, we want to be known, but we fear being too open to hurt, and therefore, like porcupines lying down together on a cold winter’s night, we get neither too close nor too far from one another.

It's not only about Abraham fulfilling God's mission. It's also about being Abraham's family. It’s about having our feelings and needs taken into account, feeling known, accepted, acknowledged so that we feel safe.

Now each of you sitting here and doing me the kindness of listening to me right now is suffering from something. For some of you it may be illness, maybe even a life threatening illness. For some it's "you're only as well off as your worst off child;" for others it’s worries about a parent. For some of you it's addiction to alcohol or drugs or pornography; for others it's a relationship problem. For some there are business problems, and for others financial problems so deep you cannot imagine a practical way out of them. Some of you have done something of which you are deeply ashamed and for which you feel you cannot repent; and others don't know how to keep themselves from doing things for which they will feel compelled to repent. And frankly, these are the problems that occupy your thoughts while you sit in these pews, and these are your worries, and these, frankly, are your real prayers while you stare at the book: "Lord, how do I get myself out of this?" Some worry; others perhaps feel ashamed or fearful; but for all of us, myself included, there is the fervent hope to be known, accepted and safe. And that is something we pray to offer you here, at Beth Torah. For every one of us, no matter what our problem may be: here you can be known, and accepted for precisely who you are, without judgment; and here you will feel safe. Here you may tell your story; here we care and will listen. Here you are someone with name, a history, a destiny. God's own image walking.

How will we do this?

Abraham, in pursuit of what he thought was a greater goal of witnessing to God, unwittingly victimized those he loved. Isaac was a means to an end: proving Abraham's faith. Sarah he ignored, as if the fate of her son was none of her business. We will learn from the mistakes of our ancestors.

Here we will endeavor mightily to make you, each one of us, separately and together, not the means to an end, but the image of God walking on earth. Here we pray, but first you must be known. Here we study; but first you must be known. Here we do acts of lovingkindness and social justice: but to come here, you must feel that we know and care about you.

It means that I will listen, each of us will listen, to what you have to say. So what will change? What will we do differently?

Last month I started taking roll in my Shabbat morning class, and if you attend and then don't return for awhile, we’ll miss you. We will check up on you to find out how you are doing. I hope to find a way to do the same with worship for those who come frequently: if you stop coming over a period of time, we will want to know if everything is ok in your life, or if there is something we can do to help. We will miss you. We want you here. Here each person represents God's own image, the potential messiah living among us.

This Sunday, September 12th, at 10:00 in the sanctuary, we are having a Call to Action. Under the auspices of the Communities Creating Opportunities committee, or CCO, chaired by Linda Zappulla, you are invited to hear a report on what we heard in our house meetings and one-to-one conversations. We are meeting to listen to stories from this 640 family community, to ascertain if those stories resonate with your story. At the very least we can sincerely listen to one another, recognize our problems, and create a safe place to be heard, to share our stories. But I pray, I hope and I suspect that we can do more than just create a safe haven.

We are going to look for ways to connect to those who have been disconnected. Twenty-two years ago when we started Beth Torah, most of our members had a reason to attend: we had children in the congregation. Well, I am no longer 39 years old, and while some of you definitely are, many of us are not. But all of us matter to this community, and we want you here. You are facing real challenges, and we should face them together. You need God, and God needs you. Kansas City Jewry needs you. But we don't yet know precisely how to connect to you. It's like starting over, a new phase in the life of our community, Beth Torah. But like at the beginning, we can't do it without you.

Recently, with my illness and medical leave, people reached out and connected to Beth Torah and to one another. Our members whom we previously trained to lead worship stepped forward, with our rabbinic intern, Leah Jordan, and with Rabbi Harris, to make sure no hiatus occurred. Last year Aaron Niesenshultz volunteered to lead Monday and Thursday 6 p.m. worship and continues to lead weekly. Ray Davidson fulfilled a personal dream to teach a Yiddish class on Fridays at noon in the Bride's room. Another member prepares to teach Torah study. We are organizing a way to contact many members who are not active to find out how you can feel known at Beth Torah, what we can do differently. But the best way is for you to start something that will bring you in to your congregation, to contact your people, to tell your story. Last year Mark Klein and Bill Steinhardt celebrated second bar mitzvahs, at 63 and 83. Other families celebrated anniversaries and invited friends to worship, like Ray and Radine Shaw who celebrated anniversary 65 at Erev Shabbat worship. Be innovative. Be known.

And finally: tell your story to God. I am going to invite you to do two things: First, on a piece of paper, write out your prayer. It can be as long or as short as you want. We will place a box in the back of the sanctuary before each service, and that box will be placed in the ark, with the Torah scrolls, during the worship. We will put the box with your prayer in the ark just before we start our prayers. You may pray for someone else or yourself. At the conclusion of each service the notes will be destroyed. Just like at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, your prayer will be between you and God.

Here's the second offer: before worship; between services, and after worship you can come up to the ark and pray – personally, directly, to God. I know you can pray anywhere, but I am telling you, next to the ark is the most powerful place for many of us to pray. Sometimes, many times, we have to admit that the solution is not in our own hands; we do not control the world. Give it over to God.

And by the way, don't be embarrassed to stand in front of the ark and pray. You can be praying for anyone or anything: yourself, a family member, a friend, anything you want. Give it a shot; I do it all the time.

In 1988 we set out to create a modern, American liberal Judaism in southern Johnson County. Many people said that we were successful right away. But you know what: every day, every month, that story needs to be rewritten; it is not static; there is no complete solution because it's your story, and as alive as Judaism, as alive as you, God's people. Be known; be accepted; be safe; bring your story here every Friday night and Saturday morning. Bring someone with you. Don’t wait to be called, because your friend or acquaintance is likely waiting for you to call, too. Eat some food in the ulam before, talk and eat after; here we want to know the real you, your real story, without pretense, with all the pain and heartache that keeps you awake at night; here you are known, accepted and safe.