Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
September 10/11, 2018
My Three Sons
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


All of our children love to read; our youngest, Eden, is particularly fond of books.  Of course, because she is only two, she relies on more accomplished readers who can share these books with her.  Over Passover, we were visiting my parents in Denver, and she fixated on one book in particular: Yoga Bug[1], a small board book of kid-friendly yoga poses that are re-imagined as imitations of insects.  It’s a cute book—the first time you read it—and fairly simple; there are only about a dozen words in the entire text.  But Eden would sit at the bottom of the stairs and insist that someone read this book to her, over and over and over again.

Perhaps no Torah story is more explored, or worthy of exploration, than the Akeda, “The Binding of Isaac” that we read today.  Much has been written about the theological implications of this incident, not to mention the ways in which the choices Abraham makes as events unfold carry repercussions for his relationships with God, with Isaac, and with Sarah.  We know the story very well, having been exposed to annual repetitions of it: Abraham, having embraced the idea that there is only one God, now feels impelled by that deity to offer his child as a sacrifice.  Most of us have already done our own analysis and identified for ourselves who the winners and losers are, what power dynamics are at play, and so forth.

Some stories become tedious when we repeat them.  I can tell you that Yoga Bug is one of them!  Some stories, on the other hand, deserve to be revisited on a regular basis, for there are always additional nuances that can be uncovered and new insights that can be gleaned.  Certainly the Torah holds up to repeated exploration; as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”[2]  Even a story such as the Akeda, which most of us feel we have already fully processed, therefore bears some revisiting.

The poet Yehuda Amichai, considered to have been one of Israel’s greatest modern poets, offered his own take on the familiar story in his collection Open Closed Open.

Abraham had three sons, not just two.

Abraham had three sons: Yishma-El, Yitzchak, and Yiv’keh.

First came Yishma-El, “God will hear,”

Next came Yitzchak, “he will laugh,”

And the last was Yivkeh, “he will cry.”

No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest,

The son that Father loved best,

The son who was offered up on Mount Moriah.

Yishma-El was saved by his mother, Hagar,

Yitzchak was saved by the angel,

But Yivkeh no one saved.

When he was just a little boy, his father

would call him tenderly, Yivkeh

Yivkele, my little Yivkie

But he sacrificed him all the same.

The Torah says the ram, but it was Yivke.

Yishma-El never heard from God again,

Yitzchak never laughed again,

Sarah laughed only once, then laughed no more.

Abraham had three sons

Yishma, “will hear,” Yitzchak, “will laugh,” Yivkeh, “will cry.”

Yishma-El, Yitzchak-El, Yivkeh-El,

God will hear, God will laugh, God will cry.[3]

Two out of the three names Amichai invokes have biblical personages associated with them.  We “know” these characters and their life trajectories as spelled out in scripture and in the subsequent evolution of religious traditions around them.  By contrast, Yivkeh is a product of Amichai’s imagination, a figure created in the service of his modern midrash.

Let’s set aside for a moment, though, what we know—or think we know—about these individuals as played out in our tradition.  Let us instead think about what it means to have a relationship with a God who listens to us, who laughs with us, and who cries with us.  We pray that we will never confront quite so heart-wrenching a dilemma as Abraham does during the Akeda narrative, but we hope that in our times of need—and in our times of celebration—we can forge a relationship with a God who meets us where we are[4] and responds to our emotional and physical needs.

Yishma-el, God listens.  There is a reason that sanctuaries around the world are filled on these High Holidays: somewhere, perhaps in the vestigial regions of our souls, we cling to a belief that our prayers and our gathering with our community will be efficacious.  We embrace the tradition which tells us that during this period, God will “muster and number and consider”[5] each of us to determine our fates and fortunes for the coming year.  Thus we cling to the conviction that if we are earnest and fervent in our prayers, God will hear us and perhaps tip the scales in our favor.

Some of you know Rabbi Shlomo Schachter, who works at the University of Illinois Hillel as an Orthodox rabbi.  He is the son of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a charismatic rabbi who founded the Renewal movement within American Judaism.  Reb Zalman passed in 2014, and a few months ago, a minyan was organized at Hillel so that Rabbi Shlomo could say kaddish for his father on his yahrtzeit.  At the conclusion of the service, Rabbi Shlomo shared a memory: he recalled when he was a college student, and he and his father were traveling together.  They stopped in the corner of a parking garage in order to say their evening prayers.  Reb Zalman completed his prayers much more quickly than Rabbi Shlomo, who was not yet a rabbi and not as practiced with the liturgy.  As he concluded, he apologized to his father for causing them to be delayed.

Reb Zalman replied that he could not possibly be impatient knowing that Shlomo was engaged in a holy act of prayer.  Indeed, Shlomo recalled, at that moment it felt like his father was introducing him to an old friend, as though he were saying, “This is my boy.  I hope You will learn to love him and enjoy spending time with him as much as You do with me.  I hope that You will listen to the innermost prayers of his heart, just as You do for me.”[6]

When we seek out a relationship with God, we hope that we find a God who is Shomei’a Tefillah, who hearkens to prayer.  A listening God is not a God who magically responds to each supplication like a genie from a magic lamp.  Rather, we pray to establish a loving relationship with God so that God will give us guidance in trying moments.  We hold faith that when such trials occur, God listens to our internal dialogue and guides us toward an appropriate response.

Amichai’s poem reminds us that Yishmael was rescued by his mother, Hagar.  He is preserved; his name and his character live on.  Thus we are assured that God continues to listen.  In this new year, may God’s listening ears continue to be inclined toward each of us in mercy and love.

Yitzchak-el, God laughs.  There’s an old Yiddish proverb, “Mensch tracht, Gott lacht,” which means, “Humans plan, God laughs.”  This might suggest that God is a cynical prankster, laughing at us by upending our hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the sake of mere sport.  Indeed, Jewish tradition, drawing from a few Biblical references, imagines God laughing haughtily at those who fail to accept divine truths and at nations that seek to subjugate the Israelites.[7]

Laughter is prevalent, yet problematic, in the narrative of Abraham’s family as the Torah spells it out.  Abraham laughed at the initial promise that Sarah would bear a son;[8] later Sarah herself laughs at the notion that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age.[9]  Sarah laughs yet again one Isaac is born, and Ishmael is cast out from the house because his laughing play with Isaac is deemed inappropriate.[10]  Thereafter, the laughter seems to cease.

Through all these episodes, God has appeared aloof with regard to the laughter.  At best, we might say that God is indifferent toward it; at worst we might say that God appears to disapprove.  But what would it mean to picture God with a true sense of humor?  What if God functioned like the classic comedians of old, who encouraged us to find humor in situations, rather than making fun of people?  What if God’s laughter serves to unify, heal, and add perspective.  Can we imagine that God is alongside us, laughing with us rather than at us?

Pastor David Mathis, who serves a church in Minneapolis, writes, “Laughter, for God and for us, is a nonverbal form of communication. It acknowledges that more is going on than meets the eye — that more is happening than what is being captured into words.”[11]  While we know that laughter is frequently spontaneous and contagious, little is known about the biological mechanisms that underlie this trait.[12]  To the extent that laughter reveals an awareness of hidden layers of meaning underlying a particular situation, it may be comforting to embrace this picture of God laughing alongside us, bringing us into the divine confidence, as it were.  We can laugh with God as we would with any of our earthly friends, sharing an inside joke whose meaning others may not be able to parse.  To envision this sort of intimate camaraderie with God is to acknowledge that having been created b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image[13]—we share a closeness with God that other creatures cannot attain.

Turning back to Amichai’s poem, we find that Yitzchak, too, is saved from sacrifice.  The angel intervenes, and so Yitzchak and his prized qualities endure.  A divine being has shown us that laughter matters.  And we, as Yitzchak’s spiritual heirs, have the audacity to hope that we have earned a place among God’s favorites, that we warrant special attention from God, that despite our faults, God can laugh at our human foibles and be favorably inclined toward us.

Yivkeh-el, God cries.  Some theologians and philosophers have used their writings to describe a dispassionate God who does not interact with or care about humanity.  Indeed, following the Shoah and other horrors of the modern era, there have been many who shunned God or described God as tremendously lacking in empathy.  But there is an alternate understanding of God that has prevailed.  It suggests that when there is sadness and suffering in the world, when humans act cruelly to one another, God sits beside us and joins in our weeping.[14]  This model shows a God who cries tears of love, understanding, and empathy.

A midrash ascribed to Rabbi Isaac can remind us that God cares about the workings of the world:

A man was traveling from place to place when he encountered a building on fire at the side of the road.  He stopped and wondered aloud whether there was an owner or caretaker to extinguish the flames.  A man looked out the window from inside the burning house and called out, “I am the owner of this home!”[15]

The midrash continues, likening the behavior of the owner of the home in the story to God’s function in our world.  The world is daily on fire with pain and suffering and sadness.  God looks out from within and relies on passers-by to assist.  Just as the traveler confronted the owner of the house, it can be tempting for us to say, “Why aren’t you doing more to rectify the situation?”  But God calls back to us, “Why aren’t you doing more to help me solve the problem?”

God acknowledges that there is brokenness in our world, and experiences significant heartache and sadness because of this realization (if we can be so chutzpahdik as to ascribe these very human attributes to God).  But God also relies on humanity to make a difference in this world and, in so doing, to assuage some of the pain.

You see, Yivkeh never gets saved.  The Torah tells us that it was a ram Abraham ultimately sacrificed, but Amichai says that it was Yivke.  Our ability to appreciate God’s tears, the outpouring of love and compassion that God so deeply wants us to understand and appreciate so that we might be inspired toward that same degree of empathy—we might say that this was lost to the ages during the terrible and awesome episode of the Akeda.  Yet working as God’s partners, utilizing the gift of free will implanted within each of us, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to help make healing and love and justice abound.

These three personalities that Amichai has named do not represent three separate attributes of God plotted far apart from one another on some graph of divine qualities.  Rather, we seek in God (and in ourselves) the exquisite tension of holding all of these feelings simultaneously.  And if, perhaps, your current personal theology does not allow for such an intimacy with the divine, then hopefully you’ve found a connection with a partner, spouse, or friend that can yield a similarly loving relationship. However we may parse it, we each want a God, a soulmate, a friend who can be alongside us throughout the peaks and valleys of our human existence: when we rail at the universe or when we wonder at its miracles and marvels; when we are elated from joy or when we are laden with sorrows.

In this new year 5779, may we each be worthy of collaboration and closeness with God.  God will cry: let us be there to dry the tears and provide comfort and consolation.  God will listen: let us find ways toward Godly conversations and toward interactions worthy of God’s attention.  God will laugh: may the majority of our experiences in this new year guide us toward moments of happiness and joy.


[1] If you absolutely must have it: Hinder, Sarah Jane. Yoga Bug (Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True Publications, 2007).

[2] Mishnah Pirke Avot 5:25

[3] From “The Bible and You, the Bible and You, and Other Midrashim,” in Amichai, Yehuda. Open Closed Open (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)

[4] Cf. Genesis 21:17 and God’s intercession with Ishmael and Hagar.

[5] This phrase appears in a translation of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer by Chaim Stern in Stern, Chaim (ed.) Shaarei Teshuvah: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).  P. 108

[6] Author’s recreation of a teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Schachter, June 18, 2018

[7] See for instance Psalm 37:12-13 or Psalm 59:8.

[8] Genesis 17:17

[9] Genesis 18:12 ff

[10] Genesis 21:6 and 21:9

[11] “God Laughs Out Loud to Quiet Our Fears,” on the Desiring God blog.  Retrieved from on August 13, 2018.

[12] “Laughter” from the online edition of Psychology Today.  Retrieved from on August 16, 2018.

[13] Cf Gen. 1:26-27

[14] See, for instance, the examples given in Paul Socken’s essay, “God Cries” for the Canadian Jewish News, October 24, 2014.  Available online at  Retrieved on August 26, 2018.

[15] Paraphrase of Midrash Bereisheet Rabba, 39:1