Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781
September 19/20, 2020
Embracing the Ram
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
There’s an intriguing body of Midrash—some of us studied it together a few months ago in our Monday Adult Education discussion—that explores the notion that in the final moments of the week of Creation, prior to God implementing the first Shabbat, God created a number of items that would later have great significance in the unfolding of Torah narratives, and held them in reserve for a later date. The list, which undergoes a number of permutations in the evolution of Jewish texts, includes items such as the rainbow witnessed by Noah, the mouth of the Earth which swallows Korach and his fellow rebels, the manna, and the mouth of the donkey who speaks to Bilaam. The midrash attempts to address a theological conundrum: if the six days of creation described in Genesis define a finite period, after which God did not introduce any new handiworks into our world, how could these unique and previously unheard of phenomena have appeared precisely at the time when they were required? The only possible solution, in the rabbinic mind, is that at twilight on the sixth day, referred to poetically by the rabbis as bein hash’mashot, “between the suns,” God created these items and held them in abeyance until the appropriate moment.
A key element found in most of the accounts of these items is the ram which appears at the perfect time caught in the thicket at Mount Moriah and is offered as a thanksgiving sacrifice to God in lieu of Isaac. Throughout the first dozen verses of the Akedah narrative, the ram is neither seen nor spoken of. It is only through the intercession of the angel, who stays Abraham’s hand and prevents him from harming Isaac, that Abraham opens his eyes and is alerted to the presence of the animal. The ram—like the other items that were said to have been created bein hash’mashot—was brought into the world to fulfill a specific destiny. Though nowadays ewe may frown upon the notion animal sacrifice, we can perhaps still be grateful that ram was there at the precise moment it was required, and thus Isaac was spared. So often our examination of the Akedah story focuses on Abraham’s actions, or Isaac’s reactions. Perhaps we even dare to question God’s motives in putting the entire episode into motion. But I imagine that few of us ever consider that in many ways, the ram is the true hero of the parsha. Had the ram not been present in that climactic moment on Mount Moriah, can we be certain that Isaac would have survived the ordeal? Could the fortunes of the Jewish people have unfolded in quite the same way we have come to know if Abraham’s hand had not been stayed?
Our liturgy for this day proclaims, “As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny.” In this understanding of Divine judgement, every creature on earth was created to fulfill a specific purpose. Like the ram, we await our opportunity to play our part within the larger story of the world. How will we best live up to our potential, and serve that purpose for which we have been called?
Within Jewish history, perhaps the best-known example of an individual being awakened to his or her destiny is Queen Esther. In the Purim story, Mordecai implores her to intercede with King Ahashverosh to put an end to Haman’s plot, reminding her that she is uniquely positioned to plead the case for the Jewish people. Mordecai urges his cousin, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” As Esther reflects on Mordecai’s words, she comes to accept that indeed she has merited her position in the palace in order to thwart Haman’s bigoted policies.
We may not prevent a sacrifice, as the ram did, or reshape Persian domestic policy, like Esther did, but we can each play a part in shaping the world for the better. We spend this season each year engaged in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an intense self-examination. We ponder what decisions we hope to make and what actions we hope to take in the coming year that may continue to guide us in paths of goodness. Through such an exercise, we may begin to glimpse what lies in store for us, what achievements we must undertake in order to fulfill our calling.
One easy way to make an impact on society is through one’s vote. We are fortunate to live in a country that gives us the opportunity to make our voices heard. Vote for those candidates or issues who speak to your sense of Jewish values. Vote for whomever you feel will work to build this country, state, and/or community into a place where we and the generations to come after us may thrive. Mark your ballot in a manner that you find to be consistent with your understanding of justice and fairness. Elections do have consequences. So please, on or before November 3, make and exercise a plan to vote. It would be fabulous to have 100% turnout from eligible voters in this congregation. Whether you participate by absentee ballot, or by going to your polling place in person, be certain to exercise your civic responsibility. We have been taught: “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, do not separate yourself from the community,” The burden and blessing of being part of our community is that we have the right and the obligation to participate in that community actively. We are the ram; we intervene for the benefit of society.
Another way to fulfill our calling is to act to make a difference when we find ourselves in the right place at the right time. In July, Mariangela Abeo, the manager of the apartment building in Seattle where she is also a resident, woke up to hear someone crying near the garbage bins. She looked out her window to see a middle-aged man seemingly having a breakdown. He was digging up the plants in the planters in the front of the building, throwing them in the trash, and sobbing. Abeo rushed to put on some shoes to go outside. As she did, she saw two people who had been walking past pull out their phones. She opened her window and yelled, “Please don’t call the police on him; I am headed down.”
As Abeo went down, she encountered two more people from the building, one of whom said, “Oh are you taking care of it? I was about to call the cops.” When she got downstairs, the man was sitting on the concrete, holding the flowers complete with their roots in his hands, and sobbing inconsolably. Abeo called the local hospital, who told her that a local agency could be dispatched instead of the police, because the situation was not life-threatening.
Once the man had been taken to get some help, Abeo began cleaning up the property, sweeping the dirt and replanting the flowers. A neighbor from across the street who had witnessed the incident called out, “Ugh, what a mess! That [stinks] that he did that to your flowers! Did you call the police!!?” Abeo replied, “These flowers were $6.99 each at Lowe’s. They don’t matter. Did you see the man sobbing on the ground earlier holding them like babies? That’s what was horrible about the situation.” Abeo recognized that standing up for the safety and dignity of a fellow human being—even someone who was unknown to her—was more important than the damage to her property. It happens that the man in this incident was also a Person of Color, a factor which can impact how both law enforcement personnel and bystanders respond to a situation. By intervening to de-escalate, by refusing to judge the man superficially, Abeo likely significantly shaped the outcome of what could have been a very difficult situation.
When we have the opportunity to be God’s partners in lifting up the fallen and keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust, we should seize upon these moments. We can fulfill our potential by stepping in and stepping up to help make our world a better place. We are the ram; we lift up the voice of those whose cries are unanswered.
Last month, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away. Boseman endured colon cancer fairly privately for a number of years prior to his death, and has received posthumous acclaim for his compassionate outreach to young fans who were also living with cancer. He was known for playing Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall in biopics about those historical figures, but was perhaps most famous for his portrayal of the superhero Black Panther. This latter role brought him to the attention of industry professionals and fans alike, who celebrated him for embodying a strong and independent African American heroic figure.
At the height of his Black Panther fame, Boseman was invited to be the commencement speaker at his alma mater, Howard University. In his remarks, he spoke of his first professional acting role: being cast in a soap opera in which he was asked to play a black gang member. When he attempted to offer suggestions to the writers and producers to round out his character and ensure that he was not just a simplistic stereotype, Boseman was fired and the role was recast.
As he recounted the sting of losing that job, Boseman exhorted the graduates that rather than searching for a job or a career, they should seek a purpose. He noted,
Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose… I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory then you will not regret it.
The climb to fame had not been easy for Boseman, but in talking to the Howard graduates he was able to look back and take pride in the sometimes difficult decisions he had made to get himself to a place of pride and achievement. Indeed, doing what we need to do in order to leave our mark on this world may not always come easily to us. Last fall, actress Alex Borstein received the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In her acceptance speech, Borstein paid tribute to her grandmother, a survivor of the Shoah. Borstein noted that her grandmother was in line to be shot in a mass execution, but somehow found the courage to question a guard. “What happens,” Borstein’s grandmother asked, “if I step out of line?”
The guard replied, “I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.” Borstein’s grandmother determined that she was willing to take that risk. “And for that,” Borstein stated, “I am here and my children are here. So, step out of line, ladies. Step out of line.”
Whether we are Chadwick Boseman standing up to racist stereotypes or Alex Borstein’s grandmother, standing up to bigotry and injustice, we are the ram; we disrupt and upset norms in the name of justice and peace.
In this new year, 5781, let us be like the ram, but let us go one step beyond. Unlike the lamb, we will not be idly led to the slaughter. Let us strive to fulfill our destiny, to make a positive mark on society. Let us stand up for the less fortunate in our communities. Let us disrupt norms and speak out against injustice. Today, we each take our individual places in doing this work. “Tomorrow, there’ll be more of us.”
 My colleague Rabbi Elisa Koppel has compiled an excellent resource on this subject, available at https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/242741?lang=bi (retrieved August 16, 2020). As Rabbi Koppel notes, the list of items varies in different sources. Historically, the first reference to such an idea appears in Mishnah Avot 5:6.
 Cf. Genesis 22, especially verse 13.
 A phrase from the Unetaneh Tokef. Translation from Gates of Repentance (New York: CCAR Press, 1996) p. 313.
 Esther 4:13
 Rabbi Hillel, Mishnah Avot 2:5
 Chadwick Boseman, 2018 Commencement Address at Howard University. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/08/29/chadwick-boseman-praised-student-protesters-2018-commencement-speech-howard-university-watch-video/ August 31, 2020.
 Spoken by John Laurens in “Hamilton: An American Musical,” words and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda.