Rosh Hashanah Morning 5782
September 7/8, 2021
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
How did you first hear the call to love? This is a question asked by Sikh author and activist Valerie Kaur. We recognize love as an essential ingredient in our interpersonal lives; we seek out connections with those who are like-minded and form families and communities around them. Science has shown that there are physiological benefits to knowing and feeling love.
The story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, to which we so famously return each Rosh Hashanah morning, is often seen as an exhortation to the Israelite community to refrain from the child sacrifice that was so prevalent in other ancient near Eastern societies. Certainly it can be seen as an imprecation against such practices, but it can also be seen as a passionate defense of the importance of love.
A Midrash teaches that when God initially called Abraham and beckoned him to Mount Moriah, Abraham was confused by the command and challenged God.
“Take your son,” God said.
“I have two sons; which one do you mean?” Abraham replied.
“Your only son.”
“But God, both are only sons. Isaac is the only son from his mother, and Ishmael is the only son from his mother.”
“The one whom you love,” God said.
Abraham again protested, “Creator of the universe, are there separate compartments in one’s inmost self for love? I love both of them.”
This conversation that the rabbis imagined only underscores the difficult position in which Abraham finds himself. There is no question—particularly if we accept the midrashic account as part of the overall unfolding of the narrative—that Abraham feels intense love for his offspring. The call that Abraham hears that sets the Akedah narrative in motion is terrible and troubling on its face. But underscoring it is a meditation on the complexities of love. During the events of the Akedah, Abraham must navigate the tension between his love of God, his love of himself and his personal values and integrity, and his love of the others around whom he has constructed his life. Arguably, a similar tension exists in all of our lives, and these High Holy Days call upon us to work through these tensions and heed and hear the call to love.
Abraham’s decision to embrace monotheism was revolutionary and disjunctive from all other expressions of faith known during his lifetime. In the pantheistic traditions practiced by his neighbors, there was perhaps a bit of an insurance policy: if you displeased the god of grain, perhaps the god of fruit would still grant you an abundant harvest, so that you and your family would not starve. Turning to monotheism, on the other hand, meant putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket, becoming solely reliant on staying in God’s good graces in order to secure blessing and prosperity. Thus we can imagine that the desire for self-preservation was a motivating factor in Abraham’s consideration of the challenge of the Akedah.
The God Whom Abraham worships, the God Whom we, as his spiritual descendants, worship to this day, is described in the Torah as a jealous God. We are commanded to love God with all of our hearts, soul, and being, a love that we affirm each time we recite this phrase in the prayer we have come to know as the V’ahavta. But is that love meant to be so all-encompassing that we are required sacrifice our own well being, or that of others around us, to prove our fealty?
Some early Jewish leaders did believe that the only way to fulfill this commandment and love God was through asceticsm—denying oneself personal comfort and enjoyment in order to focus all attention upon God. Others, however, recognize that true love is mutual, even if the parties are otherwise mis-matched in what they have to offer one another, as is the case with humanity and God. We don’t imagine that God has needs in the same way that humans do; God doesn’t, for instance, require food and shelter, or assurances of safety and security. But the understanding of God as the Jewish textual traditions have refined it over the centuries asserts that God does rely on humanity to maintain relationships and to build God’s esteem.
Thankfully, as our faith expression has evolved, we no longer face challenges to affirm our faith in the same terrible manner as Abraham did during the Akedah. It is enough for us to show our love by proclaiming God’s unity through the words of Shema, and by drawing close to God in the fulfillment of mitzvot.
As important as it is for us to find a way to feel and show love to God, it is also important for us to love and honor our true selves. For many of us, our personal theologies are built upon lifting up and emphasizing those attributes of God that are most meaningful and comforting to us at a given stage in our lives, so that love of God and love of self truly go hand-in-hand.
Judaism values the fact that each human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. God designed each of us to be unique and endowed us with a specific purpose. Part of our life’s work is to uncover and fulfill that purpose.
Tradition recounts that Reb Zusya, a Polish rabbi of the 18th century, lay ill on his deathbed and burst into tears. His students attempted to comfort him, telling him what a wonderful teacher he had been—a strong leader like Moses; wise like Solomon, and so forth. But Zusya could not be consoled. “The Holy One,” he replied, “will not ask me why I was not more like Moses or Solomon or any other individual from our storied past. Instead, I will be asked, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’”
Each time we enter a Jewish New Year, we confront the question: have we been the best possible “us” that we can be. We need not, and should not, measure ourselves against the deeds of others; we should, however, explore whether our own words and actions have established for us a name and a legacy of which we can be proud.
Such is Abraham’s challenge at the moment of the Akedah. He is anxious to follow through on the task which he believes has been imposed upon him by God. But he is also eager to live a life of which he can be proud, and to secure a lasting legacy. When dutiful obedience to God seems to stand in conflict with Abraham’s own sense of self, he must determine how to reconcile those two competing interests. Similarly, during these Days of Awe, we are called to ensure that we are walking on a path that is good and pleasing in God’s eyes, while also fulfilling our own sense of who we wish to be and the mark we wish to make upon the world.
It’s sometimes a precarious balancing act. God willing, we are never tested with as terrible and ominous a conundrum as that which Abraham faces during the Akedah episode. Yet because we live in relationship with others, we often find ourselves impelled to balance personal interests and needs with those of the others who inhabit and enrich our lives. And this is, perhaps, the most difficult challenge that we navigate as we express love.
There are many ways in which our lives are connected to others. We are connected by biology, for instance, to our family members, and God-willing we are able to forge loving bonds with them that are reciprocated. We are connected by choice to friends and loved ones with whom we enter relationships because we find something fulfilling and soul-enriching in their company. And, unless we purposely detach ourselves from society, we are connected through our very human existence to an intricate network of others who move in and out of our lives. Our every action, whether grandiose or imperceptible, has the potential to impact those who inhabit the community in which we reside, if not the broader global community.
This is part of what our worship on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, calls us to consider: how do we behave in ways that fulfill not only our needs, but serve the good of the entire community? Similarly, Abraham must undergo similar considerations at the time of the Akedah: if he responds to what God has asked of him, what impact would it have on his wife, Sarah? On Isaac? On others in his family? On his future legacy?
Valarie Kaur, whom I mentioned at the outset of these remarks, is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project. While it draws from her Sikh faith, it embraces tenets that are at home in every culture and religious tradition. She teaches that we must learn, first and foremost, to “see no stranger.”
When we commit ourselves to understanding and appreciating the beauty and humanity of any individual whom we encounter, whether we pass them for a split second on the street, or they are a regular part of our lives, we build a culture of caring and compassion that I believe is crucial to the flourishing of peace in our lifetime. Kaur notes that one way to ensure that we “see no stranger” when we examine our interactions with one another is to maintain a sense of wonder. She writes,
“Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. Once people stop wondering about others, once they no longer see others as part of them, they disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them.”
God has called us to maintain that wonder, to maintain that empathy, to maintain that love for one another. This sort of love is incredibly sacred, whether expressed as romantic love, or as compassion for a fellow traveler on this journey we call life. As Victor Hugo wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
The Akedah reminds us starkly that our actions have implications beyond ourselves, and if we truly claim to love others, then it behooves us to consider how our deeds will reverberate beyond any repercussions that we may personally experience. This notion of interconnected interests inspiring us toward love is expressed in the African concept of Ubuntu, which is often translated as “I am because you are.” Whether all parties know it or not, it is the spirit of Ubuntu that has enabled Sinai Temple to make tremendous progress in building positive interfaith relationships throughout our community. It is the spirit of Ubuntu at work in the generous hospitality that Faith United Methodist Church is showing us during this High Holiday season while our sanctuary renovation is underway. It is the spirit of Ubuntu that has inspired Matt Difanis and his team to give of their time and talents for the second year in a row to ensure that our worship services can reach those attending in person, and those worshipping at home on Zoom. When we come to appreciate that we are all nourished and strengthened in so many ways by those whose paths intersect with ours, we learn how to turn love from an inward-facing emotion directed at a select few to an outward-facing emotion embracing the entire world.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, an early kabbalist, spoke of the sacred partnership between God and humanity. Rabbi Luria taught that before the creation of the universe, God’s presence filled all of time and space. In order for there to be room for the world, therefore, God engaged in tzimtzum, a reduction of God’s being—sort of like sucking in one’s stomach, but in a Godly fashion. God created a series of clay vessels in which to store this excess of God’s presence temporarily while the world was being made. But the vessels, though strong, were insufficient to contain the holy light and being that is God’s nature. They shattered, scattering sparks of God’s light throughout the world. And we, as humans created in the Divine Image, contain some of those sparks within our very being. It is our calling l’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai, to work to repair the world in partnership with God to restore it to that which God had initially planned. We do so through acts of caring and compassion for others. We do so by focusing on love.
The Akedah on its surface is deeply troubling tale. Yet we may begin to transform our understanding of this narrative if we perhaps examine it not as a true call to sacrifice, but as a call to love—to love God, to love oneself, and to deeply and wholeheartedly love others. In this New Year 5782, may we each seek, and find, the love we so richly deserve.
 See, for instance, “10 Surprising Health Benefits of Love,” retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/health-benefits , July 15, 2021
 Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera, paragraphs 22-23.
 See, for instance, Exodus 20:5
 See, for instance, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, “Loving and Fearing God,” on MyJewishLearning.com. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/loving-and-fearing-god/ , August 9, 2021.
 The two most fundamental categories of needs in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
 Buber, Martin Tales of the Hasidim
 Kaur, Valarie. See No Stanger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. (New Rork: Random House, 2020) p.9
 Kaur, p. 11-12
 Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables
 See, for instance, “What is the Spirit of Ubuntu? How Can We Have It in Our Lives?” at Globalcitizen.org. Retrieved from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/ubuntu-south-africa-together-nelson-mandela/ August 19, 2021.
 See “Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah,” on myjewishlearning.com for one illustration of this concept. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tikkun-in-lurianic-kabbalah/ August 19, 2021