Congregation B'nai Israel

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Being There

by Rabbi James Prosnit   

Rosh Hashana Morning 2016/5777                      

My introduction to and my love of Torah began forty years ago. Those who know a little of my biography may remember that I did not grow up in a home steeped in Jewish learning.  My first encounter with the vibrancy of Jewish text and tradition did not really begin until 1976 when I was a first year rabbinic student studying in Jerusalem.  That was my introduction to the corpus of Jewish wisdom, when the stories and language that brought it all to light was first revealed to me.

A year later, back in the States, as a pretty clueless second year student I received by first High Holy Day pulpit assignment.  I was to lead services at a nursing home in the Bronx.  I don’t think many people understood much of what I had to say – but I don’t think it was there fault. I probably didn’t have a lot of Torah to share or the insights in how to share it wisely.

Over time I think I have gotten better.  And I’ve learned that I may well be at my best when I let the text speak through me, rather than when I get the text to say something that I want it to say.  In other words if I wanted to be political today as some of you may well be expecting me to be – I could look at some prayer or reading and suggest that it contains a prescription to make us great again or to show how love trumps hate.  Let’s, however, at least for this morning declare this to be a politicking free zone – with only a reminder for you to be sure to register to vote.  And if you’re a College kid in a swing state know that you can register there.

But, if the text is to speak through me I need as the sage with the most intriguing name Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, said a couple of thousand years ago to turn it over and over and see what emerges from my reading.  Of course there is both a challenge and a blessing in turning to a story like the Akeida, the binding of Isaac which we read a few moments ago.  First we know it so well.  For pretty much all of the forty years of my rabbinate at the Rosh Hashanah morning service, I have tried to plum some fresh meaning and relevance out of it. And secondly we know that it is a very problematic text, because this willing demonstration of faith displayed by Abraham unnerves most of our mindsets.  No hesitation. Show me the mountain.  Bring me the knife. And we ask — How could he and how could God have expected such a thing?

But as I sat down to consider the text this year I was drawn to a detail I had never really considered before. Abraham and Isaac are the protagonists of the story.  Of course there’s God’s voice and there’s the angel that intervenes and stops the sacrifice and there’s the ram that ends up being the substitute for Isaac– but there are also two lads; two nameless servants that accompany Abraham and Isaac on the journey and reconnect with them on the way home. Their presence is glossed over so quickly you might not even have noticed them.

So let’s for a few moments consider it.  At the outset we read, “So early the next morning Abraham got up, saddled his donkey and took with him two of his young me.”  After three days journey the story continued “Abraham saw the mountain to which God had directed him and said to the young men, ‘stay here with the donkey, Isaac and I are going up yonder; we will worship and we will return to you’.”

And finally after Abraham and Isaac are put to the most dramatic test of faith, he returns to the young men and together they depart for Beer Sheba where presumably they will all learn that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, has died.

Throughout the entire narrative the lads say nothing.  And while servants in any story are frequently the silent observers of their masters’ doings, we can wonder, why are they here? What’s the point?  In Torah study we learn regularly there are no wasted words in the Bible – their inclusion must have meaning.

Through Midrash we can provide some voice?  Where are we going – and why so early? He seems preoccupied –not only hasn’t he said anything to us, he hasn’t even talked to his boy! What’s he going to sacrifice up on that hill anyway; we haven’t seen an animal for miles; Boy, do they look shaken – like they’ve just seen a ghost, or a God!

The servants may not have known their purpose.  They may have been helpless and at a loss for words.  But their presence did have vital importance.  Abraham needed someone and they were there. He needed someone to be near on the journey, especially when he returned- shaken and frightened. And he would definitely need someone later when he learned of Sarah’s death.  He didn’t need anyone to offer explanation and analysis.  He simply needed someone to be there.  Their silent presence enough.

When I think back to those early days in rabbinic school I also remember that one of my requirements included some CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) work at Memorial Sloane Kettering.  On one occasion I was visiting a woman prior to surgery on what doctors feared was a malignancy. I sat in her room for a little while, which I recall felt like hours.  Very little conversation was exchanged.  Finally, a nurse entered the room and breathing a sigh of relief, I availed myself of the opportunity to wish the woman well, mumble a brief prayer and leave. I wished I had more comforting words to offer her.  I returned the next day to see how she was doing.  She had been operated on and the doctors were confident that they had removed all the cancerous tissue and that none had spread. She was delighted to see me and thanked me multiple times for my words of comfort.  I had been so helpful in allaying her pre-operation anxieties.

I knew I had said very little.  And nothing I said, I promise you was particularly profound or insightful. But I learned that there are times when words don’t matter that much.  Sometimes the less said the better. What mattered is that I was in the right place at the right time.  What mattered was that I was there.

Being there is a concept that lies at the very center of Jewish tradition.  Two preeminent mitzvoth, Bikkur Holim and l’vayat ha’met, visiting the sick and consoling the bereaved are practices not left to the rabbis and professionals – they are available to and expected of everyone.

It comes as no surprise then, for us to learn that Abraham could find the necessary support from his servants. If we return to our text for a closer reading we can even see how their presence touched him.  We read that upon learning of the test which God had in store for him, Abraham awoke early, gathered his son, some belongings and his servants and proceeded towards Mt. Moriah, the scene of the sacrifice. The verse referring to the gathering of the two young men says, Vayikach et shnei na’arav ito – “And he took the young men with him.” Clearly a master servant relationship exists at this point.  Abraham took and the boys went with him.

Notice, however, the change at the end of the story.  After the test, after the near sacrifice on top of the mountain – Vayashav Abraham el na’arav vayakumu vayeilchu yachdav el beer sheva. “And Abraham returned to the young men and they rose up and went together to Beersheva.”  They went together. No longer Abraham going and the boys following after him. This time a sense of equality.  They walked together to Beersheva.

What happened in the interim?  What changed this relationship? Perhaps the presence and support that the lads provided convinced Abraham that there was no need for class distinction between them. But moreover perhaps what happened on top of the mountain so affected Abraham that he began to see all his relationship in a new light. Someone he loved had been placed in jeopardy.  And as a result Abraham finally realized what was most important. He could not demonstrate his faith in God without first demonstrating his knowledge of the preciousness of human life and the preciousness of human relationships.

This was the test and this was the revelation on top of the mountain. Abraham’s actions not only changed his relationship with his son, but they may have made all his relationships appear even more precious.

I think there are a couple of reasons why this text emerged for me this way this year. As many of you know Wendy’s mom, my mother in law died towards the end of the summer and we have been dealing with both the impact of loss and the remarkable gifts and legacy she left us. She was an amazing woman. Active, elegant, cultured! She worked and skied into her mid 80’s.  There was a lot of material for a lot of eulogies. 

But one of the pieces that stays and lingers was the lessons she taught all of us about being a true friend.  Throughout her life, but especially as she aged.  When friends got frail or addled Audrey kept visiting. When folks stopped driving – she drove to see them; even when she probably shouldn’t have.  And when she no longer was mobile she kept calling. And when she spoke to you, she listened and she heard.  She didn’t want to talk to you, she wanted you to talk to her.  Sometimes when we talk to someone, we don’t listen that well, we think about what we could say or tell next about ourselves.  Not her – she knew what it meant to be present in a conversation.  She knew what it meant to be there.

One other thing that’s relevant.  I didn’t cry much at her funeral.  She had a complete full life; was ready to go and as you know has an impressive legacy in her daughter, her grandsons and in the most exceptional of great grandsons! There were more smiles and laughter than tears.  But the two times I remember weeping, was when I saw Jon’s close friend from Houston and one of her doormen from her New York City apartment house walk in to the Temple in Westchester where the funeral was held. Kevin and Artie didn’t say anything –they were just there.

A lot of people were there, true! And we’re grateful, but something about those who went the extra mile, or those who really didn’t have to be there that were—moved me so.

Some of you have shared similar stories of the friend from here who flew to Alabama to be there with you when your father died or the person who followed the ambulance to the emergency and didn’t leave your side after a child’s injury.  Deborah Greene, the wife of our former associate rabbi’s blog post went viral, when she described the cashier at Whole Foods who comforted her so, when she received the cell phone call from her sister telling her that her father had died.

There are numerous examples about folks, known and unknown, expected or from out of the blue going the distance to walk with us in grief or anxiety.  To say little, but to be present.  The plane ticket costs some extra money, but in most cases it’s the best money one could ever spend.

And they walked to Beersheba together. Abraham and the two young men. Together they would be able to meet the challenges that lay ahead.

Which for a moment leads me to one other message to draw from this text. A message about us as a congregation and what it means to be a sacred community and ways that we can do better in being a caring responsive congregation to those who have both acute and ongoing needs. I think we do an okay job.  Goodness knows there are some caring folks who do so as individuals on a regular basis and who have tried to organize a systematic response on a congregational level.

Someone once said, to have a caring committee is the last thing a synagogue should have.  Relegating caring to committee work is precisely not the point.  If you are truly a sacred community then everyone who is a part of it should recognize their responsibility to others. And I feel blessed that around here we have so many naturally caring networks, where people do just that and look out for each other.  Someone misses Torah study two weeks in a row and someone calls to check in. I visit someone in the hospital and I’m told, such and such was just here.  With HIPPA laws we are dependent on congregants to share news about illness and hospitalizations and people frequently do.  But I also know that too many congregants fall through the cracks or bear burdens alone.  Why should I bother someone else with my problems, I know she’s got things on her own plate.

We are a sizable community.  Look around!  But there are few things, maybe nothing more important than being there for those in need.  We are a sizable community with a lot of caring folks who would like to help and with many who have been through the stuff of living they wouldn’t mind sharing with someone going through the same stuff.  Let us know – our hesed program wants to do more than it does.

One of the reasons we read the Akeida on Rosh Hashanah, aside from all the sermonic possibilities that it made available to generations of rabbis – is the ram that became the substitute sacrifice for Isaac on the mountain was caught in the bushes by its horn. God provided the ram and the horn – and showed God’s mercy to Abraham and Isaac.  When we sound it on Rosh Hashanah we do so to remind God of Abraham’s unbelievable faith – and to awaken God’s mercy to us.  “Hey God,  just as you showed compassion and mercy to them, how about a little for us!”  Of course the sacrifice was not stopped by God. It was the angel who intervened. God called Abraham to the test; but the angel stopped it.  It seems that life’s challenges are best handled with angels who call, lads that walk by our sides and communities who recognize that time honored stories have lasting impact on the lives that we are called upon to lead.