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I’ve Been to the Mountaintop

Rabbi Evan Schultz
November 6, 2020
Vayera 5781 – I’ve Been to the Mountaintop

Here we stand, America, upon the mountain top, facing the test. 

How our lives mirror an ancient tale. “Some time afterwards,” we read this week. “God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Hineini: Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

That father, who loved his son, journeyed to the top of the mountain to answer the call, to fulfill the test, to reach the Promised Land. “But where is the lamb for the burnt-offering,” asked Isaac as they journeyed higher. “God will see to it,” Abraham replied. And the two of them journeyed on together. 

We will never quite know what happened that day on top of the mountain. Abraham placed his son Isaac upon the altar and raised the knife to slay Isaac. An angel of heaven called out, “Abraham! Do not!” And Abraham untied Isaac, and laid a ram in his place. Isaac lived. Yet the story ends tragically. The two descend the mountain separately. In fact, Abraham and Isaac never speak again because of what happened upon that mountain top. And it would be years and years before their offspring even dreamed of once again reaching Promised Land. 

A similar journey began just a few hundred years ago. The founders of a nation, Washington and Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson, Jay, Franklin, and Madison, stood at the foot of the mountain. They, too, accepted the test, peering deep into the sky, they believed one day like Abraham they would reach the top, where they could look out, rest their tired bodies and souls, where they would slowly smile as they basked in the sunlight of a new, American Promised Land. 

Each step of the way they would look back and look forward, their legs heavy, the journey growing more difficult by the day. There was war and there was slavery, segregation and inequality. And there were rights won and protests, shouts of joy and unity when we found the strength we didn’t know we had. 

There were those left behind and those who laid down their backs, sometimes by force, so others could climb just a little bit higher towards the crest of the great mountain. And there were those who told the story of the journey to their children, casting blame and doubt on their fellow travelers for the perils of the journey, noting that when we set out on this path, the world didn’t seem so complex, the test of a nation shouldn’t be this hard on the weary soul.

And when they reached the top, tired and nearly broken, they believed they had reached the foot of the Promised Land. Then the great prophet spoke to them, to us. Reaching the top is only half of the journey, the prophet cried. It is only from here that we look out and can see the path to the Promised Land. 

“I don’t know what will happen now,” preached Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. “we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Here we stand, America, upon the mountain top. All 330 million of us. Halfway through the journey. And we’ve argued and fought and disagreed on how to navigate our way down, which way to go, how to find the path to the Promised Land of which the prophet envisioned and preached.

How do we shift the narrative of the ancient tale, uniting to circumvent the great tragedy of our ancestors, Abraham and Isaac who descended the mountain apart and never spoke again? How do we finally heed the call, opening our eyes to the pathway down the mountain, together to reach the great American Promised Land? 

I know many of us struggle with many such questions tonight, even as some perhaps celebrate election results with elation while others let devastation of loss set in. No matter what the outcome of an election that has held our attention for days and days now, we know that no one president or leader of our nation is going to magically illuminate the path, like Moses who parted the Red Sea for the Israelites. There is no messiah, only the great prophets, who to this day, believed in us enough to answer the call, even if some days it feels as though we are so far from it.

And it is on us all, to raise our voices with power and visions of justice. I am here, we cry! I am responsible for us being stuck on top of this mountain, and I am responsible for us taking our first steps back down together, God willing, to the Promised Land. And I will not make the mistakes of my great, great, great ancestor Abraham. We will descend the mountain together. We will make it through. In the name of love and hope, we will not lay each other across the altar, casting the blame, sacrificing their name.

Perhaps like you, I have been overcome this week with struggle. A nation divided into patches of red and blue, nearly split down the middle.  My struggle in witnessing the ways in which we cast those on the other side upon the altar of blame, that THEY are hateful, they are the reason for racism and inequity in this land; not me, not us. We are good and they are evil, we are right, they are wrong. Casting others upon the altar of blame. Have we not listened to the cries all these years, of those who laid their backs upon the ground so we could reach the mountaintop? Those who have written and cried and been battered and offered tearful words of poetry and prose? Those who beg us to see that we all are responsible? 

Yet out of the struggle births hope. There is not a day that goes by that I do not struggle and I do not hope. Because the prophet still calls out.  Because we have not yet gone our separate ways down from the mountaintop. A little girl asks her mother, “what now?” The mother replies, “no matter what, we keep fighting for the rights of all people.” We keep going. We, believers in the human spirit, in the still small voice that will lead us to the trailhead of redemption and peace. I refuse to believe that it is not within our reach. 

In just a few moments we will close our service tonight with the words of Aleinu.

Aleinu, a prayer that calls to us all tonight. Aleinu, which means, “it is on us.” 

Aleinu, it is us on to come to terms with our own shortcomings and responsibilities. 

Aleinu, it is on us to listen more and see each human being as created in the image of the divine.

Aleinu, it is on us to fill this world with love and carry the message of hope.

And if we do, we may just find our way down the mountain together, and one day reach the foot of the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom.