Rosh HaShannah 5768: “Love Endures”
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
[note: this is an adaptation of the remarks shared on the second day of Rosh HaShannah at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA.]
Names mean everything.
We learn from tradition “kishmo kein hu / we are the embodiments of our names” (I Sam. 25:25). When a baby’s name is chosen, parents search their memories and imaginations to imbue their child’s new name with redemptive dreams. While our children were named for members of our families who had died, we struggled to find meanings within their names that would suggest powerful and positive directions for their lives. What a supreme challenge, to venture into the unknown future of another, to shout their destiny every time you whisper their name.
Consider, then, the power of a person choosing to change their name, to claim a personal dream, a path not yet assigned!
In Jewish tradition, a name change can occur for a number of reasons, the most common of which is a time of deep illness. But sometimes a name change is a way of internalizing the memories of a loved one whose life intersected a person so deeply that they yearn to claim a mantle from their loved one. A person choosing Judaism chooses their own name, adopting and adapting, finding their place at Sinai through an unbelievable act of realignment.
When a person desires to emerge from a place of constriction, of predetermination, sometimes it takes something as staggering as a conscious shifting of personal destiny to achieve health and renewal.
Moses encountered this struggle when he brought God's message of deliverance. Our ancient family could barely escape their own shortness of breath, their ‘kotzer ruach’ (Ex. 6:9) contracted by generations of slavery. They could barely hear, let alone claim, their new name: Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.
And what of Avram, who became Avraham? And of course Sarai, who became Sarah? Their new names are linked to the promise of a child:
“… [God spoke to Avram saying,] "this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. (Gen. 17:3-7)”
And so that terrible command from God to Abraham meant so much:
“Ascend to the heights. Bring your deepest treasure, the promise that animates your dreams, and offer him up. (adapted from Gen. 22:2)”
Abraham would have to re-become Abram if there would be no more Isaac, the embodiment of his parents' realized dreaming. With the loss of Ishmael, whose destiny was not to be joined with his father’s, Isaac was Abraham’s only testimony that his family’s future contained hope.
We typically devote energy to finding a way out of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac.
Two of the regular explanations include:
“God didn’t really mean it” – It’s clear that God was testing Abraham from the very beginning, never truly asking for a sacrifice, but rather commanding a demonstration of faith. This justifies the apparently horrible command and the God who issued it.
“Abraham failed the real test” – God had hoped that Abraham would argue for his son similarly to the negotiations that saved Sdom and Amora. When Abraham complied (eagerly, some commentaries suggest), he failed God’s true test. This justifies God but finds Abraham guilty.
Both Drashot (imaginative responses) are legitimate. But this time perhaps we can enter the Akeidah instead of trying to ‘rename’ it.
But what entry point would we possibly want for a story that contains so much pain?
My rabbi, Neil Gillman, once took part in a biblio-drama, wherein different participants take on different roles within the story of the Akeidah. Dr. Gillman "played God." An audience member posed a question to Dr. Gillman, and said:
"God- how could you command such a thing?! You finally gave Abraham and Sarah a child, and you’re commanding its death? Why are you doing this?"
Dr. Gillman’s deeply moving response might provide our invitation to the Akeidah:
"Don’t you see that every person I’ve created has gone the wrong way? I just want to know that I got it right. I feel like Abraham is my chance to prove that people can love me and listen to me, even when it’s hard! Abraham is my chance!"
This God is not the all-knowing Commander who knows how things will turn out. Gillman’s God is an invested part of the emotional journey towards health. A mistake-making, love-yearning God, a God whose very motivation for creating a being that could reject its Creator was an enormous need for love. As Ennis Del Mar says in the revelatory movie Brokeback Mountain, “There ain’t no reigns on this.”
Abraham’s God at the Akeidah asks for an ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps this is because creation itself was a Supreme Sacrifice of Divine Singularity for the sake of relationship with another. Instead of seeing the Akeidah as a monstrous demand of a vulnerable other, this framework allows us to see both partners in the conversation as striving for wholeness through acts of mutual self-sacrifice.
After all, consider the first blessing of the Amidah:
“Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and God of our Ancestors: The God of Avraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, and the God of Leah. The great, mighty, awesome God; the God-Above, the One who does kindnesses. Creator of everything, the One who remembers the merits of the ancestors, who brings the redeemer to their children’s children, for God’s own Name’s sake in love. Ruler who helps and saves and protects: Blessed are You God, Shield of Avraham and Rememberer of Sarah.”
Why does God do so much kindness for us? For God’s own Name’s sake in Love. The call of the Akeidah comes from that same Makom, that same Place.
Consider also the phrase from within the Kedushah:
“Baruch Kevod Adonai Mimkomo /
Blessed is the Glory of God from God’s own place.”
“From God’s own place”?! What else could this indicate other than God’s own need for internal healing? And how else can we help effect this healing of God? And what a holy burden to bear.
The deepest way into the Akeidah is to imagine it is as a love affair. A passionate, dangerous, journey of mutual discovery between lovers who can’t know where their sacrifices might lead, but are committed to giving all they are – out of love.
As we learn in Pirkei Avot (5:19):
“Whenever love depends upon some thing and that thing passes, then the love passes away too. But if love does not depend upon some ulterior interest then the love will never pass away. … What is an example of the love which did not depend upon some ulterior interest? That of David and Jonathan.”
When Jonathan contravened his father’s desire, he offered up a sacrifice for love of David. He contracted part of himself as fulfillment of a relationship. Love commands. Love compels. Love demands.
Mysticism teaches that God created the world through an act of “Tzimtzum / Self-Contraction”, which was the only way to make room for an other. In a sense, the God we know gave up part of Infinity (the “eyn sof”) to encounter another.
In a sense, Creation was the birth of God’s Name. Where once God was all there was, and hence had no need to be called by a name (there wasn’t yet someone to use it), the creation of humanity demanded a Name for God, without which a relationship couldn’t begin.
Sacrifice begins when love calls your name.
And might we not hold in our hearts God’s willingness to sacrifice as we reconsider the painful call to Abraham?
The extremes of sacrifice are hazardous to the health of both participant and partnership. On the one hand is selfishness (no room-making for another), the other the loss of self (too much room making for another). They are both destructive to the relationship and to each of the independent selfs involved.
As we learn from the very first human partnership, each partner must serve as an “Ezer KeNegdo (Gen. 2:18),” a help (“ezer”) and a challenge (“neged”).
Both roles are necessary ingredients for healthy, loving, relationship.
To enter the Akeidah is to hear the call of a loving God.
And we can only do that by listening with “Shmiat Ozen / Empathetic Listening. (Pirkei Avot 6:6)” To hear the loving call is to throw away ready-answers when beginning the process of spiritual self-definition.
The Akeidah’s call to “ascend to the heights” is an invitation to bring all of yourself to a point of clarity, to bring your deepest treasure which is that which animates your dreams. And God’s call to “offer it up” is an invitation to a love that takes and gives, a love that includes sacrifice and promise.
Tradition teaches us “with ten tests did God test our father Abraham, who stood steadfast in them all. They were to show how great was Abraham’s love. (Pirkei Avot 5:3)”
The whole story is about love. It’s not a pleasant story. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a romance, not a tragedy, if read with an open, yearning heart.
To escape the Akeidah is to be alone.
To respond to it can be ecstasy.
Legend has it that the Binding of Isaac took place on the future location of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and that the exact site of the altar will be recognizable by the ashes of the ram, offered in Isaac’s stead, still present to this day (Pesachim 54a).
May we learn to clarify our dreams, name them, and offer them in love.