Monthly Archives: September 2014

Your Personal Story- Meaning from the Akedah

We are about to read the story known as the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac. It is the story of Abraham hearing God’s command and taking his son on a journey to Mount Moriah, to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to the Eternal.

What does the Akedah really mean? And why do we read it now, on Rosh Hashanah? It is a hard text to comprehend. It is incongruous, it seems too sparse- so much of the story seems to be untold; the unspoken words in between the words on the page seem almost boundless. It is also a hard text as we grapple to find Jewish values in a narrative that does not seem to explicitly embrace them very well. It is a fascinating example of remembrance.

When we look back, it is interesting to see how we remember. Last year, all 365 days are compressed into some memories. We do not relive every moment. Instead we select highlights, and even those we filter and interpret. For anyone with a partner or spouse, we all have experienced a retelling of a story or event only to be interrupted by our partner with a different recollection of the same event. “No, it was Thursday— at 2 o’clock. And it was YOUR mother, not my father.” And even if you are single, we have all heard someone recall an event to which we think to ourselves, “that’s not how it happened at all.” Who we are affects and where we are in our lives affects what and how we remember. It is like that with the Akedah.

Each time we approach this story it is new. The words are familiar but we see things we had not seen before, often we see things for the first time. We have grown and we have experienced and we are not who we were the last time we encounter the story. And because of this, the story is new, revealing things to us we did not or could not see before.

There are stories and elucidations in our tradition that the rabbis told called Midrashim wherein they attempt to explain what is really happening in a particular biblical story, filling in the gaps that exist. The Akedah is a particularly fertile opportunity; the rabbis attempt to explain what is really going on here. Some Midrashim suggest that Isaac actually was sacrificed. One piece of evidence used to substantiate this understanding is that Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice Isaac. The Angel telling Abraham to stop would not have swayed Abraham from following God’s instruction. It would be akin to a Lieutenant countermanding a General’s order. But ultimately God remains true to the promise and resurrects Isaac. This could account for why Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain together, but Abraham descends the mountain alone.

Why would such an interpretation come about?  Possibly it was in response to a time of great persecution when Jews were being martyred killed for their observance. We needed something to hold on to at a time of great hardship and trial. And it may have fallen into disuse as Christianity embraced the Akedah story as a foretelling of their theology.

And then at other times, the Akedah presents the saving of Isaac as the triumphal expression of God’s love and the prohibition of human sacrifice. Some of the greatest minds, both Jew and non-Jew, throughout history have argued almost every conceivable interpretation. We carry on an illustrious tradition by continuing to grapple with this text.

So for you here today, at this stage of your life what does the story of the Akedah mean to you? On Rosh Hashanah, this time of introspection, we are likened to Abraham. So as you reflect on your year gone by, how do you make meaning from your journey? What do you remember, what do you leave out? How do you make sense of your story as you listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Akedah?

Why High Holiday Services Matter

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I share these wonderful words of wisdom and hope from Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

L’shana Tova uMetukah!

Torah and the NFL- Nitzavim and Domestic Violence

This week’s Parasha opens with an extraordinary statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom culchem lifnay Adonai.” (Deut. 29:9) You are all standing here this day before the Eternal your God; the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers that you may enter the covenant, the Brit, of the Eternal your God and His oath which the Eternal your God is making with you this day. (Deut. 29:9-11)

Everyone from the highest of stature to the lowliest is included. We each and every one of us are to be included. The statement is actually twofold. It has an element that sometimes we overlook. Usually we focus on how each is obligated to enter into the covenant. But there is a form of reciprocity implied in the Brit. As each of us is obligated to enter into it, then by extension so too is each of us protected by it. No matter what your stature from the lowliest to the highest, we are all sheltered by the very same covenant of laws. No one is above the law and all are subject to the same law.

A nation of laws has been birthed for the first time in human history. This is one of the singularly great gifts of Judaism to humankind. It is the bedrock upon which we have built the United States of America.

And that is precisely why it is so deeply offensive and disturbing to witness the ongoing saga of domestic violence play out within the National Football League and within our culture. The Allstate Foundation and its affiliate, The Purple Purse, a center to combat domestic violence, published that an astounding 1 woman in 4 in this country will report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. Here in the United States of America. Furthermore, the number of victims that find they are unable to remove themselves from the cycle of violence is equally staggering. And sadly many victims come to believe that the cycle of violence is acceptable or even the norm and then tragically perpetuate the behavior.

 The stories of Ray Rice, the now former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings continues. Around the country many people are proclaiming that domestic violence simply is not acceptable. The simple truth is: A brute cannot assault a woman; child discipline cannot devolve into battery leaving physical injury. We do not permit domestic violence. Period— End of Story.

 But it is so much easier to turn a blind eye. After all, we are talking about Football. Football is more than a game; Football is our national quasi-religion. Its sacrament is offered by the grand church known as the National Football League in cathedrals around the country and live-cast into our homes.  Almost everyone loves to watch the game on Sunday, and on Monday and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and on Thursday. (If only we could get people to our services so often!). It is quite a spectacle and these players are great athletes.

 Some people ask, can’t we just kick back and enjoy the show? I mean cold cocking your fiancé is not the most admirable thing to do, but come on- have you watched this guy run? Many would rather watch the game rather and turn a blind eye to what happens off the field.

But the answer remains no. When we choose to turn a blind eye, we choose to condone domestic violence. We facilitate and even encourage this behavior because there are no consequences if we turn away. We cannot turn away. We are all responsible for one another.

 As public figures these athletes have a responsibility. And as people who make their money from our participation, we have a responsibility. These competitors embody the celebrity and the financial success that our country glorifies as well as their athleticism, the result of fierce training and discipline. We admire these qualities and aspire to be like those who possess them.

 These people are role models for our kids and for us as well. This is substantiated by the fact that the star performers all have major endorsement contracts to promote everything under the sun- from shoes to hats, to anti-fungal foot powder and almost anything else imaginable. It is only because of their influence on us that they hawk products. So whether or not they aspire to be, they are our role models and the endorsement deals create income streams and a lavish lifestyle.

 What I find distressing however is that the sponsors are reacting faster than the general public. Endorsement contracts are being reviewed and many pulled in response to the culture of unbridled violence that permeates Football. But the fan base, the American “amcha” if you will, remains by in large wildly devoted participants in the spectacle.

 What does it say about us when we encourage or condone or even tolerate this kind of behavior? What are the values that truly matter to us? How do we act as individuals, even when no one else is supposed to be looking? And what do we do in greater society as a whole? If we shirk our responsibilities, we create a culture that accepts and promotes Domestic Violence.

 Our Parasha this week admonishes us that we are united in our obligations. “You stand here today, all of you, before the Eternal your God,” And if we do not adhere to these principles, there will be exile and devastation in the land. Further, it is incumbent upon each of us. Each and every individual is responsible. And this is not an impossible task. “For the mitzvah I command you this day it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. “Lo Bashamayim Hi.” It is not in Heaven, it is not across the sea. Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14)

 All of us are called upon to be involved and to require good and decent behavior from ourselves and from others. So much of Torah is given to us for precisely this purpose. This is not some matter of politically correct civility; it is a foundation upon which our society is built.  A free and democratic system cannot tolerate the brute to rule. To borrow from Socrates rebuke of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Justice is not the will of the stronger. The prophetic call to action of Isaiah, which we will read during the High Holidays and which we echo at every prayer service, admonishes us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless and provide for the widow and orphan. Society is strong only when it protects those unable to protect themselves. The seeds of this understanding are to be found here in Parasha Nitzavim.

 We are extraordinary and unique in that we are a nation of laws. This is not only a fundamental value of Judaism, but also a cornerstone of Western Culture and these United States. Without it, the very fabric of our society begins to fray and the domestic peace is threatened. It is both our inheritance and our legacy.

For this covenant extends beyond us to all of “those who are not here with us this day,” (Deut. v14) the future generations, our children and our children’s children.

 We are compelled therefore to demand better. The Eternal explains in Torah “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil. I command you to love God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments.” God admonishes us to live with our eyes wide open.

 For if we do not live respecting the laws of decency and civility a cancer growing inside, threatens our society, one that will eventually kill, or to use the language of Nitzavim, “a root that produces hemlock and wormwood.” (Deut. 19:17)  We can put a stop to it now, by not tolerating such abusive behavior.

 We can act and we can have an effect. Truly it is close to us in our hearts and mouths. Nitzavim cautions that if someone thinks that he or she “can have peace even if I follow my heart’s desires,” “The Eternal will not forgive…but rather God’s zeal will fume against that person.” (Deut. 19:18) And so, each of us is obliged and challenged to act.

 It can start with something as simple as not watching the football game, sending an email to a sponsor or to the NFL demanding a change before agreeing to patronize one of the worlds most successful business enterprises, and actively supporting campaigns against domestic violence such as Purple Purse.

 The month of Elul is a time of reflection in preparation for the High Holidays; we look to where we have fallen short and how we might do better in the year to come. This is one place where we can all do better.

 ”Life and Death I have set before you, blessing and curse.” (Deut. 30:15) “Choose Life and live.”(Deut. 30:19)

Shabbat Shalom

A Psalm for Elul- Psalm 27

Tradition asks us to recite Psalm 27 during the month of Elul as we prepare for the High Holidays.

I share the following beautiful translation of the psalm by Rabbi Yael Levy, on Congregation Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia




THE INFINITE PRESENCE is my light and expanse, whom should I fear?

The Infinite Presence is the strength of my life, what shall I dread?

When forces come close

Seeming to devour me

When narrowness threatens

And opposition attacks

All that is menacing stumbles and falls


EVEN AS AN ARMY of mistrust besieges me

My heart does not fear

Even as thoughts and desires rise up against me

I still have trust


ONE THING I ASK of the Infinite, One thing I seek

To dwell in the Presence all the days of my life

To awaken to the beauty of each moment as I pass through this world


THE INFINITE shelters me as I encounter difficulty and pain

The Infinite holds me close in deep and hidden places

And lifts me high upon a rock. Now I can see through to what is true

And I will offer my gifts of thanks

And I will sing and make music to the Eternal

Please, Infinite One, Listen to my voice, hear my call



Answer me

You call to my heart, “Seek my presence”

Your presence I seek


Please don’t hide from me

Please don’t let me turn away in anger

I long to serve

You are my help

Do not let me feel abandoned

Do not let me turn away

In You I am safe

For my Mother and father have left me

And it is you who gathers me in

Teach me Your ways. Guide me on the path of integrity


THERE IS SO MUCH to lead me astray

Don’t let me give in to all that torments me:

the lies, the illusions, the menacing threats


I MUST HAVE FAITH that I can see through all of this

I can see the good, the blessings, the ways of life


CULTIVATE HOPE in the Infinite Presence

Let your heart be strong and filled with courage


– Translation by Rabbi Yael Levy