What Angell Will Stay our Hands? Renni S. Altman, DD, Rosh Hashanah morning

“What Angel Will Stay Our Hands?”
A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5783
Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD
Vassar Temple
Every year I cringe as we approach the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah. I hope that young children aren’t present. How can you begin to explain to a child that on one of our holiest days of the year we read this most perplexing story of a father’s near sacrifice of his son?
Yet we are not unique.
In the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease a goddess and be granted favorable winds to sail against Troy.
In Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus kills his daughter, Lavinia, after she has been raped and maimed by attackers to preserve the family honor.
And child sacrifice is not just part of literature, it was part of ancient cultures:
The Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed both children and adults to their gods. Exposing an unwanted child to the elements or wild animals was a common practice throughout the Greco-Roman world. The Carthaginians of North Africa sacrificed their infants and children to pagan gods over a period of several centuries.
Even in ancient Israel there were kings who adopted the cultic practices of the Canaanites and “consigned [their] sons to the fire in the Valley of Ben-hinnom.”
So, at the time of the writing of the Akedah, its message that the God of Israel did not want child sacrifice had real, lifesaving, meaning. This story was central in setting Israel apart from child sacrificing nations, emphasizing that ours is a unique and loving God who demands that we act ethically in our treatment of one another, especially our children.
By the time our liturgical practices developed, however, child sacrifice had become a rare phenomenon. Still, this story has maintained its place as a high moment in our Rosh Hashanah service. And it is not only the Torah reading, but the shofar, the most unique and prominent aspect of Rosh Hashanah, that takes us back to that moment. The rabbis taught that in sounding the shofar, we remind God of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and as Abraham’s descendants, we are worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Need we be reminded annually that our God would put a person through such a test, even to teach this most powerful, lifesaving lesson?
Need we remember year after year, this darkest moment in the life of Abraham? This man who so boldly dared to challenge God, the Judge of all the world, to deal justly with the innocent of Sodom and Gemorrah, yet remains silent when God tells him to bring his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac, up to the mountain as an offering? What about Isaac and justice for innocent Isaac? Where is the plea for your own son, Abraham?
Throughout the ages, we Jews have wrestled with this story. Did Abraham pass the test? What exactly was the test? Was it that he was so willing to sacrifice his son, or did he really believe that God wouldn’t let him go that far?
So intent was Abraham on his mission that the angel had to call his name twice, “Avraham, Avraham” — to get him to stop!
For centuries, Jews have been reading this story on Rosh Hashanah. Even our reform movement, with all its creativity and changes, wouldn’t omit it. The traditional practice is to read Genesis 21 about the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day and the Akedah on the second – both challenging stories! When Reform Judaism omitted second day observances, the one Torah reading chosen was the Akedah, I’m guessing in large part, because of its connection to the ram and the shofar.
The Gates of Repentance offered an alternative reading: the story of creation, since this is the birthday of the world. Most likely, it was included for the growing number of congregations observing a second day and not as a replacement for the Akedah.
It wasn’t until Mishkan Hanefesh that the traditional first and second day readings, Genesis 21 and 22, are both included. Two alternative readings are at the back of the mahzor: the story of creation and the passage where Abraham challenges God about Sodom and Gemorrah.
It is hard to imagine a Reform congregation, even those observing two days, where the Binding of Isaac, is not being read today. So ingrained is it in our Rosh Hashanah experience that it wouldn’t feel like the holiday without it.
Here we are again, poised to read this horrific tale. I must confess, I came close to being renegade and suggesting that we read an alternative passage. Then, I heard the voice of that angel crying out to me. She is crying out to all of us: stop sacrificing your children! Yes, today, in the 21st century, we are sacrificing our children and it is not to appease any gods or for some supposedly noble cause, but for completely selfish reasons.
When an 18-year-old can legally acquire a weapon of war and murder 19 children and two teachers, when firearms continue to be the leading cause of death for American children and teens , hen this great nation cannot find its way to end gun violence, can we honestly say that we are not sacrificing our children?
Judaism teaches that Adam was created alone, to teach that if you take a life, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world, and if you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world.
Nineteen children, gone in a matter of seconds; nineteen worlds, erased.
The news accounts of the children returning to school in Uvalde, TX earlier this month were simply heartbreaking. Nineteen children did not return to school. Nineteen families sent one less child to school this year. Two teachers are forever missing from their classrooms. Some children are being home schooled; others are going to new schools. Their school has been torn down. Children are traumatized and fearful of going back to school; they don’t have faith that the additional police can protect them. Imagine their parents’ fear. An entire town has been forever changed.
After ten years of unfulfilled promises of gun safety legislation following the Sandy Hook shooting, it took Uvalde for Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whose state that carried those 26 deaths for the past ten years, to be able to bring together senators from both sides of the aisle who could overcome partisanship and agree upon the first major gun safety legislation in decades. While not banning any weapons, it is an important first step towards sensible gun control.
Personally, I am grateful for New York’s strong gun safety laws and the prohibition against carrying guns in sensitive places such as this synagogue. We are taking appropriate safety precautions and leaving weapons in the hands of those most trained to use them.
If we are to save and not sacrifice our children’s lives, these legislative protections must not be the last. Creative minds can certainly find ways to protect life within the legitimate parameters of the second amendment.
On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of the world. In the biblical account of creation, Adam and Eve were put in charge, given free reign, though tasked with the responsibility to “work and protect” the Garden. A midrash envisions God warning them, “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created I have created for you. Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one else to set it right after you.”
Look at our world today: increasing land and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, ice loss at the poles and in mountain glaciers, increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires — so much of it the result of human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.
We are failing in our roles as stewards of this world. The world’s children are dying – in fires and hurricanes, from cancer caused by pollutants, from hunger and malnutrition due to food insecurity brought on by climate change.
We are sacrificing our children on the altar of our unquenchable thirst for the world’s resources, our inability to put future generations’ needs ahead of our own, the polarizing partisanship that precludes compromise, stagnation that inhibits the possibilities of new approaches and innovative solutions.
If we cannot find ways to slow the increasing temperature, we will be desolating our world, leaving an inhospitable environment for future generations. The recent climate legislation included in the Inflation Reduction Act is a first step upon which we must continue to build if our children and our children’s children will have a healthy world in which to live.
Gun violence, climate change – these are but two of the many challenges we are facing in our society for which our children are suffering. We can all name more. What angel will stay our hand?
When protesting against the Vietnam war, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “in a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.” The responsibility for our children is upon all of us. Judaism commands us to save life; pikuach nefesh overrides all.
Yet, it feels so overwhelming. What difference can we make?

Ruth Messenger, a great Jewish social activist and immediate past President of the American Jewish World Service, challenged attendees at a Reform Movement biennial convention some years ago on just this issue:
“We have to confront…the feeling that we are too insignificant to do this work,” she said.
“We feel overwhelmed by the statistical realities or the political challenges, but we do not have that luxury. We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. We bemoan the lack of leaders for our time, but…we are those leaders. We have that power. We need to believe more in ourselves.”
I remind you as well of a much older teaching, from R. Tarfon, who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple: “It is not upon you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every step we take, even the small ones, makes a difference. With every action, we lower that knife from the necks of our children.

And when it feels too overwhelming and we lose sight of the big picture, remember the starfish. A man walking on the beach, sees piles of starfish washed up on shore. In the distance, he says a woman bending down and straightening up, bending down and straightening up. When the man reaches her, he sees that she is picking up a starfish and casting it back into the ocean. “What are you doing?” asks the man. “There must be thousands of starfish along this beach. You cannot possibly save them all. What difference can you make?” The woman looked at the man, bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it back into the ocean and said, “Made a difference to that one!”

We do not have to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it.
If you save a life, you save a whole world.
In a society, some are guilty, all are responsible.
We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.

We are responsible to stop the sacrifice of our children.
We can begin personally, making changes in our own lives: limiting our use of fossil fuels,
supporting solar farms even if we cannot have solar power ourselves.

We can get involved in community efforts and support organizations that help the causes we care about.

Through the efforts of our social action committee, we offer so many ways to make a difference in the lives of those within our own Poughkeepsie community who are struggling:
You can make food for lunch box or the homeless shelter
You can provide school supplies and winter clothes for children at Morse School, or volunteer there as some of our congregants do
When you shop, buy some items for the can jam to go to the food pantry
You can be an escort at Planned Parenthood,
You can be part of a building-level green team being formed here to assess and improve our sustainability.
These are just some of the efforts in which this congregation is engaged to help save lives.

Perhaps the most important, far reaching and long-lasting tool that we have to protect our children is that of our vote. Our democracy gives us the great gift of voting, the opportunity to participate in the election of representatives who will be our voice – on the local, county, state, and federal levels. We can counter the frightening rise of those that would limit what teachers can teach and what books children can read, by voting in school board elections. This year we can vote to protect our environment by supporting the Environmental Bond Act. Remember, our voices matter not only on election day, but at all times to convey our concerns to our representatives.

I invite you to join with our Civic Engagement Committee and participate in our Reform Movement’s, Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign, to help increase voter turnout. We are partnering with the non-partisan Common Ground for the Common Good and sending postcards to people in other states who may be in danger of being dropped from the rolls, encouraging them to register and vote.

So, did Abraham pass the test? In the end, Isaac is not sacrificed. The ram that suddenly appeared is offered in his place. But God never speaks to Abraham again. And Abraham walks down the mountain – alone. He never sees or speaks to Isaac again.
Will we pass the test of protecting our children? This is the challenge articulated in the moving words of the poet Amanda Gordon, written the morning after the Uvalde shooting:

“Hymn for the Hurting”
Everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.
Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.
May 5783 be a time of such change. Strengthen us, O God, in our resolve to act so as to protect and cherish our children and the generations to come.

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