Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783, at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, Queens, NY
During his first service leading the community, the new rabbi noticed one of his new congregants walk over to the synagogue president and demand rather loudly that the air conditioning be turned down because it was too cold.
The president nodded kindly and took care of it.
Just a few prayers later, the same congregant asked the president to have the air conditioning turned up because it was too hot.
Not long after, it was too cold for the congregant, and then too hot, all the morning long.
The president always nodded kindly and took care of it.
After services, the new rabbi said to the president, “I was very impressed with your patience in handling the individual who kept complaining about the air conditioner.
“It’s no big deal. We don’t have an air conditioner.”
Shana tova! It’s good to be back inside a synagogue building this Rosh Hashanah – the first time in three years that we have been able to do so here in Flushing.
It’s also good to start the year as your new rabbi – and what a delight to daven today alongside my esteemed colleague Cantor Alan J Brava and our eclectic team of musicians, Deborah, Aram and Brian. And it’s also good to know we have both a kindly president, Ian Benson, and a functioning air-conditioner today.
But – and there’s always a but – since we are Jewish, it’s always good to have something to complain about too. It’s in our nature – since Moses and the Bible it’s been part of our Jewish DNA. I’m sure you are aware of the joke about a group of Jews who are busy eating lunch in a restaurant one day. Nervously, their waiter approaches the table and asks, “Folks, is anything okay?”
And how about this one? A guy gets a dog, a nice Jewish dog, calls him Einstein and trains him to do some tricks. He can’t wait to show him off to all his friends. One day a friend comes over and the guy calls Einstein over. Boasting about how smart he is, he points to a newspaper on the couch, and shouts to the dog, “Fetch”!
Instantly the dog climbs onto the couch and sits, his tail wagging nineteen to the dozen. Then he stops, his doggie smile disappears. Einstein starts to frown and puts on a sour face. Looking up to his master he whines, “You think this is easy, wagging my tail all day? Oy vey…you think it’s easy eating that junk you call designer dog food? It’s disgusting!”
“Wow” said the neighbour, stunned. “I can’t believe it. Your dog actually talks. Einstein can speak! You asked him to fetch the newspaper and he’s sitting on the couch talking to us!”
“I know, I know,” says the dog’s owner. “He’s not fully trained yet. He thought I said “kvetch””!
Ok, ok – I probably should source my jokes from better websites in future. But I’m sure you get my point.
While Rosh Hashanah is a celebration – yom harat olam – the birthday of the world – it’s not a pure celebration like New year’s eve – I don’t know what you call it here, Hogmanay, Silvester - on 31st December. Rather it sets the tone for the High Holydays in full knowledge that Yom Kippur is coming ten days later. We may begin our celebrations with the shehechiyanu blessing and acknowledge that it’s a miracle that we’ve made it to yet another year. But we also know that our mission as Jews is to leave the world in a better place than we found it, and that in so many ways this sense of improvement is imperiled.
I don’t even know where to begin. I spoke last night about the war in Ukraine. About the horror of young men being sent to war, on whichever side of the battle. I could have spoken on a number of other topics as well – the pandemic, the right to abortion, climate change, the cost of living crisis and food insecurity, refugees and immigration, issues in healthcare and education – we might not all agree on the solutions – which group of Jews would – but we know that as individuals and as a Jewish community we cannot remain aloof and uninvolved in a crisis, but rather we must roll up our sleeves and play our part as well.
I also gave a simple message last night that we need to see other people as people. This year it will be one hundred years since Martin Buber wrote his seminal work “Ich und Du”, in English “I and thou”. The German-Jewish philosopher’s main proposition was that we as humans find our life’s meaning in relationships, and that there are two types: I-it and I-thou (I guess I-you these days). We can either see “its” – objects that are separate to ourselves, which we instrumentalise or experience, or “Thous” – relationships that do not separate us from one another. I/It refers to relationships of objectification and necessity, I/thou refers to relationships where our shared selves truly encounter one another.
This year is 5783 – which in Hebrew is written תשפג – tav shin peh gimel. It doesn’t mean much by itself but if you rearrange these four letters you can get פגשת– pagashta – literally you have met – which speaks to a year of I-thou meeting and encounter. Let’s make this a year of encounter and what Ron Wolfson calls “Relational Judaism”. And both Buber and Wolfson have written of how the I-thou relationships with other people are the key to the ultimate I-thou relationship, that of each one of us with God.
For our Torah portion this morning we will be reading the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, from chapter 22 of the book of Genesis. It’s a familiar tale that we read every Rosh Hashanah. The Torah tells us that God tested Abraham by asking him to go to a mountain and sacrifice his beloved son Isaac there. The next day Abraham got up early, saddled his donkey and took Isaac to the mountain. He bound Isaac on an altar and lifted up his knife to kill him. An angel intervened, telling Abraham not to harm Isaac but rather to replace him with a ram, caught by his horns in a nearby thicket. And until today we blow the shofar in memory of that ram.
The 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote several poems on different aspects of the Akedah, but the one I like most is about the ram, and I’d like to share it with you in full:
The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram, who didn’t know about the collusion between the others. He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac. I want to sing a memorial song about him— about his curly wool and his human eyes, about the horns that were so silent on his living head, and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered to sound their battle cries or to blare out their obscene joy.
I want to remember the last frame like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine: the young man tanned and pampered in his jazzy suit and beside him the angel, dressed for a formal reception in a long silk gown, both of them looking with empty eyes at two empty places,
and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram, caught in the thicket before the slaughter, the thicket his last friend.
The angel went home. Isaac went home. Abraham and God had gone long before. But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac is the ram.
There are many ways to read the story of the Binding of Isaac. Over the years I’ve put myself in different shoes and related myself to the various characters – first as a child with his father, and then as a father with his own son. The laconic beauty of the Torah refuses to name the emotions in the tale. Rather we are told the actions – what people did – without knowing what was running through their minds. What was Abraham thinking, what was Isaac thinking, what was Sarah – not even mentioned in these verses – thinking? We have only the rabbinic midrash and commentaries to fill in the gaps and to try to make sense of this horrifying tale.
And as much as we think of the moment, think of the aftermath. Sarah dies. Isaac never speaks to Abraham again. God never spoke to Abraham again. And there’s even a silence in the rest of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Unlike the Exodus story, there are no lessons in the Akedah – it’s not referenced – as you might expect – in any of the later stories. It happens – and the narrative and us as stunned readers simply move on.
As Amichai wrote, everyone went home except the ram. And at the end of the service, we all go home as well. Well not quite all of us.
The shofar – the ram’s horn – may or may not go home – but the Torah, written on animal parchment, will stay in the building. And Einstein, our kvetching dog from earlier, will obediently stay here as well. As will the Maus and Katz from last night, even the donkey from the Akedah, so hastily saddled and swiftly forgotten, will join them. It's a veritable menagerie – almost akin to the prophet Isaiah’s irenic vision of peace: the wolf will live the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the goat; the calf and young lion and sheep will be together, and a little child will lead them.
As humans we use animals all the time, we instrumentalise them to help us understand the world around us. And however much I may love my two cats, or Cantor Alan his two dogs, beyond our pets, and if we are honest, even with our own pets, we can be rather guilty of putting them in I-it and not I-thou relationships.
This Rosh Hashanah I’ve already asked you to see other people as people. Well I’m not asking you to see animals as people too. Nevertheless I would like to issue you an open invitation. After Simchat Torah, once this holiday season subsides, I’m planning a new weekly online zoom study course. Parashat hashavua – but with a twist! This year – I’d like to study the Torah through animals. I checked, and amazingly animals appear in every single of the 54 parashot in the Torah. It could be Abraham’s donkey, or Noah’s ark, Eve’s snake, Aaron’s serpent, Moses’ plagues or Balaam’s talking ass – and note how each of these animals appears to have some kind of dominant human associated with them – animals are lurking throughout the Torah – we just don’t always choose to see them. From the sacrifices to the lists of what is kosher and what is treif, from the materials for our holy places to our land of milk and honey, animals are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere, hiding in plain sight.
It will be a unique opportunity. From Flushing, from Queens – the world’s most diverse borough, we will study the Torah’s biodiversity – and we invite students from around the world to join us in this unique study – I think it’ll be a world’s first! Fun for some, and for others – something to complain about. We can argue over vegetarianism and animal rights. We can learn some of the theory of animal studies – and ask the question of what do we really talk about when we talk about animals – ultimately do we only ever talk about ourselves? And how real are the animals in our stories. Is Einstein the dog more or less real than the complaining congregant, too hot and too cold, with whom I started? As you can see, there will be plenty to discuss.
But in the meantime – let’s read our Torah portion…