Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon

Posted October 6th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
October 3, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
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Shanah tovah.  The Torah reading for today begins with the miraculous birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham.  It continues with another celebration, a feast in honor of Isaac’s weaning.
After that, a sour note is hit.  Sarah orders her husband to cast out his other wife, Hagar, and his other son, Ishmael.  Abraham refuses at first, but God orders him to heed Sarah’s voice.  Abraham sends them out into the desert woefully under-provisioned, with only one skin of water.  Abraham’s most reasonable expectation had to have been that Hagar and Ishmael would die.
Tomorrow’s Torah reading continues Abraham’s story.  It too is a difficult one.  Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac.  When an angel stays his hand at the last minute, Abraham returns to Beersheba without Isaac.
At the end of today’s Torah reading, between these stories of losing his sons, Abraham forms a treaty with Avimelech, King of Gerar.  In the course of their negotiations, Avimelech says to Abraham   אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה “God is with you in all that you do.”
Which raises one important question:  What?!
Abraham just sent his second wife and first son off to what he must have believed would be their deaths.  He did so at the command of his first wife, whom, the Torah suggests, he never speaks to again.  Soon, he will almost kill his second son, and never speak to him again either.
Yet, Avimelech says to him אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה, “God is with you in all that you do.”  What could Avimelech possibly be thinking?  How on earth could this be his read of Abraham’s situation?
Well, I can only assume that Avimelech’s impression came from reading Abraham’s Facebook posts.
Which is anachronistic, except that Rashi basically agrees with this interpretation.
Rashi explains that Avimelech had seen Abraham leave Sodom safe and sound even though God destroyed the entire area, had known about Abraham’s victory over King Kedarla’omer and his allies back in Genesis Chapter 14, and had heard that Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a child in their old age.  Apparently, Avimelech didn’t know how badly three of Abraham’s primary relationships were going, and he could not have known how horribly the fourth of his key relationships was about to go.
This sort of selective news that Avimelech had about his acquaintance Abraham is exactly the sort of selective news many of us have about the people with whom we went to high school and the friends we haven’t seen since university.  Regardless of whether we use Facebook, we are much more likely to know that our high school classmate got engaged than that another classmate’s long-time boyfriend just moved out.  We are much more likely to hear the good news that our bridge partner’s granddaughter got into Ivey than the bad news that our poker buddy’s grandson is in rehab again.
People are simply much more likely to broadcast the good things that happen to them and their families and to stay quiet about the setbacks, big or small.  In our culture of competitiveness, our own relatives pass on the accomplishments of our contemporaries as a passive-aggressive goad so that we will work harder and strive a little more.  If your mom even heard about the divorces and bankruptcies of her friends’ children, she has no need to share this info with you.  You’re too busy at work – or you should be, anyway.
Thus, we end up seeing the world through the same lens with which Avimelech viewed Abraham.  From the outside, everything looks good in everyone else’s lives.
At the High Holy Days, this point about Avimelech’s perspective can offer some comfort.  In the season of repentance, one of the sins which we confess in the Al Cheit prayer of Yom Kippur is the sin of envy.  We resent our colleague’s happy marriage or our cousin’s huge house in the right neighborhood, and we want these good fortunes for ourselves.  Yet, in the Al Cheit section of the Amidah, we say, “On account of the sin that we sinned before You of בצרות עין, ‘envy’ forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”  This confession is effective only if we resolve not to do it again.
We could change our nature, but it might be easier to take off our Avimelech glasses and realize that we almost certainly don’t have the full picture of anyone else’s life, not even of our close friends or family members.  The Torah reading for today and Avimelech’s wild misread of Abraham’s situation teach us that our envy is not only a sin, but also perhaps misplaced.
Just as Avimelech could not see the true state of Abraham’s life, so too we cannot see the true state of the lives of those whom we think to envy.  This sin of envy is much less tempting to commit when we realize it might be baseless.  That’s a comfort as we resolve to do better next year.
But the perspective of Avimelech presents a challenge at the High Holy Days too, and this challenge is potentially weightier than its comfort.
The danger is that we will leave our Avimelech glasses on when we look at our own lives.
According to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the Israeli Torah scholar, this challenge is one that even Abraham could not overcome.  Avimelech says to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do,” and Abraham believes him.  Zornberg writes that Abraham “is reassured by Avimelech’s unconsciously gnomic words… – which [Abraham] decodes as an assurance of his essential integrity in all the generous and imaginative acts of his life.  Even what seems most questionable in his biography is ultimately in tune with his noblest intentions.”
Unbelievable.  In the middle of estrangement from both wives and both sons, Abraham accepts the public personae view of himself as reality.  Because Avimelech focuses on Abraham’s “generous and imaginative acts,” so too does Abraham, never mind that he has already almost killed or is about to almost kill three of the four people closest to him.  According to Zornberg, Avimelech sees Abraham as in step with God, and Abraham takes this outsider perspective as a license to ignore his serious failings as a husband and father – his serious failings as a moral human being – and instead Abraham integrates all his questionable acts as in keeping with “his noblest intentions.”
Pay attention that this scene with Avimelech immediately precedes the Akedah, and Abraham’s final estrangement from both Isaac and Sarah.  It immediately follows his banishment of Ishmael and Hagar.  If ever there were a time for serious introspection, this is it.
Yet, Abraham chooses to see himself through the eyes of another, someone who does not have and could not have all the information.  Only Abraham knows exactly what Sarah and God said to him to get him to cast away his son and wife to an expected death.  Only Abraham knows what he was feeling at that time.  He needed to reflect on this very personal and private knowledge.
Instead, Abraham takes the easy way out and thinks only of the big news about his life, the information available to Avimelech and everyone else.  His deliverance from Sodom and G’morah, his victory over King Kedarlaomer, his child of his old age – these are the points of Abraham’s life that matter to everyone else, so they are good enough for him too.  What a coward.
The High Holy Days are supposed to be a time of cheshbon nefesh, a time when we examine our deeds and search our character.  This accounting of the soul can’t be done through a lens, like Avimelech’s, that filters out the brokenness.  We can hardly apply an unflinching eye to our deepest selves if we consider only the good face we present to the world.
The danger of the Avimelech lens is that we will start to believe about ourselves the carefully curated baloney we put on Facebook or that our grandfather tell his friends about us.
For us, as for Abraham, sometimes it is necessary to put only the good stuff out there.  (In fact, it is partly because of this biased information that Avimelech was willing to enter into a treaty with Abraham at all.)  But we are not permitted to confuse ourselves.  Our chance at atonement depends on an accounting of the soul that uses all that we know about ourselves, most especially the information we hide from others.
We are obligated to take a close look at all the sins in the Al Cheit confession (not just the sin of envy) and be truthful about whether it applies to us.  Never mind that no one else knows our pride, or foolishness or whatever other failing we hide so well.  We have all the information.  We just need to brave enough to take off our Avimelech glasses.
Shanah tovah.
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