Shanah Tovah! It is with great gratitude that I stand here in this spot today. As I read today’s Torah reading, wondering what might inspire me for this task, I felt as though I were watching “Avraham, The Movie” play out in the cinema of my mind, so powerful are the visuals. As I watched, I saw parallel scenes out of my own life interspersed with those of the Biblical narrative. This particular part of his story – the story of the Akedah – is a story of the tension between his powerful call to Divine service and his equally powerful call to serve his family, of certainty and uncertainty, seeing and not seeing, listening, and life-altering changes in perspective. Today we explore three words from this text that can help us unlock meaning in this troubling tale, and show us how it relates to High Holy Days and to the architecture of our own lives.
Word #1: Hineini. As the scene opens, Avraham hears a familiar voice from beyond: “Avraham!” He looks up, and gives his simple response: “Hineini – here I am.” With that one word, Avraham declares his presence and availability to do God’s bidding. He sets out, unquestioningly, on his dreadful errand.
The scenery changes, and we see a puzzled looking woman in 21st century USA… When I got the tug at my heart to start down the long road of becoming a Hazzan, my response was not as enthusiastic as Avraham’s. “Sorry…” I said, “I don’t have time for that.” I had a young family, a fairly active performing life, and considerable commitments to my health and self-care. I wasn’t about to uproot my life to go and study full time. The tug didn’t stop tugging, though. Eventually, a friend told me about an ordination program that wouldn’t require me to move, or to commit to a full-time course load. The rest, as they say, is history.
It wasn’t easy, though. It was a big idea for all of us to get used to – the idea of a clergy member in the family. And, the program did require our family to flex and bend our usual routines into some uncomfortable positions to accommodate required travel and course attendance. I was moving from being primarily a stay-at-home mom to what I now call a work-at-home mom. Saying “yes” to both my beloved family and to this powerful call requires me to say no – or, at least, “not right now” – to both at times. Never easy choices to make. Ultimately, as Avraham experiences, if I pay attention, I get to keep saying Hineini! to both.
Word #2: Olah. What is this dreadful errand God asks of Avraham? “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, and ha’aleihu l’olah.” This is most often translated as, “and offer him up as a burnt offering.” Yikes. In subsequent books of the Torah, the numerous uses of the word Olah clearly indicate a burnt offering. But what if, just this once, it doesn’t mean that? I am seized with the desire to pull this word apart by its root – one of my favorite activities. It comes from a root that means to ascend or elevate, as in, “He went up from Mitzrayim,” or “She went up for an aliyah.” What if God is asking something quite different of Avraham, something more like: “Bring him up there, elevate him to the best he can be so he can learn to serve Me as you have.” Avraham has made an assumption based on the common use of this word, and proceeds unquestioningly. In the cinema of my mind’s eye, I see him, head hanging low, so certain he’s understood the directive, yet shrouded in a thick veil of incredulity. “I don’t understand! HaShem promised to make a great nation of my descendants. How will that be possible if there are none?” He raises his eyes, sees the mountains of the appointed place in the distance, and trudges onward.
Or, perhaps it does mean burnt offering here, and I should really be questioning the particle “l’”. “L’,” as with so many Hebrew words, can have a variety of meanings: for, to, by, from, about. Did I miss any? What if God was saying not that Avraham should bring Yitzchak up AS a burnt offering, but TO a burnt offering? What if the white fire between the black letters at the end of this vignette reads: “Avraham! No! I MEANT bring your beloved son up to the mountain and teach him to worship as I’ve taught you, so that we can start in on our nation-building project. I ALREADY know that you would not withhold your beloved son from me! That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind…”
Scene change: a Jewish retreat center in Western, CT. In my memory, I hear my wife’s voice over the phone when I call to check in during a period of travel. She sounds stressed. “The kiddo REALLY misses you.” What if I got it wrong? What if I’m walking down the wrong road? I think about sending the whole thing up in smoke. I take my doubts to a dear friend, who responds simply, “Diana, just because a thing is hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” I raise my eyes, and see the mountains in the distance. I call home to check in on another occasion. “How are you guys?” I ask, a little tentatively. “We’re doing well,” she says. I can hear the smile in her voice. I walk on.
Word #3: Ayeh. “Avi- my father…” says Yitzhak. “Hineini,” comes Avraham’s response. “Ayeh haSeh l’olah? Where is the ram for the offering?” Ayeh is a word that deals not so much with location as with the noticing of an absence. Yitzhak has noticed a conspicuous absence in this picture. More than a few readers have noticed another conspicuous absence in this narrative. Ayeh Sarah? Where is Sarah in all of this? In an earlier episode, Avraham pledges his presence to her, accepting God’s counsel to go to her and do whatever it is she tells him to do. The result of that is the banishment of Hagar and Yishmael to the desert. Ouch. Happily, we quickly learn that God has big plans for them.
We must wonder, though, if he followed this advice before packing off to Moriah without a ram. The next thing we hear about Sarah is that she has died. The midrash speculates that she died of heartbreak as a result of this venture.
This word – ayeh – tells us here that we must consider the impact our decisions may have. Ayeh can also be linked to the word Eimah, one of several Hebrew words for fear. If we pull it apart, we get something like “Ayeh? Mah? Where is it? What is it?” We start to feel the impact the notable absence of the ram is having on Yitzhak.
Scene change. A shul in modern day Massachusetts. Am I the only one here who has made decisions without consulting others who may be impacted? Fortunately, nobody has died as a result of these snafus. Yet, even as I admit to this foible, I marvel at how I could have succumbed to this approach more than once – the results are not pretty.
As Avraham responds Hineini to Yitzhak in that moment, he must surely be feeling the impact that his unquestioning certainty is having on his son. One could argue that, of course, he should just listen to God. God is God! Why should he consult with anyone else? I say to that, it would not be the first time Avraham questioned God, who was willing to listen to Avraham’s challenge concerning the city of S’dom. While we know how that ended, my point still stands…
One thing we can be sure of is that Avraham is willing to listen. “Hineini…” he responds to God. “Hineini, b’ni,” he responds to his son. “Hineini,” he says, hearing the voice of the angel, and lifting his gaze one more time to yet another life-altering change of perspective that reveals the ram ensnared in the bush.
Teshuva. Turn, return, be turned. The story of the Akedah tells us, through language direct and veiled, to look, to see, to be open to the awe of Divinity all around us. It asks us to listen, to be willing to take a new point of view, to be surprised. Isn’t that just what these Days of Awe are all about?
Poet Elizabeth Barret-Browning wrote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” The bush, in this case, was not afire as with Moshe, down the road. Rather it was inexplicably enmeshed with a ram, which, when Avraham looked up and around himself, he was able to see.
How, oh, how do we get the needed changes of perspective? Our three words can tell us. “Hineini!” I am present! We are called to be present to what is happening before our eyes and in our hearts. The text gives us clues that, during much of the action, Avraham’s eyes are trained on his shoes. This tells us that there is something amiss in his heart. Yet he doesn’t question. “Olah. Just what do You mean by ha’aleihu l’olah?” That is another “how” here. “Ask questions!” we are being told. Ayeh? Look carefully – you may notice a missing link that could make all the difference. “Avraham!” Listen. You may just hear the voice that changes your life. The angel that calls to you may not be in the form you expect.
There is another “how,” more deeply hidden in this reading. As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of prayer. Certainly, the communal prayer we engage in together here, but also personal prayer. I use prayer in very practical ways every day. Prayers made up of my own words, or silent prayers when I can find none. “God, you know my heart,” I may say. I can’t explain it, but it seems to actually change things. The students of the Baal Shem Tov taught that prayer does not actually change the Divine Will, rather, the pray-er is transformed through prayer, and the new person she becomes is no longer subject to the previous programming.
Rather than engaging in his previous chutzpadik questioning, here Avraham simply says, Hineini. In this silence, Avraham IS his prayer. He walks three days, with a heavy heart that is, nonetheless, willing to sacrifice his only son. In the language of R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel, he was praying with his feet. Perhaps ha’aleihu l’olah means just what we’ve always thought. In his silent prayer, and his pledge of Hineini to his son, Avraham is transformed, and it is the original directive that goes up in smoke.
Aren’t we all Avraham Avinu in some way? Hineini. Here I am, honored with the task of giving over my Torah, so that our beloved rabbi can say Hineini to his beloved family. I know we hold them in our prayers through this trial. May they all be lifted up and may they find comfort and hope and love in each other’s presence.
Hineini. To what or to whom do you say Hineini? What is the path upon which you seek certainty? Where do you bring your doubts and questions? What is the mountain in the distance you see when you remember to look up? And how can you lift up yourself and others around you?
I leave you with an invitation and a blessing. I invite you to ask outrageous questions. I invite you to keep your eyes to the ground, so you don’t lose your path, and to look to the mountain in the distance, so you don’t lose your vision. I invite you to engage with prayer if it is not your usual practice, and to take close note of the effects of prayer on your life, if it is. As you go into this new year – 5780 by our count – may you be blessed with the awe and wonder that a small shift in perspective can make. May you be blessed with the wisdom that deepens as we are willing to admit we may not know – or that we may know. May you dedicate your presence to the people and endeavors that bring, and to which you bring, deep meaning. May you, and all to which you dedicate yourself in this way be sated with the very best you have to offer.