The high holidays started. Although this is a time of peace, the struggles over the past few weeks had escalated to the point of almost being unmanageable. It crossed my mind on more than one occasion that I might not be in the right frame of mind to participate. Like Abraham, I was tested. So, here I was in what is quite traditionally a return to very Jewish identity, the Holocaust as the ultimate rationale for nationhood and borders, the state of Israel. And yet the head of this both young and old state apparently supporting an angry intolerance of two different states – North Korea and Iran. The disconnect between authority and people has rarely seemed so palpable – as Tillerson eloquently put it, “The President speaks for himself.” So, pro-Israel, but not the one that supports the warlike posture of the leader of the country I live in, I answer the call to be present on Rosh Hashanah, nevertheless understanding that “Silence is not an option.”
We are perhaps just noticeably fewer at the synagogue (parking was a little easier). The service was healing in spite of the wounds that it revisited. We were offered a poet’s response to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, written during world war II “To be a Jew in the 20th century“, with a seemingly more open posture. As the service moved through the traditional passage on restoring purity, only one person walked out, although many probably mentally made the walk. There was only one overt laugh during the prayer for our country at the line “Let our country be an example to the rest of the world.” And then there was the traditional reading of the binding of Isaac. We were all called to the bimah during the reading, and this year, for the first time, I noticed that none of the women around me said the words. Every year we have struggled with the meaning of this story, interpreting it in different ways. Was it the answer to adolescence – “Don’t look to your father to save you, be a man, only G_d saves.”? Was it the end of child sacrifice- one anthropological explanation? Or was it a “horror movie”-like once-in-a-lifetime Durkheimian-Jungian enaction that evoked a tribal reexperience of fear and then celebration at survival – a sociological and anthropological explanation? Does everything hinge on the word “we” meaning that Abraham knew he would return with his son? Or does everything hinge on the word “tested” meaning it was “for real”? As Abraham raises the knife to his son, I step down from the bimah, and then quickly return as the angel appears to stay his hand. It was my expression of this teleological suspension of the ethical – the asking of the taking of a life that is not yours, but rather G_d’s, to take.
I kept thinking about it, and eventually this year I understood a different meaning. The message was about humility. It was about accepting an origin of being unworthy of life, that only by the grace of an angel is our life spared or given to us. And this is the meaning of the words “only son” as the story is told in the Jewish text. Our people have no greater origin. I remember the stones that are symbolically thrown for the women who would save their sons in other traditions, and I am yet not silent.
Be at peace.