A Lesson in Kindness – Rosh Hashanah 5783

September 26, 2022 – 1 Tishrei 5783

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

            It’s such a challenging story we read each year, the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Tradition tells us that God tested Abraham ten times and that this was the tenth and final of those tests. God tells him to bring his son as a burnt offering. Abraham complies without protest. He tells no one, not even Sarah, and leaves early the next morning. At the top of the mountain, Abraham and Isaac prepare the altar when Isaac realizes that he isthe offering! And then the angel swoops in and stops Abraham in the nick of time. Why would God demand this? And why would Abraham agree? Elie Wiesel asks, “Why did Abraham, the would-be slaughterer become, in our prayers, the symbol of hesed:  grace, compassion and love?”[1]

            Last night I shared how Abraham’s words, if read the right way, can convey his hopefulness. He tells the servants they’ll return. He tells Isaac that God will provide the offering. As much as the Akeidah is a troubling text, it offers comfort and hope if we look at it through the right lens. Many commentaries make the assumption that Abraham was tested for his own good, that there was meaning in his suffering. “Of course, this does not satisfy everyone:  the idea that suffering is good for the Jews is one that owes its popularity to our enemies.”[2]

            Elie Wiesel describes Abraham as “the first enemy of idolatry,” the “first believer, the first one to suffer for his belief.”[3] When God consulted with Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did not hesitate to challenge God. “How can You—who embody justice—be unjust? He was the first who dared query God. And God listened and answered.”[4]

            In his book Messengers of God, Elie Wiesel writes, “I have never really been able to accept the idea that inhumanity could be one more way for man to move closer to God.”[5] There has to be something more to this story. Elie Wiesel suggests that as God was testing Abraham, Abraham was testing God. This is the piece that has always been missing for me. Finally, an answer to the perennial question:  Where is the Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah when his own son’s life is at stake?

            Elie Wiesel envisions Abraham saying, “I defy You, [God]. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether You shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son—who is also Your son—is at stake.”[6] Abraham wins. At the last moment, God sends the angel.

            In this midrash, we finally get the Abraham we have wanted all along, the one who spoke out for innocent strangers in those twin cities. He challenges God:  “I could have pointed out to You before that Your order contradicted Your promise. I could have spoken up, but didn’t… In return, I want You to make the following promise:  that when, in the future, my children and my children’s children throughout the generations will act against Your law and against Your will, You will also say nothing and forgive them.”[7] And God agrees! “We now begin to understand why Abraham’s name has become synonymous with hesed [kindness].”[8]

            And while this midrash reassures me of Abraham’s character, I’m still troubled that he doesn’t speak up sooner. To find a message that might inspire us today, we have to look beyond the usual suspects, God, Abraham, and Isaac. Who is it who puts this horror to an end? It is the angel. Interestingly, it is an angel who swoops in at the last moment in the other text that is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah, the weaning of Isaac, where at Sarah’s request, Abraham banishes Ishmael and Hagar to the wilderness where they nearly die until an angel appears to Hagar and saves them. “In both stories, Abraham is called to do the unthinkable:  to take the life of one of his beloved sons.”[9] And in both stories, an angel saves the day.

            The Hebrew word for angel is מַלְאָךְ (malach). The same word also means messenger. Angels appear in dramatic scenes like the three messengers who appear to Abraham and Sarah to share that they will have a son or the angel who wrestles with Jacob the night before he reunites with his estranged brother. But they also appear in seemingly ordinary moments that have profound impact. There’s the ish, the unnamed man who points Joseph in the direction of his brothers. This, of course, will lead to their selling him into slavery, but that will lead to his leadership in Egypt, which will save his family from the famine and, ultimately, will lead to our redemption from Egypt. All of this because of an angel, a messenger, a stranger.

            Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “Angels appear, often in moments of great vulnerability and fear, to give us moral strength, clarity and hope. They help us believe again.”[10] While we can pore over the text and try to find some redeemable quality in Abraham or God to reconcile what happens in the Akeidah – and they are there – we need look no further than the angel in that story for guidance at this season. Think of the people who show up when needed, who swoop in at the last moment and get things done, who are there for us when we are broken.

            When the angel appears to Hagar he asks her מָה לָךְ (mah lach), “What’s happening to you?” The same question appears in a Mishnah that teaches that when thousands of pilgrims would come to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals, they would circle the perimeter in one direction. However, anyone who was suffering, anyone to whom something awful had happened, would circle in the opposite direction. Every person was obligated to ask those suffering מָה לָךְ (mah lach),what’s going on? Tell me about your suffering. “The message is clear:  now it is we—each of us—called to step into the role of angel and ask מָה לָךְ (mah lakh)? And in doing, we become the malakh, the angel, ourselves.”[11]

Being an angel doesn’t require the kind of heroism depicted in the Akeidah or in the wilderness with Hagar. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “Ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger. Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes.”

In the most recent season of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell tells how small acts of kindness can make a huge impact. In an episode titled I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me, Gladwell tells the story of Cheil Rajchman, who escaped the Treblinka concentration camp in 1943.[12] Rajchman was part of a small group of prisoners who set fire to the camp and escaped in the chaotic aftermath. After escaping to the forest, they went to a nearby farm where they were offered some food. They decide their best chance of survival was escaping to Warsaw, some 50 miles away. Another farmer provides them with more food and directions to Warsaw.

A third man learns he is a Jew and offers him sanctuary. A smuggler gets him a ride to Warsaw where he reunites with a friend fighting in the Polish resistance. The friend, too afraid to house a Jew, sends Rajchman off with papers that identify him as a railroad employee, which allows him to hide his Jewish identity. It goes on and on with folks offering spaces in shacks, in empty apartments, and under beds for Rajchman to sleep. In the final days of the war, Rajchman was huddled with others in an abandoned building, freezing. Someone discovered their hiding place and asked if they were hungry. He sent them off with hundreds of pounds of food and clothes, which lasted until the end of the war. Malcolm Gladwell counts eleven acts of kindness that ultimately save Cheil Rajchman’s life. Lots of people doing little things can add up very quickly.

Hidden within the Akeidah is a lesson in kindness. Abraham holds God accountable to our benefit. The angel cries out when everyone else is silent, reminding us of the angel a chapter earlier who said, “Tell me what’s going on.” Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a Mussar master, taught:  “I with my unique combination of capabilities, born into this particular time and place, [am called to what is] undoubtedly a unique task before me. And all creation is waiting for me… because I can’t trade my work with anyone else in the world!”[13] When we answer this call, each one of us becomes a מַלְאָךְ, an angel, a messenger of God. Shanah tovah.

[1] Elie Wiesel, The Sacrifice of Isaac:  a Survivor’s Story, Messengers of God:  Biblical Portraits and Legends, New York:  Random House, Inc., 1976, p. 75.

[2] Wiesel, p. 79.

[3] Wiesel, pp. 70-71.

[4] Wiesel, p. 71.

[5] Wiesel, p. 90.

[6] Wiesel, p. 91.

[7] Wiesel, p. 93.

[8] Wiesel, p. 93.

[9] Sharon Brous, The Angels Among Us, Ikar, Kol Nidre 5782, September 15, 2021.

[10] Brous.

[11] Brous.

[12] https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/revisionist-history/i-was-a-stranger-and-you-welcomed-me.

[13] Shlomi Wolbe, Alei Shur, Vol. 1, as cited by Sharon Brous.

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