Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Rosh Hashanah Sermon--Adonai Yireh

This past summer, the scandal in the Penn State football program rocked not only the world of college sports but the entire nation. Coach Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials displayed unbelievable negligence in protecting Jerry Sandusky. The NCAA issued against Penn State what is arguably the most severe punishment in collegiate sporting history, and I think rightfully so.

However there’s one aspect of the NCAA’s penalty that I find troubling: the decision to strip the football program of all of its victorious since 1998. This is troubling for two reasons. First, it punishes the players for the crimes of their coaches. And second—and for me more importantly—it pretends that history can be rewritten.

Going back in the record books and changing a few stats doesn’t actually change anything. Taking away Joe Paterno’s victories doesn’t undo his wrongdoings, nor does it refute his winning record. Whether Paterno is or isn’t the winningest coach in NCAA history doesn’t remove the trauma that Sandusky inflicted on so many young boys. And even if Paterno was a terrible coach and role model, it doesn’t change the number of times his team scored more points than their opponents. Even in this viciously perverse story—and no matter how much we’d like to undo this cruelty—the past cannot be rewritten.

Rosh Hashanah calls us to open the books of our lives and see what we have written there. Where have we been this past year? What were our greatest successes and our greatest failures? “Our days are like scrolls,” teaches Bakhya, the medieval Jewish philosopher. “Write in them only what you want remembered.” How often do we write in the books of our lives things we wish we could strike from the record? How often do we lose our patience with a loved one, only to immediately wish we could take it back? How often do we share that tiniest piece of gossip, with the full knowledge that it can’t be unsaid? How often do we put our work first at the expense of our family, only to find ourselves, years down the line, wishing that we could have one more Saturday afternoon together? How often do we wish that we could rewrite history?

This morning, we read the binding of Isaac, the most well known and perhaps most troubling episode in Abraham’s life, one that I imagine Abraham himself wishes could be rewritten. As a sign of devotion to God, Abraham takes his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah with the intention of making him a human sacrifice. Thankfully, an angel of God intervenes, and Abraham is unable to complete the task. And as a sign of thanks to God, Abraham decides to rename that place “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees.”
The naming of places is a classic literary trope in the bible and often holds the key to unlocking any particular story’s central message. In decoding the binding of Isaac, Jewish commentators throughout the centuries have offered a variety of interpretations for why Abraham chooses to name this place, “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees.” I’d like to briefly present you with two, and then focus on a third.

Rashi, a medieval French commentator and one of our most prolific sages, argues that the name change points to the centrality of sacrifice in ancient Israel. The name means: “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees that through sacrifice, the people of Israel demonstrate their devotion.” A second interpretation comes from Radak, who lived a century after Rashi. Radak argues that the name refers to an earlier passage in the story. When Isaac had asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham replied, “Adonai yireh / God will see to the lamb.” In the end, God does see to the lamb by providing one that is stuck in the bushes, pointing to God’s benevolence and grace.

A third interpretation comes from the Midrash, and is particularly appropriate to Rosh Hashanah. In our tradition, Abraham is associated with hospitality and with loving-kindness. And yet, glaring in the middle of his otherwise praiseworthy biography is the binding of Isaac, an act of inhumane zealousness. According to the Midrash--which is our collection of fables based on the Torah narrative--Abraham will eventually come to regret his actions. The Midrash points out that the very next event in the bible is the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother. The Midrash imagines that upon hearing the news of what her husband almost did to her son, Sarah goes into a state of utter shock and dies. Abraham put God before his own family, and this Sarah cannot take. The Midrash also points out that after the incident on Mount Moriah, Abraham and Isaac never speak to each other again. Abraham’s blind devotion to God distances him from his son until the two are completely estranged. In proving himself to God, Abraham loses that which should have been closest to him, his wife and his son. The binding of Isaac is, for Abraham, a blemish on his record, a dark spot in his history, an irremovable weight on his conscience, and out of his regret, Abraham renames that place “Adonai yireh / The Lord sees that which I have done.” Shameful though Abraham may feel, he will forever be remembered for it. God sees, and Abraham can not rewrite history.

On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that “Adonai yireh,” that the Godliness inside of each us sees all that we have done this year, that the divine spark within calls us to bear to witness to our own actions. It is the day upon which we see the history of our lives displayed before us, and rather than boasting with pride or shrinking with regret at what is written there, we simply read. This can be terrifying. Sometimes the truth can hurt. But often, when we bring it out into the light, the truth becomes less scary. As rabbi and author Alan Lew puts it, “We know we can stand the truth. It is already here and we are already enduring it.”

I recently had a disagreement with a loved one in which we were forced to examine the truth of our history. Deep-seated relationship dynamics, engrained in us over decades of a close, loving relationship, were finally acknowledged. The conversation was uncomfortable. But it was honest. We weren’t able to change, or forget, or bury, or rewrite anything about our history. But we were able to examine it. And in doing so, we were able to see ourselves and each other more clearly.

It is exactly for this reason that Rosh Hashanah has another name: Yom HaZikharon / The Day of Remembering. Remembering the past enables us to do self-improvement. When we boldly remember the truth that the past holds, we no longer serve it, as a blemish on our record, but rather it serves us, as a beacon of right action.

This morning, we recited Unetaneh Tokef, one of our tradition’s most stirring and powerful prayers. The prayer was written in the 11th century, but it borrows its language from the Talmud, written 500 years earlier. This earlier version declares that our acts of self-reflection will cause God to ma’akir / tear-up God’s judgment of us. This is a God who can rewrite history, a God who, with proper persuasion, can cause any event in our past to just disappear, as if torn / ma’akir out of the pages of history. Five centuries later, the author of Unetaneh Tokef envisioned a different kind of God. The author declares that our acts of self-reflection will cause God to ma’avir / transform God’s judgment of us. This is a God who calls us to recognize our past, to face it boldly, and in doing so, allows us to ma’avir / transform ourselves and our understanding of the story of our lives. This is not a God who tries to rewrite history; this is a God who sees. Adonai yireh. This is a God who calls upon us to see.

So I don’t think Joe Paterno should have all of his wins torn from the record books. This would not be in the spirit of Yom HaZikharon / The Day of Remembering, but rather in the spirit of forgetting. And we learn nothing by forgetting. Instead, let’s remember a football giant who was so good at winning, that he risked the safety of dozens of youngsters and ruined his own reputation to do it. That story has something to teach us.

As for ourselves, let us open our eyes this Rosh Hashanah to see the truth of our past, which cannot be changed, our failures along with our triumphs, that we may remember them—and learn.Adonai yireh, oh God who sees, give us the vision to see your holy spark which lives within each of us, that it may illuminate our dark places, that it may guide us to good action, that it may take that which we’d rather tear out of history and transform it into a source of blessing.

Kein y’hi ratzon. Be this God’s will.