Rosh Hashanah Second Day - 5784/2023 Rabbi Elkin

  • 5784/2023
  • Rabbi Elkin
  • Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah Second Day - 5784/2023 Rabbi Elkin

Rosh Hashanah Second Day 5784
Rabbi Hannah Elkin
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

Arguing Our Case for the New Year

Trudging down the dusty dirt road, a man leads his horse as it drags a cart full of milk for delivery. Tired and belabored from a long week of work, the man looks up to the sky and asks, “Dear God, was that necessary?” Pointing to his slow-moving horse, Tevye continues, “Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? Ahh that wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me…that’s alright. But what have you got against my horse?!” As Tevye the Milkman opens his long and on-going conversation with God in Fiddler on the Roof, this scene highlights a unique feature of Jewish tradition and our time during Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe.

Of the core features that set Judaism apart from other religions of the world, Jewish theology stands as a distinct example. Whereas other religious traditions and faith systems hold a clear line of hierarchy and smallness of humankind compared to the divine, Judaism views the dynamic between God and the Jewish people a bit differently. While we still recognize our limitations and humility before the sovereign of the universe, we find that God makes space for us to hold our own. Questioning and constant struggling for better answers are fundamental Jewish practices. God or whatever higher power we might believe in does not get a pass on engaging in the questioning. Even as we take on the High Holy Days to reflect on our year and see where we missed the mark and need to correct, Tevye’s example of Jewish spirituality reminds us that we are more than sinful punching bags. We have agency over our lives and our destinies.

Like many of the good Jewish lawyers we know in our lives, or who some of us happen to be, we don’t just bow our heads and accept our fates. We strive and debate for the case of our lives and our fate. On the other hand, though, we also need to take that hard look in the mirror and acknowledge where we went wrong. We show up to celebrate the holidays yearning for a good year, and we take accountability for our past mistakes to help us create that good year for ourselves: we do the hard work to put our lives back on track. Yet how do we find the line between contrite accountability and self-confidence to back ourselves in during a tough situation? In the important moments of the past year when there was moral weight attached to our actions, how do we determine if it was enough or if it was lacking?

There is no bigger, morally-charged moment depicted in the Torah than the incident of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. Just yesterday, as we do every Rosh Hashanah, we read the story during our service. As we hear, Abraham receives a call from God to take his son to a mountain and sacrifice him as a sign of Abraham’s commitment. This extraordinary and disturbing ask turns even worse with Abraham’s obedience to it. Thankfully, Isaac is ultimately spared at the last second. We publicly read and listen to this story each Rosh Hashanah, and tradition gives us several interpretations for the reason that we read it to start the New Year. But which reason is correct for how we should view the story? Are we meant to follow Abraham’s example of strict obedience and submission to God? Should we be willing to sacrifice the most important things in our life because of a higher order? Or should we see it as a model of the struggle with difficult decisions? Watching our great ancestor in a situation of impossible choice, we might learn something about our own struggle to make the right decisions in our lives.

Like many of us, the ancient rabbis also felt disturbed by this test from God and Abraham’s choices. As they interpreted the meaning of the Akedah, the rabbis explored whether or not Abraham did right in this moment through imagined dialogues between God and Abraham. Because the rabbis could not directly condemn this story, they wove their concerns into these back and forth conversations. These imagined dialogues offer us a model and process to hash out where the line of right and wrong lands in the story and in our lives as well.  

In one of these dialogues found in Bereshit Rabbah, a collection of midrash on the book of Genesis, the rabbis imagine an exchange between God and Abraham as God gives the instructions for the mission. In the midrash, as God begins to give the directions for the test, Abraham butts in with a question, causing God to pause and go into more detail. Though Abraham does not push back on the directions, he delays and drags his feet, perhaps hoping God will reconsider the request after pausing and hearing it in lengthy descriptions. Abraham draws God into a back and forth when he feels the moral line has been blurred. Though not doing it directly, Abraham shows a hint of resistance when he engages God in the dialogue.

Through this and other interpretations, the ancient rabbis turn an episode of complete obedience and submission by Abraham regardless of the context into a two-sided dialogue. When viewed in this way, this story serves as a model for our own moral seeking during the holiday season. We do not show up on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to submit without thought and beat ourselves up for every little thing. Instead, we struggle and debate to make the case for a good and sweet New Year, through our contrition for the bad and our recognition of the good. Just as Abraham engages God in a dialogue over this test, so too do we engage in a dialogue as we reflect on the past year. We carve out time during the Days of Awe to take stock and figure out the truth of what was good and what was bad. 

Perhaps the most Jewish way to determine truth is through dialogue and debate. The ancient rabbis gave us hundreds of examples, discussing and debating the tiniest details to uncover the truth of the meaning of torah and Jewish life. Today, many of us learn the Jewish art of dialogue through argumentation at a young age. At dinner tables and family events, we each present our arguments. Sometimes we hold our ground, and sometimes we learn something important that we can only gain from another’s perspective. So as we sit here on Rosh Hashanah, have that dialogue, that debate. Where do I need to take the feedback for improvement and accountability? And when did I truly do the best that I could in a tough situation? Did I hold an important boundary when I stopped taking my parent’s call every day? Or was I acting selfishly and without compassion? When I quickly walked past the woman asking for spare change in the grocery store parking lot, was that ok because I don’t know her or trust her or had to get on with my day? Or do I need to take more initiative to address the suffering in the world that I see around me? Did I need to take that 9pm work call because I am responsible to my client and it was urgent? Or was I not present for my partner and my family by letting myself be distracted?

When we honestly answer these questions, we begin to put our life back on track and to build a sweet New Year for ourselves. While we sit here today and over the next nine days, seek out those answers, have that tough conversation. Whether that dialogue is between you and God, you and a higher power, you and your mother or grandfather or 9th grade English teacher, whatever voice echoes in the back of your mind to advise and nudge, have that conversation. Seek out the right people for this conversation.  Hopefully we all have friends or mentors in our lives who will give it to us straight, who will call us on our…stuff. The ancient rabbis who gave us this model of dialogue did not operate on their own, they worked in a zug, a pair or partnership, studying and debating with the same person often for years and even decades. For us, over the next nine days, carve out that time with your zug to talk it out, seek out and take the feedback that you need to hear. You may not arrive at the “correct,” universally accepted conclusion of right or wrong. But work towards it, take the steps of soul-searching and repair.

Jewish tradition teaches that during the Days of Awe, God moves between the throne of din, of judgment, and the throne of rachamim, of compassion. As we pray and perform teshuvah, we hope that the divine balances the din and the rachamim, the judgment and the compassion, for us. Both qualities help us move forward. They function together to hold us accountable while still making space for kindness for our human limitations. Similarly, we can hold these qualities in balance for ourselves as we take stock of our souls and work through its contents. Make space for self-compassion, but do not skip out on the accountability.

As human beings, we are capable of great good and terrible bad. Even as we acknowledge our errors and mistakes, we still assume that we have the capacity to do good and to do better. Our task is to discern which is which, to wrestle and debate and argue our case for the new year. We too can demand more from a power greater than ourselves because we know it’s not nice to make a horse lame right before the Sabbath. When we explore all the parts of ourselves and our year, may we do the hard work of owning where we fell short and may we also stand our ground and argue our case for a good and sweet New Year. Shanah tovah.