L'shanah tovah! A happy and sweet New Year to my beloved and all my Jewish friends. The challah, made round instead of braided, is baked with honey and raisins. The shofar has been sounded, Tekia! Shevarim Teruah! Tekia Gedolah! There will be much singing. Today, the name of the day is to embrace the joy of a new year.
And now begins the Days of Awe that lead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
For Jews, this is the time of examination and self-reflection. How have their practices, both in work, community and family life, contributed to an ethic that chooses life and builds community? Have they been doing that, or have they been living and serving the work of their own hands and the greed that gives one short-term temporal gains at the expense of those things eternal? "Happy New Year" gives way to "How Have I Been Living Year" and, for some, that can be disquieting.
Part of the tradition on Rosh Hashanah is to hear the telling of the tale of Abraham and Isaac. As I considered this moment of Abraham silently, and obediently, putting his son upon a pile of wood to sacrifice him, I thought about the command in Deuteronomy to "Choose life." God is constantly beckoning God's people to put aside those things that lead to death and instead, "choose life." So, then, how can we get to a place where God would want to have Abraham kill his beloved son?
The dastardly deed never happens because an angel of God intervenes and stops Abraham from carrying through with plunging the knife into his son. Instead, his eyes are turned in the direction of a ram caught in the thicket, and he makes a sacrifice of the animal. And the angel goes on to praise Abraham for having contemplated giving up his son, and tells him, "I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore." (Genesis 22:17a)
Funny thing, though: this same promise was made to Abraham before his famous name change to show that he was, indeed, one who belonged to God. You might remember that Abram was pleading to God because he was childless. And God told Abram to, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them....so shall your descendants be."(Genesis 15:5) And this was reckoned to Abram as righteousness. So, did God forget this promise between chapters 15 and 22?
In my reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and, for that matter, most of the Bible, I find it to be a book that not only talks about the relationship between humankind and God as understood by those of us who came through the line of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah; I see it as a study in human nature and our constant dance with God in which we turn towards Love, and then move away from it. We want to be in right relationship with God. But then the mechanics of doing that can get messy. Or we perceive the demands of God to be too much. Or we simply do not want to cede the power of direction to God when those directives get in the way of our own wills and desires.
There are often gaps in the stories in the Scriptures that leave one wondering, "Well, wait a minute? What happened to get us to this point?!" I see this, somewhat, in the story of Abram/Abraham's life of being righteous. Why in the world would he need to contemplate sacrificing Isaac when he's already been told he will be the father of more descendants than the stars in the sky?
Perhaps, Abraham, like so many of us today, while being a righteous man, still was holding back some of who he is from God. Perhaps, he, like me and maybe you, believed that he could get by with just giving God a percentage of his commitment to follow. The old "ten percent" tithe or something. And this is where the sacrifice of Isaac comes in. Perhaps, Abraham's heart was starting to wander, and the Isaac episode was meant to tether him back to life, to God. Maybe, then, it's not that God had forgotten anything, but Abraham had. And, when faced with the choice of death or life for his son, his willingness to give up something as important and special to him as Isaac, leads not only to the choice of preserving Isaac, but it renews the promise made to Abraham that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars.
To follow God, completely, is a tough and demanding choice. You may have to stand and face something you hold precious and be willing to let it go. And you may find that Love, so seeing your willingness to let go of your golden object, will intervene to lead you along a gentler course. This is faith. This is Love. This is "Choosing Life."