Rosh Hashanah 5769: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Yom HaZikaron: Remember Not to Sacrifice Your Dreams in Serving the Holy

Abe is rushed to the hospital in an emergency. His life is passing before his eyes. He is sure that his time has come. He prays to God with all his soul. God’s presence descends in a brilliant light and assures Abe that he will make a full recovery…it’s only appendicitis. In fact, God tells Abe that he still has many good and productive years left. When Abe is released from the hospital, he is jubilant; buoyed by the great news that was revealed to him. Immediately Abe decides to make the most of his remaining years. He goes out and has some plastic surgery done, he buys himself a complete new wardrobe of fancy clothes–even a top hat and walking stick, and to cap it all off he purchases a brand new car. As he drives away, feeling like a million bucks, a bus comes careening around the corner and crushes him and his little sports car like a tin can. Abe is furious and appears before the heavenly court to file a complaint with God. “God,” he exclaims, “Why?! You promised me many more good and fruitful years. Why did you let me die?” “Abe?!, Abe!?” God calls out, “that was you!? I didn’t recognize you!”

Were God to look at us on this eve of the New Year, would God see us as the people we were called to be? When we look into our own heart of hearts do we recognize ourselves? Are we the people we wanted to be, hoped to be? Have we remembered our priorities? Or have we sacrificed important parts of ourselves–our values and beliefs, our dreams and yearnings–in order to get where we are today–to be accepted, or maybe to fit in, or to achieve the success we thought we desired?

How easy it is to forget who we are! How prone we are to suffer this spiritual alienation that separates us from our greatness, from our true nature. Reb Shlomo Carlebach would often explain our predicament through a parable: Just before Rosh Hashanah, he would say, we are like a wealthy Rothschild with amnesia, begging for nickels, living on the street. On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar blows and we remember who we are! The blast of the shofar shatters the spell of forgetfulness and calls us back home. One of the other names for Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaZikaron: The Day of Remembering; the day of remembering who we are, what our dreams are, and what is most precious to us. Today is the day to REMEMBER who we truly are, who we are called to be!

And yet, isn’t it so easy for us to let the most precious things in our lives slowly slip through our fingers, almost without noticing? It happens all the time. We don’t really feel that we are giving up on a dream, a passion or a deep yearning in the moment that it happens. But then we notice that they’re gone; that we’ve settled for much less. Often, it is hard to feel that we can get them back. This Rosh Hashanah, I want us to remember. I want us to remember all of the idealism, the relationships, the goals and hopes, the passions nestled deep in our hearts. Let us remember on this Yom Hazikaron, this Day of Remembering, all of those things, once so important to us, that we now have put on the back burner, that we have put off to until some indefinite tomorrow or that we have given up on altogether as just not possible. But it’s not too late! The sound of the shofar calls to us. Listen. Look. Pay attention. This is the message of these holy and sacred days: Never give up on your dreams, never let go of those things that bring you joy and fill your life with meaning. This crucial message, which we need to hear again and again, is also communicated in a surprising and unexpected way in the story of the Binding of Isaac, the Akedah.

We are all familiar with the disturbing story of the Akedah, which serves as one of our Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah. I often wonder: What is this traumatic story doing here in the midst of these lofty days of soul searching and personal reflection? What deep truth about the nature of our lives are we to glean from Abraham’s zealous attempt to sacrifice his son, his only son, the one whom he loves? My recent musings on the Akedah, not surprisingly, emerged out of my own grappling with how I have been living in line with my own passions and priorities, as I embark on a year with very different parameters, and a new sense of balance. Looking through the prism of my current reality, I see for the first time a profound lesson in the Akedah, hiding in plain view, that I had never noticed before. I believe that we are not supposed to read this story as a literal tale about the near-sacrifice of a child, but rather understand it as a symbolic warning to each of us about real challenges that we each confront in our everyday lives. There is not really much of a chance that many of us will actually go out and sacrifice our children. In fact, the notion that Abraham seems so willing to undertake this horrifying task is deeply disturbing and perplexing for us. There is in fact a deeper message to this story. The poignant truth of the Akedah is really about how easy it is for us human beings to sacrifice, even unconsciously, those things that are most precious to us; those people and relationships that we profess to care about and love so much, even those values that form the core of who we are.

Sacrifice is usually understood in a positive light. We think: we are giving up something for the greater good. This is certainly familiar to Jewish parents (and to those who have them!) We make sacrifices for our children, for our parents. We deny ourselves something to help the family, to aid an important cause. We sacrifice for our country, for our people. This is how we generally read the story of the Akedah. Abraham is willing to give up something of infinite value, his son, his future, in exchange for serving the Holy One. We are prepared to bear losses to serve some higher goal.

I would like to look at the story from a different angle…which may explain why this story has earned such a central place in our High Holy Day liturgy. I would like to suggest that, today, we see the Akedah as an urgent call to pay attention to how we are living our lives. If we listen closely, the Akedah, and Abraham’s challenge, ask us to consider what it is that we have sacrificed in our own lives. Who have we given up on? What dreams have we surrendered? What has become of our deepest yearnings?

How many of us have sacrificed time with our families due to long hours at the office, juggling crazy schedules of work and home life? How many of us have sacrificed significant relationships because of our own egos and pride? How many of us have sacrificed our physical health by neglecting our bodies? Our emotional well-being by not taking the time to nourish our interior lives? Our intimacy with our partners? Our spiritual needs?… Frankly, our culture challenges us, pushes us, to do it all and have it all, and makes us feel guilty if we can’t, or won’t. Therefore, most of us live lives out of balance, out of synch with what is truly important to us, and we end up sacrificing so much as a result.

These are real issues that we all struggle with and have to live with. I know that I certainly am wrestling constantly with these challenges and that you do, too. The question is: what will we do about it?… As your rabbi, I felt, recently, that I had no choice but to make a leap of faith…to unbind myself and to free myself from a schedule that had become unmanageable. Believe me, I love my work as a rabbi and I love what being a rabbi adds to my life and my family. In turn, my family is so grateful to the congregation for the countless ways Bet Haverim has enriched our lives. I derive a deep sense of satisfaction from being a part of our unique community, guiding people on their spiritual paths, sharing the wisdom of our tradition, offering comfort and solace to those who are struggling with loss and confusion, and celebrating joyous and life-affirming moments with so many.

Yet, maintaining a healthy equilibrium in my own life became more and more of a struggle. The demands of a rabbi’s schedule–meetings, events, classes, programs, planning and preparing–were all taking their toll on me. More and more, my life felt out of balance. I was helping others discover their spiritual lives, but I realized that I had insufficient time for my own. I encouraged others to make time for their families, and yet I was often not at home with mine. Was I sacrificing my own well-being and that of my family, at the temple’s doorstep? I began to fear that I was.

If I were to be model for all the things that I wished for you, then I was going to have take a hard look at how to reorganize my life, how to reorient my priorities, so that I would have the time I needed for the things in my life that were important to me–my family, my spiritual life, my intellectual life–all of the things that make me a better rabbi. In the end, I was blessed by this supportive and loving congregation, that has worked so hard with me to enable me to work in a more balanced, healthy and sustainable manner.

Now that we have found a wonderful partner in Cantor Brian Reich, I am beginning to experience a sense of spaciousness that will allow me many opportunities. The first gift of time is simply time to enjoy with friends and family (after all, the kids will only be home for a few more short years), time to dream and plan, to be creative, to imagine. The second gift of time is the chance to pursue further study. I will begin an exciting three-year course to become a Spiritual Director, as a part of the Aleph program, starting in January. I feel as if this is an important next step in my rabbinic journey and the lessons I learn will deepen the work that I am able to do as a rabbi with our community. The third gift of time is the blessing of renewal that comes out of the unknown, out of just being able to breathe more deeply. I am eager to see what will emerge out of the open spaces that are now available to me. And, of course, I know that these sweet blessings that I will receive will come back to all of you as we continue to celebrate, learn and share our lives together.

Life is a holy dance, a balancing act. We are in danger, though, when we fail to honor and value all of the disparate parts of our life…our career, our family, our continuing education, our spiritual, physical and emotional well-being. We become unrecognizable, even to ourselves, when we sacrifice our most cherished hopes and dreams of our lives on the altar of illusory and transient pursuits. To truly serve God, we now learn from the Akedah, we must never sacrifice the things we love.

I believe that the Akedah is a wake-up call for all of us. At the beginning of the story, God calls to Abraham just once. But when Abraham is about to make the greatest sacrifice of all, God’s angel calls twice, “Abraham, Abraham!,” suggesting that Abraham has forgotten who he is, even as he attempted to serve God. The insistent cries of his name are just what Abraham needs to wake up, to be reminded of who he is, of what is truly important in his life. The irony is chilling: In those moments when we are absolutely certain that we are serving the highest goals in our lives, we may, in fact, be sacrificing that which is most precious and dear to us. Let us hear life calling out our names with renewed urgency this year. Let us remember at the deepest levels who we are and what we value. Let us live each day with a commitment to fostering an abiding sense of balance, wholeness and peace in our lives and in the lives of those we love.

ken y’hi ratzon

Rabbi Greg Wolfe