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Rosh Hashana

by Rabbi Vernon Kurtz | Published on September 29, 2011

Know Your Narrative

The major story in the Torah reading of Rosh Hashana is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. It is a diffi­cult, complex and enig­matic story that is chosen as the reading for the second day of the holiday, and is actu­ally a comple­tion of the first day’s reading. We are familiar with the story­line but its meaning has always been a problem for many of us. My colleague, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written that “the story has been embraced by the Jewish commu­nity as symbolic of Judaism’s exis­ten­tial history. We Jews imagine ourselves as Isaac, with the knife at our throats bound on the altars of our fathers’ faith. How appro­priate a Torah reading for Rosh Hashana, when the same theme runs as a leit­motif through the liturgy of the day. And how lovely a symbol when the angel calls ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy.’ Is that not the fate that we, too, pray for?”

The story shows Abraham’s will­ing­ness to sacri­fice his son following God’s command. When the angel tells Abraham that God does not want the child sacri­ficed, Abraham sees a ram hiding in the thicket and sacri­fices it instead. Thus, on Rosh Hashana, the Shofar is blown to ask for grace from God in recog­ni­tion of the merit of Abraham and Isaac.

However, the story is told some­what differ­ently in other sacred liter­a­tures. In doing so the authors of this retelling frame the narra­tive in a contra­dic­tory manner. In the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, it states: “By faith, Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac. For having received the promise he was able to offer up his only begotten son… By reck­oning that God was able to raise the dead, he got him back – in parable.”

Christian inter­preters ever since have read the Akedah as a parable of the death and resur­rec­tion of Jesus. Saint Augustine, in his “City of God” writes: “On this account Isaac, also himself, carried to the place of sacri­fice the wood on which he was offered up, just as the Lord Himself carried his own cross. Finally, since Isaac was not to be slain, after his father was forbidden to smite him, who was that ram by the offering of which that sacri­fice was completed with typical blood? For when Abraham saw him, he was caught by the horns in the thicket. What, then, did he repre­sent but Jesus, who, before he was offered up, was crowned with thorns by the Jews?”

The story is retold once more in the Koran. Muslims read the story of Abraham’s son kneeling in the Islamic prayer posture so that his father might offer him in sacri­fice to Allah. Isaac states: “Oh my father, do what you are commanded to do. You will find me, God willing, patient. They both submitted and he put his fore­head down to sacri­fice him.” The narra­tive shows the story to be cloaked in Muslim tradi­tion as one of the founding tales of Islam.

These are very different takes on an ancient story. The narra­tives run almost parallel to one another and although they inter­sect on some of the basic facts, their percep­tion of the truth changed and it was that narra­tive which their followers digested and made their own.

For Judaism, Isaac survived the ordeal to become the second patri­arch. Abraham showed his faith in God to survive the test and was forever rewarded with blessed descen­dants. For Christianity, it was a parable of death and the resur­rec­tion. It showed Jesus to be a true descen­dant of Abraham and, there­fore, deserving of God’s chosen­ness. For Muslims, the story is an Islamic tale showing submis­sion to the will of God. Abraham is the father of Ishmael in the Islamic tradi­tion and trans­mits his bless­ings to his eldest son.

Is it really any wonder, there­fore, that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have expe­ri­enced over the centuries times of great conflict, periods of compe­ti­tion and eras of deep-seated hatred and perse­cu­tion? The same story, the Akedah, may have the same outcome, but it has different retellings and different inter­pre­ta­tions. The narra­tive serves the followers of each of these great religions.

We live our lives by the narra­tives that we inherit and that we pass on to others. These narra­tives are the framing points of our lives, our beliefs and our actions. The inter­pre­ta­tions of these narra­tives create commu­nity soli­darity, faith commu­ni­ties and unity of purpose and mission. Different narra­tives, even on the same story, create conflicting visions. It is impor­tant to know your own narra­tive and, at the same time, recog­nize that there are others, as well.

There is a very famous story told concerning the elephant and the blind man. The story goes this way: 

One day, a rajah’s son asked, ‘Father, what is reality?’ ‘An excel­lent ques­tion, my son. Come, everyone, we will go to the market place.’ So the rajah and his son went outside and mounted their royal elephant. The rest of the entourage followed on foot. When they got to the market­place, the rajah commanded, ‘bring me three blind men.’ When the blind men arrived, the rajah commanded, ‘Place one blind man at the elephant’s tusk, one at the elephant’s leg and one at the elephant’s tail.’ When that was done, the rajah said, ‘Describe the elephant to me, blind men.’ The man at the tusk said, ‘It’s like a spear.’ The man at the leg said, ‘It’s like a tree.’ The man at the tail said, ‘It’s like a rope.’ As the men started to argue, the rajah said to his son, ‘Reality, my son, is the elephant. And we are all blind men.’”

If we were to jump some 3000 years from the story of the orig­inal Akedah to the real­i­ties of today, we would notice that reality is fact, but differing perspec­tives become the real issue. I would like to suggest this morning that we are involved in a conflict not merely of reality, but of perspec­tives on that reality. It is essen­tial that we under­stand both the reality itself, the narra­tive that is history and, at the same time, appre­ciate the different perspec­tives of both ancient and modern inter­preters on these events. It is impor­tant to know our own narra­tives and how to respond to others.

On May 15, 1948, Iyar 5, 5708, Israel was declared a state by David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. We all know the story how Israel had to fight for its very survival and that 1% of the popu­la­tion was lost in the war as Israel became a nation state. The Hebrew date, the 5th of Iyar, Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, is a holiday on the Jewish calendar. Here in this syna­gogue, as in many syna­gogues throughout the world, we recite Hallel, read a special Torah reading and wish one another Hag Sameach. The day has reli­gious and national conno­ta­tions in that we are the first gener­a­tion in almost 2000 years to expe­ri­ence an inde­pen­dent Jewish commonwealth. 

For the Palestinians and much of the Arab world, the date of May 15 has a totally different conno­ta­tion. It is known as Nakba Day, the day of the cata­strophe. For the Palestinians, in their narra­tive, it is an annual day of commem­o­ra­tion of the displace­ment that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948.

The same date, the same reality, totally contrasting perspec­tives and narra­tives. While we recite Hallel, they rise up in protest. Where we see the sover­eignty of the Jewish people, they claim the displace­ment of their ances­tors and their descendants.

This is not the only calendar date which brings different perspec­tives. The Six Day War brought the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and most impor­tant, Jerusalem under Israeli sover­eignty. When things were at its lowest point, as Israel was threat­ened by the Arab nations, the victory of the Israel Defense Forces saved the Jewish nation and extended the bound­aries of the State of Israel. For us it is commem­o­rated on Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the 28th of Iyar, when Jerusalem was reunited allowing us to return to our Holy sites. In this syna­gogue we recite Hallel and see it as a day of great rejoicing.

Again, in the Arab world it is seen very differ­ently. June 5th, the day on which the Six Day War began on the secular calendar, is now known as Naksa Day, the day of the setback. It is a day in the Arab world when protests are held and a day of mourning is commem­o­rated. The same event, the same reality, differing narratives.

This past February, I joined a trip to Bethlehem arranged by Encounter, an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion started by a Conservative rabbi, whose mission is: “To provide global Diaspora leaders from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum with expo­sure to Palestinian life.” Our group consisted of leaders of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel who met with Palestinian indi­vid­uals willing to share their narra­tives with us. Our encounter gave us time with Sami Awad, a Christian Arab and the founder and exec­u­tive director of the Holy Land Trust, an orga­ni­za­tion committed to the prin­ci­ples of non violence “to build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model and pillar of under­standing, respect, justice, equality, and peaceful co-existence.” We met with Sam Bahour of Ramallah, the founder of Pal Tel, the Palestinian telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions company, and Shireen Alaraj, a village council member of Al-Walaja.

This was not to be a dialogue per se, we were asked to listen very care­fully to the others’ narra­tives so that we could both appre­ciate our own and see the differ­ences and how they might be surmounted. Sami Awad, came across as a sincere indi­vidual who is inter­ested in moving forward Israeli-Palestinian under­standing and peace initia­tives. Sam Bahour was concerned with check­points and the inability of the Palestinian economy to grow because Israel had set up all sorts of barriers. Shareen complained about the phys­ical barriers that surrounded her town and made travel diffi­cult. She felt isolated because of the secu­rity arrange­ments that were imple­mented for the Israeli settle­ments. It was both an enlight­ening and a very diffi­cult day. 

There is no doubt that meeting an indi­vidual who disagrees with you is much different than simply reading a narra­tive or listening to a broad­casted speech. While you may disagree with an indi­vidual, you can at least appre­ciate the fact that they are human beings just like you. For dialogue, what is needed is respect for one another. When that is not present dialogue does not occur and we simply end up speaking past one another rather than with one another.

My narra­tive and my perspec­tive on the Middle East conflict did not change, but it was good to hear from another person their narra­tive and their perspec­tive for two reasons: One, to be able to respond to their narra­tive, if neces­sary, and two, to be able to chal­lenge myself on my own narra­tive as well. So what is reality? In the end does it really matter? Each of us has a different perspec­tive and our indi­vidual narra­tives cause us to form opin­ions about ourselves and also the other side. There may never be truth, as defined in the Platonic fashion, there may be only perspec­tives on the truth just like the elephant and the blind men.

We are at a crucial time in the history of Israel and its neigh­bors. We are not sure, at this moment in history, where the Arab spring will lead us. We are following the situ­a­tion at the United Nations with the universal Declaration of Independence for the Palestinians. We are concerned about the actions of Israel’s one-time allies, Egypt and Turkey. We must be vigi­lant concerning the northern border, the southern border and now, as well, the Syrian border. We continue to be alarmed about the activ­i­ties of Iran. Israel continues to fight both a delig­itimiza­tion campaign and a boycott, divest­ment and sanc­tions campaign. And we are following care­fully the rela­tions between Israel and the United States and where they are heading.

What are we to do about it? It seems to me that in addi­tion to polit­ical, finan­cial and moral support, Israel and the Jewish people need some­thing else as well. It is imper­a­tive that we know our own narra­tive, under­stand the other’s narra­tives and be able to respond to it. We must continue to grow in our knowl­edge of the issues. I encourage you, if you have not already signed up, to join with me in the Hartman Institute Lecture Series which will allow us to engage with Israel over the course of this year. I hope that you will be present at our Israel Bond event, our AIPAC lectures, our Jewish United Fund event and many of the other programs that we will be hosting this year on Israel. 

I hope those of you who have college students push your students to learn more about Israel and its story. They may not neces­sarily have to agree with all of Israel’s poli­cies, none of us do, but they must under­stand the foun­da­tions of the state and why it is so impor­tant to our past, present and future. They must know that for 2,000 years wher­ever we have been across the globe we have turned to Jerusalem and worked towards a Jewish common­wealth. They must under­stand that while Jerusalem may be a holy city to other faiths, it is the only holy city in our faith. They must gain the facts that will allow them to appre­ciate what it meant to estab­lish a Jewish state and what it means to keep it safe. They must learn our history and be in touch with the longing of our people for a Jewish state which now exists in our own life­time. They have many allies on campuses from Hillel to the Jewish Agency; from JNF to AIPAC; from Aish HaTorah to Stand With Us. Convince them to take advan­tage of their resources.

Those of us who have the ability to travel to Israel this year must do so. There is no better expe­ri­ence than the reality itself of being in Israel and seeing the miracle of the state and its many chal­lenges. I am ulti­mately hopeful. To be a Jew is to be an opti­mist. There is no other way. We need to work for peace even as we prepare for many for many chal­lenges that are ahead of us.

In a new book by the Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, enti­tled “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning,” he states in his intro­duc­tion that the faith of Abraham is by any stan­dards remark­able. Abraham, Rabbi Sacks suggests, is the most influ­en­tial person whoever lived, counted today as the spir­i­tual grand­fa­ther of more than half of the six billion people on the face of the planet. Rabbi Sacks recounts the fact that his imme­diate descen­dants, the Children of Israel, the Jews, are a tiny people. Yet, we have outlived all of the great empires created on this earth. All of them have disap­peared, but the Jewish people live. A perse­cuted sect, known as the Christians, also saw them­selves as the Children of Abraham. “They would one day,” he writes, “become the largest move­ment of any kind in the history of the world.” And as for Islam, it has spread faster than any move­ment in the life­time of its founder and continues to spread today. All of them trace them­selves back to Abraham. As Rabbi Sacks states: “All other civi­liza­tions rise and fall, the faith of Abraham survives.” 

Our hope is that these three great faiths whose history is inter­twined with that of the Holy Land and the narra­tive of Abraham and Isaac, will work together to create an era of peace and harmony. We are not there yet. We have a long way to go and until that time we must be prepared to struggle on behalf of our own narra­tive. In this day and age nothing is more crit­ical for the life of the Jewish people and the safety and secu­rity of the State of Israel.

May we see the day when peace, secu­rity, harmony and justice shall come to the peoples of the Middle East and the State of Israel shall shine forth as a beacon for all humanity. May the words of the prophet Isaiah be fulfilled: “For out of Zion shall come forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem.” May it come speedily in our day.

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