Friday, September 22, 2017

RH Day I: The Unbearable Rightness of Being

Today, in lieu of an introduction, let’s just dive right into the text. Acharei HaDevarim Ha’eileh, after all these things, God tests Abraham. Why? Alas, the Torah is often bereft of details. God’s motivations for testing Abraham are not given to us, so we have to wonder, what was God thinking? Why did God feel the need to test Abraham to begin with?
Bear in mind, it was Abraham who willingly went along with God, when God told him to leave behind everything he knew for a new land. It was Abraham had proved his loyalty to the idea of tzedek, to justice, by arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah. It was also Abraham who even circumcised himself when he was 99 years old. This, as an aside, was the origins of the Yiddish word, “oy!” So we might foolishly think Abraham had proven himself by this point.
And yet, there is still something gnawing at God. Is God worried that Abraham will chose family over God? Is God concerned that Abraham would be willing to do almost anything, but in the words of Meatloaf, “he won’t do that?” All we know for certain is God said to Abraham, “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…”[1] Why?
To understand, let’s try a different reading of the text. Perhaps God is confident that Abraham, the same one who wrestled with God over the nature of justice and mercy would never, in a million years, even contemplate offering up Isaac as a sacrifice. God was certain that Abraham would past the test by not offering up Isaac. God believes Abraham will demonstrate his loyalty by saying, “no!” Abraham, who heeds God’s call, does what God asks of him. So, if this is the case, why doesn’t God stop him at this point? We’ll get back to this question.
Let’s turn our attention to Abraham. Abraham gathered his son Isaac, his two servants, his donkey, the firestone, and the wood for the burnt offering. Again, the Torah gives little insight here. What was going on in Abraham’s mind? And again, we have to speculate. Was Abraham so determined to be on the side of God that he was willing to do whatever God asked of him? Or was Abraham so assured of his relationship with God that he knew deep down God would never ask him to ever do such a thing as offer up his son? So sure was he, that he was willing to risk it all to prove his faith in God. Is it possible that Abraham was so certain that God would put a stop to this that he was willing to bet Isaac’s life on it?
And then there is Isaac. The midrash teaches us that Isaac was no mere boy but instead a man. He could have easily overtaken his father and walked away. And we gain insight from the text that Isaac must have had an inkling of what was going on when he asked his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”[2] These words drip with the deepest of concern as Isaac was anticipating the worst. But if he knew all this, why did Isaac go along with it?
The Midrash[3] provides us with an insightful story into Isaac’s thinking. As it goes: “Isaac and Ishmael argued over and over again as to who was more righteous. “And it came to pass after these words” that Isaac and Ishmael were in dispute.  Ishmael said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am his first-born son.”  But Isaac said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am the son of Sarah his wife, but you are the son of Hagar, the handmaid of my mother.”  Ishmael answered and said: “I am more righteous than you, because I was circumcised when thirteen years old; and if it had been my wish to refuse, I would not have handed myself over to be circumcised.”  Isaac answered and said: “Am I not now thirty-seven years old?  If the Holy One, blessed be He, demanded all my members I would not hesitate.”[4]
Ishmael argued he was more loyal because he allowed himself to be circumcised as a teenager. Isaac pushed further stating that if asked, he would allow himself to be offered as a sacrifice. So determined to best his brother, Isaac would die rather than be proven wrong.
So we have three determined characters, who are about to change the history of religion.
And then the scene unfolds. “Abraham built an alter there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the alter, on top of the wood. Then Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son…”[5]
God was certain Abraham would not go through with it. Abraham was convinced that God would put a stop to it, and Isaac, for his part, believed nothing more important than proving his loyalty to his father. All three of them were certain they were right. Because of this, something terrible was about to happen. All because each person is so convinced of their sense of conviction, they perhaps could no longer see why they were even there atop Mt. Moriah.
It was only at that moment, when Isaac was about to die by his father’s hand that an angel stepped in and called out, “Avraham, Avraham.” And Abraham answered, “Hinei, I am here.” The angel went on to say, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him, for now I know you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”[6]
It was only then, when another party interceded, do they all back down. It was only when the angel stepped in that Isaac was replaced with a ram, and no one, except the ram, was physically harmed. Emotionally … well that is a different story…
Now admittedly, we are having a little fun with the text, perhaps even reading a little too much into it. I will certainly grant you that. But when reading the Akeida this way, we can see the inherent danger of believing ourselves to be absolutely right no matter the circumstance. God was right. Abraham was right. Isaac was right. And if they were all so right, how did they end up all being so very, very wrong?
The lingering question is then: in our desire to be right are we willing to run the risk of offering up our own version of modern-day Isaacs?
To borrow from a recent article in Forbes magazine[7], “self-diagnose by asking yourself this simple question: ‘Do I think I’m always right?’ Give an honest answer – no caveats. You may not want to admit it, but if you catch yourself justifying it, then you have a problem. Always being right can be wrong. It can turn people against you, stifle conversations and ideas, and make people want to avoid you altogether.”
Now most of us know someone in our lives who always has to be right, who always has to have the last word. And this position can often lead to frustration, anger, failed relationships, and break downs in the greater community.
Instead of striving to be right for the sake of being right, is there a Jewish way we wonder? Of course. But to find the answer we first turn to the debate between two of the greatest rabbis in our tradition: Shammai and Hillel. Little is known of these two rabbis or their subsequent followers. What has transpired in their debates is the general belief that Shammai was the one more knowledgeable in the law, and more just in his decisions. However, when it came following the rulings, the rabbis almost always followed the arguments of Hillel because Hillel always erred on the side of compassion as is illustrated by the classic Midrash:
One famous account in the Talmud[8] tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said: 
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary--go and study it!"
Here we are beginning to gleam a different kind of approach to the most persistent debates of our times. We know many of them from the news: immigration, refugees, climate change, terrorism, dreamers, sexuality and gender, and so many more.
Now I could stand here and provide a Jewish perspective to each of one of these questions. For those of you who agree with what I put forth, you would say that, “Rabbi is right.” And for those of you who disagree, you would say either, “Rabbi has somehow managed to pick and choose from tradition” to “it doesn’t matter what the rabbi said, because I am right, and he is abusing the nature of the pulpit.” Each side would feel confident about their feelings, their opinions, and their thoughts, and none of us would leave with the opportunity for personal, spiritual, and communal growth.
I will side step this issue for the moment, and instead encourage you to maybe take a different look at how we approach these conversations.
I recently was introduced to a fascinating book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom. What Professor Bloom is doing with his book is attempting to challenge our very notions of how we let empathy cloud our decision-making process.
As Bloom described in a Wall Street Journal article, “When most of us talk about empathy, we mean what psychologists call emotional empathy. This goes beyond mere understanding. To feel empathy for someone in this sense means that you share their experiences and suffering—you feel what they are feeling … emotional empathy is a different matter when it comes to guiding our moral judgments and political decisions. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our everyday lives, shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal and often cruel.[9]
What Bloom is arguing is that if we respond to core issues merely on an emotional level based on a perceived empathic connection; what we are doing is potentially setting ourselves up for failure. This is because when using empathy, often times, only one side can be right. And which side is the right one? Why the side I empathize with, of course.
For example, we can empathize with the immigrant or the coal miner. We can empathize with the black lives matter protestor or the police officer. We can empathize with second amendment advocates or with victims of gun violence. One side is right, while the other side is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous. In so many of these instances, what we have here is not a lack of empathy, but perhaps too much empathy when making our arguments. Or to put it another way, empathy makes it hard to see the validity in the arguments made by those who disagree with us.
So what is the answer? As Bloom argues in his book: “Moreover, when faced with more difficult problems, we think about them – we mull, deliberate, argue. This is manifest in the discussions we have with family and friends over the moral issues that arise in everyday life. Is it right to cross a picket line? Should I give money to the homeless man in front of the bookstore? Was it appropriate for our friend to start dating so soon after her husband died? What do I do about the colleague who is apparently not intending to pay me back the money she owes me? …
Our moral circle has expanded over history: Our attitudes about the rights of women, homosexuals, and racial minorities have all shifted toward inclusiveness. Most recently, there has been a profound difference in how people in my own community treat trans individuals – we are watching moral progress happen in real time.
But this is not because our hearts have opened up over the course of history. We are not more empathic than our grandparents. We really don’t think of humanity as our family and we never will. Rather, our concern for others reflects a more abstract appreciation regardless of our feelings, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”[10] “Their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”
What Bloom is arguing, is for an approach more akin to Hillel. Rather than arguing simply to be right, we should instead be arguing through a lens of rational Jewish compassion. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.” See the humanity in your fellow human being, even if you disagree with them.
The truth is, when it comes to complex societal issues, there are certainly more legitimate solutions than others. That when we approach these problems, rather than being self-assured in our rightness, we need to be willing to listen, to hear out other points of view, try to see differing perspectives, and to work to come up with compassionate solutions. And some of these solutions not every one will agree with.
For example, we as a congregation, have committed to working with HIAS on issues relating to refugees and immigrants. We have supplementary information on this effort outside our sanctuary in case you wish to learn more or get more involved. This effort is based on the Jewish value of welcoming in the stranger. Note this is the value our tradition embodies, but it does not prescribe the solution. This is because our tradition also argues that the strangers in our midst should also follow certain rules of the greater community as well. Therefore, the conversation should not be about whether or not we should be welcoming in the stranger and the refugee, but rather as to how.
Similar arguments can be made with regards to healthcare, the environment, and so many more. We should start with the question: what is the underlying Jewish value? Does Judaism believe healthcare is a privilege for those who can afford it, or an obligation of the community? Does Judaism believe we have thoughts on our responsibilities to leave the world better than we found it? The short answer is yes to obligations and responsibilities. But those are only the underlying values, not the solutions. Where a rabbi can get into trouble is through offering up political solutions leaving the teachings of Torah by the side. But there are Jewish approaches to wrestling with these modern day political, social, and societal challenges.
To find the answers we need to wrestle with the question of: what is the best rational, compassionate response? Recognizing that we will often disagree on how to apply the Jewish value or values. But hopefully we can at least begin the conversation on the basis of shared Jewish rational compassion. Then we can strive to see merit in alternative approaches, when they are based on the same Jewish values. The values that are embodied in the enduring lesson of that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others …
To argue in this way requires a sense of humility. After the Akeida, according to tradition, Abraham and Isaac never spoke again, and Sara, died shortly thereafter. So even though Isaac lived, nothing was ever the same even with regards to Isaac’s relationship with God. None of them was willing to humble themselves and let go of their righteous indignation over what transpired. And because of their quest to be right, rather than to be compassionate, everyone was hurt. Everyone was scarred. And no relationship was ever the same.
To borrow from famed Car Talk Co-Host, the late, great, Tom Magliozzi, who when discussing marriage, offered up the following rhetorical question: “would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” A great question to be sure. But perhaps we can play with a little and instead ask: “would you rather be right, or would you rather be content?”
Because all too often, for us to succeed in this journey. We have to know there is no guarantee we can always have both.
Contentment is best illustrated in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,”[11]
And now does one accomplish this great feat we wonder? Again, we turn to the words of our prophet Micah: “God has shown you … what is good: And what does God require of you but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.[12]
In this New Year of 5778 may we find the commonality of shared Jewish values based on compassion. May we find the strength to overcome our desire to be right and instead work to be correct. And may we rediscover our ability to genuinely listen to each other especially in such challenging times. We may not agree on the solutions, but we should always start with the premise of seeing the humanity in each and every person. To do this requires a greater sense of humility and humbleness. And from these beginnings may God help us to bring a greater sense of justice and mercy in to the world, just as we seek greater mercy from God during these High Holy Days. And if we can, we may just be able to help seal the world into the Sefer Hayim, the Book of Life for a year of blessing, prosperity, and peace.
Cayn Yehi Ratzon, May This Be God’s Will
L’shana Tova

[1] Genesis 22:2
[2] Genesis 22:7
[3] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ca. 7th-8th centuries C. E.) on Gen 22:1
[5] Genesis 22:10
[6] Genesis 22:12
[8] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a
[9] ttps://
[10] Bloom, Paul, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Harper Collins, 2016, pg. 239
[11] Micah 4:4
[12] Micah 6:8