D’Var Torah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah

I was lucky enough to give a drash on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year at the always amazing altshul. Here it is.

As those of you who know me know, and those of you who don’t can probably guess from my name, I was not raised Jewish. I come to all of this later in life. So if I make some absolutely obvious errors up here I hope you’ll forgive me and give me a gentle correction after services.

When I was asked to give this drash I was so terrified I’d screw it up I almost said no. But my kids were so excited to see me do this, and I owe this community so much, I decided to go ahead.

I am in awe of the people who have sustained Altshul over the last two years. It is a remarkable thing. I’ve said this before to anyone who will listen, but I grew up deeply immersed in the world of punk rock, booking shows, making zines, doing it for ourselves. Altshul has already reminded me of that. To me, it’s the most punk shul in Brooklyn. If the folks who run this place ask you to step up and say a few words it’s an honor you really can’t turn down.

So here I am, trying to make sense of two of the most difficult parashot in front of you.

Today we read of the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar. Tomorrow, the binding of Issac. Yes, it all works out in the end, but getting there is troubling.

I, like I imagine many of you, struggle with these readings every year. And I wonder why these, of all parashot, are what we choose to read on Rosh Hashanah.

Today a child and his mother are sent away. Alone with her son and near death, the mother contemplates the unthinkable. Tomorrow, our first patriarch will tie his son to an altar and raise a knife over his head. These are not the easiest narratives. I remember bringing up how uncomfortable I was with the Akedah early in my Jewish journey and being met with, essentially, “pass the brisket”. Like the question of the text had been asked and answered.

But it hasn’t been, at least not for me.

Rashi and others have tried to explain the challenges of these stories through a close reading of the language. Ishmael was a bad influence on Isaac, or made fun of him, they say. This explains why he, a child, had to be sent away.

God never intended Abraham to go through with the sacrifice of Isaac. This is why, though Abraham literally raises a knife over his child’s head, he would never have killed him.  You see God uses the verb “offer” instead of “slay” or ‘kill”. We are told Abraham’s willingness to do these things shows his deep faith in God, a faithfulness and willingness to sacrifice, that we should emulate. 

Perhaps, this is all correct. It certainly explains Abraham’s actions. But I have to say these explanations leave me a bit cold.

There are more modern voices who say that in fact Abraham is not to be emulated here. That the binding of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar are cautionary tales. That they were tests of Abraham, which he failed. That God had to step in at the last moment to stop the deaths of Abraham’s sons when Abraham should never have put them in harm’s way in the first place.

This might be a more comforting reading for our contemporary sensibilities, but it also leaves me unsure. There is nothing in the text to suggest this. At least Rashi parses the verbs.

I think both these explanations try to smooth out the edges of what are fundamentally profoundly challenging texts. Challenging in ways we struggle to understand.

Here is where I am supposed to tie it together. To tell you what I think is the correct reading. To bring things to a neat conclusion. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story.

I decided to convert at a seder. It was late and we hadn’t even gotten to the meal because the debate was raging around some turn of phrase in the Haggadah. Our host took one position, his eldest son, another. Lovingly questioning each other they brought out more and more nuance, deeper and deeper meanings until I was lost. When it gets to gematria is when I get off the bus. If they ever resolved the disagreement, I was too dumb to understand how.

Yes I’d been thinking about conversion for some time before that but it was then that I had this clear realization that I wanted that life of learning, of debate, of loving to dig deeper into the Torah, to truly wrestle with it, not only for myself, but for the children I hoped to have. Today, those children are sitting here watching me wrestle.

Perhaps that desire can give us some sort of clue as to why these portions are the ones we read during the High Holidays. Perhaps the rabbis gave us the most difficult portions, at the holiest time, to give us the material we need to wrestle with the impossible to answer questions of faith, family, sacrifice and belonging.

Or perhaps I’m wrong. I’m not really sure. What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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