Click the player above to watch the Kol Nidre sermon. (Scroll further down for his Yom Kippur sermon)
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Kol Nidre 5782 (Sept 2021).
On this Kol Nidrei night, a night in which we are so conscious of the weightiness and the lightness of our words, of how easy it is for us to forget our words, evade our words, and deny our commitments, let’s remember a woman of few words, but of fierce commitments. Let’s remember Sarah.
Sarah does not have a lot of lines to speak in the Torah’s script. Abraham speaks hundreds of words – 518, by my count. He speaks to God and he speaks to kings and he speaks to servants. He speaks to family members, including Sarah, a little bit, and he speaks to strangers. Sarah’s words are not numerous; altogether 69 of her words, by my count, are recorded in the Torah. And they are all of them about her child, her son.
But it would be a terrible mistake to see Sarah only through the lens of her passion to have and to protect her son. What a failure of imagination and understanding our modern prayer book editors show when they, in a gesture – laudable, to be sure – to מגן אברהם – incorporate the Matriarchs into our liturgy, chose to formulate the blessing as .that God protected Abraham and remembered to have Sarah conceive a child – ופוקד שרה As if this was the be-all-and-end-all of her significance. How much more truthful and wise is the choice found in liberal prayer books celebrating God as – עזרת שרה – Sarah’s helpmate!
Of course Sarah is our first Matriarch! But it was the journey and the struggle she lived in order to become our Matriarch that we too often slight. Who was this woman for whom God performed such a great miracle? Where can we find this woman of valor?
In her tent.
On a blazing hot day, three strangers are walking in the sun. Abraham sees them and brings them to his home. And, as he has done so many times before, Abraham rushes to the tent – to Sarah. He knew she would be there. “Quickly! Mix the flour and make cakes for our guests!” (Gen. 18:5) And later, when the guests ask their gracious host, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” Abraham answers automatically, as if it were a foregone conclusion, “Here – in the tent!”
Abraham is the first `ivri – the whole world on one side and Abraham steadfastly on the other. But Sarah’s role was doubly difficult. She had to cross over to the other side, to stand side-by-side with Abraham, against the entire world. But she also had to keep standing on the world’s side, for she was a woman. Her realm was not of the battles, or the mountains or the altars. Her realm was her tent
Abraham’s tent, as our tradition explains, was open on all sides, inviting any and all wayfarers. But Sarah’s tent was closed off on all sides. Her tent was that sacred and secret inner space she created in order to make everything that happened outside, possible. No one, not even the angels, could see her, sitting in her tent, preparing to serve all the wayfarers her husband would collect. No one, not even the angels, could see her in her tent, for it was much safer if no one saw her.
More than once it happened that, when Sarah was seen by strangers, she was met with danger, for she proved irresistible to them. The mightiest rulers were powerless before her beauty. In the first words out of his mouth as recorded by the Torah, Abraham admitted as much, but he was afraid to admit to others that he had taken this beauty for himself. To admit to such power would be to invite envy and violence. Better that Sarah sit safely in her tent and their partnership could stay safely secret there.
Sarah dwelt in the tent just as women at that time were supposed to. She followed her husband in his journeys and projects, just as women were supposed to. But that was not all. We have always celebrated the mystery of Abraham’s finding his own way to God, unsupported by family or society. But we have been slower to appreciate Sarah’s faith, her own, hard-earned faith. Her faith was not a carbon-copy of her husband’s. It had its own shape and its own force. In the private space of the tent, away from the eyes of the world, and away from the eyes of the Biblical narrator, Sarah – quietly? Silently? Or with words unheard and unrecorded – builds up her own faith, her own relationship with God. With this faith, Sarah loyally follows Abraham – until such time as she has to take the lead, until such time when she must step forward from the tent.
If Abraham is content to let God decide how his future will be assured, Sarah feels, instead, that the future requires a partnership between God and humans in which humans are active agents. Abraham feels God’s Presence under the sky. But Sarah must share with God her intimate space, her tent. She comes to her husband and says: “Look, indeed, that God has stopped me from giving birth to a child. So please enter my maidservant. Perhaps I will be built up through her.” (Gen. 16:2) Sarah, not Abraham, believes in the necessity of a flesh-and-blood son. Her plea to her husband is both a daring decision and a conventional solution for those times.
But the conventions do not work for this unconventional pioneer. The child born inspires Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, to follow her mistress’ model. She becomes proud of her motherhood and takes the boy – by all rights Sarah’s son – takes him for herself. How does Sarah meet this challenge? Some modern readers feel entitled to judge Sarah and condemn her in the name of solidarity with the underdog. But is there room for only one underdog in a story?
Although Sarah torments her, Hagar will not give up her hold on her child. Thus, Hagar teaches Sarah an excruciating lesson about the bond between mother and child. Sarah’s trial becomes Sarah’s blessing. And so, when God blesses Sarah with her very own son, she will do anything and everything necessary to protect and save him – even if it means sending away her servant girl and the son who should have been hers. This is a lesson that is lost on Abraham and Sarah challenges him because of it. Abraham has done the unheard of by challenging God. But Sarah also does the unheard of, by challenging her husband.
Just as important as the gift of a child to her, is God’s support for Sarah as she struggles to safeguard this very child – against her rival, against her own husband, and even against the world. God says to Abraham, “I, God, hear the voice of the lad sent away. But you, Abraham, must hear the voice of Sarah!”
Sarah must straddle both sides, the world’s side and the opposition side. She knows she is right, even if the world would withhold its approval from her. So, almost greater than the gift of a child to Sarah is God’s gift of telling Abraham – and us – that Sarah is painfully right.
Sarah’s sacrifice to insure the life of her son, to make sure that a real, flesh-and-blood son will live to carry on the fragile enterprise created by her and Abraham, is her offering to us. And it is the last we hear from Sarah. She has no more words. The next time she is mentioned is the mention of her death.
Sarah leaves us, but her tent remained. For we learn how inconsolable her son Isaac was over her loss. And we learn that the only way he could find solace and comfort was to bring his new wife into his mother Sarah’s tent that was still standing. Perhaps he found her still, small voice still reverberating in that tent.
May we, as well, find strength and consolation if we strain to hear the voice coming from our Mother Sarah’s tent.
Click the player above to watch the Yom Kippur sermon.
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5782 (Sept 2021).
We come to our third figure who is so important in our observance of the Days of Awe.
The first – Abraham – was ushered by God outside of the tent, in order to gaze at the stars above, and renew his faith.
The second, Sarah, stayed in the tent, and somehow grew her faith there. The third is the one who is commanded to enter the tent in order to achieve atonement for himself, his family and his whole people. This is Aaron, the High Priest.
The first two of our protagonists struggled on behalf of a dimly understood future. To vouchsafe that future these two partners were prepared, each in their own way, to make hard choices that could even have been judged to be sins. Just so, they risked themselves for a hope, the hope for blessing.
For our third hero the circumstances are different; the future, only dreamt of by the ancients, has begun to unfold, so that some of it has already become the past. Indeed, our third hero struggles on behalf of a sorely remembered past.
Aaron must now perform sacred acts – the Yom Kippur rituals – in order to make up for sins already committed – by himself, by his family and by all of Israel. The future cannot be known, but the past can be known. Aaron knows what sins he, his family, and his people have committed. It is with that knowledge that he must enter the tent.
The angels had asked Abraham, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” and he answered them, ,See! In the tent!” And now we humans ask ourselves, “Where is the Eternal – הנה באהל“ your God?” and we answer ourselves, “See! In the tent!” So, Aaron must enter the tent, the Tent of Meeting, into the hidden Holy of Holies, and risk himself for a hope, the hope for forgiveness.
What sins did Aaron know of that called for atonement? Was it a sin to love his siblings, Moses and Miriam, very much? That he loved his sons very much? That he loved his people very much? That he loved peace very much?
Yet Moses, his beloved brother, hurled an enraged and heartbroken challenge at Aaron, saying, “What has this people done to you, for you to have brought upon them a great sin?!” (Ex. 32:21)
Moses has come down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Torah, ready to present them to the people of Israel. Moses had ascended the mountain at Israel’s behest, to receive the Torah on behalf of the people. He had left Israel under Aaron’s protective care. Aaron would watch over them until Moses returned from his mission. But he is confronted with the sight of a people dancing around a Golden Calf, singing that this calf is Israel’s god.
How could this happen on Aaron’s watch? Aaron pleads, “My master, please don’t be angry. You know how bad off the people are. They told me, “Make a god for us, because this man, Moses, who took us up from Egypt – we don’t know what happened to him.” (vv. 22- 23)
The people were confused, overcome with anxiety, in a panic. Their leader Moses had disappeared up the mountain. They were bereft and frightened.
Of course they were! They had every right to be overwhelmed with fear and concern. And who could feel their pain more acutely that Aaron, the man of empathy? He is swept away by his empathy so that he joins in their desperation instead of leading them despite it. He felt their pain and confusion so strongly that he could not conceive of standing up to them and telling them that they must not let their fear rule over them. Instead, he let their fear dictate their response and his response to their crisis.
And Aaron cannot admit that he could have been a different kind of leader. He cannot admit that he was responsible for giving in to the people and assisting in their wrongful choice of a solution to their crisis; he takes no personal responsibility for making the Golden Calf. Incredibly, he says, “So I told them – ‘whoever has gold, let them give it to me’; and I threw it into the fire and out came this Calf!” (v. 24) “and out came this Calf!” – all by itself!
Aaron cannot admit that he could have been a different kind of leader, perhaps because he really was not capable of being a different kind of leader. He was too loving to say “no” to the people. He could not bring himself to tell the people the truth or to raise the people above their fears and find their own strength in the truth, inherited from Abraham and Sarah – that God was still, and would always be, with them – a truth that they refused to believe. Yet, his terrible sin, which brought long-lasting catastrophe to the people he loved so, came from love.
So, what happened to Aaron? What was his punishment for leading the people into mass fear, mass delusion, mass idolatry? Aaron was sentenced to a lifetime of community service and a lifetime of Divine service. Aaron was sentenced to become the High Priest. Only after his monumental and tragic failure at Sinai is this sentence declared and put into effect. He cannot judge the people. He cannot stand up to the people. But he can be the exemplar of love for the people and God.
Every time Aaron confronted one of the bulls that had to be slaughtered on the altar, he would have to think about the calf he denied that he created. Every time he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and sprinkled blood in the direction of the golden cherubs who covered the Tablets in the Ark, he had to think of the blood spilt before the golden statue he denied creating, when the Tablets were smashed. Every time he entered the Holy of Holies and offered incense that filled that mysterious space with smoke, he would have to remember the fire and smoke of Mount Sinai and the fire and smoke offered by the people, down below. Only in this way could atonement be achieved – and only he could achieve it.
Many idolatrous worshippers of the Golden Calf died for their sin. But Aaron, the direct creator of this idol of fear and love and failure, was kept alive in order to fill this role, to take responsibility for his terrifying failure through love. And he was kept alive in order to teach this lesson to his sons. But it seems he did not do this, or he did not succeed in conveying to them that this job was his for very specific and personal reasons. The rituals were not holy magic in themselves. They would work because it was Aaron who would have to perform them.
He did not succeed in telling this to his sons, and then, shockingly, two of them undertook to perform the priestly rituals themselves, independent of their father. And they perished. The Yom Kippur ritual is specifically introduced “aharei mot – after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, when they drew near before God and died.” (Lev. 16:1) If only Aaron had explained to them, “Boys, you will have your turn to reenact this drama. But for now it must be me who does this.”
Thus, must Aaron tread into the Tent and perform these acts – so as to bring about atonement for himself, for his family, and for his people.
And so must each of us go deeply into our tents and examine our own lives and our own stories – for ourselves, our families and our whole people – and seek a better way.
- Mourning Doves: Grief and Hope: Kol Nidre Sermon by Lily Lucey (5782/2021) - Fri, Sep 17, 2021
- President Miriam Haimes’s Address on Kol Nidre 5782/2021 - Fri, Sep 17, 2021
- Rabbi David Greenstein’s Kol Nidre & Yom Kippur Sermons 5782/2021 - Fri, Sep 17, 2021