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Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (Sept 2021).
Our tradition teaches that when one sees a very dear friend for the first time in a very long time – a year or more – one should recite a blessing. The blessing is actually one we traditionally recite 3 times a day, every day of the year. But now we are bidden to recite it with renewed appreciation – ב ו רך … מח יה המת ים – You abound in blessings, Eternal One, Who brings life to the dead.
Let us, then, take a moment – If you are in such a position – if today you see, in the flesh, for the first time in ages – someone dear to your heart – then by all means please say these terrifying words of praise – ב ו רך אתה .. מ. ח יה המת ים – You abound in blessings, Eternal One, Who brings life to the dead.
After over a year of dread and stress; after over a year of the tragedies of sickness, pain and death; after over a year of living as if we were a carcass gutted of its vital organs – and after over a year in which we who are here today were able to survive and persevere and to find means of renewal – we have returned to this sacred house. We have been cautiously returning and our return will continue to be hesitant and full of care – as all returning should be.
And now we have entered into the very midst of the Ten Days of Return – of Teshuvah. Welcome to this house of return. Welcome to this house of teshuvah.
I would like to take this opportunity, as I have in the past, to share three talks with you during this season of teshuvah. I want to consider three figures – each one occupying an important place in our observances of the Ten Days of Repentance – who suffered drought and plague, trial and tribulation – and endured.
May we meet these figures – dare I call them “old friends”? – and may our meetings occasion us to recite the blessing, “Who brings life to the dead.”
Our first of the three is Abraham.
Indeed, he is our very first, isn’t he? Other religions may start with a prophet or a sage sharing a revelation, or a message of wisdom, with the public or with disciples. But this is not Abraham’s story. He does not have any explicit teachings to share with us that are recorded. God testifies that Abraham taught his household “to keep the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice.” (Gen. 18:19) But we have no such proclamations from him. Instead, his message is his very life. And like the life of every human being, its message is vulnerable to our own abilities to apprehend it, if and as we wish.
Where did Abraham come from? He came from far away – מבער ה נה ר – me`ever hanahar – from the other side of the river. As described in the words of our tradition – “the whole world is on one side, and he – Abraham – was on the other side. ״ He is the first ivri – the loner.
בארש ית רב ה פשרת לך לך , פשרה מב ס ימ ן ח
וגיד לאברם העבר י – רבי יה ודה א ומר : כ ל ה ו עלם כ ול ו מעבר אח – ד ו ו הא מעבר אח. ד
Abraham is the start of our Jewish tradition, and yet he exemplifies the loner, the one who thinks for himself, despite what his parents have taught him, despite what society believes. Our tradition retells, with love and amazement, the solitary struggles that Abraham went through to come to a firm attachment to – to a love of – the One True God.
The Prophet Isaiah speaks for God and says –
ותּאה י שׂ ראל עבד, י יקעב אשׁ ר בּחרתּ יך, ז רע ארבהם א וה ב(י י עש יה ו מ : אח)
“You, Israel, are My servant – Jacob, whom I have chosen – the seed of Abraham, My lover.”
Abraham is not God’s Prophet; he is God’s lover. Were Abraham not such a loner, perhaps he would confide in us. Perhaps he would share some of his memories. Perhaps he would say something like this:
It was a starry, starry night. I was in the tent, struggling – as I do. What was to become
of me? I thought back to the long journey Sarah and I undertook together. We were dreamers, pursuing an elusive dream. We did not know what our future would be, but we did not need to know. We only knew that we had to go toward it, to a future God would show us.
We have been at it for 25 years. But, now, I look around me. I sit in my tent and I still don’t really know. But now, it is not enough not to know. I want to know. Where am I? Where have I come to? What have I done? After leaving family behind, after separating from family even here in this land that is supposed to be my home, I sit in my tent, alone.
I was once the iconoclast, the uncompromising radical. But now I am ready to compromise. I wish God would just let me accept what I have already. Just to stay in my tent. No more journey’s, no more dreams. Just then I felt a warmth surround my shoulders. It was a warmth such as I had not known for years, a comforting warmth like that of a large, strong arm taking me around and holding me up, holding me up and gently and firmly pushing me forward. It was like the arm of my father taking me by the shoulders when I was a child, assuring me and walking with me, guiding me.
It was a starry, starry night – just like that night, ages ago, when found myself outside the stifling tent of my parents and I looked up and knew that this was God’s world, all of it. Back then the silence was overwhelming. The silence filled me the way the starry sky filled my eyes with beauty and wonder. The silence overwhelmed every voice, cajoling or stern, telling me that I was wrong. That night I lost my father’s embrace.
This time I was not alone. This time the silence was broken. The warm embrace drew me closer. If not for that embrace, holding me up, I hardly would have had the strength to stand on my own. But, held like that, I heard the voice – and I can still feel the warm breath
brushing on my ear – a voice telling me to look up again at the stars. And the voice whispered, “This is the way your children will be.”(Gen. 15:5)
Blessed is the One Who gives life to the dead.
But that same voice came back to the faithful lover, Abraham, and commanded him to offer up his only, beloved son to the One Who gives life to the dead, and Who must also, therefore, bring death to the living. And Abraham, God’s lover, did so. And then God, Who gives life to the dead, gave Abraham back his son.
We wonder – On the way up the mountain, to give his son back to God, what was Abraham thinking?
It is common to hear from those who know that they know better than Abraham. In the name of “righteousness and justice” – those same values that God says Abraham taught his household – they condemn Abraham for failing his test. Those who hear no voices condemn the one who heard the Voice, who felt the warm embrace ushering him outside to gaze at the stars.
Gazing at the stars, feeling God’s warm breath and hearing God’s voice whispering, Abraham believed that God was promising him a future. As he prepared his son for sacrifice, perhaps he believed that his children would not be those who issued from his loins. Rather, perhaps he believed that his children would be those who would, if not love God, then at least love the story, and tell it and retell it, so that it would not die, but live.
ב ו רך מח יה המת ים – Blessed is the One Who restores life to the dead.