Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 3 October 2019

“Avraham, Abraham.” You called and I answered in the usual way: Hineni: here I am, ready and willing to do what you tell me. And then, those terrible words, Lech lecha “Go, take your son and kill him.” You didn’t tell me why. You didn’t tell me how or where. It turned out to be a 3 day journey and not a word from you in all that time. Have you any idea what was going through my mind!?

What did you think I was going to say to Sarah when I came back – alone?
Were you testing me? Good of you to tell me. Nothing like letting me play on an uneven playing field.
And if it was a test – what was the test?
Obedience? Wasn’t my unqualified Hineni enough for you?! But test or no test: this time – oh, had I known, if only I had known…..
Maybe you wanted to test my moral decency? But had you forgotten what happened at Sodom and Gomorrah? You wanted to destroy the city. I challenged you. What if there were 50 good people in the city, I asked, would you destroy it? You said you wouldn’t. So for the sake of 5, I argued, what if there were only 45 good people there? You said you wouldn’t destroy it. And I bargained you down to ten. Not sure why I lost my nerve then. Having got you that far, why didn’t I just go all the way and get you not to destroy the city, full stop? Maybe I recognised that even if there were 10 good people, it just wouldn’t be enough to tip the balance?

Or was the test about child sacrifice? Were Isaac and I pawns in some divine statement to the world about such sacrifice? Well, the sad fact is, that’s the world we live in. Parents sacrifice their kids on all sorts of altars. I’ve seen, with some of our friends, how the sacrifice is on the altar of their – the parents’ – ambitions, desires, or shortcomings. They couldn’t achieve this or that in their lives, so now they want their kids to achieve what they couldn’t – whether those kids want to or not.
Maybe I’m not guiltless either. You knew how long I’d been yearning for a child with Sarah. You made me drive out the Egyptian au pair, Hagar, and the son I’d had with her. You knew I was unhappy with that – he was my son – but you told me I should listen to what Sarah says and all would be OK.

And those servants of mine? They knew I bucked the system in so many ways and didn’t worship the usual collection of household gods. Years ago, in my Dad’s idol shop, I realised what a waste of time all those statues of wood and stone were. So when we set off with the wherewithal for a sacrifice, I could see that smug look on their faces. I knew what they were thinking: “finally, at last, Mr high-and-mighty Abraham, who likes to think he’s a cut above the rest of us, is going to do what every ordinary father does and is taking his first born child to offer to the gods.” I’m sure they expected me to come back on my own. Well, if nothing else, God, you and I showed ‘em.

Once, long ago, you used those same two words: Lech lecha. But how different it was then – that was the beginning of our journey together. Lech lecha, you said, “Go, leave everything behind. your home, your birthplace and go into the unknown.” A momentous, life-changing journey into an unknown future but full of promise for me and my descendants. How did you put it?:

All peoples will be blessed through you; you will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. You promised me a future. And once again lech lecha, the same words, ‘go,’ but now, go and kill your son, wipe out that future, make it a big blank zero.

And on that 3 day journey, you left me alone with my thoughts, fears, anxieties, questions, my anguish. Sarah wanted to know where we were going – I fobbed her off with some story about going on a long-planned hunting trip. How could I have told her where we were really going? And what was I going to tell her when we got back? What will I tell her now? It will kill her.
And me and Isaac? He hasn’t spoken a word to me. Can You blame him? His father ties him up, hikes him onto a makeshift altar, holds a knife to his throat, to all intents and purposes going to kill him – and all somehow in God’s name. The tears streaming down my face were as nothing compared to those tears of incomprehension and abandonment rolling down his cheeks as he was rendered speechless at what I was, as far as he could see, about to do. What does that tell him about me? What does it tell me about me?

At Sodom and Gomorrah I argued for the inhabitants of the city. I knew there were a lot of evil people there, yet I challenged you, I threw the gauntlet down at your metaphorical feet. What was it I said: “shall the judge of all the earth not act justly?” If it was a question, it was a rhetorical one, surely needing no response other than “of course the ‘judge of all the earth’ will act justly.” How could it be otherwise?

Look, I’ve spent much of my life trying to show the world your glory, tried to live according to a higher ethical imperative than most of society lives by. That’s what I learned from you. And if I had sacrificed Isaac, then…. then I would have been just like everybody else – another father doing what fathers do, propitiating the gods by killing their son.
But with Isaac there was an added dimension. He was, is, my future, all that I lived for. Faced with seeing all that wiped out, what did I do? Absolutely nothing! I could have said, “no,” walked away, even from you. But I said and did nothing. Worse still – I actually went along with it

Perhaps the test was about taking responsibility for my actions. If that was what it was about, then maybe, from the outset, I should have refused there and then – not even set off on the journey? That would have been the responsible thing for me to do. Would I have failed your test? At one level maybe – but I’m beginning to understand there might be a paradox here. Perhaps in my very refusal I would actually have passed the test?
And isn’t there another more damning irony here? I was prepared to argue passionately to save Sodom and Gomorrah, with whom I had no connection other than our common humanity – but apparently not prepared to argue to save my own flesh and blood. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life..

There was, it is true, a glimmer of hope which I grasped eagerly. I told the servants to wait with the donkey while Isaac and I went further to worship and that we – I said ‘we’ – we would return to them. Was that ‘we’ simply hope against hope? I couldn’t, can’t, believe the God I had come to know you as being, could actually want such a terrible thing from me in the end.
And Isaac? He saw we had everything for a sacrifice except the animal. “God will provide,” I told him. How often do we use those three words to cut off any discussion or thinking? We use them, like a mantra, when we actually mean, “just believe, don’t ask questions.”

Well, what do I believe? I don’t believe you’re a God who plays tricks on us human beings. I just can’t believe this was some sort of nasty game on your part, something for your amusement even at the expense of our anguish. I don’t think you’re a God who wants unquestioning obedience, who wants us to say “God will provide.” You’ve given us free will – I guess you can’t complain if and when we choose to use it, in a positive way, even if that means thwarting your plans for us.
No doubt this will somehow reach the world. I don’t know what people in this or future generations will say when they hear of it. I hope they don’t hold it up as an example of what faith in God should be like – for it would be a pretty blind sort of faith, uncritical, unquestioning, even of you. I don’t believe that’s the sort of trust in you, relationship with you, you want us to have. We’re not children and you’re not our father in that sense. We have to take responsibility for our actions, and be prepared to be called to account for those actions, for our decisions, for the choices we make in our lives.

It’s been a hard lesson. But I can now understand that lech lecha, ‘go’ isn’t just about a journey into the world out there, Maybe that’s why you said lech lecha not just ‘go’ but lecha ‘to you’ – a journey into myself, my self, into my inner world, to find out who and what I am. You sure gave me a hard way to do it. But maybe it’s something we all need to do in our lives, and set time aside to do it, maybe just once a year – but at least once a year. Mmmmmm, lech lecha, “go – go to yourself.”