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Rabbi Benji's Sermon on Rosh Hashanah 2022

Veha’Elokim Nisa et Avraham. The Eternal tested Avraham. This is how we begin that Torah portion which might start our year by making us feel tense. Personally, if there’s one thing that my five years at Saint Paul’s, now more than 20 years ago, equipped me to do, it’s to prepare towards the test. So what’s required of Avraham in this test. Perhaps, understanding this, can help us reflect on how we did this year, and how we might start preparing for this one, this test.

The Ultimate tested Abraham. What is the test?  Seforno in 16th century Italy says that what is being tested is Avraham’s capacity to act. Having a thought is one thing, bringing it to the world another. He further suggests that the very nature of the Divine is to be able to bring to fruition, and so we prove ourselves in the image of God by acting in this world. We might each learn from the Seforno’s assertion that what makes us most Divine is the ability to act. We can determine the one aspiration or contribution that you want to act more on this year- and we can try each day to consciously act in some way (however small the mitzvah) to assert our agency. 

We might find an equally correct answer from the 19th Century Chasidic Rebbe, the Mei Hashiloach. He says that what’s being tested is the size of Avraham’s faith or trust - godel ha’emunah… his faith or trust that the true Merciful God would never ask such a thing! This is why, he says, the Torah says that Elokim and not the four letter name initially spoke to Avraham: perceived communication with God’s longer less personal name indicates an unclearness of communication and understanding, as well as an attribute of severity and immoderation. 

So, Avraham, he says can pass the test by having  a faith - or trust - beyond intellect alone - that can discern in the face of difficulty, unclearness, and contraries; and that can discern that Hashem, the Merciful, dictates that a parent’s compassion for a child must conquer all.

To take on this test in our lives, in this year ahead, we recognise now that living means perennially figuring out the test, and never quite figuring it out. This needs courage and openness. This is attacking a test in a completely different way to how I was once taught: one needs to speak to others (it’s cheating almost!) and reflect with oneself. 

Ask now at the beginning of the year and every day: what’s important to you? How can you best contribute? Spend more time every week, and every day, figuring out what’s needed from you, being open to the unresolved, never ending moral call. 

This is what our Judaism is for: to confront the uncertainty of multiple possible meanings and answers, to fine tune your intuition and perception, and to consequently act as right as you can in the moment. I am most moved in the learning we do here - say on a Friday night - when people respond personally to the text before them disagreeing with someone else in the room- or often enough me- and we’re both right. 

This approach to life is less focused on doing – or what should I do – but rather involves asking: how should I live?  Our fundamental commitments become those actions that liberate us to re-engage in that question – conversations with others, spiritual practice to challenge our souls, conversations with and around texts that offer multiple answers that can be poignant and moving. 

I’m grateful for Judaism bringing me together with others that prompt me to reevaluate how to live. I will always remember when I was studying in New York in an intensive adult text environment, falling in love with this committed intellectual tradition, admiring the great knowledge of my teachers.

The program also mandated us to spend an afternoon at a nursing home. To begin this aspect of the program a rabbinic Chaplin from the home learnt with us before showing us round. As he learnt with us I felt that he didn’t know as much as the in-house teachers I admired. I hoped that I wouldn’t be destined for this middling level of learning. Then as he was showing us around the home, one resident with her walker stopped in front of our group, paused, and started to cry a little as she put her hand on the shoulder of that supposedly middling rabbi and told us all- you’ll never meet a kinder man than this.

I’m grateful for a Judaism that compels those moments of reevaluation from other people, and for its teachings that in their open-endedness compel such reevaluation. During the pandemic somebody I didn’t know zoomed into our communal learning and shared her personal situation that even though she shared briefly sounded hard. I later got in touch with her and found out that she had gotten engaged with someone from America who had been planning to move, but not long before the pandemic had fallen suddenly ill, and been diagnosed with a fragile, complex and possibly fatal condition. He was living in hospital in New York. She was unable to visit the country or the hospital. We teased out whether there was anything I might do to help. It became clear in the face of helplessness she was feeling much guilt and pain. We spent some zoom calls learning together. She said she felt liberated as we encounter texts that permit one to ask if there’s anyone in charge, and that resolve that sometimes the required response is simply crying.

We pass this test by regularly questioning its terms, and asking how do we live. We can do this through spiritual practice, learning and conversations, morning and evening.

We begin the year with the Akeida to indicate that our Judaism can powerfully turn us to ask how to live without offering facile answers. One can leave certainty and easy answers to a certain type of theist or atheist. Now and this year, we each become more Yisrael, those that wrestle with the human and the Divine, those that wrestle with life, and persistently return to what’s being asked of us. If we’re not thinking and feeling frequently about our response to life then we’re failing. We confront inequality and suffering in the world beyond us, and the fundamental question of what one can do, along with constant competing demands, with family, with work. We pass the test, we live well, by confronting the question of how to live.

Vahaelokim nisa et Avraham. The Ultimate tested Avraham - except apparently, in a third response to the line, some did not understand the word that way at all. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra in 12th century Spain mentions an understanding that he really doesn’t like! He says: Yesh Omer, There are some that say, that really the word, nisa, tested, should be the homonym, the same sounding word, with two different letters, Nisa, meaning lifted up or forgave. The Ultimate lifted up Avraham; the Ultimate forgave Avraham. Then R Ibn Ezra  goes on to say: but no way! You can’t just change two letters and the whole story doesn’t fit this reading, and anshei shakul daat, people of sound mind, will not understand it this way.

What can we learn from “nisa et Avraham”? I may not be of fully sound mind, and if this drasha were a test marked by R Ibn Ezra I might fail for plumping for completely the wrong answer, but,  I think it’s a beautiful answer for this time of year, potentially resonant: The Ultimate lifted up Avraham, singled him out by name, and spoke to him. so we should look now and this year for up lift - to be uplifted - and we should prioritise lifting up others, letting them know we are with them. The Ultimate also forgave Avraham so we should embrace forgiveness, doing all we can to fully forgive ourselves - for our errors, and disappointments and the hurts we;ve caused - and to forgive others. 

Recall for this year what lifts you up, what moves you, and do more of it. There’s growth that can only come from opening yourself up to others, and to experience; there’s a living that can only happen with the committed openness of love. Schedule more of the enjoyment that is genuinely uplifting and ennobling - do more of it.

It might sometimes help us to motivate ourselves to live well, to take on life as a test, but sometimes we can’t live life as a test; some of us need to let go of the frequent thought of all the answers we’re getting wrong, all the ways we’re not achieving 100%, which can feel like all the ways we’re failing. So, this year we might do more, and more of what’s important to us; we might commit to continuing to ask what is being asked of me, how can I live right; and we might simply seek that which lifts us up.

However good or bad you were at preparing towards tests, what we’re doing now is living life- and we do this best when we know that none of us has the answers. 

Sat, 3 June 2023 14 Sivan 5783