Sacrificing God: Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5773

How many of you are here tonight because someone you love asked you to be here? Or because someone you love told you to be here?

How many of you are here to connect with the Jewish community?
To connect with Jewish culture and history?
To feel connected to your family,
whether they are sitting next to you or are across the country?

How many of you are here because this is just what Jewish people do?
How many of you are here to make amends with God?

Tonight we are starting a journey. We will spend the next ten days climbing a mountain together, on a journey to the top. And when we get to the top, we’ll have more than a view of the path we took to get there; we’ll have a panorama of of the past year spread out beneath us. We will look back on our past, and out toward our future as well.

Every year at this time we revisit the story of the akedah — the story of the binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, the one he loves best, to the top of Mount Moriah and to offer him as a sacrifice. And Abraham listens. Without hesitation, without a single question, he gets up early the next morning and proceeds to Mount Moriah. He and his son climb the mountain and prepare the altar, and Abraham binds his son Isaac on top of the altar. He raises the knife, prepared to kill his son, his only son, the one he loves best… and a messenger from God stops him before he carries out the sacrifice.

This story has always troubled me.

I can’t believe in a God who would demand child sacrifice — even as a test, even as a means to teach us not to make human sacrifices.

I can’t believe in a God who demands we retell this story every Rosh Hashanah, as if to prove ourselves worthy of God’s protection in the New Year — a God who grants us blessing because of what our ancestors did. In the Mishnah, Rabbi Abbahu writes that God says, “Sound before Me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham and account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.” If God were all-powerful and all-knowing, surely no such reminder would be required. We wouldn’t need to bring out the family tree in order to  gain blessing in the New Year. 

I can’t believe Abraham didn’t stand up. He didn’t argue; he didn’t question; he didn’t ask why God would demand something immoral. He was willing to blindly obey. And Judaism is not about blind obedience — Jews are taught to  question everything, including God. 

And I can’t believe in a God who manipulates human events on a whim — who demands and desires and commands and punishes. A god who is so very… well, human.

So, tonight I say this to you:

Tomorrow morning: get up early and take this god — your only god — the one you think you love the best, the one you think you should love the best — and offer that god as a sacrifice.

It is time to sacrifice your old god, your antiquated belief in God, your time-worn idea that God is no more than a very powerful human living up in the clouds and coming out every year to decide if we merit inclusion in the Book of Life. It is time to let that god go.

When we sacrifice this ancient and idealized vision, we do not give up on the idea that there is something greater than ourselves. We let go of the things we think we are supposed to believe, and in doing so we find something more meaningful. It is time to open ourselves up to a new understanding of God.

It would be a mistake, after all, to imagine that there is only one Jewish way of understanding God. Abraham’s God is not Jacob’s God or even Moses’ God. There are more than 70 names for God, more than 70 ways for understanding the Divine. The god of your parents – the god of your childhood – may no longer fit you. It makes sense that the High Holy Day god — judge, jury and executioner — may not be your god either.

Because if you only look at the surface of our High Holy Day liturgy, the message can be a bit disturbing.

Are we trying to change God’s mind through our prayer? Does our presence here this evening, saying the right words and performing the right actions change our destiny for the New Year? Does God need our excessive praise once a year? Are we trying to appease God to earn blessing?

Our liturgy seems to suggest we have a situation in which we are, in essence, bargaining or cajoling. On Rosh Hashanah it is as if we are stepping into God’s courtroom and asking for mercy.

It’s like that old joke. There once was a man who went for a walk in the woods. As the sun began to set, he realized he was lost. The temperature was dropping, and he knew that bears lived in the woods. He began to pray, “God, I am not a religious man, but I promise that if you help me find my way home I will change my ways. I will start to go to temple, I will follow your mitzvot, I will become a better Jew.” As he was praying he came upon a sign marking the trail and pointing towards the village. As soon as he realized he would not have to spend the night in the woods, he called aloud to God, “Never mind, I found it myself.”

According to recent surveys, if we are a typical group of American Jews — and I suppose we are — half of you sitting here this evening do not believe in God. And that is O.K., you do not need to believe in God to experience the power of the High Holy Days. 

According to this survey, if you are a woman, you are more likely to believe in God than  the man sitting next to you. You are less likely to believe in God than someone who is older than you.  

Most of us are more comfortable with pleasant and soothing God-language and metaphors. We are at ease with the God of Shabbat, the God who loves and comforts and rests, the God who offers hope and refuge. 

And then once a year, we drag out this other prayer book and this other god to sit in judgement over us. These day are different than all others. On the High Holy Days we talk about God as a ruler and a judge, as a cosmic accountant measuring and weighing our sins.

What happened to the God we are used to? The God who encourages us to sing and dance and eat and celebrate? The God who dwells with us when we create community together? 

We struggle with this different image of God because it is so different from the way we think about God on Shabbat, and throughout the rest of the year. 

For the next ten days, we are different. Rabbi Lutz, Cantor Roher and I are wearing white robes and not making our usual jokes about getting the memo to wear the same colors on the same day. Today, there really was a memo. It does not feel like Shabbat. We are more formal. Our worship is more formal and our music is loftier… so it makes sense that God would be different on this day as well. 

That survey of American Jews also found that many of us feel closer to God when we are outdoors in nature. It is unsurprising, therefore, that our High Holy Day liturgy attempts to create the sense of awe we find in nature. The  sense of scale when you look at a towering mountain; the depth in a vast canyon, the limitless horizon of the ocean spread out before us. The sublime power and majesty of the natural world.

To really engage in the self reflection that is required on this day we need to feel small. Talking about God with the metaphors of sovereignty and majesty is supposed to recreate that feeling of awe and humble us. We need to be reminded that we don’t have control of the world around us. We need to be reminded of our place in the universe – that there is something larger than us, something larger than all of us together.   Uncomfortable God metaphors and uncomfortable liturgy are supposed to make us uncomfortable, because we need to let go of our egos in order to take a hard look at our lives. We are supposed to feel judged and to find ourselves lacking. 

To do the work that needs to be done in the new year we need to be reminded that it is not all about us. We need to take a hard look at ourselves and our lives and accept that we can do better. We need to stop making excuses and blaming others or circumstances. We need to recognize our faults before we can bring about real change in our lives. We can’t even begin to change until we can recognize that we need to do so.

How do we come to this realization? That feeling of humility can help get us there. It is easier for us to see where we have gone wrong — and how we can improve — once we recognize and acknowledge our place in the universe. It is easier to forgive others for the wrongs they have done us. And it is easier for us to forgive ourselves for the wrongs that we have done. We can begin to let go of the guilt that holds us back. We can learn from our mistakes. We can begin to heal. 

We can even let go of the god that has been holding us back, and embrace the God that climbs the mountain with us. Because that’s what’s different about this journey up the mountain. We are not alone. Even as we search for God, God travels with us.

Just as God did not speak from the Burning Bush until Moses stopped and was ready to listen, so too does God remain silent in our journey until we are ready to hear God’s voice within ourselves. This is the voice of God that has grown with us as we have grown, the God that changes with us throughout our life experiences. This is not the same God from childhood or perhaps even the God of last year. This is God here and now, offering comfort and pushing us to change. 

When Abraham was at the top of the mountain he looked around and named the mountain “Adonai Yireh,” proclaiming that on the Mountain of God there is vision. When we climb this mountain together, there will be a vision. Whether or not you believe in God, we can all have a vision of our best selves. We can all learn from Abraham about the courage and faith and hope it takes to start any journey and we can have courage and faith and hope in the New Year.

During these High Holy Days we struggle to find that voice within, and to hear God. The point of the next ten days is not to endlessly praise God or just simply read through the machzor to get through the service. These can be paths that we take in our search, but they are not the search itself. We are all searching for God, searching for whatever it is within us that gives us the power to change for the better and inspires us to do good. It is time to accept the God that you believe in and to give up the idealized god, the god that has been given to you. Give up the god who orders you up the mountain, and search for the God who joins you on your journey. You may not find God in the machzor, but you will most definitely find something larger than yourself in our community and in the voices that accompany you and all of us who are going up this mountain together. 

God tells Abraham asher shamati b'koli — “That you will be blessed because you listened to my voice.” Each of us has the opportunity to sit on the mountain and listen to the voice; in doing so may we blessed in the year that is just beginning.
May your faith be a source of comfort and strength.
May you find the courage to change when you need to change.
May you be your best self in the New Year.
And may this New Year be filled with blessing.
Shanah Tovah.

Opening questions adapted from "The God Upgrade" by Rabbi Jamie Korngold. For a list of additional sources, please contact me.


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