Finding meaning in the ram


No story in our culture is more enigmatic and iconic than the Binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. The akedah, or “binding,” is found in the 22nd chapter of Genesis and is only 19 verses long, containing just over 300 words. Yet this very short story has compelled writers from Maimonides to Wilfred Owen, from St. Augustine to Bob Dylan.

Throughout history, thinkers and writers focused on the varying characters of the story. In the medieval period, philosophers focused mainly on God and free will with questions such as, “What could God learn from Abraham’s test, if the all-knowing God knew that Isaac would not be killed?” During the crusades, the focused shifted to Isaac, who was widely viewed in that time period as a model for martyrdom. In the modern period, the shift of focus was to Abraham with questions such as, “How does someone like Abraham live with a God who commands such terrible things?” Later, the feminists finally give voice to the silenced Sarah by asking, “How would Sarah respond to God’s wish?” 

But the most unsung hero of the akedah is not Abraham, or God, or Sarah. It’s the ram.

The basic narrative of the akedah is that God asks Abraham to take his son, Isaac, up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him to God. Abraham and Isaac climb the mountain together. At the peak, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and unsheathes the knife. As he lifts the blade into the heavens, the Angel of God appears and stays his hand. A ram caught in the brambles by its horns — which Abraham sees for the first time — becomes the substitute sacrifice for Isaac. 

The ram is the only character mentioned in the story that doesn’t speak, that doesn’t choose to be there and finds itself drawn into events of the akedah simply because it was in the right place at the right time. More than any other character in the story, the ram is the truest reflection of the spiritual moment that we live in today. Perhaps that’s what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had in mind when he wrote of the ram, “He had human eyes.”

Each of us is just like the ram. There is much in our lives we don’t choose and in truth cannot control. Our parents’ dreams for us began months before we were born. They chose our clothes, our schools, even our friends, when we are young. As adults, we have the opportunity to craft life for ourselves, but we have moments in which we hear our mother’s or father’s words come out of our mouths.  

As we grow up, many of us become workaholics and believe that we can control every facet of life by dint of our own powers. We convince ourselves that we can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle if we just work harder and do more. We think we can control every aspect, every moment, as if everyday living is a filtered Instagram image. 

Then, at some moment not of our own choosing, the enormity of life catches us unaware. We lose a job, or someone we love becomes terminally ill. We hear the cries of a new baby for the first time, or that child comes home to tell you he’s getting married. These are the moments when we have unwittingly climbed Moriah and life catches us in its thorns, and, like the ram, we have no control over them. We wake up to a world that cannot be designed or curated; it is life in its most unpolished truth, and, like the ram, many of us just don’t have the right language to respond. 

The religious energy of the ram saturates the High Holy Days. We begin with the new moon of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Every morning we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, as a symbolic wakeup call to attune ourselves to the spiritual drama that unfolds around us every day. The shofar gives shape and tone to our experience of life’s most precious moments and reminds us that there is so much in life we cannot control. We are told to calibrate our lives to the shofar’s call as we prepare for the spiritual encounter of Rosh Hashanah. In the ram’s song, its soulful blast vibrates in the chambers of our hearts, waking us up to the fragility of life and teaching us to respond with love and awe in each other.  

As the holiday season falls upon us, we begin the journey, like the ram, up the winding paths to Moriah, where each of us allows ourselves the space to break down life to its most basic elements. How will I be in the coming year, and where will life take me? In the Unetaneh Tokef, we encounter God at the peak of the mountain. The author imagines us passing before the open gates of heaven like the sheep of the herd to be counted by God. As we take our turn before God, like the ram, we become our most vulnerable selves by laying bare our successes and failures. We look at our lives and see that that we don’t own them outright because we are entangled in the lives of other people. We look again and see that there are so many things over which we don’t have control. In that Moriah moment, we give ourselves over, like the ram, to the flow of the world. 

At Moriah’s peak, we are the ram, giving ourselves over to a higher purpose. This act of giving over is a sacrifice where we draw nearer to both God and the world. In the Torah, the ritual of sacrifice is an act of substitution. The idea of substitution typically moves us away from the realness of life. Most of us have a hard time saying, “I’m sorry that your mother died.” Instead, we substitute, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The substitution makes the experience of death palatable by backing away from the harshness of death. 

In the akedah, however, as with other sacrificial rituals, the move is exactly the opposite. In Hebrew, the word korban, which means sacrifice, shares the Hebrew root with the word karov, which means to draw close. This act of substitution in the akedah draws us nearer to, not further from, life’s most powerful truth. Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today, when we commit an act of sacrificial prayer, through our meditations and rituals, we say that we are willing to engage with the realness of life. We come to know that our lives, like the ram’s, are enriched when we view our days on earth as an offering — a gift — to be shared with the universe.  

Which leads us to the last crucial point about who we are and who we should be. It was the ram who went to the altar to spare Isaac’s life. An act of substitution such as this is what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says is an act of taking ethical responsibility. The ram in this light took responsibility for the entire endeavor of the akedah, for faith and for the covenant. The final teaching of the ram is that it is not enough to climb the mountain on the High Holy Days and realize that our lives are embedded in an awesome universe that we cannot entirely control. We must take responsibility for the world and make it more just and loving. As we draw close to God through the ram’s korban, our joy becomes God’s joy. Our pain becomes God’s pain. In our closeness to God, we become God’s partner, sharing in the task of the global responsibility for justice. To take up the shofar’s call is not only to feel the wonder of the world, but to feel its pain. The babes of others, even those we consider our enemies, deserve our tears as much as do our own children. To understand what it means to be the ram is to understand that we as Jews have a global responsibility to leave our sacred enclaves and go out in the world and stand in the breach of injustice.

This is the secret of the akedah. Today we are all the ram, caught up with one another, tangled in one another’s horns. We need each other, we need to be together, and we need to believe that our togetherness can craft a world worthy of our highest aspirations. The akedah is not simply a test of Abraham’s irrational faith, but a call to partnership with God in the messiness of life. 

In one last midrash, the rabbis say that the ram’s two horns were of different sizes. The first is smaller and was blown at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people. The second is larger and more powerful, heralding the coming of the messianic times. Thousands of years ago, we heard the first blast of the ram’s shofar. As we take our journey up to Mount Moriah on this High Holy Days season, it is time to wake up to the spiritual drama around us, realize that we are all bound together in life, and focus our minds and hearts on hearing the messianic call of a better tomorrow.

 

Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

Tree felled by Sandy kills Jewish teacher, college student


Two young Jews were killed in Brooklyn by a falling tree during superstorm Sandy.

The pair were out walking a dog Monday night in the storm's high winds.

The dead were identified by The New York Observer as Jessie Streich-Kest, 24, who worked as a high school teacher in the city, and Jacob Vogelman, a student at Brooklyn College. The two had been friends since middle school, according to the Observer.

They were discovered dead Monday, crushed by the fallen tree. The dog was taken to an emergency veterinary clinic.

At least 45 people in the United States and 68 outside of the U.S. have been killed in the one-of-a-kind storm, and more than 7 million people in 13 states were without power.

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions on the East Coast began to open up again. The UJA-Federation of New York announced on its website that its offices in Manhattan and Westchester would reopen, though its Long Island office would remain closed.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey were scheduled to reopen at 7 a.m. Wednesday with limited service, though New York's LaGuardia Airport remained closed.

Thousands of Israeli airline passengers and Americans in Israel trying to return home had their flights to the U.S. canceled on Monday and Tuesday. Israelis trying to get home also remained stranded in New York, New Jersey and the D.C. area. In all  more than 14,000 flights reportedly were canceled due to Sandy.

The greater New York area, home to the largest population of Jews in North America, was hit hard as severe winds and flooding toppled trees, knocked out electricity and flooded public transportation systems.

Jewish institutions throughout the eastern U.S. remained closed Tuesday.

Stuck in the middle


My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don’t.

I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father, Abraham, and my son, Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as “the offspring of Abraham” or, more commonly, “the children of Israel.” You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac.

It’s not that my name isn’t mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else’s point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother, Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother, Hagar, out of the house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my play partner. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we buried our father, Abraham.

Some years after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the “big test.” You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, “The Binding of Isaac.” The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that this story isn’t really about me at all. It’s all about my father: “After these events, God tested Abraham.”

Not once throughout this “big test of faith” is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: “God will provide.”

So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father’s knife to my throat. Yet when it’s all over and God’s angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I — Isaac — felt throughout this ordeal.

In case you’re wondering, I’ll start by asking if you ever noticed that after my akeidah, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let’s add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother had died from the shock upon hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, the akeidah crowned my father the “ultimate hero of faith.” As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite a “all’s well that end’s well.”

My father’s last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, do you think I would have a say in who I would marry?

I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife, Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son, Jacob, to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been “Isaac Blessing His Sons” became “Jacob Deceiving Isaac.” My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. I had no say in the matter.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me.

As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and, as a result, both of them left and went down to Egypt. I, too, was faced with a “famine in the land,” but I did not leave. I stayed in Canaan, and I dug wells.

Perhaps I gained something when I was bound up on Mount Moriah. I became a survivor, and despite the trauma, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave the land.

Throughout our history, my family’s descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on “staying in the land and digging wells,” despite “the famine.” So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story — the story of a survivor — that is really their story.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Is This Marriage Made in Heaven?


The night I met my husband was a warm evening in April and the smell of orange blossoms permeated the air. The date was “arranged” by mutual friends but I had lots of doubts about meeting their old college friend, a nice Jewish doctor from Los Angeles.

“If he’s such a great guy, why is he 31 years old and not married?” I asked myself as I pulled into the parking lot, totally missing the irony of my own unmarried situation.

I knew, even before the chips and salsa arrived, that my children would have his eyes. Deep, calm, caring eyes that had me convinced in less than a minute that I had come home to the place I had been traveling 27 years to find.

I didn’t know what it was called at the time but according to Jewish tradition, I had found my beshert, my true soul mate.

What is a soul mate? Is it a New Age concept that defines true love? Is it a catchy phrase used by romance novelists and publishers to sell books? Or does it mean something deeper and more essential, a spiritual bond between two people that is essential to fulfilling our heart’s destiny?

The Bible gives us a glimpse of the origins of a soul mate in Genesis 2:18 when God said: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him.”

Loneliness is God’s first concern about us as human beings. There is a sense that we will not be happy alone; that we need to be connected to another human being to experience companionship, support and the struggles inherent in a relationship if we are to achieve personal fulfillment and reach our highest potential. Adam, the first man, may have been complete in his physical being but without someone to love, without a partner with whom to relate, he was spiritually and emotionally incomplete.

In the story of Isaac and Rebecca, we watch as Divine guidance directs the meeting of two people destined for one another when Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, prays to God for a sign. Eleazar barely finishes his entreaty when Rebecca appears and provides the exact sign that Eleazar had prayed for: She offers him and his camels water to drink. This is seen as more than a lucky coincidence; it is viewed as an act of Divine providence guiding Isaac to his true love.

The idea that heaven plays a part in the destiny of our hearts also appears in the Talmud, which describes a soul mate as someone who is chosen for us even before we are born. “Forty days before a child is born, a voice from heaven announces: ‘The daughter of this person is destined for so-and-so'”(Sotah 2a).

How does one find their soul mate? Jewish history provides us with several answers. Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, is our first example of a Jewish matchmaker, a man on a mission to find the right wife for Isaac. During the 12th century in Europe and Asia, it became customary to hire an intermediary, or shadchen, to find a suitable marriage partner. While this custom is no longer widely practiced, it is still followed in traditional Orthodox Jewish communities today.

Another answer has emerged from the world of technology. Jewish matchmaking in cyberspace is now a vibrant industry consisting of numerous Web sites offering successful matchmaking services for Jewish singles.

Not finding one’s soul mate does not mean that one will live a loveless life. There are many forms of love and many types of loving relationships that nourish the heart and elevate the soul. Although different from a soul mate, a soulful relationship is one born out of true knowledge, caring, respect and love for another person that imbues life with emotional and spiritual meaning and purpose. Soulful relationships can occur throughout our lives with friends, co-workers, respected teachers and family members, as well as in our efforts to know and love God. In all cases, it is through our search for love and the belief and faith that we will find it that we open ourselves up to finding soulful relationships, as well as our true beshert.

My husband and I will celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary this year. While some may view ours as a “marriage made in heaven,” we both know how hard we have struggled, worked, negotiated and compromised to make it a strong and loving relationship here on earth. When I look into his face and see the light reflected in the eyes that so closely resemble those of my children, I am reminded of a wonderful Jewish saying from the Chasidic rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov:

“From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

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Madonna and the Elusive Isaac


Madonna and scandal have been virtually synonymous from the start of the pop star’s career more than 20 years ago. There were songs about being like virgins touched for the very first time and girls getting pregnant and telling their fathers that they wanted to keep the babies. There were music videos of Madonna employing Jesus’ stigmata on her own hands, and everything was augmented by conical bras and crotch-rubbing dances.

But since Madonna’s famous conversion to kabbalah, she has been using Jewish religious iconography to shock — or at least to make her point. In her “Die Another Day” video she wore phylacteries and had Hebrew letters tattooed on body.

Now, on her latest album “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” the track that is receiving the most attention and critical acclaim is one called “Isaac.” About a month before the CD’s release on Nov. 15, rabbis in Israel claimed the song was about Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist better known as the Arizal, and they blasted Madonna for using his holy name for profit.

“One can feel only pity at the punishment that she [Madonna] will receive from Heaven,” Rabbi Rafael Cohen told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

But Madonna swung back, claiming the song was not about the Arizal at all, but rather was named after Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre, who sings the Hebrew incantation on the song and provides the mumbled spoken word explanatory interlude at the end.

So what is “Isaac” about? It is hard to say, although it is clear that on this album it is the song most inclined toward Madonna’s spiritual leanings. The beat throbs to the Hebrew lyrics, sung by Sinwani in a wailing rhythmic chant. The lyrics -“Im In Alo, Daltei Nadivim, Daltei Marom, El Hai, Marumam Al Keruvim Kulam Be-Ruho Ya’alu.”

Translate as “If it is locked, the gates of the giving, the gates of heaven, God is alive, He will elevate the angels, and everyone will rise in His spirit.”

In the verses, Madonna sings earnestly “Wrestle with your darkness…. All of your life has all been a test/ You will find the gate that’s open…,” and at the end, Sinwani intones, in what seems like an unrehearsed and unedited addition “The gates of heaven are always open, and there’s this God in the sky and the angels, how they sit, you know, in front of the light, And that’s what its about.”

Hmm … what exactly does all this mean? An attempt to reach Sinwani in London reached only his secretary, who said he is not talking to the press. The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles was equally unresponsive and did not return calls for comment.

In the meantime, critics and listeners are praising the song (London’s “The Sun” called it “Stunning”) and Madonna herself has said the song moved her to tears.

“I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about,” she told Anthony Kiedis in an interview on AOL. “Then he told me and I cried even more.”

 

Different Yet Identical


In introducing us to the patriarchal family of Isaac, son of Abraham, this week’s Torah portion of Toldot begins: "And these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham — Abraham begot Isaac." Since Torah is not given to redundancy, this opening passage raises the question: Once we’re told that Isaac is the "son of Abraham," what is the point of then stating "Abraham begot Isaac?"

The Midrash explains that the statement "Abraham begot Isaac" represents Divine testimony that Isaac was indeed the biological son of Abraham. That in the face of ridiculers and rumormongers who sought to claim that Isaac had been fathered by the Philistine king, Avimelech, God formed the physical features of Isaac in striking resemblance to those of Abraham so that there would be no room for doubt — "Abraham begot Isaac."

Another midrashic comment extrapolates upon this point by saying that this physical resemblance between Abraham and Isaac was a reflection of their spiritual resemblance; that the merits, the lofty pursuits, indeed the spiritual DNA, of father and son were likewise completely identical.

Now this declaration of spiritual similarity — let alone resemblance — is most curious.

We’re taught that Abraham’s primary mode of service was via the attribute of chesed (loving kindness). This was repeatedly and poignantly demonstrated by his incessant acts of hospitality, compassion and benevolence. He opened his home to hungry wayfarers. He reached out and taught others with delicate softness and patient sensitivity.

Isaac’s primary service, on the other hand, was via the attribute of gevura (severity and restraint). He was a much more demanding sort of fellow. This was demonstrated by his defiant and relentless digging of wells. Even as his enemies kept filling and destroying them, Isaac dug away the rocks and the dirt to uncover the waters beneath. With sharpness and strength, he dug away at the shmutz — the evil and the falseness that was seen on the surface — so as to unearth the reservoirs of goodness and truth buried deep within.

Indeed, everything we learn about Abraham and Isaac seems to cry out: Different! That if ever there was a father and son who seemed so unlike one another, it was these two highly individualized personalities. Yet the Midrash states that, in fact, Abraham and Isaac resembled one another — in every way!?

Within this paradox, seen at the inception of the family of Israel, lies the true beauty of our people. Different situations require different solutions. In the days of Abraham — during which unawareness of a Divine presence was rampant — the world needed an Abraham-like personality. In the days of Isaac — especially with hostilities looming on the horizon — the world needed an Isaac-like personality. Yet, these very different individuals — firmly embarked on their very different missions with their very different methods and characteristics — are deemed spiritually (and essentially) identical because their ultimate focus and goals were one in the same. Their core principles, values and underlying devotion to God were completely indistinguishable from one another. They blazed different trails, but both trails led to the same place: toward making their environment a more holy and moral place to live.

The great Chasidic master, Reb Zushe of Hanipoli, once remarked that when he thinks about the interrogation that might await him after his days on earth are done, he is not worried that he might be asked: "Zushe, why could you not attain the heights of an Abraham, a Moses or a King David?"

Such concerns did not trouble him. His one and only source of trepidation was that the question would be posed; "Zushe, why were not as great as Zushe?"

You are expected to rise to the heights of your own very special and unique potential — no more, no less.

Judaism, and its Torah way of life, celebrates individuality. We are each endowed with our own gifts and talents, our own passions and modes of expression. In terms of personality and character, none of us are truly alike. This is the way God created us for it is only through the diverse expression of the multitudes that His true intent in creating this world can be realized.

Each and every Jewish man, woman and child plays his/her own special instrument within the symphony that is Yiddishkayt. Within the context and framework of halacha and tradition are endless means and modes of service to the Almighty. From the intellectual to the emotional, from the ritualistic to the artistic, we are called upon to experience it all, even as we shine in some areas more than others. What inspires, stimulates and intrigues some may not do the same for others. Yet, at the pinnacle of it all, is that special place in which we are, and must remain, identical. Within the essential goals — of living and being true to the principles of our Holy Torah — is where there is beautiful resemblance among all of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Let each instrument of the orchestra contribute its own special notes with its own special sound and rhythm. Yet, let us make certain that we are playing the same piece of music — as guided by that One and Only conductor — so that rather than a cacophony of disjointed noise, we have a beautiful symphony of harmonious diversity.


Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Academy.

What are you? An Innovator, A Developer Or An Adventurer


There are three patriarchs in the Bible: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which of the above were they? Well, Abraham created a new religion. He was an innovator. Jacob spent his life traveling and encountering adventure after adventure. He brought the God of Israel’s religion to all the places he went. He was an adventurer. And Isaac? We don’t know much about him — except that he was almost sacrificed and that his son Jacob "tricked” him into giving him the blessing that was supposed to be reserved for the oldest son, Esau. But maybe he wasn’t really tricked. Maybe he just played along, because he understood God’s larger plan and knew that he was part of its long-term development. And that makes him a developer. Not only did he not stand in the way of God’s plan to make the Israelites God’s chosen people, but he also helped it happen. So, which one are you? Abraham, Isaac or Jacob?