Rosh Hashanah Morning 2016
October 3rd/ 4th, 2016
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
How does a man of ignoble beginnings, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the wilderness by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? One would not anticipate that such a trajectory would be possible, and yet throngs of people go around with this man’s name on their lips, celebrating his history and building upon his legacy.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m speaking about Alexander Hamilton. Our country’s first treasury secretary has, in just over a year, skyrocketed into the nation’s consciousness. Once known chiefly as the face on the ten-dollar bill, Hamilton is newly a hot item, thanks to the musical about him by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which has won the Pulitzer Prize, several Tony Awards, and a Grammy Award. Miranda based his work on the biography by author Ron Chernow, which was a New York Times bestseller. In the past year-and-a-half, Alexander Hamilton has gone from a figure briefly examined in high school American History classes to become reimagined as a folk hero. Historian George Will has said, “There is an elegant memorial in Washington [D.C.] to [Thomas] Jefferson, but none to Hamilton. However, if you seek Hamilton's monument, look around. You are living in it. We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton's country, a mighty industrial nation with a strong central government.” As Will notes, many of the key institutions that distinguish our country bear Hamilton’s imprint.
But on this day, people are packing seats all over the world to hear a tale of another founding father, another “A dot Ham”: Abraham. And it could be argued that the life trajectory of our people’s original patriarch in many ways parallels the stories that Mr. Miranda has popularized regarding Alexander Hamilton. I’m not planning on divulging any spoilers, and some of you may be disappointed to know that I’m not planning on busting out any hip hop beats either, but I do think we can draw from some of the messages of the musical to gain insight into the character of Abraham. Even if you are not yet well-versed (no pun intended) with the musical’s soundtrack, I think you’ll understand the connections I draw between the classic biblical tales and this newly popular chapter in American history.
And history is a good place to begin. If one is an adherent of any of the Western religions, Abraham’s influence is undeniable. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even Baha’i each claim him as a figure key to the development of their respective faiths. Those who are not particularly religious can still likely appreciate Abraham’s contribution to modern civilization. By introducing the possibility of monotheism to the world, Abraham broke important ground in striving to make sense of the universe, and humanity’s place within it.
On Rosh Hashanah [On this Second Day of Rosh Hashanah], we read one of the most intriguing and troubling stories of Abraham’s life, Akedat Yitzchak, the “Binding of Isaac.” The basics of the tale are familiar to most of us: Abraham heeds a call to sacrifice his beloved son to God as evidence of his unwavering faith. The story guides us through the tense moments as Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain, each with their own expectations of what is about to unfold. Ultimately, of course, God intervenes to stop the sacrifice, and the tale instead becomes a pivotal element in the development of Abraham’s faith story. Among its many lessons is the affirmation that, unlike the gods of other Near Eastern cultures, Abraham’s God does not require the sacrifice of humans in order to be pleased and satiated.
Because Abraham plays so prominent a role in the evolution of modern religious thought and practice, historians have long grappled with his character, his motives, and his actions. Particularly in regard to the Akeda, history has not always been kind to him. An overwhelming majority within contemporary Western society has abandoned sacrifice of any sort as a means of communing with the Divine; certainly child sacrifice is unimaginable in our current context. That Abraham, forced to choose between his love for his son and the command he has heard from God, appears to select the latter option over the former is very unsettling. History records that he is more concerned with remaining in God’s good graces than he is with Isaac’s welfare.
As Alexander Hamilton comes to realize, at least in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s telling, while one may make poor decisions in one’s life—or at least, decisions with which others might disagree—ultimately, one’s legacy is dependent less on your own actions than on the interpretations of others. George Washington voices this to Hamilton in the show, declaring, “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/ When I was young and dreamed of glory/ You have no control: / Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story.” The Torah records this episode with a somewhat detached air; it makes no case for how we should feel about Abraham’s behavior. Rabbis and scholars of the Torah, however, are not shy about casting judgment on him.
Now, fortunately for those of us who consider ourselves Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) physical and spiritual descendants, the story of the Akeda has a somewhat happy ending: Isaac survives, and we come to an understanding about the expectations that God has of us. Abraham and Isaac (and later, Jacob) will take their place in our cultural history as our patriarchs, and text and midrashim will come to be crafted around them. As we read in these texts about their adventures and misadventures, we can imagine them pleading with the authors of history, just as Hamilton’s wife Eliza sings in the musical, “Oh, let me be a part of the narrative/ In the story they will write someday.”
If, as some students of the story have suggested, Isaac’s survival of the Akeda is preordained, then what does the episode come to teach us? Beyond a rejection of the child sacrifice practiced by other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the awe and dread of the moment are arguably intended to instill in Isaac a sense of God’s power and majesty. If indeed such a “scared straight” tactic is effective, it will cement the newfound ideal of monotheism among Abraham’s offspring, and secure his legacy.
If this was Abraham’s intent—and/or God’s—evidently, they succeed to a degree. Isaac does embrace his father’s theology, and continues to build on it as he establishes his own family. But the tactic comes at a cost: according to the narrative as recorded in the Torah, Isaac and Abraham never again speak, and Isaac only returns home after Abraham’s death, in order to assist with his burial.
Sometimes it’s the case that the full impact of one’s legacy can’t be appreciated until many years later. Certainly, this was the case with Hamilton. In the musical, Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s chief rival, sings about legacy, proclaiming, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” That lyric has an antecedent in Jewish tradition: the Talmud records that a man named Honi was once travelling when he came upon an elderly man planting a carob tree. “Foolish man!” Honi called out. “Do you not realize that the carob tree takes seventy years to bear fruit? You will never have an opportunity to taste of this tree’s fruit.” The man replied, “That is very likely to be the case. But I do not plant for myself. When I was born, I found many carob trees already here. Just as others planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” Similarly, though Abraham knows that has covenant with God includes the guarantee that his name will live on through numerous descendants, he will not be witness personally to the fulfillment of this promise. That is something that will only evolve over time.
One of the most prominent themes to run through the “Hamilton” soundtrack is the motif of “my shot.” I don’t think I’m divulging too much by reminding you that Alexander Hamilton ultimately lost his life in a duel, and so “my shot” resonates on a literal level as a reference to the taking up of arms. But “my shot” also comes to refer to opportunity, as Hamilton and his compatriots come to see their own destinies as commingled with the future of the new nation they are seeking to create. As one repeated lyric puts it, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
We could similarly say that our patriarchs are just like the religion or theology that they have worked to shape (it would be anachronistic to call it Judaism). While Abraham and Isaac (and later Jacob) are not young when they make their most significant contributions to the faith, they are certainly “scrappy and hungry.” It is understandable that none of them wish to “throw away [their] shot” at making their mark on the world.
In the chapters of the Torah leading up to the Akeda, Abraham appears particularly concerned with his “shot”—beyond his personal legacy, he wants to know that this new idea that he has shaped will live on in future generations. At least in our Jewish telling of Abraham’s story, he first rests his hope on his nephew Lot, and then turns his attention to Ishmael. Finally he receives the divine assurance that Isaac will be his “shot”—the heir through which this proto-Judaism will be perpetuated.
Yet Abraham appears to be so willing—some might even classify him as eager—to carry through with the murder of his son that might deny him his “shot.” We can only surmise that if Abraham recognizes the call as a mere test of faith, he does not truly anticipate that he will be forced to carry the task out to its gruesome completion. Perhaps he plans to show up, and line up his shot, but not actually to take the shot.
This explanation, while it may comfort those of us who are distressed by the idea of Abraham’s apparent casual attitude toward the proposed sacrifice, does not fully acquit Abraham. For we do not know how Abraham might have proceeded had the angel not intervened. Abraham is caught between two worlds, two allegiances: his devotion to his family (and his desire not to “throw away his shot”) in this case stands in stark contrast against his devotion to God.
Most of us also live with multiple simultaneous demands on our attention and loyalty. It is how we engage in this cosmic juggling act that shapes our character. We learn from the Akeda narrative that we are not alone in this struggle. And we learn, hopefully, how to rely on God and on others when the balancing act feels particularly precarious.
Though Abraham and Isaac are the heroes of the Akeda story as Judaism tells it, neither is without his flaws. This, in part, is the genius of the Torah: telling stories with characters roundly developed, subject to the trials and foibles that all of humanity must face. Though we pray none of us will be subjected to as fearsome a test as the one that unfolds during the Akeda, we know that life will present challenges to us, and that our character will be forged in the fires that emerge from these tests. Miranda has the character of Aaron Burr express it in this way, “We rise and we fall/ And we break/ And we make our mistakes/ Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” Burr recognizes that each of us has a bit of good and bad within us. It’s all about how we find an internal balance between these two qualities.
Rabbinic Judaism takes this notion a step further, introducing the notion of the “Yetzer Tov,” often described as the “good inclination,” and the “Yetzer Ra,” a so-called “negative inclination.” Both are necessary ingredients in human existence; a person who completely subjugates his or her yetzer ra will quickly lose the drive and ambition needed to function in the world. One who fails to allow his or her yetzer tov to express itself is at risk of becoming irredeemably evil. If one can learn how to manage each of these inclinations, allowing them each room to surface at appropriate times, then one will arguably be suitably prepared to face life’s challenges.
The Torah, along with Aaron Burr in the aforementioned lyric, recognizes that our goal is not perfection. Rather, we recognize that life will have its ups and downs. We pray for the wisdom, courage, and resilience to face life’s fortunes and misfortunes.
It has been asked: if the Torah is a work of history, seeking in part to tell the origin story of the group we now call “The Jewish People,” why spend so much time in the early chapters with Abraham? Couldn’t the narrative begin with Judah, who ultimately lends his name to our people? Couldn’t it start with Moses, who helped to lead us out of slavery and gave us the instruction which shaped our behavior and our understanding of how we are meant to function in this world? Could it perhaps lead off with King David, who unified the disparate tribes and strengthened our national identity?
While all of these individuals might be qualified to lead off the story of our people, I think we need Abraham, warts and all. Yes, the others I mentioned have their share of faults and foibles and interesting, occasionally discomfiting, interactions with the Divine. But I think we need Abraham. Just as our nation needed Alexander Hamilton as a visionary at a time when the heady excitement of revolution gave way to frightening uncertainty about the next steps of nationalism, the Jewish people needs Abraham as a visionary for our future.
We need Abraham to encourage us to ask questions and not be satisfied with the status quo. We need Abraham to affirm that it’s OK, and occasionally necessary, to argue with and bargain with God. We need Abraham to instruct us about values such as welcoming the stranger and sticking up for those less fortunate than ourselves. We need Abraham to teach us to be patient when things we’ve been looking forward to take a long time to reach fruition. We need Abraham to help us realize that sometimes the hopes and dreams we hold for future generations may not match the desires they have for themselves. We need Abraham to remind us that event though life may get sticky and ugly—though we pray none of us will face a challenge quite so extreme as the Akeda—family and community can strengthen us through these trials.
To paraphrase the George Will quote I shared earlier, there are numerous monuments throughout the world testifying to the importance of the iconic figures of other faiths. However, if you seek Abraham’s monument, look around you. You are living in it. You are experiencing it. This congregation is it. This day is it. The entirety of Jewish experience serves as Abraham’s monument. The way that we lead our lives, the way that we respond to God’s calls and challenges, allow us to play a role in Abraham’s ever-evolving story.
 Will, George. Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy (New York: Free Press), 1992.
 “History Has Its Eyes on You,” from the musical “Hamilton,” lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
 “That Would Be Enough,” from the musical “Hamilton,” lyrics and music by Lin Manuel Miranda
 “The World Was Wide Enough,” from the musical “Hamilton,” lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
 Adapted from the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a
 See, for instance, Genesis 15:5 or Genesis 22:17
 “My Shot,” from the musical “Hamilton,” lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
 “Wait for It,” from the musical “Hamilton,” lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
 For a discussion of the yetzer tov and the yetzer ra see, for instance, Berachot 32a