Rosh HaShana 5781 - Weekly Torah Portion


On Rosh HaShana we read of two cases where Abraham is put to the test. The first happens almost immediately after his son is born to his wife Sarah. She demands, “‘Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Abraham greatly because of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named. And of the son of the maid I will make a nation also, because he is your descendant.’” Seemingly he can relax and calm down, he can back-off of his commitment to his other sons as there is someone else who will take care of this responsibility. And so he fails.

The second trial of Abraham take is a step up of what he has experienced until now, and this time it is directly from God. He is ordered, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” Abraham, silently rises “early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.” He does not complain, rebel or dispute this mission, rather, he simply sets out to perform it. He only fails from executing it when the angel of God calls out, “from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him.’” So, Abraham failed the second test too.

Depicting Abraham as someone who has failed twice may not be a common place explanation for his behavior, however, I would like to suggest that this is at least an option that is suggested in the scripture. Sticking to a commandment without spending time to think it through, relinquishing common sense for the word of a seemingly higher authority, is not the way to go and maybe the lesson that Abraham must learn. It is therefor that we read, “Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son.” When he opens his eyes, when he is willing to think for himself, he may be able to find solutions and new opportunities. It is not the blind belief in God that directs him but rather the belief that observes, thinks, debates, casts doubt which Abraham ought to follow. We know well that Abraham possessed this ability, just read again his standing on the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. Would you not have expected for Abraham to do the same when the matter concerned his very own sons who have not sinned?!

Most of us fail at one time or another seeing clearly through matter. We walk the ways we are used to dwell at, see the sights and are unable to observe the changes, let opportunities grab our attention. The Hebrew year 5780 certainly was not the best of years, at least in its second half. The appearance of the coronavirus and the way that this pandemic was manage by our government was mediocre, to say the least. As citizens we can expect better from our leaders. It is important to stress here that I am not speaking of mistakes and error that have, are and will continue to occur. The problem is not there. The problem is that the management is not oriented to the kind of problem that we are facing. Professor Ruhama Weiss of the Hebrew Union College spoke exactly about that challenge when addressing the general assembly of Israel’s Reform Movement. It is impossible to resolve a problem that requires behavioral change from each and every one of us using hierarchical, military style, management techniques. A totally different management style is required here that is innovative, trusts its citizens and shares the burden with them. Positive rather than negative motivation is required here.

We must understand that this pandemic is here to stay during the year 5781, maybe even somewhat longer. This requires us to take responsibility, gather courage, and be prepared. We have to get there from a point of view of understanding, not fear, a belief that we can overcome these challenging times, not from a perspective of despair and failure. Where there is fear, we have the responsibility to instill confidence, where we find despair, we must plant the seeds of hope. This will not happen because of polished speeches delivered by the prime minister, the alternate prime, the minister of finance affairs or minister of health affairs. It will happen if we take things into our own hands, in our spheres of influence, and manage things as they ought to be. Keeping our social distance, being particular about hygiene, and always with a sight on those who are less fortunate than us and may need our assistance during these trying times. If we take over the tactics of battling this coronavirus there is a chance that maybe our leadership will shake into action and deal with the strategic issues of this crisis as we would have expected them to do in the first place.

A year has gone, and a year begins. We will raise our hands, buckle down, and get to work. We cannot afford another failure. This story is our story and together we can make it one with a good ending.

Shana Tova, Shabbat Shalom and wishes for good health to all.

Reuven Marko, 18 September 2020, 1 Tishrei, 5781

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