Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vayeira 5783

On Thursday night, I had the privilege of being in conversation at the public library with Masha Gessen, the brilliant Russian-American journalist and author who, in the pages of the New Yorker and eleven books, has warned us for years about the danger of Vladimir Putin and the threat of autocracy in the United States. Coming two nights after the election, the title of Gessen’s talk was The Politics of Hope, and they reflected on this moment in our country, in Israel, and in Russia, My job was to follow the talk with questions and conversation about the issues they raised. We talked about what it looks like to live responsibly on the inside of an unjust or even genocidal regime, the ethics of leaving such a place, the perspective of exile, the discipline of hope. Honestly, I didn’t feel that I did a great job. I tried, but my questions weren’t as crisp or sharp as I wished them to be. Later that night, in the middle of the night, I woke up frustrated with myself, hearing so clearly all the questions that I should have asked, able to see so clearly in the middle of the night what I couldn’t see in the moment, and wishing deeply that I could do it over again. Perhaps you’ve had an experience like this.

It is what we call learning. The part about waking up in the middle of the night frustrated, the suffering of it, may not be necessary to the process of learning – and I wish I could tell you that that was an isolated experience – but the part about understanding things after the fact that we didn’t understand before, that’s growth, that’s learning. And it’s the best thing we’ve got.

Tessa and Gabe, you both brought us into a process of learning today that we call Torah study, or drisha. You both looked inside of this very ancient text, a text that you both pointed out has content that is strange and remote to us today. But you went looking in this old and remote text for lessons that we need now – about the ethics of sacrifice and the value of human life.

Another perspective on the question you asked Tessa is whether everyone deserves a second chance, a chance to keep learning and growing, even those who’ve done terrible things. Note that in many states in our society today, the Abraham who appears in the midrash you cited Gabe would likely receive the death penalty. A man who hears a voice telling him to bring his son to a mountaintop tie him up and slit his throat and then does it would at least have life in prison without parole and very possibly be executed. But in the Torah text, Abraham is given a second chance with the ram and the angel that stopped his hand. And of course, as you note, Gabe, this story has been an invitation to learning that your own uncle wrote a book about, and some of the best minds in history have grappled with.

But even more than the invitation to learning that the Akeda is for the generations who follow, the Akeda is the culmination of learning for its own generation and those that preceded it. For, however we read into the psychology and theology and ethics of Abraham’s actions, we know that the story itself serves an important function.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us: “We know from Tanach [the Hebrew Bible] and independent evidence that the willingness to offer up your child as a sacrifice was not rare in the ancient world. It was commonplace. Tanach mentions that Mesha, King of Moab, did so. … There is archeological evidence – the bones of thousands of young children – that child sacrifice was widespread in Carthage and other Phoenician sites.”
The Akeda is, at most basic, a line drawn against child sacrifice. From the terrible experience of nearly sacrificing his child, Abraham learns that the God he serves does not seek or permit child sacrifice, and the religion he is founding will ban it.

We can see societal learning represented in the text itself. This is parallel to Gd’s own learning as you describe it, Tessa, about which lives are worthy of destruction, or about the advisability of ever destroying human life at all. And this is similar to the growth you trace between the Torah’s approach to the death penalty and the Rabbis’ approach. The Rabbis’ approach was likely influenced by their experience of the Roman conquest, where they saw first hand the immorality of state power. They watched lives taken capriciously, vindictively. They learned through the murders of thousands, including many of their colleagues and friends, the leading lights of their generation, that they could not support state sanctioned execution. That extreme restraint is required when one has the power to take life.

You can see other examples of learning in Tanach and Rabbinic writings, on matters as diverse as property inheritance for women, the abolition of slavery, and ending idolatry. What we see when we trace all of these issues is that learning is not linear. It always includes steps backward amidst the steps forward. The daughters of Zelophehad argue for and win the right to inherit property, but then later that right is limited. Immediately after we are liberated from slavery in Egypt, we receive laws about how to treat our slaves, assuming we will still enslave one another. Eventually the Exodus story moved us and the world toward abolition, but it wasn’t for thousands of years. We meet and pledge our loyalty to the one invisible Gd at Mount Sinai, and then in the very next parasha we build the golden calf. We do eventually make our way to women’s property rights, abolition, and monotheism, but just not in a straight line. Even the prohibition on child sacrifice saw regression in the examples of two of Tanach’s most wicked Kings, Ahaz and Manashe, who introduced the practice into Judah, for which they were condemned by Jeremiah.

Psychologists argue about the role of adversity in human development and learning. There’s no question that posttraumatic, stress-related or what’s called adversarial growth is real. Some psychologists observe among survivors of trauma and stress a strengthened sense of self, manifested in self-integration, self-acceptance, and enhanced ability to face further adversity; the development of compassion, acceptance of others, and a deep sense of connection to others; and a desire to contribute oneself to the growth of the society. Other psychologists note that trauma can do the opposite. It can inhibit growth by trapping us in the past, or shutting us down to emotion and reason. It can actually serve as a barrier, physiologically and psychologically, to learning.

We are in a time of adversity, for some, trauma.
We’re in the third year of a global pandemic and a period of economic instability, and whatever the outcome of this election, the autocratic threat to democracy in our generation is not over. Though election deniers did less well than expected in the midterms, they won at least ten Senate seats and at least eight governorships, and at least four became secretaries of state. The chances that an election denier will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024 is extremely high.

It has now been seven years since this threat appeared on the national stage, including the blaming of scapegoats, the lies, the undermining of democratic institutions, and the stoking of deep divisions in the country. The question is: what are we learning? Given that this phenomenon is not new anymore, given that we’ve had seven years to observe it, we should be learning. Not just repeating the same stuck ideas about us vs them, not just retrenching into old positions about how right we are or how superior. We should be humbling ourselves and learning. On Tuesday night we learned surprising things about the electorate’s perspective on abortion rights, and about Generation Z. But we still have not learned what we need to know to bring the country together. We still have not learned what we need to know to preserve and renew democracy.

Last Wednesday was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the night in 1938 of coordinated attacks on Jews throughout Germany and its conquered lands. That night, 30,000 Jewish men were taken to concentration camps in the first mass arrest of Jews of the Holocaust.

I raise this not to compare this moment to that moment or to warn that that’s where we’re headed. I do not think we are headed there. I raise it because volumes were written post-Holocaust, and yet we still have so much learning to do about why humans succumb to fascist messages and how to heal ourselves from those vulnerabilities. We still have so much to learn about our own role in creating the conditions that lead to those vulnerabilities. We still have so much to learn about how to use adversity for growth instead of retrenchment. We still have so much to learn about what causes backward steps in our development and how to minimize their harm when they come.

May we humble ourselves in this moment, so that despite our failings, maybe even because of our failings, we learn Gd’s lessons and Abraham’s lessons, and the Rabbis’ lessons about why and how to preserve and honor life.