Rosh Hashanah 2014
In case you missed my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon or would like to read the text:
Yom Hazikaron Wake Up Call
Long ago, there was a young man who was absolutely fascinated with all things related to engineering and chemistry. His father would teach him what he knew about these subjects from a young age, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that that his son had a particular interest in explosives. This fascination only grew stronger over the years. By age 34, this young man had made significant contributions to the field of explosives. In 1867, he invented dynamite. His name was Alfred Nobel.
Although Alfred was a pacifist, his family played a significant part in many wars. Their success in business depended largely on selling explosives to be used in battle. It was something the Nobel family had become known for.
When Alfred’s older brother, Ludvig, died, a French newspaper focused on this family’s connection to death and destruction. This newspaper mistakenly published an obituary of Alfred rather than his brother Ludvig. The headline read “The merchant of death is dead,” and it described Alfred as a man “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”
Upon reading these words, Alfred realized that he did not want to be remembered as a merchant of death. He resolved then and there to change his legacy. In his will, Alfred left most of his wealth in trust, in order to fund the awards that would come to be known as the Nobel Prizes.
It often takes something drastic to inspire a true and lasting change in one’s life. Alfred Nobel had to see what his obituary would say about him before he found the motivation to line up his actions with his values. Few people have the chance to read their would-be obituaries, but many people experience a similar wake-up call in light of other dramatic occurrences. It may be the death of a loved one, the end of a serious relationship, or a health scare that triggers such introspection and motivation to change one’s life.
Why do we wait for something drastic to happen? Is humankind fueled by high drama? Today’s Torah reading seems to suggest as much. Year after year, we read the dramatic story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac. The story begins with a test of character. God calls out to Abraham and tries to find out if he is the sort of guy who would ever sacrifice his own son. Abraham’s response here seems out of character. In the past, he would often speak up. But now he is oddly quiet.
The text says nothing about Abraham’s emotional state either. He seems to be walking around like a zombie, going through the motions of life without any connection to his emotions or his deepest values. He travels for days, saying nothing. Then when he arrives at his destination, he says just what he needs to say to keep people off of his back, and not a word more. He tells his co-travelers to hang out with the donkey for a bit, assuring them that he and Isaac will be right back. Then when Isaac gets suspicious, Abraham tells him that there will be a lamb waiting for them at the top of the mountain. Somehow Abraham manages to tie Isaac up and bind him on the altar like an animal. Isaac may have thought his dad was just playing with him, until he saw the knife go into the air.
In this story, there are no French newspaper headlines for Abraham to read that morning. Instead, his wake up call comes in the form of an angel, a messenger who calls him out personally. Somewhere along his journey, Abraham lost all sense of himself. He used to be the one who would stand up to injustice and defend the innocent. He even argued with God about destroying the wicked city of Sodom, insisting that God should spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous residents. But now Abraham seems numb to injustice. He has become not merely a passive bystander to injustice like many fearful people. Abraham’s priorities have gotten so jumbled, that somehow he has become an active participant in injustice and in the sacrifice of his own child. Abraham has totally lost himself—his core identity, his core values, everything that made him who he was.
Abraham has lost his sense of self so much that the angel must call out his name twice. “Abraham! Abraham!” He has to work twice as hard to remember who he is after journeying for so long and climbing the mountain, all while following external advice rather than trusting his own gut feeling. Perhaps the angel was a voice within him, the sense of self he had lost. When this voice calls to him, he answers: Hineini, meaning “Here I am.” Abraham is back!
His inner voice speaks firmly: Don’t do it. Don’t sacrifice your son. Family is precious. This is not what God wants for you!
It was then that Abraham’s eyes were opened. He now saw clearly what his life had turned into, and it wasn’t what he wanted. Rather than continuing to sacrifice his son, he decided to pursue another possibility. He quickly found a ram to sacrifice instead, and we remember this ram each year as we blow the shofar.
The shofar is designed to be a wake-up call. It is a reminder of Abraham’s most dramatic life moment. And its ancient voice is calling us to change before we end up too far along a path that is not consistent with our deepest values and identity. It beckons us to return to ourselves and the core values that God planted within us.
We are commanded to hear the shofar each year on Rosh Hashanah, so that we remember this story and do not have to wait for our own dramatic life moment to occur. We do not have to wait for a health scare, relationship end, or death of a loved one to make a change in our lives. We can start living our lives in line with our values right now.
The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Hazikaron, meaning the day of remembrance. Traditionally on Rosh Hashanah, we remember Abraham and the ram. And we ask God to remember all of the good things about us and our ancestors. We try not to focus on the negative things that could merit punishment. But this is not just how we pray on Rosh Hashanah, this is also how we must live our lives if we wish to reach our true potential. Rather than relying on the mercy of God or a kind obituary writer, why don’t we make sure we will be remembered for doing good, by actually doing good? Why don’t we grab the pen and become the true and intentional authors of our lives?
I ask: what do you want to be remembered for? Do you want to be remembered as the guy who sacrificed his son? Or do you want to be remembered as a loving parent who was there for your children? Do you want to be remembered as a merchant of misery? Or as a merchant of hope? Do you want to be remembered as a good friend with a generous spirit? A brother or sister you could count on? An accomplished musician or a respected professional? Are your current actions reflecting these aspirations? Or are they currently out of sync, as the actions of Abraham and Alfred Nobel’s were at one point in their lives?
The shofar is calling us all to return to our deepest values and pursue the life visions we have in our hearts. We never know exactly how long we have to live, but we know exactly what we need to do in order to live the lives we want to be remembered for. Do not wait days or months or years for a tragedy to wake us up to the need for change. Let the beginning of this new year, the shofar blasts of 5775, be the only wakeup call we need to become the people we were meant to be. And let us say: Amen.