Shannah Tovah. What a very different New Year season! So much has changed and so much is different. Yet, so much is the same, for the root basic human issues remain with us, and they may even be more present this year. The foundational questions of meaning and purpose, the “why” questions of life and the gnawing realization that time is moving so rapidly and we cannot control it or, in truth, the circumstances that surround our time. The liturgy of the prayer book will remind us in clear and certain terms of the fragile nature of life and the fact that we are present for what amounts to a “blink of an eye”. Yes, this is a most challenged New Year, this 5781.
The Torah reading for Rosh Hoshonnah, Genesis 22, recounts the story of Abraham and the so-called “binding” of Isaac. The story, as many of you know, is filled with rich meaning and no doubt at services the rabbi will recount some of these powerful images. For our purpose here, however, let me look for a message in one of the verses. It is the moment when Abraham, about to bring the knife down on Isaac, hears that voice saying “do not lay your hand on the boy” (al tishlach yadcha). Then Abraham “lifted up his eyes and saw”” (vyisa Avraham, et aiynov vayar). This is a great line. Let me suggest that it can form a messaage for us this year. Let is not be afraid to lift up our eyes and “see”.
It is easy to be “bound” by the restrictions of the pandemic. The mental and physical health issues are so present that it is easy to feel anxious and restricted. It has been over six months of sheltering in place for so many people and for older adults, the restrictions are taking a toll. The message of the Torah, however, is one of hope. It is easy to just see the now, the present; to dwell on what is limiting us. Yet, Torah asks us to not be downcast, but to raise our sights, to look up and “see” that there is a world in need, that there is a future and that “this too shall pass”. Yes, this may be a difficult and challenging message now when things seem so much in limbo. But, that is a key message of Jewish tradition. We are a tradition that looks forward. We lift up our eyes so that we can shake off the limitations of the now and look at the possibilities of tomorrow.
In the midst of this story, as Abraham hears God’s voice, he cries out Hineni–Here I am! Are we not being called now? Are we not being asked to “see” that, even as we are isaolted in our homes, we can still reach out to those in need, to call someone, to donate to a food bank, to join a class, to engage with someone else who is need of human companionship. If we just focus on the now, on our self, we become prisoners of our situation, victims of circumstance. The text calls us to raise our eyes, our souls our voices. A Yom Kippur text from Deuteronomy will remind us in stark terms that we have the choice to see beyond this present challenge. We can choose to be bound by the present or to see beyond the now. We can choose to isolate our souls or we can choose to overcome the present and see what and how our humanity can be channeled to bring some sense of community, hope and presence to others who are in need. Remember, as some have opined; for many of us, this pandemic has become a major inconvenience. For far too many, this pandemic has become a matter of life and death.
Let us have the courage to raise our eyes to see and respond to these needs. Let us choose to see in these moments of challenge, the possibilties of growth and change and mitzvot. And let us not, as this new year dawns, be afraid to loosen the bonds that hold our souls and to go into the new year with hope and the courage to join Abraham and say to the world and to our own self: Hineni.
Rabbi Richard F Address