Tests – Rosh Hashanah 5761 (2000)

On Rosh Hashanah it is traditional to study the Akeidah — the binding of Isaac. And that is what I would like to do with you today: study one of the most challenging stories in Torah.

Now some of you may be worried, but please don’t be. There won’t be any test; no late-night cramming will be required. There won’t be any grade, nor any number two pencils to sharpen.

It’s a funny thing, the subject of tests; most people get pretty anxious about them. I had terrible test anxiety as a kid — my parents could always tell when I had a big one coming up in high school, because I’d start kicking my sister.

Speaking of tests, the Akeidah was a test — a test God designed specifically for Abraham. I would expect he had a bit of test anxiety the night he heard about it: how would you like to be told by God that the Eternal one was going to give you a test the next morning — and not even have any Cliff Notes?

All this test anxiety comes, at the root, from the notion of passing or failing — no one really wants to fail a test, especially not one given by God! And so we worry: do we know the right stuff? What grade will we get? What score is considered passing? And so on…

Now, as a psychologist, I used to administer tests to my clients, and it was not unusual for them to get nervous as well. In fact, they would even get nervous about tests that weren’t "graded," like IQ tests are, but which were more creative, like ink blot tests. You know the kind: there are all these cards with ink smeared all over them, and you have to report what you see. There are no right or wrong answers: just a chance to see how the person thinks, to learn about what is important to them.

Abraham himself had taken one of these tests, one of these "creative answer" tests, when God gave him the problem of Sodom and Gomorrah. With this test, there was no right or wrong answer, just a chance for Abraham to get creative. Which is exactly what he did: of all the things he might have done, he argued directly with God. He challenged God, all for the residents of these two towns, bargaining for the lives of every one of them. God listened, and accepted Abraham’s proposals. It is a famous incident — one that sets the tone for our relationship as Jews with God. In fact, we don’t see such arguing with God again until Moses comes along.

But let’s get back to the Akeidah — that horrible challenge when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This, we are taught, was the other kind of test. Instead of being a creative challenge, like before, we are taught it was a pass/fail test. Abraham passed the test, we learn, because he did not withhold his son, but instead bound him to the altar, raised the sacrificial knife above his chest, and was only prevented from consummating the sacrifice by God’s last-minute reprieve.

This story flies in the face of all we know and love about Judaism. We have never condoned human sacrifice, we pride ourselves in being privileged — even required! — to argue with God, we even believe that the Law is no longer God’s to interpret, but ours. How is it that this powerfully disturbing story finds its way, not only into our Torah, but as the subject for this holy day?

The Rabbis struggled long and hard with the Akeidah. They wove many elegant tales to explain the problems it poses. For example, why didn’t Abraham argue? He did, they said, we’re just missing his words from Torah. Why did God call for human sacrifice? Never happened, they said, if you read the text in the proper manner. They came up with one story after another to try and explain away all the problems, but I believe they missed the most important one: I believe Abraham got the kind of test wrong. How can this be?

Let’s step back for a minute and look at the fundamentals of Judaism: We have a covenant with God which grants us special privileges and responsibilities. We are taught to pursue justice, to protect the weak, to repair the world. We are required to live by a strict ethical code that places the value of life above everything else — even the observance of other laws within the code. For all this, we get a unique privilege that is also a terrifying responsibility: not only do we get the chance to have a direct relationship with God, but when we notice God falling short of these Jewish standards, we must argue with God, bargain with God, even sue God to set things right.

Now, where are these values in the Akeidah? If we view the test as pass/fail, they are glaringly absent. This view of the test makes unquestioning obedience to God the only way to pass; anything else is a failure.

However, if we look at this as a creative test, then the possibilities before Abraham were limitless. He could have argued, he could have negotiated, he could have held up an ethical mirror to God and said, "Do You really want this?" It is in this view that we find our core Jewish values.

Instead, in response to God’s test, Abraham followed God’s instructions meekly, calmly and literally. He was the model of perfect faith, of perfect obedience, and, as a result, he revealed a great deal about who he was — just what this kind of a test is designed to do.

What did he reveal? He revealed that he had lost his fire, his passion, his readiness to take on the world — and God. To be kind, he was a very old man at the time — about 140 years old! — but still, the fact remains: he was not ready for the full covenant, the exhausting wrestling with God. Abraham took the test, a test that one cannot fail, and said "I’m not ready. I’m too tired," — and in so doing, postponed the full covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Look what happens next: God never speaks to Abraham again. Isaac, our second patriarch, is almost lost to Judaism, living a solitary life filled with pain and sorrow. This is no small wonder, seeing as his father almost offered him as a human sacrifice, and his mother died before his return. Jacob, our third patriarch, falls into a world of conniving and deception, raising a family that leads us to Egypt, and our bondage. Neither Isaac nor Jacob ever argue with God, and even Jacob’s wrestling with God — the event that gives us our name, Israel — does not wrestle for the sake of others, but apparently just to win the struggle.

It is not until Moses, centuries later, that we have a leader who is once again ready, willing and able to truly wrestle with God. It is not until Moses that we once again have a leader who is ready to hold God to the Eternal one’s own standards of justice. It is not until Moses that we are presented with our full covenant with God.

For Moses was able to model the relationship that God truly demands of us as Jews: to question the status quo; to fight injustice wherever it occurs; to rise up and support the fallen, even if it seems to be heaven that is holding them down. There is no greater challenge to be offered, nor any greater reward to be promised: the chance, not just to make this world a better place, but to be partners with God in creation. Not silent partners; not unquestioning automatons; not meek lambs ready for slaughter. But active partners, ready to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work.

When Moses was presented with this challenge, he rose to the occasion. Not blindly, but full of questions and doubts. Not meekly like a lamb, but filled with passion, with a fire that could not be quenched. And finally, after challenges, and questions, and arguments with God, he ascended Sinai and brought us into the covenant, brought us the Torah, to make our own.

This is what Judaism asks of us, what it offers us, what it demands of us: not unthinking obedience, but a thoughtful partnership filled with commitment and questions. Not a resigned submission to fate, but an active encounter with the world. To find in our Jewish covenant a way to walk with God, to pursue justice, to practice tikkun olam — make the world just a little bit better.

So, what are we to learn from the Akeidah?

This life presents us with many tests. Judaism gives us standards to use in helping us decide what to do, the ethics to sort out right from wrong. But Judaism also gives us the opportunity to get creative, to see challenges not as requiring merely a "yes" or a "no", but instead to make up our own answers, to offer the unexpected. To see new opportunities, not just in how we act, but how we view the world.

And, most importantly, to live our lives filled, not with a fear of failure, but with a love of life.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2000-2007 James F. Brulé