There is no owner’s manual explaining how to live life. I wish there were. But the truth is, we are all human. We all make mistakes, we all struggle and strive to be better, we all have blind spots about who we are and at various times we all live in denial. It’s called the human condition.
I would like for you to hold out your index finger and imagine that it is ruler. From the base of your finger is the span of your life. At the base of your finger signifies when you were born and at the tip when you will die. Now hold up your other hand and take your index finger and your thumb and make a “C.” Determine how much longer you have in this life. My God, that’s all the time I have left.
With that amount of time left, I ask myself, how will I live my life? What decisions can I make when presented with various situations so that I am living out my personal life’s motto?
This beautiful Rosh Hashanah morning we read about Abraham and the decision that he made with Isaac. He was told by God; go sacrifice your son Isaac. Abraham decided to carry out that commandment.
Do any of us really hear the voice of God calling down to as clearly as Abraham did? I don’t. I study, I pray, I meditate and hope that I make the right decision. After all, the decisions that I make impact my life and everyone in it, including this congregation. When should I speak up on a subject? When does holding up a mirror of truth to a congregant help them? When does it hurt them? To be a Congregational Rabbi requires a certain amount of artistry. It is an art that I am still learning and I thank you for allowing me to explore and grow with you.
But now back to Abraham. Many conclude that Abraham did not have a decision to make but that he was simply following the commandment he received from God. But there are some rabbis who point out that Abraham did indeed make a decision. After hearing the word of God, Abraham walked for 3 days to mount Moriah. The Midrash says that Satan appeared to him on each day asking: “Are you silly and foolish that you would go and do this thing to your only son?”  We can think of Satan as that little voice of doubt and fear inside Abraham as he was making his decision.
We so often don’t know if what we do is right or wrong. Making decisions is really hard. We want to believe that we are good people and God will protect us and help us make decisions. I’m reminded of the story of the man who was in a flood. He heard the radio report of the rising waters and went up to his roof knowing that because he was such a good man God would save him. A rowboat came by and offered to take him to safety. The man said, “No. God will save me.” A helicopter came by and offered him a ride. “No. God will save me.” The man died in the flood and when he got up to heaven he asked God, “Why didn’t you save me from the flood? Why did you let me down?” God responded, “I sent you a radio report, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What else could I possibly do for you?”
We learn from this that faith is not enough. We must make decisions and take action in our own lives. We must use our faith as a guide for us in making those decisions.
One of the most poignant stories I have read in the Talmud is of the death of Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai. As he was dying, he knew that his death was imminent. His disciples and students came to visit him. This was a long time custom the rabbis had – to offer one last lecture. As they walked into the room, the dying rabbi began to weep. His students asked, “Why are you weeping?” He responded, “My death is near and I’m unsure if I’m going to heaven with God or Gehinnom – the Jewish version of hell. I am about to face my final judgment.”
Though few of us live our lives like Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai, a number of commentators offer reasons explaining why he had fear and doubt at the realization of his final judgment. During the siege of Jerusalem danger was everywhere and the leadership, including Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai, was divided about what decision to make and what action to take. Some offered faith statements that God would come in and protect the Jewish people from Rome, others believed military strength was the answer and attempted to wage a guerrilla war against the Roman Empire. But Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai offered a third option. His option would attempt to bring the nation some peace while still working with the Roman Empire.
Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai met with his nephew who was the head of a group of zealots called the Saccari who was among those engaged in guerrilla warfare by stabbing people to death around the city.
He asked Saccari: “How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people…?”
Saccari responded that he had lost control of the people and he would be killed if he spoke up. He told Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai to plan a way to escape the city.
He advised Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai: “Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Bring something evil smelling and put it by you so that they will say you are dead. Let then your disciples get under your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse.” (BT Gittin 56a)
Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai took his nephew’s advice and escaped Jerusalem in a coffin. He went to a small city called Yavneh and committed to create a Beit Din or a house of rabbinical judgement and study.
He gave up the idea that Jerusalem as the heart of the Jewish people, and instead made the community’s synagogue the heart. This was a radical departure from the past. Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai posited that the Torah was to be studied and revered. He decreed that the way of praying to God was no longer through sacrificebut through liturgy.
Just as an aside, several of his new decrees which became law including: the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat, the “day of waving,” the taking of the lulav outside of the Temple, the acceptance of testimony concerning the new moon (Neusner, Development of a Legend, 206–9).
I’ve heard this story many times in many different texts. As a rabbinical student we were taught the story because Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai was the founder of rabbinic Judaism. I think it was no small accident that Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai went out of Jerusalem in a coffin. It was symbolic of the death of the temple cult as the center for the community. Leadership was to be in line with his contemporaries and his students such as Rabban Gamliel and his disciples and descendants after him.
I want to highlight that not everybody was thrilled with the decisions that Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai made. Rabbi Yosef, or some say, Rabbi Akiva, applied to him the verse: “[God] turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25). [When Ben Zakkai met with the Emperor of Rome for the safety and security of Yavneh] he should have used the opportunity to ask the Emperor to leave Jerusalem alone. But he thought that such a request might be rejected and he would thus forfeit an even smaller salvation. (Gittin 56b) The debate raged for many generations between rabbis and Jews who had nationalistic tendencies and those who leaned toward pragmatism.
Looking back we can see the value of what Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai did. He attempted to create a path to prepare the Jewish people for life following the war with Rome. In the same regard, as we discussed last night, the prophet Jeremiah did the same thing.
Most of us are not leaders of a nation whose decisions have a profound impact on generations to come. Most of our names will not be recorded in the annals of history. Most of us do not hear God commanding us to sacrifice our children. Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai even questioned his decision of how he went about saving the Jewish people on his deathbed.
We all have decisions to make. It is the circumstances of our lives that tend to dictate those decisions. I can look back and realize how the decision Uzi and I made to move to Huntsville, Alabama has impacted us. That decision has been a blessing to me just as I have always worked hard to be a blessing to you.
I’ve shared with you some positive decisions from our history. Abraham went to mount Moriah and his faith was renewed. Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai helped saved the Jewish people.
But what about the consequences of a bad decision?
When Moses received the 10 Commandments, the Jewish people gave in to their doubt and fear during his 40 day absence and made a fateful decision. They created a golden calf to worship.
God spoke to the people and said: “God, God, a compassionate and gracious God, long-suffering and magnanimous and true love, keeping that love for the multitudes, forgiving sin, transgression, and the misdeeds, but surely not cleansing them entirely, revisiting the sins of the fathers upon their children, down to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7).
This passage was adopted into our liturgy somewhat early on in the formation of our liturgical practices in the early rabbinic period started by Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai. It was altered to say: “God, God, a compassionate and gracious God, long-suffering and magnanimous and true love, keeping that love for the multitudes, forgiving sin, transgression, and misdeed, and cleansing!”
The rabbis transformed the verse in the Bible from “not cleansing” to “cleansing.” The rest of the verse is about revisiting the sins of the father upon their children down through the generations was also cut. God no longer seeks retribution and punishment upon unclean sinners. God forgives us and cleans us in unconditional compassion. At every opportunity, we are taught that even if we make bad decision, we have an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over.
We will make mistakes. I have made some mistakes. I am a human rabbi. The humanity in me allows me to see the humanity in you and to unconditionally love you and help bring you closer to God. Sometimes I view us like little plants, we struggle to reach toward the sun. Sometimes we are blocked by shades from trees; sometimes there’s something about the inherent nature of the plants which makes for the reaching a challenge, but I believe that there’s an inner force inside of us that reaches out toward God to obtain nourishment. That nourishment for me has and always will be love.
The first step in the process of repentance is not between us and God. The first step is inrecognizing that we erred. Only then can we correct the error by naming it and apologizing. Apologizing to ourselves and/or others. Together can we grow into a beautiful garden of flowers reaching out toward God.
After all, as Jeremiah taught: Blessed is one who trusts in God,
Whose trust is in God alone.
That person shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by stream:
It does not sense the coming of the heat,
It leaves shall be forever fresh and luxuriant;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
The decisions we make will not always be the best ones, but if we look at and examine life as an opportunity to grow, then our decisions will help us reach the sun and be nourished by God’s love. May you grasp this opportunity fortushvah, repentance, and make the most of it. After all, we need to make our life here on Earth count!