Saturday, September 15, 2012

In every generation (Derashah for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah)

[I am somewhat out of practice in writing derashos, and as a result this one came out wordier than I would have liked, but I still found it meaningful for me, and I hope it will be for those who hear it on Rosh HaShanah this year.]

Avraham held the blade aloft, prepared to slaughter a son, a dream, a nation. The inspiring exodus, the revelation at Sinai, the mishkan hosting Gd in a home of human construction, the union of Jew and Land and Torah, the civilization of King David, the prophets and exile and redemption, the Messianic era, the very purpose of the heavens and earth - all of Creation hung in the balance while the old man steadied his hand…

…And a voice broke the silence: "Avraham! Avraham! Don't do it!"

A midrash asks: "Why does it say Avraham twice? Why not just say it once?" To which I would have simply replied, "This is too important a moment to trust to Avraham's 137-year old ears; call him twice." But the midrash sees further layers of meaning; R' Chiyya says Gd repeated Avraham's name to demonstrate urgency, or perhaps love. Another thought, recorded in a Tosefta, says it was to show that Avraham was loyal both before and after this Divine call.

But the most moving answer I have seen comes from Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. Noticing that the same double-call happens in Tanach to Yaakov, Moshe and Shemuel, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov presented a frightening, but inspiring guarantee.

Writing two thousand years ago with foresight encompassing the 21st century Jew, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov declared, " אמר לו ולדורות, אין דור שאין בו כאברהם ואין דור שאין בו כיעקב ואין דור שאין בו כמשה ואין דור שאין בו כשמואל." Gd called these men twice because, "Gd spoke to them and, in the second mention of their names, to subsequent generations. There is no generation which lacks an Avraham, there is no generation which lacks a Yaakov, there is no generation which lacks a Moshe, and there is no generation which lacks a Shemuel."

Do not misunderstand Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's words – he is not simply pledging that every generation will have righteous leaders or great prophets. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov promised far more; let's look at the circumstances in which these four men were called.

Avraham's case is the one we just read – He is a patriarch who declares openly to Gd, "All of Your gifts mean nothing to me, without a son." He is married to Sarah, who wanders with him in pursuit of their dream, who puts her marriage on the line to provide a son, and who is finally rewarded for her patient righteousness at the age of 90. Avraham and Sarah have invested their lives in this child, their only child, their beloved child, Yitzchak – and now they are to give him up, the only gift that ever mattered now sacrificed to Gd.

Gd calls out to Avraham at his moment of sacrifice and tells him he need not sacrifice – and in doubling Avraham's name, He calls out to us, to our dream-sacrificing Avrahams, as well.

Yaakov spent most of his life on the run, in exile. First he was pursued by his murderous brother Esav, then he spent 20 years performing hard labour in the house of Lavan. He returned to Israel only to lose his beloved wife Rachel, have his daughter Dinah taken captive, lose his son Yosef, have his son Shimon imprisoned – even at home, he was not permitted to settle down. Finally, Yosef was restored, but at a price: Yaakov would need to enter exile yet again, to descend to Egypt.

At this moment Gd calls to Yaakov, "Yaakov! Yaakov! אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, don't be afraid to go into exile; it will not be a true exile. I will be with you!" And in doubling Yaakov's name, HaShem calls to us, to our exiled Yaakovs, as well.

And then Moshe, the Egyptian prince who turns fugitive after saving the life of a Jew. A price on his head, he flees to Midian, where he builds a small family with his wife Tzipporah, until Gd tells him, "Go back to Egypt, back to the land of a despotic Pharaoh, of slavedrivers and beatings and quotas. Leave your safety and security. I know you don't want to do it, but I am charging you to return to Egypt and rescue your nation."

Gd calls to Moshe at this moment of danger and rescue, "Moshe! Moshe! I am standing beside you!" And by doubling Moshe's name, Gd cries out to every Jew who has ever launched himself into danger on behalf of others, declaring, "You are not truly in danger; I am standing beside you!"

And finally Shemuel, young Shemuel, brought to the mishkan at the youngest possible age to apprentice to Eli, the Kohen Gadol, the religious giant of the generation. Shemuel is raised by Eli, who is his surrogate parent and mentor. Eventually Eli appoints him to serve in his household. But Eli's sons have sinned horribly, abusing their power, and Gd calls to Shemuel, of all people, to convey a message of harsh rebuke: "Go give your employer, your mentor, your surrogate father, a message that will make his ears ring. For his children's sins, for his own failure to instruct them properly, I am going to destroy his household entirely; they will be cursed forever, and they will never be forgiven." The entire priesthood is to be overturned, and the deaths will number in the thousands. Go, Shemuel, and give that message of rebuke and revolution to the man who is every authority figure in your life rolled into one.

G-d opens that mission by calling to Shemuel, "Shemuel! Shemuel! I am with you, I am the true author of the revolution and Eli will accept it; do not fear!" And by doubling his name, Gd calls to the Shemuels in every generation, saying, "Do not fear to speak the unpopular truth and revolt against authority; I am with you."

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov saw in these doubled calls a message deeper and more far-reaching than the individual conversations of G-d with these patriarchs.

There are two Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's, and I'm not sure which is the author of this midrash, but it hardly makes a difference – because both knew well the missions of the aforementioned men.
• The first Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov lived through the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, saw the starvation and disease of siege, followed by Jewish blood running in the streets.
• The second Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov was a student of Rabbi Akiva, and he survived the fall of the Betar fortress to Hadrian's brutal forces.

The author of our midrash knew the bitter truth of Jewish history: Avraham and his sacrifice, Yaakov and his exile, Moshe and his dangerous rescue, Shemuel and his revolution, are not one-of-a-kind.
• Every generation will see Jews charged with a mission of revolt against authority, whether the deposing of Rabban Gamliel in mishnaic times or the condemnation of poor leadership in the modern age.
• Every generation will see Jews face danger to save other Jews, whether by rescuing captives of the Romans or Jews living in danger in Ethiopia or Moscow or around the Middle East.
• Every generation will see Jewish families descend into exile, whether the refugees of 1st century Jerusalem or the refugees of 20th century Germany.
• And yes, Avraham, every generation will see Jewish mothers who send their sons into danger, whether in 2nd century fortresses or today's IDF.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's read of the akeidah is horrific – it is a promise that the sacrifices are not over, that every generation will know this pain.

But, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov also reassures us with a pledge: That in every generation, HaShem will be by our side, as He stood with Avraham, Yaakov, Moshe and Shemuel. We may not always see the protection as Avraham and Moshe and Shemuel did; Yaakov did not see the end of the story in his lifetime. But HaShem will be there by our side, HaShem sees all and He stands with us.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's message is more than a prophetic vision, though – it is also an imperative. If Gd will stand with these righteous people, then we are obligated to stand with them as well.

When we daven on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, even as we think about each member of our family, our friends, people who are sick and needy, we should also see those modern Avrahams and Yaakovs, Moshes and Shemuels in our minds:
• When we hear the shofar, as we will momentarily, we should daven for the mothers who continue Avraham's work, sending their children off to fight for the land and people of Israel.
• When we hear the shofar, we should daven for the Jews still at Moshe's work of rescuing other Jews, whether working for a government or for outreach agencies around the world.
• When we hear the shofar, we should think of Jews in Yaakov's exile, including ourselves in Toronto.
• When we hear the shofar, we should think of people who are carrying on the mission of Shemuel of rejecting the status quo and rebuking irresponsible leadership. [I recognize that this requires some fleshing out, but this is a derashah and not the venue for exploring the question.]

These are the people called by HaShem in that midrash, and on Rosh haShanah, having just read the story of "Avraham! Avraham!" we daven for them, declaring "We are with you," and appealing to HaShem to be with them.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's message is about more than davening, though; Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's message is also about responsibility and leadership. The person who sacrifices, who is in danger, who is in exile, who is charged with revolution, isn't always a "them" – It can also be us.

When we hear the shofar, we ought to ask ourselves what it is saying, what is it demanding. Is it only reminding us to stand with the Avrahams and Yaakovs? Or is it also summoning us to become Moshes and Shemuels? The midrash said it: Sacrificing and dangerous rescue, exile and revolt are not historical phenomena, they are modern and current and real.

When summoned by Gd, all of the biblical figures Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov cited offered the same response: הנני, "Here I am, ready to serve." Avraham said it. Yaakov said it. Moshe said it. Shemuel said it. When it is our time, when we are called, when we hear the sound of the shofar momentarily, let us make sure we say it as well. Hineini.


  1. I'm curious, and not meaning to nit-pick, I just don't know the answer. In the cases of Yaakov, Moshe, and Shemuel, is it G-d Himself who calls out twice? Or does it always happen through an intermediary, as it does in the case of Avraham? And if it is sometimes G-d speaking directly and sometimes not, what do you think we are meant to learn from that?

  2. This is indeed inspiring. I would be interested to see the point about challenging flawed leadership fleshed out, as you say, although I can see that such a big and controversial topic might have to wait until after all the chaggim!

    Shanah tovah.

  3. if we were is such a mood, we might note that shmuel's "hineini" is to Eli, not God

  4. bratschegirl-
    The malach who calls Avraham is, indeed, odd. On the one hand it is termed 'malach', on the other hand it speaks in Divine first-person. I don't know what to make of it.

    Thanks! One day I will need to blog it.

    True. Although if I were in such a mood, I'd reply that it was to Gd, and Shemuel just didn't know it.

    1. Well, if you don't know what to make of it then I won't lose any sleep over the fact that I don't either!

    2. Well, you might take a look at Ramban to Bereishit 18:1 where he does recognize the malach as a different level of communication, and Vayikra Rabbah 1:9 which does so as well, but seems ambivalent. Another midrash suggests that this is why the malach needs to call twice - because at first Avraham says, "How could I listen to a servant who contradicts the orders of his Master?"

    3. Yes, that last is definitely part of the difficulty. The parallel I thought of in modern life is orders to launch nuclear missiles, which I think can only be both issued AND withdrawn by the President (although I could well be wrong about that).

      What troubles me most about this issue is wondering what G-d could possibly offer as a justification for not showing up Himself to stay Avraham's hand. Not to mention that He never again speaks to Avraham directly.

      Thank you for the sources, Rabbi, I'll check them out.