Preparations for the High Holy Days this year began very early at the shul. I usually start working on my sermons for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur in August, but this year, the continuing coronavirus crisis led to the decision that we could not gather in the synagogue for the autumn festivals, which meant that I began thinking about them in July. And then, along with my rabbinic colleagues, I started to consider how we could adapt the services for an online experience.

Having decided to create a booklet of my sermons and reflections for the days between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur to help those who don’t have access to technology to feel included, the newly elected chair of the shul, Louise Mordecai, had the lovely idea of putting together Rosh Ha-shanah packages for those not online. So, we had a special meeting of the Pastoral Care Group and agreed that the packages would include honey-cake, apples and honey, my booklet – and also a loan copy of the machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book if needed. The next step was to contact those who had responded to the call for volunteers at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. Several people baked cakes. One member made New Year cards. As a result of the efforts of a number of people, in the past week deliveries were made to congregants in the Worthing area, Brighton and Hove, Lewes, Saltdean, Telscombe Cliffs, Peacehaven, East Dean and Eastbourne.

The coronavirus crisis has been marked by illness and death, suffering and loss – and also by an abundance of g’milut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness, as people reached out to their neighbours, in particular, to the isolated and the elderly. It is usual at this sacred high-point of the Jewish year to remind ourselves of our core values and the need to repair ourselves and our relationships. The coronavirus crisis has been a living lesson in how to go about this.

The coronavirus crisis has also been and continues to be a testing time. Our resilience is being tested. Our resourcefulness, endurance, self-discipline, empathy, generosity, optimism. Our capacity to remain hopeful in the face of uncertainty about what the future will bring is being tested. I’m using the first-person plural in the spirit of the liturgy. We are going through this together. And at the same time, each one of us, has our own particular circumstances and experiences, and is confronted with our own personal trials and tribulations and challenges. Each one of us is being tested.

In one of the Torah portions set aside for Rosh Ha-Shanah, Genesis chapter 22, known as the Akeidah, we read that our ancestor Abraham was tested:[1]

And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham

Va-y’hi achar ha-d’varim ha-eilleh v’ha-Elohim nissah et-Avraham

‘After these things’ – a reference to the banishment of Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael with his mother Hagar in the previous chapter.[2] Abraham had been tested enough one might think. But then he was confronted with the ultimate test. The text continues:

And God said to him, ‘Abraham’, and he said: ‘Here I am’ [hinneini]. Then God said: ‘Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.’

‘Go for yourself’ – Lech l’cha – the use of this expression reminds us of Abraham’s first momentous journey, when together with Sarah and his household, he left his land, his kindred, his parental home to go on a journey to a land that God promised to show him.[3] Abraham went of his own volition back then. And he’s called to do the same now. But in place of the promise of a future for his descendants, on this occasion, he was challenged to take a journey that would involve obliterating his future. The enormity of the moment and all that Abraham ha already sacrificed is brought out in a 4th century midrash, commenting on the staggered way in which this second call to ‘go for yourself’ is delivered:[4]

God said: ‘Take your son.’

Abraham replied: ‘I have two sons.’

God said: ‘Your only one.’

Abraham replied: ‘This one is the only son of his mother, and that one is the only son of his mother.’

God said: ‘Whom you love’

Abraham replied: ‘I love them both.’

God said: ‘Isaac.’

Of course, Abraham loved both his sons – which made the test he was confronted with even more agonising. On the surface, Abraham’s test was a test of faith; his faith in God; that God would not, ultimately, demand the sacrifice of Isaac. But the story makes it clear that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. And so it was, when Isaac was lying bound on the altar and Abraham had raised his knife to slaughter him, that It took an urgent call to get Abraham to stop:[5]

Then the messenger of the Eternal called to him from heaven and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he answered: ‘Here I am.’ And the messenger said: ‘Do not raise your hand against the lad, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.’

It’s a terrifying story. And as we follow it, we should ask ourselves about the mother of Isaac: Sarah. The mother who waited so long to have a child.[6] What was it like for her to see her husband and son go off that day? Her death is recorded at the beginning of the next parashah.[7] Did Sarah die of anxiety as she waited? The story is known as the Akeidah, the ‘Binding’ because Isaac was bound but not slaughtered. But the name confronts us just as powerfully as if Isaac had been killed by his father. We can read the story as a moral tale against the sacrifice of children. But the binding, evoking as it does the image of Isaac bound on the altar, also confronts us with questions about the way in which we are bound metaphorically, and bind others, not least, children, metaphorically, with the chords, restraints and constraints of our anxieties and fears. 

This coronavirus crisis has stimulated our anxieties and fears to an excruciating extent. It is testing our ability to resist the ways in which we tie ourselves and others into knots of anguish. And more challenging even than this, the pandemic is confronting us – at a time when our daily lives have been completely disrupted, leaving us in disarray – with the need to bind ourselves in ways that are helpful, like the routines and rhythms we create to structure our daily lives, which have become so essential as our lives have been turned upside down. Like the straps of t’fillin[8], reminding us of our responsibility to direct ourselves to righteous action, binding can be liberating if it is enabling and life-affirming; or, to put it more bluntly, if it helps us to get out of bed each day and keep ourselves going.

This ancient story has still more to teach us for this coronavirus time. After the sacrifice of Isaac has been interrupted, we read:[9] 

Abraham raised his eyes and saw, behold there was a ram behind him caught in the thicket by its horns. So, he went and took the ram, and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Among other things, the shofar, the ram’s horn blown at Rosh Ha-Shanah is a reminder of that moment, of that replacement of a ram for a son. For centuries, animals were sacrificed on the altar in successive Temples in Jerusalem. An agricultural people, our ancestors expressed their service of God by offering the fruits of their labours. A Temple has not stood for almost 2000 years, and since that time, as we read in the Babylonian Talmud, Jews have been required to offer in place of the service of the altar, the service of our hearts, that is, prayer.[10] And more than this. We find this story in a 2nd century collection of rabbinic wisdom:[11]

Once, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking out of Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed him. Seeing the Temple in ruins, he cried, ‘Woe to us this place is in ruins, the place where atonement was made for Israel’s sins.’ Rabbi Yochanan said to him: ’My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of atonement which is no less effective.’ What is it? It is deeds of loving kindness [g’milut chasadim], about which Scripture says: “I desire loving kindness [chesed] and not sacrifice.”’[12]

Deeds of loving kindness: g’milut chasadim. Yes, we are being tested during this coronavirus crisis; tested, above all, concerning how we treat others and the planet in which we live. At Rosh Ha-Shanah, we are commanded ‘to listen to the voice of [the] shofar’ – lishmo’a kol shofar.[13] The voice of the shofar confronts us with urgent questions: How are we living? How are we relating to others: Within our families? Within our community? In the wider society? How are we relating to the world – to other nations and to the Earth? What are we going do to make t’shuvah, to turn ourselves around and make amends for all that we have done – and all that we have failed to do?

We are commanded ‘to listen to the voice of the shofar’. But there is also another voice we must hear. The shofar’s call to action to repair the world out there is also a call to repair the microworld that each of us inhabits in our individual lives, right down to the inner sanctum of our beating hearts.

Let us listen to the beating of our hearts this Rosh Ha-Shanah and face the uncertainties of the year ahead with courage and fortitude, determined to do what we can to renew our lives and the life of the Earth.

And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

18th September 2020 – 1st Tishri 5781

  1. Va-yeira, Genesis 22:1.

  2. Va-yeira, Gen. 21:14-21.

  3. Lech l’cha, Genesis 12: 1ff.

  4. B’reishit (Genesis) Rabbah 39:9 and 55:7. Also: Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 89b.

  5. Va-yeira, Gen. 22:11-12.

  6. See Va-yeira, Gen. 18: 9-15 and 21: 1-2.

  7. Chayyei Sarah, Gen. 23:1.

  8. T’fillin. The black leather bands and boxes (known as ‘phylacteries’). Derived from the words of the first and second paragraphs of the Sh’ma: ‘You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm and as bands between your eyes’ (Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18).

  9. Va-yeira, Genesis 22:13.

  10. Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 2a.

  11. Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5. Quoting: Hosea 6:6. This is a parallel collection to the more well-known Pirkei Avot, Chapters of the Sages, appended to Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited c.200.

  12. See also Rabbi Elazar said: Doing righteous deeds of charity is greater than offering all of the sacrifices, as it is written: ‘Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice’ (Proverbs 21:3) (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 49b).

  13. The concluding words of the blessing recited before the shofar is sounded. See Machzor Ruach Chadashah. Liberal Judaism, London, 2003, p. 140.