Sometimes, Being Perfect is not Good Enough (5776)

I've always wanted to be on Jeopardy.

I love everything about it - its competitive spirit, the display of lightning like intellectual and physical reflexes that recall all matters of intellectual ephemera, and the sometimes witty banter between contestants and Alex Trebek.

Several friends of mine have applied to be contestants. One, a reform rabbi in New York City, even made it on earlier this year. I've learned that if you completely ace the tryout questions, you will most likely not be asked to continue to the next steps of the tryout process. In other words, if you are perfect, you're not good enough.

A colleague told me a story about a high school student in his congregation. This student got a perfect score on the SAT, an absolutely stunning achievement. Despite having a full breadth of extracurricular activities as well as academic successes, several ivy league schools rejected him. One interviewer told him, A lower score on your SAT would have been better. Being perfect was not good enough. (But students, please do your best on the SAT.)


Speaking of tests, Our Mishna tells us about tests of Abraham: With 10 tests Abraham, our father was tested. He withstood them all, in order to show how great his love was. (Pirke Avot 5:3)

Unfortunately, the Mishna does not let us know what those tests were. But thankfully, other scholars are here to help us. According to Maimonides, these were the tests of Abraham:

  1. God tells Abraham to leave his homeland.
  2. Upon entering the promised land, he survives a famine.
  3. The Egyptians capture his wife, Sarah.
  4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the kings.
  5. Abraham marries Hagar after not having children with Sarah.
  6. God tells him to circumcise himself at the advanced age of 99.
  7. The King of Gerar captures Sarah.
  8. God tells Abraham to send Hagar into exile.
  9. Ishmael, his son, is estranged.
  10. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac upon an alter.

If the producers of Jeopardy ever decided to place 'Tests of Abraham' as a category, the judges would have a problem. Maimonides is not the only one to list 10 tests of Abraham. Others have their own list, and as you might imagine, they are almost completely different. Except for the very last - that 10th test. That one is always the same: God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac upon an alter.

This story of this tenth test of Isaac’s sacrifice, the Akeidah, is read on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Toward the end of this portion from Genesis, Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of Isaac. The climax of our service today is the piercing sound of that ram's horn, the shofar. And so twice today we think of the Akeidah - once as we hear this Torah portion, and once as hear the sound of the shofar.

But why? This story seems to be a stark contrast between our celebrations of creation, renewal and t’suvah. It is profoundly uncomfortable. With no explanation, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Without argument, without debate, and without even any hesitation, Abraham agrees. He is so enthusiastic to fulfill God's demands that he saddles his donkey early in the morning to start the three-day journey with his son toward Mount Moriah, where he will perform the sacrifice.

Just as Abraham is about to kill the child that he so loves, an angel screams at him to stop. Abraham … Abraham! God’s emissary could not get Abraham’s attention, as Abraham was so focused on his God-given task. It was only the second call of his name that roused him from his singular focus. Abraham was within a hair's breadth of killing his son.

In Kierkegaard’s seminal philosophical inspection of this story, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard praises Abraham’s utter and complete obedience to God. He calls Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham's ethical code was suspended because of the higher authority of God.

Abraham knew that the murder of his son was wrong. But God’s will trumped Abraham’s ethical beliefs.

Other than the shared symbolism of the shofar, why read this story today? Do we strive to be like Abraham, following the letter of the law so closely even though it may violate our most preciously held ethical standards? What are we remembering when we blow the shofar - Abraham’s faith? His desire to follow God’s law? Are we proud of it? Do we wish to emulate it?

I think not. Reform Judaism continues to push against Jewish law when it encroaches upon our sense of right and wrong, of civil liberties, of the freedom of self-expression … Reform Judaism was one of the first major religious movement to fully and completely proclaim that members of the LGBT community are no different than heterosexuals when it comes to Jewish expression, participation or leadership. Reform Judaism continues to be on the forefront of issues of gender equality, even when they go against Jewish law. Whereas we might admire the faith of Abraham, we will not allow Jewish law to trump our morality, our decency, our humanity.

And you know what, God wants it this way.

Abraham did everything God told him to do. Everything.

It’s worth pointing out that Abraham does argue with God. Earlier, when God shares with Abraham God’s plan of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham had the chutzpah to yell at God, Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? (Genesis 18:23). In fact, our rabbis use this story to compare the righteousness of Abraham to the cowardice of Noah. When God tells Noah that God will flood the Earth, Noah makes no argument with God, whereas Abraham does try and save the lives of strangers.

But even here, a close reading shows that God did not tell Abraham to do anything. By arguing with God, Abraham does not disobey God, or violate a command. And so, to repeat the point, Abraham did everything God asked of him. In this sense, he was perfect. But as we've learned, sometimes perfection is not good enough.

Abraham failed the test. God wanted Abraham to say, No! I will not sacrifice my son. I will not do what I know to be wrong simply to fulfill a religious law, even if it comes from God. God waited until the last possible moment to see if Abraham would do the right thing, but he did not. And so, an angel was needed to stop Abraham. Abraham failed.

The Mishna tells us Abraham was tested 10 times. The first nine of these tests were tests of faith. Abraham hears the call of Lech L’cha and becomes the father of the Jewish people. Abraham is a role model to us in so many ways. In those first nine trials, Abraham demonstrates physical prowess, faith to Sarah, hospitality, kindness, friendship, self-sacrifice. This tenth trial is not a test of faith - God knows that Abraham is faithful. Abraham proved it when leaving everything familiar behind to start a journey to a promised land. Abraham proved it when he stayed in Canaan despite a life-threatening famine. After commanding Abraham to circumcise himself at age 99, I imagine Abraham asking God, You want me to do what to my what?! but instead, Abraham was faithful to God’s wishes.

No, this tenth trial was not a test of faith. It was a test of blind faith. And Abraham failed. God did want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God did want Abraham to sacrifice his blind faith in order to save his son.

None of us are going to walk to a mountain and sacrifice our children. And I’ll venture a guess that none of us will kill a ram.

But, all of us must struggle with the very real tension that stands between obedience and independence, dogma and creative expression, communal responsibility and individual freedom.

A Jewish life is not the life of Abraham, or the life of Moses, or the life of our grandparents, or the life of our parents. This is what it means to be Yisrael, one who struggles with God. We are not defined by our love to God, by our obedience, our faith, our observance … We are defined by our struggle. Our struggle to find our own voice.

There’s a haunting story about a Rabbi Suzya:

Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear. Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!

The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.

The followers were puzzled. Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ’Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?

His followers persisted. So, what will they ask you?

And I have learned, Zusia sighed, that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’

One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders.

Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, But what will they ask you?

They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?’

This is why we read this story today.

The Akeidah challenges us to hear our own voice in addition to the voices of authority, of tradition, and also the voice of God.

We blow the ram’s horn to remind us to have the courage to listen to ourselves. We are not to follow blindly the dogma of money, political party allegiance, fame, or dare I say it, even Georgia football … We need to be able to listen, so that when someone says our name, we lift up our eyes. The angel of God may have screamed Abraham's name twice, but sometimes ... often, each of us has only one chance. T'shuvah is the courage for each of us to lift up our eyes. This is our test and our trial. Let us not fail.

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