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Rosh HaShanah 5781

Heeding the Call of the Angel

It was the test of all tests.  The command to slay his beloved son. Avraham's entire world must have seemed to be crashing down. My son! Our family. Our legacy.  The nation we were supposed to build.  The lessons of ethical monotheism that we have been spreading throughout the land.  In asking Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, all... of that... is thrown into question – both the family into which Sarah and Avraham have poured immense resources, and their fight against pagan beliefs, amongst which child sacrifice stood prominently.  Avraham nevertheless summons the strength to follow God's command.

Then, just as quickly as his family, legacy, and life goals were torn away, they come revving back, as Avraham is instructed by an angel not to sacrifice all he finds dear.  You might have expected Avraham to be relieved.  But according to one tradition in Chazal, Avraham’s initial response to this call to hold back was more complicated.  

Rashi tells us that even after the angel instructs Avraham not to go through with the Akedah, Avraham begs the angel:  "Let me make a small nick on Yitzchak and allow just a drop of blood to come forth from him,"  to which the angel responds resoundingly:    אל תעש לו מאומה; "don’t make even a mum, you shall not place even the slightest blemish in him."

According to this tradition, even after hearing the voice of the angel, Avraham initially responded with a sense of confusion and reluctance to accept the withdrawal of the command.

It makes no sense.   Why is Avraham not overjoyed and relieved the moment he receives the command from God to abort Mission Sacrifice Isaac.   He should have dropped the knife immediately, embraced his son lovingly, and walked him home triumphantly.

Chazal are teaching us something profound in describing this reluctance on Avraham's part.  Yes, one of the greatest challenges is life comes when something is taken away from us.  But an equally great challenge occurs if we are blessed to have something of what was taken from us returned.

Avraham was no doubt thrown by God's initial command.  Somehow, going through a process and summoning strength that is hard for us to comprehend, he accepted that inscrutable command.  But then came the second challenge, that of re-embracing the future whose implosion he had just worked so hard to accept.

Once the unthinkable directive had become a reality in his mind, a different challenge appeared, the challenge to stand BACK from following through on that directive.

My friends, this past year, we all received an unthinkable directive from HKBH.  

He commanded us to close the doors of our beloved shuls and schools.

He commanded us not to bring our families together for Pesach and Shavuos, not to leave Egypt together, not to receive the Torah together.

He commanded grandparents not to hold or embrace their grandchildren.

The struggle of accepting the realities of this pandemic have been great for so many of us.  And like Avraham, people have risen to the occasion.  We have done what we have needed to do to keep our families, communities, and everyone around us safe.  We have often even found incredible silver linings amidst even this terrible reality. I have heard a repeating refrain from so many - about how they have embraced their own individual tefillah - because of losing tefillah be-tzibbur.   Or how they spent more time with their nuclear families after losing their opportunities to venture out into the world,   Or, even some of the hardest cases of individuals living alone - became reacquainted with themselves and what matters in life in new ways. 

But with the slow and gradual reopening of our shuls and schools and families and communities, we have faced yet another challenge.  The challenge of heeding God's decree, whispered softly by the angel, אל תשלח ידך אל הנער ואל תעש לו מאומה, hold back from sacrificing that which just moments earlier I told you to sacrifice.  Re-embrace the community that was taken away from you.   Re-embrace the family that was separated from you.   Not prematurely, not throwing caution to the wind…   We have been told often enough by epidemiologists that this pandemic is not over, and we must heed their warnings, all the while davening that they are wrong.

But we also cannot be okay accepting a POST-COVID "new normal" where distance and disconnection is okay.   Because it is not. 

This past year, YINW ended an incredible streak.  A streak longer and more impressive than Joe Dimaggio's streak of 56 consecutive games with a hit or even Cal Ripkin Jr.'s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played.  Going back to September of 1996, Young Israel of North Woodmere had gone a breathtaking 8,590 days without missing even a single day of daily minyan. 

In this context, I must give special hakarat hatov to our Gabbai Jack Arfa, without whom this streak, from start to finish, and many times in the middle, would have been completely impossible.

Of course, that all came to a screeching halt this past March, the first Shabbos after Purim.  

There are so many among YINW who devoted enormous energy and time to the shul as their tzedakah, socialized in shul, had spiritual moments in shul, and then felt initial emptiness without that center.  But when the shul reopened (admittedly cautiously and slowly) not everyone came rushing back and pouring their energy back in to the shul.   Not just the people with compromised immune systems – whose choice of life and safety we applaud… But also, people who failed to hear the softer and subtler call of the angel telling us that it is not okay to dispense with our spiritual community.

We have restarted a new minyan streak, though our minyanim have not been without challenge. And if you receive a call from an angel/gabbai like Jack or Daniel asking you to help our 7:00 am Shacharit once a week, I ask you to do your absolute best to heed that call.

But I believe all of these challenges - and the simple challenge of what we’re all doing right now, davening in minyan, socially distanced, with masks -- does give us an opportunity. 

It gives us the opportunity, with minyan, and with our return to life post-COVID generally, NOT to take the things we lost during COVID for granted.   That is what the shofar is about.   After Avraham’s initial struggle to accept the call not to sacrifice Isaac, he goes a step further than embracing Yitzchak.  He lifts his eyes and sees what is before him.   The ram he sees caught by its horn represents new opportunity, a new mitzvah, a new instrument with which to call out to God.    This Rosh HaShanah, we need to commit – at the right time and in the right way – to reembracing all that is dear and – like Avraham – to find new opportunity for deeper avodat Hashem in that which was taken and then returned to us.

The lesson of the Akeida is NOT that God didn't want Yitzchak to be in this world. And the lesson of Covid is NOT that we should be less involved in communal institutions.   Yitzchak’s role in this world is more cherished now than it ever could have been without that test.  And due to that test, a new mode of communication with HaKadosh Baruch Hu was born. 

While I do not claim to know why God has tested us the way he has this past year, I do know one thing:  We will not pass the test unless we return back to all of the things that were taken from us with greater appreciation than before and with a deeper commitment than before.   This year, may we all be blessed with health and goodness, and may we all succeed in hearing and heeding that soft call of the angel.  

Wed, October 21 2020 3 Cheshvan 5781