I have made one serious New Year’s resolution this Rosh HaShana and that is: not to make any more new year’s resolutions! I can’t count the number of times I have promised myself, aloud and even in writing, to do this or that in the coming New Year. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have taken an oath, but I have been serious with my intentions and with a bit of guilt, have thought of those resolutions even after I have broken my fast on Yom Kippur. Notice, I didn’t say I fulfilled my resolutions just that I had thought of fulfilling them.
I will not ask anyone to raise his or her hand, but as one sinner to another, I don’t think that I am alone in this scenario.
Maybe that is why one of the key stories involving Abraham is read at the beginning of the New Year; not to show us that Abraham wasn’t a saint, there aren’t any saints in the Bible, but rather as someone able to transcend and grow beyond what he thought himself capable of becoming. Not only did Abraham make resolutions, we all make resolutions, but kept them as well.
We should learn from Abraham.
The Rosh HaShana Torah reading, concerning the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, begins with this intriguing verse: “And it came to pass, after these things-‘vay’hi achar had’varim ha’eleh.’” Unfortunately, the Torah does not tell us what ‘these things’ were, therefore, Midrash, that wonderful rabbinic tool of incisive legend and commentary filling in the gaps the Torah leaves open, comes to save the day. Midrash Rabbah tells us that the opening verse: ‘after these things…’ refers to nine tests God had previously put Abraham through in order to make certain that he would be the proper person to become the Patriarch of the Jewish People.
I always associate the word: ‘test,’ with the phrase: ‘blue books.’ I don’t know if blue books are still used, but for those who may not know…’once upon a time’ note books, with blue covers, were used in colleges and graduate schools for all classroom exams. I picture Abraham, taking his nine tests in blue books, their being collected and then graded by God with Abraham standing at His desk. All of the previous tests were just preparation for Abraham’s ‘final exam:” Would he or wouldn’t he offer up his son Isaac to God.
Like Abraham, each of us is tested everyday of our lives. Sometimes our tests may be ‘true or false,’ sometimes they are ‘fill in the blank.’ At times they are ‘essay’ tests; sometimes ‘multiple choice’ and at times, they are ‘oral.’ They are semifinals, finals and Regents exams; FCATs, PSATs, SATs, GREs, LSATs, MCATs, and DATs. There are psychological and medical exams, personality quizzes, moral and ethical situations and even internet survey questions as well.
With all of these, I have come to believe that even with the life tests we face, our real test is not a specific answer we write in a blue book, but rather, how we prepare for the test itself. Sometimes we have put in the necessary time and effort and yet, failed the test. Does that make us failures? Of course not; how we have prepared for that exam tells more about who and what we are, our character and moral fiber, than the A or F we may have received on the test itself. At times we may put in the effort, the sweat and the tears for an exam; at times we may decide to ‘play corners and angles’ for our exam, when we fudge and cheat in business, our relationships with spouses, loved ones, friends and strangers, doing whatever we feel we are entitled to do in the mistaken goal of passing our life’s test, no matter the price, the cost, the pain inflicted upon others or even ourselves.
One day in 1870, two paddleboats left Memphis at the same time and traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. As they sailed side by side, sailors from one vessel made comments about the slow speed of the other boat. Words and challenges were exchanged and soon, a race was on. The competition became vicious as the two boats steamed their way further and further south down the river.
Due to lack of fuel, one boat began to fall behind. There had been plenty of coal for the trip, but not enough for a race and as the boat dropped back, a young sailor, desperate to win, took a bale of the ship’s cargo and threw it into the ship’s boiler. Soon the rest of the crew began to toss the balance of the cargo, as well as anything else they could get their hands on in order to fuel the ship and win the race.
They did end up winning, crossing into New Orleans first, but upon congratulating themselves on their victory only then did they realize the true price of the race: the entire cargo, for which they had worked so hard to load and carry to sell in the city, had been burnt and turned to ash in the ship’s boiler in order to win the senseless race.
If you feel that life is a rat race, worth burning everything in order to win, then even if you do win, you are still a rat.
In his book: ‘10 Journeys of Life,’ Rabbi Michael Gold writes modern interpretations on the life tests that Abraham had to take. They include Abraham leaving his home in order to grow and find himself; learning that he cannot always get everything he wishes; experiencing family love and loss; changing attitudes toward strangers and confronting personal issues of aging and general adversity. Abraham had been tested by spiritual questions, recovered from erroneous choices and finally, his ultimate big Blue Book test: Would he or wouldn’t he offer his son Isaac to God?
Over centuries, rabbis have argued as to whether Abraham should have gone through with the test involving Isaac or not, and the lively discussion that continues to this very day. If Abraham had sacrificed his son, he would have literally followed God’s word: but at what cost- the life of an innocent person, his son, Isaac. If he had ignored God’s commandment, he would have been guilty of blatantly disobeying God’s word, but at the same time, would have used his own mind and heart in making the decision and would not have been swayed as to what God may have said.
Our tradition has never agreed if Abraham actually passed the test or if God graded him on a really Big Curve.
In studying this portion, I found a very incisive observation by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. In commenting on the phrase: “On the third day, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place (where the sacrifice was to have taken place) far off “(Gen. 22:4), Rabbi Menachem writes: “Even on the third day, Abraham’s fervor had not abated; even when he saw that the final goal was far off, he still forged ahead.”
This comment, this observation about Abraham’s perseverance, has taught me some very important lessons for my own life’s tests- enough for me to re-evaluate my initial reluctance to make personal New Year’s resolutions after all.
1. Beginning this Rosh HaShana, I will review my attitude when I undertake assignments, obligations, projects. If progress takes too long or I don’t receive immediate gratification, I will pray to have the same strong feeling of vision that Abraham had and to remember that just as progress comes at different stages, people work at different speeds.
2. I will learn from Abraham, not by trying to emulate his tests, I have my own tzores, thank you, but from his ongoing faith in God and his courage, to take a stand, regardless of who or what may be in opposition to him or his dream.
3. I have become inspired, seeing how Abraham, though realizing he wasn’t perfect and still made mistakes, never dwelled on them and was never afraid to move on. He never stopped growing nor became satisfied with society’s love of the status quo.
In Hebrew, Abraham is known as ‘Avraham Avinu- Abraham our Father.’ A child’s sign of maturity is when he can see his parents as people, just like himself, who did the best they could, raising him with the tools they had available. So too should we, as children of Abraham, see him for what he was: a man, who did the best he could, raising his child with the tools he had available.
We are descended from Abraham, our spiritual father- we have learned of him and from him. As parents, with the always perfect gift of hindsight, we should honestly ask ourselves what we might have done if we had been in his shoes. As parents, we need to ask ourselves how our children and those who come after us will look at our lives and our deeds. As parents, we need to ask ourselves how our lives will be examples as to what to do or not do in their own lives. As parents, we need to ask ourselves whether they will learn from our successes and failures as we have, theoretically, learned from those who have preceded us, or not? And as parents, we need to ask ourselves if we will be remembered, in love and reverence, not as saints, but as fathers and mothers, men and women, who, to the best of our abilities, and with the tools we had available, did the best we could?
Ultimately, will we, like ‘Avraham Avinu- Abraham our Parent,’ pass the life tests that God has placed for us in our Blue Books of Life?
Only time will tell.
L’shana Tova Tikateivu- May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, for life, health, peace and blessing in this New Year.