Now that the High Holidays have come and gone, we all can catch our breaths and recover from the drama we put ourselves through every year.
For most, the intensity of the ten days peaks during Yom Kippur. The combination of long hours in synagogue, fasting the entire day, saying Yizkor or otherwise remembering our lost loved ones and dealing with preparing a break fast leaves us mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day.
For me however, the most intense period of the High Holidays comes on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in the Diaspora. The crowds are smaller, there’s more time to think, and we read from the Torah from the Parsha Vayera about the sacrifice of Isaac. Books, treatises and innumerable articles have been written on this, but is there a greater example of complete human failure anywhere in the תנך?
Abraham was the father of our people. He was the first monotheist. He was the same man who, when God told him to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, refused to accept that and literally haggled with God about how he could save the people. Now though, when God tells him to kill his beloved son, he passively acquiesces?
Are you kidding me? What kind of a father is he? What kind of a man? Who does such a thing? Of course the subsequent commentaries are full of Midrashim about how Abraham’s faith was so strong that he knew God would watch over him. I don’t believe any of that. That rationale has been the justification for every religious terrorist of any religion willing to take innocent lives because “it furthers God’s will.”
Abraham failed, in every way a person could fail. Thus the question. If Abraham was so fallible, why do we revere him so? Take that one step further. Think of all of our forefathers (and mothers). What flawed characters they were.
Isaac grows up and becomes sort of a “nebbishy” person. His most impactful act comes near the end of his life when he’s either so incompetent, or so stupid, that he doesn’t appreciate that his son Jacob is trying to steal his brother’s birthright.
Isaac’s wife Rebecca was the personification of a manipulating Jewish mother. She plotted with Jacob to take the birthright away from the slightly elder Esau.
Jacob was a true Momma’s boy. While his brother actually worked to provide for the family, Jacob did little. He schemed with his mother to steal the birthright. Later when he grows up he treats one son, Joseph, so differently from his other children that he sparks massive intrafamily resentment.
Joseph of course was totally spoiled. How much animus did there have to be in that family for the brothers to do what they did to Joseph? The crime of course was on the brothers, but there had to be an awful lot leading up to it.
Skip some generations and we get to Moses, the ultimate hero or our biblical story. He was so haughty that he refused to pitch his tent with the other Israelites. He was just too good, having grown up as Egyptian nobility.
No, these are not perfect human beings. To some extent it seems they weren’t even good ones. Yet we revere them. Why?
Compare our team to that of the Christians. Their hero is Mr. Perfect. He performed miracles. He walked on water (literally). He dies and then gets resurrected, literally lifted up to heaven. Around him were cool apostles. They went through fire and brimstone, some literally, to spread his Gospel. What a team the Christians have!
To be a good Christian you must associate yourself with Mr. Perfect’s goodness. You must give your life to him. When you sin – and we all sin – you can throw your sins upon him, and you receive absolution. Through him, you associate yourself with God’s eternal goodness.
We Jews have none of that. No one accepts your sins or gives you absolution. We deal with our own sins. We don’t worship perfection who came to Earth in human form for a brief moment in time. We read about people so imperfect they literally would kill their own son instead of fighting for him.
But that really is the whole point isn’t it? If all of these flawed people were able to also do remarkably holy things, then you and I should be able to do so also. In Judaism, holiness does not belong to a person who died on a cross, it’s part of all of us. It is our obligation to look for ways to bring it out, but it’s also in our power to do so. You see holiness in the love of a parent for a child, a spouse for a spouse or a friend for a friend. You even see it just in the willingness of someone to go out of his/her way for a stranger or somebody down on his/her luck.
To me, that’s what our religion is about, and that’s what the High Holy Days mean. Don’t look for forgiveness up in the sky, look for it in yourself and in others whom you might have wronged down on earth. By doing that, we really will go about perfecting the world.