Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017

About​ ​the​ ​Writing​ ​Retreat

The trial had just concluded. He had been found innocent. His lawyer turned to him, a big grin on her face. “We did it!” she said. Then she cocked her head to the side, furrowed her brows, and asked him, “Now that you been acquitted, will you tell me the truth? Did you steal that car?” He gave her a long look and said, “After hearing your amazing arguments, I’m beginning to think I didn’t!”

Oh words, and how they can change reality. I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately, and how they affect us. It started a few months ago, when I woke up early on a Sunday morning and flew from Oakland to Ohio to begin a spiritual writing retreat. It took place at Kenyon College, in beautiful and sleepy Gambier. I immediately fell in love with the immaculate green lawns and the old, intricate architecture. I began to think that this was going to be a relaxing experience. I was wrong, of course.

Relaxing at the Beyond Walls spiritual writing retreat at Kenyon College.
At the Beyond Walls spiritual writing retreat at Kenyon College.

Far from being a charming exercise in calm and witty reflection, this writing business was like realizing you are a beehive of wisdom and foolishness and your job is to poke the bees until they buzz around angrily and and then they sting you and then you pour that pain onto the page and somehow it becomes something someone else wants to read, because they too are a beehive and they too have been stung and they too need your words in order to feel a little bit of healing, or if not that at least to know they’re not alone.

It turns out spiritual writing is pretty intense. Our very first writing assignment? What needs to die, and what ought to live…This was not relaxing.

The Cross With God’s Name On It

Kenyon College is pretty small, but all of the paths from building to building meander and it is easy to get lost. The only exception is a straight dirt trail, very neatly kept, that goes from one end of the campus to the other. It’s called Middle Path, and as long as you find Middle Path you can get to where you’re going. It’s very practical to have an easy, straight path, but even an easy, straight path can lead you somewhere unexpected.

One day when the inner bees got to be too much, I decided to walk the full length of Middle Path. As I came to one end, I saw on the green grass to the side a very large and very beautiful concrete Celtic cross, one of those crosses that has a circle and all sorts of detailed patterns etched into it. Kenyon College began as a religious institution, so I wasn’t too surprised.

I went over to appreciate its artistry, and as I walked behind it, I was startled. There at the base of the cross, etched pretty clearly, were two words, God sees. These two words were written in Hebrew. Adonai Yir’eh. God sees. How odd!

I quickly went to find the Jewish chaplain from the Kenyon College Hillel House, but he hadn’t noticed it in the seven years he’d been there. God sees, but not always the local rabbi. It turns out this phrase comes from the book of Genesis, specifically the story of Abraham binding Isaac up on the mountain. As Abraham prepares the altar with firewood, Isaac asks where the lamb is. Abraham says, God will see to it. And indeed, as Abraham binds Isaac to the altar, raises his knife with a heavy finality, an angel of God calls out, Abraham Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy, or do anything to him! Abraham looks up and sees a lamb caught by the horns in a
thicket, a suitable alternative for sacrifice. Abraham calls this place Adonai Yireh, God will see. I suspect the phrase was on the cross because of the parallels the Christian tradition draws between Isaac and Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Angel​ ​Tears

But what a find, no matter why it was there! I was stunned, because I had been writing the whole week about this very story. I was examining a midrash on the moment when Abraham lifts the knife. When the biblical text tells us that the angel’s first words are not “put down the knife” but rather “do not lay your hand on the boy”, the midrash gets very curious. What happened to the knife?

Although the biblical text only mentions a singular angel, the midrash assumes a cadre are present, witnessing the deed. And as they witness, they cry. Abraham is about to destroy his future. He will put an end to his flesh and blood, his beloved son, and with him his hopes and dreams for legacy. He does so without complaint, moving step by methodical step towards the unthinkable.

The angels at Kenyon College channel their tears into music.
The angels at Kenyon College channel their tears into music.

Three drops fill angel eyes. Abraham raises the knife. A voice calls out. “Abraham, Abraham.” The tears fall from angel eyes. They land on the knife. “Here I am.” And the knife breaks, decomposes as if the tears were some metal-eating acid. Abraham is left with no destructive instrument in his hands. Methodical, implacable, he decides his hands themselves will become the instrument of death. “Should I strangle him?” The midrash records him saying. And the angel replies, “Do not lay your hand upon the boy…” And Abraham responds, “Should I spill some of his blood?” And the angel says, “Do not do anything to him…”

Angel tears wiping out knives qualifies as mysterious, but what’s truly strange here is that Abraham must be talked out of killing his son. The Torah’s single statement to stop gets broken down by this midrash into chunks, turned into a conversation, or more accurately a death-obsessed Abraham trying to monologue his way through the act, only to be interrupted several times by that nuisance of an angel telling him to stop. Why doesn’t he get it? An angel shouldn’t need to repeat anything to be believed! Stop it, Abraham, your son gets to live; return to life yourself, bring back that spark of moral understanding that sent you forth so long ago.

Words​ ​That​ ​Matter

Adonai yir’eh, God will see; angels will witness and cry; but in the end, it’s words that matter. Abraham, locked into a stubborn violent goal, has a loop of violent words, shaping his reality. He must kill Isaac.

The midrash, while somewhat surreal in showing magic angel tears literally dissolving Abraham’s knife, also reveals something about how we actually work, how we are like Abraham in the story. The angel has to tell Abraham multiple times not to carry out the awful deed. We too get locked into repetitive loops, habits sometimes mild and sometimes destructive. Like Abraham, it often takes someone telling us again and again that we need to change, before we begin to realize that we can act differently. The words we think and speak habitually shape our reality, and in order to change we need to hear a repeated counterscript, many compassionate and challenging words that can open us up to changing for the better. We need an angel telling us we can choose to be kind instead of petty, flexible instead of stubborn, gracious instead of jealous, patient instead of pushy.

This is the work of the High Holidays. To become aware of our words, our inner scripts, to know which ones keep us stuck in autopilot, locked into negative habits, and to find those angels in our lives who can offer new words to cut through that cycle.

Megan​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Twitter​ ​Angel

Megan Phelps-Roper met her angel on Twitter. She, like Abraham, was living a life that seemed to destine her to cruelty. Her mother, Shirley, had taught her to sum up the Bible in three words, “Obey, Obey, Obey.” And what she obeyed was not “love your neighbor like yourself”, but rather, “God will judge you and punish you for your sins.” Megan’s grandfather was the founder of a small but very vocal collection of people who spew hate in the name of God, the Westboro Baptist Church. As a child, Megan loved picketing, holding up ugly words on signs, because she truly believed she was doing the right thing. Her mother’s refrain of “Obey, obey, obey” locked her into a pattern of destructive speech as well. She was told to hate, taught to hate, and eventually began tweeting hate on Twitter. For Megan and for Westboro, there were many Isaacs in the world that deserved to die, because God said so.

But Twitter opened up a new world of relationship for Megan. She began a quest to find Jews to debate with, because of Jewish centrality to some Westboro prophecies. She encountered David Abitbol, an Orthodox Jew and founder of the Jewlicious blog. He would become her angel, pushing back against her talking points with scriptural counterarguments and also being compassionate. He wanted to spar as much as she did, but he also knew he could only prevail by being genuinely curious and kind as well. The combination of compassion, echoing those angel tears, and words that countered Megan’s script opened her up to hearing new words. She began to realize she could choose another way besides hate and cruelty in the name of God. Today, she has left the church and is a social media activist seeking a friendlier world, real and virtual.

Angels​ ​Don’t​ ​Always​ ​Need​ ​Drama

Now, not all of these moments of angelic intervention are so dramatic. You don’t have to be the father of three world religions or the granddaughter of a cult founder to merit an angel redirecting you from negative patterns. Each one of us has moments, small and big, where we have been oblivious to the harm we are causing, or we have become aware but feel stuck in a painful pattern. We need words from those angels we call family, friends, community to help us reshape our reality.

We need that coworker who will remind us to get some sleep, we’ll be more productive in the long run. We need from time to time that therapist who can create a safe space and then speak difficult words to us. We need that one person who always gets upset when we start to gossip and tells us crossly that it isn’t nice. We need more angels to remind us we can choose love, peace, kindness, responsibility, that we do have power over our actions, and we are never truly stuck.

Sometimes, though, we need people and there’s no one around. The greatest challenge of all is to become our own angel, to cultivate a corner of our inner world where we can witness and cry over our more destructive impulses. And then tell ourselves so gently to change course. We tend to this quality through reading words of love, meditating on words of love, writing words of love. The first lesson we got at the writing retreat came from our instructor Jeff Chu, a journalist and writer on religion. He told us that we were going to share our writing, and it would be natural to fall into critical judgment and a sense of competition. And then he shared words he had learned from his teacher, words to redirect that pattern. He said, “I expect this to be a place where love grows.”

The High Holidays remind us that we have tools of violence within us, like Abraham’s knife. Are we brave enough to recognize how we have used the knife? Are we strong enough to cry over the pain we’ve caused? Are we open enough to hear the words of our angels, within and without? Are we committed enough to make our lives a place where love grows? I believe we are.

May these Ten Days of Teshuva, this sacred season of turning, help us become aware, help us atone and seek forgiveness, help us change for the better, even in small ways, help us connect in gratitude to the angels in our lives, and help us to be angels of compassionate challenge for others.

May we nurture these new possibilities and new realities, and treasure the words that grow a place of love between us, the words that truly matter.