Rosh Hashanah Second Day, 5771, Yossi Fendel

Rosh HaShannah, Second Day
September 10, 2010 / 2 Tishrei, 5771
Yossi Fendel

Raise your hand if you consider the Bay Area to be your home.

Now raise your hand if you were born here.

See, that’s the difference between being Abraham and being Isaac. Many of you left your parents’ home and followed a call – maybe school, or a job, or a loved one, or perhaps even the voice of God – and moved yourself to a new home, to build a life for yourself there. But I was born here. So in a sense, I’m like Isaac. I've always known this as my home.

The piece of Torah we read today is known as the “Akedah,” usually translated as the “binding” of Isaac. The name comes from the two-word phrase in the middle of verse 9 “VaYa’akod Et-Yitzchak”, “and he bound Isaac”. This is strange – tying up Isaac doesn’t seem to be the focus of the episode, but more of a throwaway detail. Perhaps this event would be better referred to as “Abraham’s Trial at Moriah” or “The Miracle of the Ram”. In fact, some Christian traditions actually do refer to this story, in a title both dramatic and false, as “The Sacrifice of Isaac”, as the Italian master Caravaggio titled what are arguably the most famous paintings on the subject! But our tradition calls it “Akedah”, “binding”, and for good reason. Binding Isaac is really what this story is about.

“VaYa’akod Et-Yitzchak.” If that word “Ya’akod” seems unfamiliar, it might be because that’s the only use of this word in the Torah, and in fact in the whole Tanach. We only know what this word means by inferring from context that Abraham is tying up Isaac. But why doesn’t the Torah use “Yachavosh” as is used, for example, for the donkey Abraham girded to begin his journey? Why doesn’t it use “Yikshor,” as is used, for example, for the string tied around Tamar’s son’s hand or for the commandment to bind T’fillin to our arms. Or “Yitzror”, as we use, for example, to refer to a loved one’s soul being bound up in the bonds of life in the El Maleh Rachamim prayer of remembrance? Or “Ye’esor”, as is used, for example, for the bondage Joseph endured as a prisoner? Instead the Torah pulls out a unique word just for this moment – “Ya’akod”. Perhaps the Torah uses a unique word, because the binding itself is unique. Rashi comments on this word “Yadav U’Raglav Me’Achorav, HaYadayim V’HaRaglayim B’yachad Hi Akedah”: “Hands and feet behind, hands and feet together are an ‘Akedah’.” In other words, an “Akedah” is a special sort of bondage, in which Isaac’s hands and feet are tied together behind him. Isaac is completely immobilized – he can’t leave. That is, we soon learn, the theme of Isaac’s life.

In the next Parsha, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a bride for Isaac back in Mesopotamia. Eliezer then asks Abraham if, when he finds the perfect bride for Isaac in Mesopotamia, a woman who is beautiful, kind, virtuous, generous, someone fitting for the son of Abraham, perhaps this soulmate doesn’t want to voluntarily leave her land without first at least meeting the man she’ll marry. Then can he take Isaac back with him to Mesopotamia? Abraham answers with the last words he ever speaks in the Torah: “HiShamer L’cha Pen-Tashiv Et B’ni Shama”. “Beware not to return my son there.” And just to make his point crystal clear, he says it twice. Abraham’s last words of the Torah are not about his love for Isaac, or even a blessing for him. Instead, out come the ropes, as he again binds Isaac to this land. Luckily, Rebecca agrees to marry Isaac sight-unseen, and they build their home in Israel.

But in the Parsha that follows that one, there’s a famine in the land. Sarah is dead. Abraham is dead. So now who’s going to stop Isaac and Rebecca from leaving to find food in Egypt? “VaYera Elav Adonai VaYomer Al-Tered Mitzrayma, Sh’chon Ba’Aretz”. “And God appeared to him and said ‘Don’t go down to Egypt, but stay in the land.’” Out come the ropes, and again, Isaac is bound.

Isaac isn’t going anywhere. Not for economic reasons. Not for love. Not even to save himself from the knife.

I’ve always known the Bay Area as my home. As far as I can tell, it always will be. Now, unlike Isaac, I haven’t been bound up with ropes. I have, in fact, left the Bay Area occasionally. I’ve been to Israel for about 3 years. I’ve spent about the same amount of time away from home in college. And there have been smaller vacations too. I’ve even gone down to Egypt. But the Bay Area will always be my home. What’s more, my brother and sister have both made their home in the Bay Area as well.

In modern times, children growing up and making a home for themselves in the land of their birth is rare. When I tell people that I was born in Berkeley, first they assume they heard “Brooklyn.” Once I clarify, I’m usually greeted with “Oh, a Local!” as if they’d never encountered such a creature. Some would argue that we no longer need to stay close to home to maintain connections. Technology is allowing us to keep in closer contact with those further and further away. Trains, cars, and then planes made long distances more easily traversable. And now, the ability to have a live video conversation with people across an ocean using Skype is astounding. But still, it isn’t the same as actually staying home.

There’s a new culinary movement called “locavorism,” whose adherents are drawn to eating food that was grown nearby. It wasn’t very long ago that food-preparers would instead highlight the exotic origins of their cuisine – “peppers cultivated in Thailand are seasoned with spices from Madagascar and accompanied with mushrooms found only in the jungles of Costa Rica.” Now it’s a selling point that these items were actually grown in someone’s backyard four blocks away. But while my instincts are to dismiss locavorism as a passing fad, I’m also drawn to the power of the simple message: it’s good to stay close to home. Could this translate into a movement to live close to home? A “locavivism” movement? And how did I, my brother and sister all become so determined to stay close to home? If not ropes, what is the secret? I think I know part of the answer.

Beginning in 1975, my extended family has gathered every year for a weekend reunion at the Asilomar conference center in Pacific Grove near Monterey. By extended family, I mean that I go there to see my first cousins, and second cousins, and third, and fourth, and even fifth cousins. Asilomar was chosen as the location because most of the family lives in the Bay Area, and Asilomar is where my great-grandparents used to go on vacation 80 years ago from their home in Fowler, California, just south of Fresno. Although the family would get together for other occasions – weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, funerals – this Asilomar reunion is our opportunity to really get to know each other, without the structure of a ceremony or the noise of a reception. For 48 hours we explore our surroundings together. We play games. We update everyone about our school, our job, our children, and our health. We remember those we’ve lost and celebrate new beginnings. And Asilomar is also where some pretty important things have happened. It’s where my grandmother died. It’s where I proposed to Tamar, it’s where she quietly said yes, it’s where my parents and dozens of relatives gathered to hug us, and it’s where champagne bottles soon arrived to toast the moment.

And the power of the Asilomar reunion lasts beyond the weekend. It creates an enduring warm pull throughout the year, drawing me to stay close to home, and close to my family.

Isaac didn’t have the luxury of local family. His parents had left all of their family behind in Mesopotamia, which is where Eliezer was sent to find a bride and where Isaac himself was forbidden to even visit. Instead, Abraham needed ropes to bind Isaac, and force him to stay home. The tragedy of this approach is that once Isaac was forced to stay in the land of Israel without any say in the matter, he began to lose sight of how wonderful his home was. I see a strong connection between the binding of Isaac and the blinding of Isaac. What point is there in having eyes, if you can’t choose where to go?

When his twin sons are born, Esau is the one who goes out to the fields, to hunt, to explore. Of Jacob, the Torah writes he is “Yoshev Ohalim”, one who sits in the tent. He stays close to home.

Without ropes. We know that Jacob stays by choice and not by force because when circumstances change, when there is a famine again in the land of Israel, he goes down to Egypt. But even in Egypt, home is always on his mind. His last words are “Ani Ne’esaf El-Ami”, “I should be gathered to my people”, and indeed, this wish is carried out, and Jacob’s remains are brought back home and he is buried next to his parents and grandparents.

So it seems that I’m not like Isaac after all. I’m a “Yoshev Ohalim”, like Jacob. I’ve been blessed with freedom and resources to make my home anywhere in the world, and after considering all the options available to me, and even spending some considerable time in a few of them, I’ve chosen to make my home back here in the Bay Area. I’m a locavivist, a local-by-choice. Isaac is local-by-force.

Jacob, also, is a “Yoshev Ohalim”, a locavivist who sits in the tents because his tents are magnificent. As the prophet Bal’am is forced to exclaim later in the Torah, “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov”, “how glorious are your tents, Jacob.” But Isaac is blind, and doesn’t see the splendor, and thus doesn’t understand Jacob’s locavivism. Isaac can’t fathom why Jacob, unbound, would still choose to stay home and so he favors Esau, the explorer. And at the end of his life, Isaac’s blindness has become so severe that he can’t tell the two apart anymore and blesses Jacob by mistake. When Esau cries to his father “Barcheni Gam-Ani Avi!” – Bless me too, father! – he is met with Isaac’s answer of “Eifo? Mah E’ehseh?” – Where should I go? What can I do? My hands are tied! My feet are tied! Don’t you see this Akedah? Don’t you see these ropes?

We want our children to make their homes near us, but of course ropes aren’t the answer. And this isn’t just about physical homes. We want our children’s spiritual “home” to be near us as well. We want them to share our attachment to Judaism, and we struggle with how to create that attachment without using ropes, without forcing it on them.

And for me, staying spiritually close to home has been more of a struggle than staying physically close to home. I don’t belong to my parents’ synagogue. I have a different connection with Kashrut, with Shabbat, with Israel, and with Torah than I was brought up with. But I’ve seen friends whose spiritual distance from their family and their home community became insurmountable, which is no less tragic than an insurmountable physical distance. And I determined long ago that spiritual distance should never be insurmountable. For example, while I will only purchase meat for myself if it’s Kosher, I will eat anything served to me when I’m a guest at another’s house. Really, anything. Because as important as the rules of Kashrut are, I just can’t believe that they were ever meant to drive a wedge between people. And here’s why I feel so strongly about that.

When I was 13, I enrolled in Midrasha. I had just moved back to the Bay Area from a year in Jerusalem, and I was looking for a way to continue the connection and the exploration of Judaism that I had begun in Israel. At Midrasha, I found a community of teens who were Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Atheist, and label-defying. At Midrasha, we were part of a shared adventure, journeying between classrooms and forests in search of radical amazement and catching occasional glimpses of it. We pored over ancient texts and brought ourselves to the table with the sages. We uncovered hidden facets of who we are and shared them with each other. We sang loudly. We meditated silently. We avoided sleep at all costs.

And the power of Midrasha lasts beyond the Sundays in the classroom and beyond the weekends in the forest. It’s because of Midrasha that many of us now continue that adventure in search for radical amazement. It’s why many of us have stayed close to our spiritual “home”, and it’s why many of us have determined to not allow spiritual distance to separate us from our family or our community.

And the reason why Midrasha has this power is that there are no ropes. Students attend because they want to. Of course, some parents encourage their children, or even nag. Especially to get their children’s feet in the door, and to open their eyes to the opportunity. But in the end, we were all there because it was our community, and how could we possibly leave?

And maybe that’s also part of the reason why I’ve stayed here in the Bay Area. Our community in the Bay Area is one which holds a collective determination to not allow spiritual distance to separate us from each other. At events, like the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, or Israel in the Gardens, at the day schools and programs like Midrasha, the Bay Area Jewish family holds reunions that bring us together to really get to know each other, to explore our surroundings, to play games, to remember those we’ve lost and celebrate new beginnings.

And maybe that’s also part of the reason why we’re here at Netivot Shalom. This is a community that binds us without ropes, where we are held together by embracing each other, because it is our community, and how could we possibly leave?

On Rosh HaShana, we begin the 10-day process of “Tshuvah”, returning home. For some people, that becomes a literal pilgrimage, as they return from the home they’ve made for themselves to the home they left behind. For many others who don’t make the physical return to their home, Rosh HaShana still has a power to conjure up images of the home they left, the liturgical melodies they first associated with the holidays, the colors and smells of walking through their neighborhood in September, and they find themselves undertaking a Tshuvah through memory. And for those of us who have stayed home – whether we’re bound by an Akedah, or we’re “Yoshvei Ohalim” who have chosen of our own volition to stay home – Tshuvah is a reinforcement of our “locavivistic” instinct, as we work to make our home even more appealing for the next generation.

This year, may we forget the ropes that bind, and the ties that blind. This year, may the bonds of family and community be strong enough to draw us closer to each other, and keep us closer to home. Shana Tova.