Rosh Hashana Day 2, 5774, Robin Braverman

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Rosh Hashana, Second Day

Sep 7, 2013 / 2 Tishrei 5774

Robin Braverman


The Ram in the Thicket”

[Editor's Note: Robin's drash included holding up placards and a previously distributed handout with the lyrics of song “A Ram in the Thicket” by Shell Posen, who generously allowed us to include an MP3 recording of his original version. The lyrics appear at the end of this drash.]

Sometimes, just the very slightest change in perspective makes all the difference.

[ Hold up sign: “GOD IS NOWHERE” then unfold the sign, so it reads, “GOD IS NOW HERE”]

I want to thank God for providing me with this drosh 3 years ago. And I want to thank David Stein and Menachem for allowing me to share it with you today. It all began with a song by a Jewish Canadian song writer names Shell Posen. I’d play it for you, but we can’t. So, we’ll just have to sing it. I'll need you all to help me make the music.

We need a little rhythm, so I want you all to snap like this. [START THE CONGREGATION SNAPPING RHYTHMICALLY TO A 1-2-3-4]

Now I’d like to add a base line, and for this I will have help from Rom Rosenbloom, Rabbi Dan Kohn, and Eugene Berg. [ROM, DAN, AND EUGENE COME UP, STAND BEHIND ME, AND BEGIN A BASE LINE LIKE THE STRING BASE ON THE RECORDING. SNAPPING AND BASE LINE CONTINUE]

To help me sing the verses I have Claire Sherman and Brenda Goldstein. [BRENDA AND CLAIRE COME UP AND STAND WITH ME]

And all of you are gonna help by signing the chorus. [CLAINE, BRENDA AND I BEGIN TO SING]

[Ed. Note: At the end of the singing, the back up and rhythm singers return to their seats.]

Every year on Rosh Hashanah we are all forced to grapple with the Akedah. It is one of the most difficult and troubling stories in our sacred text. As I read it I cannot help but think of my children, both of them, (in spite of the fact that the story is about a son, of course I think of my daughter also). My first child is my daughter. She was adopted when she was 7 years old. My son, who is my biological son, was born 4 years later. They are both my bechorim, my first ones, - each in their own way.

But any parent in the room knows. It is not just the first born that you love.

Each child is beloved in its own way: -- for itself, -- for its uniqueness, -- for its special connection with you as parent, and -- the connection each brings for the parent to eternity.

Children are our continuation into the future that we will never see. In some cases they are the continuation of our genetic material. But in all cases children are the continuation of ourselves -- even in the mystery of how they, the children, are not us, and are themselves only. I often tell my daughter that she is the child that healed my soul. Her adoption healed my soul from 8 long years of yearning for a child through the dark pain of infertility. And while I suffered in my infertility, her journey to me wasn’t easy either. We were mom and dad #6 for her, and she had previously been the victim of abuse and neglect.

It took a very long time for her to trust that we wouldn’t hurt her. And for her to believe that we weren’t going away. That we were going to be her loving mom and dad forever.

Now at almost 31, she often talks about how much she is like me -- In the good ways and the bad ways as well. She carries me forward. I am integrated into her soul. And even as she is truly her own person, she carries me into the future with her.

And so when I read the Akedah, I invasion what it would be like to take her by the hand, tell her we are going for a hike, (something she really really liked doing as a child and that we did together). And I’m telling her that together we are going to do a Jewish ritual on the top of the mountain. And she would be curious and excited and look forward with great anticipation to this ritual that I was going to teach her on the top of the mountain. And then when we finally reached the top of the mountain. I pull out some rope, tie her up, lay her on a rock, hold a dagger above her terrified eyes, only to stop in the last minute from actually stabbing her to death.

Or, a vision of my son: He is cradled in my arms as I sit with him on the hospital bed after he was born: those precious little hands and feet, new life, representing the potential for all good things to come, totally dependent on me and his father for his every need, totally trusting and innocent.

I see myself with that infant in my arms, or more likely in a baby back pack, Ascending a mountain, getting to the top, tying him up, laying him on a rock, and lifting the dagger to kill him. To be stopped only in the last moment by something which tells me not to do it.

There is no thought, no circumstance, no nightmare, that could be more torturous, more heinous, more emotionally wrenching than these thoughts. And then I wonder: What is this story doing in the Torah? And why?

Why do we read it now at the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe)? Our most sacred time; our time of self evaluation; our time of looking into our souls; our time of acknowledging our collective guilt as a community; our time of understanding that we are not in control; our time of understanding that we are acted upon by forces beyond our comprehension. And also and yet, a time of accepting responsibility for our actions. I mean: what could its purpose be?

My teacher, Rabbi Larry Kushner, taught me to ask that question a certain way: Not: What is the story saying? Not: Is it a true story? Not: Does the story come from God? But rather: Why did someone think it was an important story to include in our sacred text? And: Why read it now?

The facts of the story are not what is important. What is important is the Truth that telling this story conveys to us about life that is a Truth throughout time. What was the message the ancients thought was important to send us in the future? In a way all Torah is like a message in a bottle, sent by someone a long time ago who thought he or she had something important to convey to us in the future. And when we read Torah, we are like one who stumbles across the bottle on the beach and understands that the message may be cryptic, but someone thought it was important enough to send it.

And here we are, blessed to be the ones to find it. Maybe it was even sent especially to us. Or, maybe a slightly different way of thinking about it might be:

We didn’t find the bottle. The bottle was found by our great, great, great great, grandmothers and grandfathers. And they understood the message to be so important that they held on to the bottle, and ceremoniously read the message periodically so they would not forget it, --passing it on from parent to child, until it reaches us.

Well, as you all know, I am not the first person to think about the great puzzle

that is the Akedah. It is like the Jewish version of a Zen Buddhist Koan: --given to us to think about; --not easy to decipher; --with many layers and levels of understanding (some maybe so deep that we have no words for them). Maybe when we meditate on them we will stumble across enlightenment – and free ourselves from life suffering.

My teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, his memory is a blessing, would say that Judaism is not so far from Buddhism. Year after year I have pondered the meaning of the Koan with little success, with little understanding. And then, three years ago, I was playing this song and it struck me. (I am sure that God put this idea in my head)

Through Shelly Posen’s words, I found the bottle on the beach. And the cryptic message seemed in one instant a little less cryptic: The ram!

The ram in the thicket is what is important in the story! The ram in the thicket represents those things in life that come along to help us find a way out of what seems like a totally untenable position. Like ways to turn our life back from the wrong directions that we have chosen. Like Abraham, we are about to do violence to ones we love and cause suffering to ourselves. And we are convinced it MUST happen that way -- whatever that way is at that moment in time.

We are convinced that powers beyond us are making us do it – whatever” it” is. That we are trapped in our suffering. Like Abraham, we may think what we are doing what God wants us to do (or some outside authority) and we get boxed in to wrong behavior. And even though the small still voice in our souls may be telling us we are wrong, we cannot find our way out of the mess we have created for ourselves. Our hearts are hardened and our eyes are not open. We cannot see that we are the ones who are causing ourselves to suffer.

We are convinced there is no way out: that we must commit the most heinous of acts; that we have no choice. But then, something calls out to us. Angels? God? A shofar? And we wake up and can see the ram caught in the thicket where we couldn’t see it before. Like Hagar, if our eyes are opened, we can see the well that is already there!

What does a son dying represent? Maybe the dying of that which is most precious to us: our lives in the future; our legacy. For people in mid life sometimes it is the dying of a life dream : the dying of what life “would be” in the future. And it can feel like God is taking this from you. Some outside force is commanding you to accept that the very thing you want, and can taste, and feel, and maybe you already have it: that thing, that dream, that future hope, you are being told that you have to give it up! And on top of that, you are commanded to kill it yourself – by your own hand!

It is a Truth of life that we all loose things that are precious to us as life goes along. Those of us who are older, perhaps can feel this more directly and less in the abstract than those who are younger: but that is not always true, people of all ages experience loss. But if we open our eyes, like Hagar, we will see the well and be nourished and realize that the losses are part of the Oneness.

There IS a ram in the thicket! If we open our eyes and move through it, whatever the “it” is, we find we are not trapped, we are not stuck, we are not weighed down by our wrong moves , our wrong decisions, and the wrong paths we have taken. The ram is in the thicket! The well is there!

We have the capability to see the ram and move ourselves back away from the wrong directions. We can do teshuvah. That is why the Akedah is read now. It is not about being “saved” like Isaac was saved. It’s about being saved like Abraham was saved. Saved from going in the wrong direction . Saved by taking responsibility and moving forward. Saved by being able to see another way so he could change direction. Saved by understanding the wrongness of his way and fixing it. By finding the way out of the maze, he reduced his own suffering. By opening himself up to what were his wrong actions and moving to correct them, he heals.

This is a Jewish perspective on this story and it differs from a Christian perspective and a Muslim one: We don’t need someone outside ourselves to save us.

The story is not about submitting to the will of God. Rather, our salvation comes by releasing ourselves from our suffering: suffering we cause ourselves when we box ourselves in and can find no way out; when our own life decisions cause us to go in wrong directions; when we don’t take responsibility for why we are there holding the dagger over our children about to shed their blood.

In these moments of taking responsibility and moving to change direction,

we make teshuvah. Our eyes are opened and we are set free. We choose life. And God is there. We only need to open our eyes, open our hearts, and open our minds so we can see the God that is there. God IS the ram in the thicket! God IS the moment we do teshuvah and change our direction! God doesn’t want us to sacrifice our children, or the part of ourselves that is the inner child.

God wants us to choose life, and help us to be free. For this we have the Yamim Noraim. And the story of the Akedah, a message in a bottle from the ancients, the Jewish Koan to ponder and help us find enlightenment.

I am thankful to the generations who came before me and passed on the me the message in the bottle. Thanks to God for opening in my eyes and my heart with the sound of the shofar and a song by Shelly Posen. May we all enter the new year with eyes open, taking responsibility for our wrong directions, seeing clearly that the way out is just over there in the bushes of our confused minds, doing teshuvah, returning to what God wants from us, which is : to free ourselves from the suffering we cause ourselves when we fail to see that God is there ; and that we each have the ability to choose life...again, and again. and again.

May we each find a way to write ourselves in the Book of Life for a good year, and at the same time understand that God has done this for us. Sometimes, just the very slightest change in perspective makes all the difference.


Now to close, let’s sing the chorus of the song a couple of times together.

Don’t despair, there’s a ram in the thicket
God is there, there’s a ram in the thicket
He hears your pray, there’s a ram in the thicket
There’s a ram in the thicket by the grace of God.


Ram in the Thicket

© I. Sheldon Posen, Well Done Music, BMI

Now in the Bible, so I’ve read
God called Abraham and thus He said
“Before three days are past and gone
“You must sacrifice Isaac, your beloved son.”

Don’t despair, there’s a ram in the thicket
God is there, there’s a ram in the thicket
He hears your pray, there’s a ram in the thicket
There’s a ram in the thicket by the grace of God.

Next morning Abraham did depart
With a grieving soul and an aching heart
He took young Isaac by the hand
But he told him not God’s cruel command.

“Oh Father, for the sacrifice
“I see the fire, I see the knife
“But where’s the lamb?” young Isaac cried
“Oh, my son, God will provide.”

Then Abraham he bound his son
He laid him on the alter stone
He raised the knife to do God’s command
God called “Abraham, stay thy hand!”

The father freed the son he loved
He’s proved his faith to God above
Then in the bushes he cast his eyes
Saw a ram God sent for his sacrifice

Now, there’s a moral, the rabbis say
The good Lord tests you every day
And if your faith is strong and true
There’s a ram in the thicket and it’s there for you.

Ram in the Thickett.mp35.16 MB