Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Rosh Hashannah 5775 - Stephen Sotloff, the Binding of Isaac, The Last Thing and Adjust

This sermon is offered in the memory of Stephen Sotloff of blessed memory

Stephen Sotloff was murdered in the area under the control of IS, just a few weeks ago. You would have seen that photo, I’m sure, of a man dressed in orange, kneeling at the foot of a murderer. God help you if you saw the video and moving images, as well as still ones, are scorched on your mind.
Sotloff isn’t the only Westerner, and certainly not the only human whose life has been brutally cut short in the name of ISIS, but Stephen Sotloff was a Jew. You might have caught that in the news, and that truth scorched that image a little more deeply in my mind.
Stephen attended a Reform Temple pre-school in a suburb of Miami. You might have picked up a mention of the Synagogue’s Memorial Service attended by 700 friends family and local dignitaries.
You probably didn’t pick up anywhere that Stephen made Aliyah and studied at the IDC in Herzlia. That only made the Israeli papers after his death was confirmed.
Did anyone else pick up that Stephen Sotloff played rugby for a club in Ranaana?
I’ve been a little obsessed, trawling the internet in search of a possibility of shaking a particularly discomforting association from my mind.

Because the association that that photo triggers in my mind is a Second Day Rosh Hashanah association. I see a bound Isaac, kneeling at the foot of Abraham waiting for his fate; waiting for the stretched out knife. And I find nothing redemptive or comforting in that association. It’s not comforting to associate ISIS’s barbaric, pathetic justifications for murder with a story at the heart of my religious faith. It’s not comforting to associate the murderous ‘Jihadi John’ with Avraham Avinu. And there’s nothing comforting in the aftermath the encounter with an outstretched knife. In the Biblical narrative the next thing that happens is that Sara dies. The Rabbis suggest her heart couldn't cope with the possibility that her son could have been killed.
My heart breaks for Stephen’s parents visited by the greatest nightmare that could ever befall a family. The strength it must take, simply to put one foot in front of another, is a strength I cannot and never want to know.

So this is what I did with the images scorched in my mind, and the discomforting associations that disturb me so. I did some Chavruta. I picked up the phone to speak with the Rabbi of the Reform Temple in the suburb of Miami and asked how he was doing. Rabbi Terry Bookman was gracious and generous with his insights and time.

What had he shared with the family, I wanted to know, ‘was there any contextualisation, and framing of their suffering that had made a difference?’ ‘Not really,’ he told me, ‘I just tried to be present in their suffering and focus on the practical things.’
‘And what about you?’ I asked. Was there any moment of wisdom, any Torah verse or Rabbinic idea that allowed the Rabbi to be present in this most holy and most painful Rabbinic work?
‘Not really,’ he shared again, ‘I’m not that kind of a Rabbi. I just try and offer myself as a rock onto which their tears can fall.’
He shared that the family is starting to think about what to do honour Stephen’s memory. ‘My job is to wait and support them as they think that piece through.’ he added. ‘There’s no body of course.’
‘Of course’ said I.
I’m sure there was nothing higher or more effective Rabbi Bookman could possibly have done for this grieving family. No pre-prepared A-B-C of comforting the bereaved is going to be effective in a situation like this.

But I still hadn’t got anywhere with these scorching images and discomforting associations.
I asked Rabbi Bookman about Isaac and that image. Of course he knows this story and its commentaries as well as I. The Torah never tells us what Isaac is thinking, or even what he understands about what is happening but Rabbinic commentary guides us to understand Isaac accepting he knows that his life is to come to an end and accepting this as his fate. We are called to recognise, in Isaac’s ascent of the mountain together with his father, a heroic strength, an archetypal moment of Gevurah; self-discipline and acceptance. Over Rosh Hashanah and particularly next week, on Yom Kippur, we repeatedly lay claim to the spiritual inheritance of this act. ‘We aren’t much ourselves,’ we intone, ‘but look what Isaac was capable of! Give us a break O’ God. Forgive us in the merit of Yitzhak Avinu.’

It was this poise in the face of the outstretched knife – this powerful encapsulation of Gevurah – that struck me so in the context of that photo of Sotloff’s murder. I’ve never seen a man kneeling stand so tall, head unbowed, undefeated even as he was overpowered, exuding strength and a life-force even as his life was ended. Perhaps a strength that can only be known in face of horrors the like of which most of us, thank God, will never know.

The Talmud[1] tells the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva, murdered by the Romans. He is burnt alive in the sight of his students, and as he burns he smiles. His students cannot understand the smiles and enquire. The Rabbi, from the flames, responds, ‘all my life I wanted to know if I could truly love God, even as my life was coming to an end. And now I know.’ Even at the point of death, perhaps most especially at the point of death, perhaps only at the point where any kind of variance of a severe decree becomes impossible, there is a might that can be displayed; a life-force that can be brought to bear on a moment.

My mind went to Victor Frankl’s extraordinary memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl knew, knew so clearly, the savagery humanity is capable of, but refused to despair. He had this to say of the experience of the death camps, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms” wrote Frankl, “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And through holding onto this last thing Frankl found a way to survive not just physically, but existentially. He found a way to hold to the possibility of living a life of meaning, even in the midst of murder.

This is the correct meaning of a much misunderstood line at the heart of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. I know I’ve made the point here before but the line ‘Teshuvah Tefillah UTzedakah Maavirin Et Roah HaGezeirah’ simply does not mean that changing our life for the better, praying and acting justly will change a severe decree. The Hebrew grammar simply cannot be translated to suggest this, frankly, untrue oversimplification. Rather the Hebrew suggests Teshuvah Tefillah UTzedakah take some of the pain away from the decree – whatever the decree might be.
If you are going to die, you are going to die, says this awesome prayer. But
Teshuvah - If you die having healed any fracture in the relationships between you and your fellow and you and God it will hurt less.
U’Tefillah - If you die having stood honestly, and as a Jew, before the One Who Spoke and Created the World, it will hurt less. I will have more to say about Tefillah – prayer - later.
U’Tzedakah – And if you die having performed acts of charity and justice, it will hurt less.
I don’t want to die either. I don’t want the slightly fanciful notion of a severe decree hurting less because I gave some Tzedakah. I want to live, long and healthy and happy.
But Mi Yichiyeh U’Mi Yamut – Who will live and who will die? I don’t get to control that.
The only control I have is how I respond, how I meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Whether I stand tall even as I am forced to kneel.
Whether I smile as I understand that, though tested, I can still hold true to the values I hold dear.
Whether I continue to treat myself and those around me as creations in the image of God even as I face barbarity and woe.
Stephen, like Isaac back in the mists of time, never lost the power over the last thing we have to control – the ability to decide to stand tall even in the most horrendous of circumstances, even here there is this last thing.

And for that inspiration, for that charge which I accept when facing the, frankly, paltry challenges that cause me moments of weakness, Stephen Sotloff, of blessed memory, thank you.

And one other thing.
U’Tefillah – And prayer is held to be one of those things that sweeten the decree, even as we experience it.
It seems that Stephen Sotloff prayed, even during the two years of captivity that preceded his murder. The Israeli newspaper Yedidot Aharanot interviewed someone who spent time with Steven during his initial captivity in Syria. “Stephen used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem,” the friend said, “He would see in which direction (his Muslim captors) were praying and adjust the angle.”
I find that an extraordinary line – he would adjust the angle.

Forgive me please, I’m about to unleash two assumptions about how Stephen prayed, one small, one large. In truth I have no idea how Stephen prayed, but go with me.

My small assumption is that Stephen prayed to be released, to be reunited with his loved ones and to carry on with the pursuit of truth that had been the marker of his life till his capture. It’s said there are no atheists in foxholes. Surely we would all pray for redemption if, God forbid, it were us. But you don’t need to ‘adjust the angle’ to pray for a release from captivity. In fact if what you really want is release, the smart thing to do is - nothing out of line, play nice, keep your head down. If God’s minded to release you from captivity God will hear your prayer whether you face Mecca or Melbourne.

If you adjust the angle, and this is my bigger assumption, you are trying to do something else. If you adjust the angle you are trying to hold true to yourself, even as so much is stripped away. If you adjust the angle you are trying to remind yourself of how differently you stand before God when compared to the murderous kidnapping thugs surrounding you. If you adjust the angle you take all the fear you must, surely, have of being discovered to be a Jew, an Israeli even, and nonetheless hold tightly to these most basic parts of your ethnic and ethical identity. If you adjust the angle you do so because you care about Jewish values and the way we, as Jews, understand our part in the world and our responsibilities towards our fellows and our Creator.

In fact, in so many ways, adjusting the angle is the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. When God first called Abraham to ‘Go,’ the first thing Abraham does is cross the river, to stand on the side. Jews have adjusting the angle and standing on the other side of the river for over 3,000 years. It’s interesting to consider the power of adjusting the angle on this Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. It takes that extra bit of commitment to walk away from work, from school, from the life out there. It takes that extra twist to adjust the angle away. As we adjust, we become more particular, more clearly rooted in our Jewishness. And it’s only in this adjustment that we align ourselves to our true selves.

This is a message I hear from Stephen, never heed the call to fall in line with everyone else. Never think that falling in line with everyone else will save us. It wouldn’t have saved Stephen. Instead, it is through adjustment that his integrity, our integrity, can shine through. It’s through our willingness to be different, to align ourselves with our faith and peoplehood, that we come most close to being truly alive.

Adjust the angle.

Remember that ‘everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

And adjust the angle.

Do these insights alleviate my discomfort? No.
Do they bring Stephen back? Of course not.
Do they bring ISIS to their knees? Sadly no again.
But they might make me live better in my life, in Stephen’s memory and in his honour.
And if it might help you, then perhaps all is not lost.

There is always that one last thing, to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.
And there is always to opportunity to adjust the angle, so we stand before God on our own terms.

L’Shannah Tovah

[1] Talmud Yerushalmi Brachot 67b and parallels.

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