Some of my earliest and sweetest Jewish memories are of Junior Congregation at my childhood synagogue, Ahavath Achim in Atlanta. In those days, Junior Congregation was led by a kind and energetic woman named Janet Schatten. One of the first Jewish songs Mrs. Schatten taught me was “Don’t Walk in Front of Me.” The song has stuck with me ever since, and I’ll bet somehow it’s been etched in your memory, too: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend. And together we will walk in the way of Hashem.”
The exhortation “just walk beside me,” and the implication that, when we walk side by side, we are emulating the Divine, particularly resonates with me this Rosh Hashanah. Experts have been warning in recent years that we are in the throes of what they call a “loneliness epidemic.” Despite living in the most connected age in history, people are feeling increasingly alone.
This isn’t a trivial issue. Loneliness has been closely linked to maladies from heart disease to opioid addiction. In order to flourish, we need others to walk beside us, and others need us to walk beside them.
I see this as one of the lessons that emerges from today’s Torah portion, known as Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac.
Twice in the narrative of the Binding of Isaac, the Torah tells us, “וילכו שניהם יחדיו,” the two of them walked together:
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked together. וילכו שניהם יחדיו.
Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.”
And the two of them walked together. וילכו שניהם יחדיו.
So much may be happening in these five short verses, and so much is left unrevealed to us. The narrative as a whole defies easy or definitive interpretation. But here’s what I see: Abraham accepts God’s command — which is framed for us as a test — and sets out for Mt. Moriah with his son, his servants, and the instruments he needs. I imagine that journey was painful for Abraham. But I believe, given what he knew of God, and given his covenant with God, that he assumed God’s mind would change, that he wouldn’t have to go through with it. But with each step forward and with each day passing, his anxiety must have been building. “Why hasn’t God relented yet?!”
On the third day, when Abraham could finally see the mountain, I imagine panic must have begun to set in. He still had faith that God’s mind would change, but internally, he had to be harboring some doubts and fears. “What if God actually makes me go through with this?!”
Isaac, for his part, may have known, deep down, that he was the intended sacrifice. And maybe he had bravely made his peace with that fact. But perhaps he also assumed that his father would ultimately back down, or that God would spare him. When he asks “where is the sheep?” maybe he is revealing his fear that this might actually be the end of the line.
Here are two men — and the classical commentators almost universally affirm that Isaac is already a grown man in this narrative — who are walking toward their future with hope for the best and fears for the worst, conflicted and pained about what was being asked of them, uncertain about their destiny and isolated in their anxiety.
And what does the text say of these two men, not once, but twice? וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו, the two of them walked together.
Why would the Torah need to go out of its way, twice, to tell us that Abraham and Isaac walked together? Is it not obvious?
Perhaps the walking together is itself the message of the story. These two men — a father devastated over the terrible mission with which he had been tasked; the son, frightened about what would happen on top of the mountain; the father, aggrieved over the possibility of losing his beloved son; the son, accepting his terrible fate and yet hoping it might be otherwise — got through this terrible journey through the very act of walking together, their presence comforting and supporting each other in their fear and pain and loneliness, their hands and hearts enabling them to share the burdens of the journey.
The Torah here teaches us that Abraham and Isaac decided, no matter how extremely their lives were going to change, or how unpredictable their future was, or how isolating their anxieties, they were going to face the change and the challenge together, side by side, hand in hand. Yes, Abraham and Isaac are lonely, because pain and suffering and fear are lonely. But what if just because we are lonely, we do not have to be alone? What if this story were about how, when life tests us or someone we love — remember, after all, that this story is introduced as a “test” — the best thing we can do is to live in the spirit of וילכו שניהם יחדיו, to walk on together, to be present for each other, to accompany each other, to be there for each other? The story of the Binding of Isaac reveals that the way to make it through life’s tests is to walk beside one another.
A few years ago, I was participating in a rabbinic fellowship led by one of my mentors, Rabbi Sid Schwarz. The fellowship consisted, in part, of several retreats. My fellow participants and I were expected to plan and run various aspects of each retreat, including the worship services. Now, I hope it doesn’t scandalize you too much to learn that, when we rabbis are “off the clock” and don’t have to show up at services, we sometimes choose to sleep in rather than get up early for morning minyan. To borrow a phrase from Us Weekly, “Rabbis: They’re Just Like Us!” Two days into our first retreat, Rabbi Schwarz noticed that only a few of us had been showing up to minyan. He called a mandatory group meeting to express his disappointment that we hadn’t been attending. What stuck with me was his rationale. He was not upset that we were skipping out on our religious obligations for daily prayer. That, he said, was between us and God. Rather, he was upset that members of our cohort were planning and running each of these services, and their colleagues, by not showing up, were failing to support them. “When you joined this fellowship,” Rabbi Schwarz reminded us, “you became part of a community. And community is about showing up for each other.” In community, above all else, your presence matters. We rabbis, who should already have known better, heard the message loud and clear. And for the rest of the fellowship, minyan attendance was 100%.
“Community is about showing up for each other.” Rabbi Schwarz’s lesson has remained with me ever since. To be in community means accepting upon oneself the obligation to support the other members of the community. In the words of our Torah portion, to be in community means to commit to walking together, to being a presence alongside each other, especially when we are confronting one of life’s tests, whether that is when we put ourselves out there by taking on a leadership role, when we are facing a difficult season in life, or when we are celebrating a joyous moment. We show our fellow community members that we support them, that we respect them, that we care for them, that we honor them, when we show up for them.
Some of you are exemplars of this value. You know who you are. We know who you are. You are the people who come to minyan at least once per week because you know that someone is bound to be there who needs to say Kaddish. And you are the people who have committed to take leadership roles, even when the fruits of your labors do not directly benefit you. And you are the people who make a point of routinely attending the funeral, even when you don’t have a connection with the deceased.
Of course, none of us, not even your clergy, can be everywhere all the time for everyone. But when a community is filled with committed and supportive individuals like the ones I just described, the overall impact is a community where we are showing up for each other.
At the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us in this room are less than zealous when it comes to showing up for each other. We expect the community — in some way, shape, or form — to be there for us when we are in need, but we are not in the habit of showing up for others.
I say this not in the spirit of rebuke or guilt. I fully recognize that there are plenty of legitimate things that prevent us from being as present for others as we might otherwise would like to be. I personally wrestle all the time with those competing obligations. The demands of work and family are real, and important, and often consuming. And even if we can sometimes peek out from behind those commitments, we certainly deserve time to tend to and care for ourselves. “If I am not for myself,” the sage Hillel famously asks, “Who will be for me?” Our own lives, and the lives of those in closer spheres of obligation, are certainly worthy priorities.
But recall, too, that in the very next breath, Hillel teaches, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?” Alongside and equal to our reasonable right to care for ourselves and those closest to us is our responsibility to be present for and supportive of others. We owe others our commitment to balance a concern for self with concern for community, and to be honest with ourselves and with each other about how much of ourselves we give to one concern versus the other. What would our community look like if every single person took seriously Rabbi Schwarz’s wisdom about showing up for each other? What would our community look like if we each honestly evaluated how we could be more present for others?
Imagine a community in which each of us — not just the rabbi, not just the cantor, but each one of us here — could be counted on to show up for each other, in which we all pledged to routinely attend each other’s programs, in which we volunteered at the religious school even after our kids graduated? Imagine a community of covenanted partners, who showed up at the bedsides, who attended the funerals, who packed the shiva houses, who made sure there was always a minyan; a community that makes honey cakes for the bereaved, brings chicken soup to the homebound and picks up groceries for new parents. Imagine a community where, in times of trial, we were committed to walking together, to offering presence, love, and support.
I want to hold up one community in particular as a model to inspire us: This summer, I traveled to Southern California to officiate at the wedding of a college friend. Being in LA afforded me the opportunity to revisit some of my old stomping grounds from when I was a rabbinical student, including attending Shabbat services at an independent spiritual community called IKAR.
Founded in 2004, IKAR has, almost since its inception, been at the cutting edge of what Jewish spiritual community in the 21st century can and should look like, featuring prayer that is emotionally and spiritually alive, learning that is both profound and radically accessible, social justice activism that is courageous and uncompromising, and a deliberately designed, deeply interconnected community where members are committed to being responsible for and to each other.
As such, IKAR has become a hub for rabbis and rabbinical students as well as the Jewishly uninitiated and disconnected, for those actively seeking spiritual experiences and for those who don’t believe, and a model to which rabbis, myself included, and congregational leaders nationwide turn for guidance and inspiration.
I am very excited to announce that, this January, we will be welcoming IKAR’s founding rabbi, my rabbi, Rabbi Sharon Brous, as our Scholar in Residence. We’ve invited Rabbi Brous to share with us tools for making our community ever more inclusive, supportive, and deeply intertwined; and to offer her unique and inspired insights about what Judaism offers to and asks of us in these trying times. I hope you will join us this January to meet and learn from Rabbi Brous.
As an example of what a special community IKAR is, I wanted to tell you a story from my visit this summer. Two years ago, a young family in the congregation experienced an unthinkable tragedy: their four-year old son, Gidi, drowned in a boating accident. According to his parents, Gidi “was all of the wonder and joy of life wrapped up in a small bouncy body. He exuded confidence, happiness, tolerance and acceptance. He made friends with strangers everywhere he went, he saw beauty in things no matter their purpose, and he met any challenge with a giggle and a hop in his step.” Guided by Rabbi Brous, and inspired by their special community, the Zilbersteins decided to create a special program in Gidi’s memory, called “Gidi’s Kindness Project.” During the month of Elul, which was both the beginning of the High Holy Day season and also the season of the anniversary of Gidi’s death, the Zilbersteins invited people to perform a random act of kindness and write about it on social media. Hundreds of people participated.
As fortune would have it, I happened to have attended IKAR on Rosh Hodesh Elul, Gidi’s second yahrtzeit. Gidi’s family had an aliyah to mark the occasion, and then Gidi’s mother Jesse had an opportunity to speak. As Jesse spoke about the tragedy of Gidi’s death and the miracle of Gidi’s life, she offered a powerful window into how she and her family continued on despite — and, indeed, because of — their pain.
She spoke about the importance of continuing to tell Gidi’s story, which keeps him alive in their hearts and in the world. She explained how the Kindness Project affirmed Gidi’s legacy and provided her family with a sense of love, support, and joy. Most important, however, was what Jesse called her “village,” her community, and in particular her IKAR community. Grief, as many of us here know all too well, is by its nature extremely lonely. And the presence, help, encouragement, and love of a caring collection of people blunts the most pernicious pain of loss, helping the bereaved pick up the pieces and navigate the path forward.
To illustrate her point, Jesse told the story of Tahlequah, the orca whale who had been in the news over the summer. Tahlequah’s calf had died in infancy, and for over two weeks, Tahlequah had kept carrying the body of her dead baby, at great risk to her own wellbeing. Jesse observed that the mainstream media reported Tahlequah’s behavior as unprecedented, a surprising display of grief and love. But to her, Tahlequah’s behavior was wholly unsurprising. She knew exactly what Tahlequah was going through. What amazed her, she said, and what should amaze us, was not that Tahlequah refused to let go of her baby, but rather that Tahlequah’s pod refused to let go of her. As long as Tahlequah was carrying that calf, her pod was right by her side — encircling her, protecting her, taking turns keeping the dead baby afloat in the water while she rested, continuing to hold the baby’s body up while she took a few moments to regain her strength, helping her in her stubborn and loving insistence that her baby would not be allowed to fall into the abyss. They didn’t leave her side, even as she swam over a thousand miles with her baby’s body on her back. Tahlequah lost a child, but she was also surrounded by a pretty incredible village. They not only kept her baby afloat, Jesse observed, they kept her afloat as well. They enabled her to do what she needed to do. Even as Tahlequah was traumatized, she was blessed.
Like Tahlequah, Jesse said, her family has felt very lonely in their grief, but they have felt extremely blessed to have had a pod who never left them alone. In their family’s time of trial, the Zilbersteins could count on their community to walk with them.
As for us, we too are better able to make it through life’s tests when we walk beside one another; and we, too, can be someone’s pod when they are in need, just by showing up.
Maybe that’s why we return, year after year, to the story of the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, a story that, at its heart, reminds us that the way to make it through life’s tests is by walking together. Our Sages of Blessed Memory could have chosen any text to have us study on this Holy Day, and yet they gave us this one, because they knew that Rosh Hashanah is one day in which we all show up. In this way, our tradition reminds us that our task is not just to come together on this day. Our task is to show up for each other every day. This is the promise we are invited to make to each other on Rosh Hashanah; this is the promise we make to each other by being in community: that we’ll walk beside each other; and when I walk beside you, and when you walk beside me, together we will be walking in God’s ways.
Rosh Hashanah, Day 2, 5779 (September 11, 2018)
Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia