Be Like the Ram – Rosh Ha-Shanah 2011

Over the past two years, I’ve become a runner.  And the thing I’ve discovered about running is that if you stay on the same streets, if you only run on flat roads and never encounter new obstacles, you never get any better.  You stagnate.  You stay at the level you were the days and weeks before.

Most of the running I’ve done has been in Los Angeles, mainly around the neighborhood where I used to live.  My favorite path – the one I would run most frequently – was to go a few miles North on La Cienega Boulevard and then turn around and run back the way I came.  I liked this path because it was straight; it had nice, wide, even, well-paved sidewalks; and, most of all, because it was almost perfectly flat.  Not a single hill to run up or down, just a smooth and direct run.  It was through this routine that I came to love running.

But when I moved to Lower Merion, with its rolling hills, its uneven roads, and its lack of sidewalks and running paths, I started hating to run.  I was slower than I remembered, and, for the first time, I found running painful.  All those new obstacles made running substantially more challenging.

I thought about quitting many times, but despite the challenges, despite the more difficult paths on which my running here took me, I decided to push through, to accept the minor setbacks and the slower paces, to confront the challenges head-on.

Slowly but surely, my running began to improve.  At first, the changes weren’t dramatic – I felt a bit sturdier, more confident, in better shape.  But as the weeks have progressed, I have become faster and stronger. Now, I believe that I’m in better condition than I ever was when I was running in LA.

It turns out that once I pushed myself to run up and down hills, off of sidewalks and onto unevenly paved streets and grassy paths, I became better.  Though I was always capable of more, if I had simply maintained the easier status quo, I wouldn’t have improved.  By confronting the difficulties and pushing through them, I was able to grow in ways that I didn’t realize were possible.

The same is true in each of our lives: When we avoid challenge and conflict, we can miss opportunities to live up to our all the potential we have inside. Through pushing ourselves to confront our difficulties directly, we can grow and flourish.

Let’s take our minds back to a moment so powerfully recorded in the Torah, in the portion we read this morning.

Our father Abraham is called upon by God to offer up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Abraham brings Isaac to the mountaintop and binds him onto the altar.  Abraham lifts the slaughtering knife to inflict a death blow to his incapacitated offspring. All of a sudden, deus ex machina, an angel calls from heaven, imploring Abraham to spare the child.  As Abraham begins to lower his weapon, he notices a ram behind him, its horns caught in a thicket.  Abraham goes over to the ram, untangles it from the brush, and offers it as a sacrifice in Isaac’s place.

There are a great many things we could say about this portion.  It is complex, challenging, and defies easy answers.  The fact that we read this portion on this day in itself echoes the lessons I learned from running.  Rosh Hashanah invites us to commit ourselves to live better, to become our greatest selves.  But doing that work requires confronting challenge.  We emerge changed for the better through bringing ourselves into encounter with an opposing entity – from thesis and antithesis come synthesis.  So we read this portion, in part, to directly confront the challenges it offers us, and to grow through our confrontation with that challenge.

But this morning, I want to focus on an unsung hero of the story: the ram.

The ram offers a model for what we can gain if we do not shrink from the adversities we encounter.  And the ram offers a model for how we might face down those difficult experiences: with patience, perseverance, and, ultimately, vision.

We learn in a midrash that the ram in our portion was no ordinary ram.  On the last day of Creation, in the twilight before the first Sabbath, God created this ram specially, so that, ultimately, it would take the place of Isaac as Abraham’s sacrifice.

Bear in mind that, in the traditional Jewish calculus, nearly two millennia elapse between the sixth day of creation and that dramatic and haunting moment, which means that this ram had to have patience.  In fact, there is a tradition that holds the ram waited in the Garden of Eden for almost two thousand years until it was time for him to fulfill his purpose.

Patience, of course, requires vision, a belief that what you’re waiting for is worth the wait.  The ram had to believe – with intensity and with focus – that he had a great purpose to fulfill.  The ram had to see over the horizon that he had a great part to play in a drama that had not yet finished playing out.

So, the ram waited.  As the ram waited, Adam and Eve are banished from paradise.  As the ram waited, humans discover the ability to murder.  As the ram waited, the earth became so filled with violence that God tries to wipe out all life with a flood.  But the ram withstood the flood’s raging waters, and waited yet more as the human race began to replenish itself and spread over all the earth.  And the ram waited as God began to nurture one man, Abraham, and his family, so that they could bring knowledge of God – of wholeness, of healing – into a world so desperately in need of repair.  The ram waited some more, waited until that fateful morning, after nearly two thousand years, when the day finally arrived to save Isaac.

Once again, the ram could have taken the path of least resistance.  The ram could have stayed in that beautiful garden, living a life of undisturbed luxury in paradise.  The ram could have avoided a quest that he knew held within it the possibility of his own death.

Instead, the ram ignored his innate desire to avoid struggle.  The ram – armed with his vision, emboldened by his patience –  jumped up and began to run.

But the world is full of destructive and distracting forces.  The Torah calls these forces tohu va’vohu, undomesticated chaos, disorder that existed before the beginning of time. The rabbis sometimes talked about these forces using metaphoric language.  The rabbis would refer to these powers as angels, sometimes called Sama’el and sometimes called Satan – the accuser – who consciously try to test our mettle, to see whether they can pull us off our path, whether they can prevent us from fulfilling our divinely-ordained tasks in the world.

Whether it was the designs of Sama’el, or whether it was simply the random emergence of chaos, we may never know, but one way or another, circumstances kept arising that made the ram’s journey painfully difficult.  But despite the challenges, the ram persevered.

Perseverance, like patience, requires vision.  The ram persevered because he believed he had a great purpose to fulfill.

The ram climbed rugged and craggy mountains, full of sharp rocks, tumbling boulders, and mudslides.  Despite these obstacles, the ram persevered.

He journeyed through lush, green fields, where balmy breezes and soft sunlight beckoned him to stop, eat, and rest.  But the ram did not veer off the difficult path.  He kept on going.

The ram ran through dry and dusty deserts where, parched with thirst, he encountered pools of cool, fresh water that invited him to pause and drink deep.  But the ram kept on going.

He trudged through dark swamps and imposing, tangled jungles, where wild animals growled and snarled and roared, threatening to tear him to pieces and devour him if he continued on.  The ram thought about turning around, but he didn’t. He kept on going.

Finally, he reached the mountain where he was to fulfill his mission.  He could make out with his naked eye the figures of a man and his son ascending the mountain.  He could smell the fire the man placed under the altar. He could almost touch the man as he grabbed his son and tied him down.  But just then, at the moment of truth, his horns got caught in a bush of brambles.

The ram struggled to break free, but it was no use.  He bucked and kicked, but it only embedded his horns further into the brush.  He flailed and he cried, but he simply could not break free.

The ram could have given up right then and there.  He could have taken the easy road and simply quit.  No one would have blamed him.

But the ram persevered.  He reached out his hoof further than he had ever stretched before, more than he had ever known he could reach.  And, to his surprise, he was able just barely to reach the corner of Abraham’s cloak, pulling it ever so slightly toward the ground.  Abraham noticed the pull.  He stopped what he was doing, turned around, and saw a ram struggling to free himself from the bramble.  He walked over to the brush and freed the ram, and took him to the altar, where the ram lied down to fulfill his sacred potential.

We learn in this midrash that in order for the ram to accomplish his purpose, he had to face down significant challenges.  Confronting those challenges required patience, perseverance, and vision.  If he had taken the easy road, he would have failed to live up to all the possibilities of his life.

In fact, the Torah says that the whole story of the Binding of Isaac is a test, though it doesn’t specify who or what is being tested.  Perhaps it is the ram’s test.  Would the ram have what it took to endure the difficult road, the only road that would lead to his glory?  Indeed, that is the test we all face in our lives.

All of us, at one point or another – and some of us on a daily basis – are presented with these kind of tests.  Let me be clear, here: I do not mean that God is testing us.  But I do believe that God perpetually holds out before us a vision of fulfillment.

And yet, the circumstances of life and the realities of being human dictate that we cannot attain those lofty goals without patiently and persistently navigating through the challenges.  Life, chaotic and unpredictable, filled with the primordial tohu va-bohu, tests us all the time.

Because of this, many of us justifiably wonder, in the words the Mishnaic Sage Ben Hey-Hey, “l’fum tza’ara agra,” will our reward be proportionate to our suffering?  We wonder this when we struggle with illness; We wonder this when we struggle with our relationships; We wonder this when we struggle with our kids, our parents, our school, our work, and our religious lives.  We even encounter these tests on the societal level.

Here’s but one example: Many of us envision living long and healthy lives free of cancer and other diseases.  Though there are no guarantees, we can achieve that vision by eating properly and exercising regularly.

But adopting a healthier diet and an active routine is really hard.  It requires patience and perseverance.  And that is a test with which many of us struggle: is the reward we get by living long and healthy lives worth the pain involved in eating right and getting enough exercise?

The truth, of course, is that we pay a much higher price for taking the easy way out than we would if we pushed ourselves to encounter our struggles head-on.  After all, are colon cancer or heart disease not higher prices to pay than being meticulous about one’s diet and exercise routine?  That’s what Bruce Springsteen meant when he sang “That feeling of safety you prize comes with a hard, hard price.  You can’t shut off the risk and the pain without losing the love that remains.”

For this reason, the book of Proverbs teaches us, “meshivat p’tayim ta’hargem, v’shalvat k’silim t’ab’dem / tranquility and complacency can destroy us.”  Struggle, on the other hand, is how we become stronger.  We emerge changed for the better by directly confronting adversity.  Synthesis only comes from thesis encountering antithesis.

Of course, our lives are not always that simple or clear.  Most of us cannot and do not live by charting all of our behaviors onto pro- and con-lists.  Many of us will continue to struggle with this issue – and with others – despite what we may know intellectually to be the right course of action.

That is because our lives are not mathematical equations.  Our lives are works of art.  We do not achieve our desired outcome by plugging the right figures into the formula, but rather by having a vision of who we might become, and by persistently and patiently working on becoming that person.

I want to invite all of us to see this as a liberating insight.  As today’s haftarah beckons, “Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For the Lord declares there is a reward for your labor.” Do not be depressed.  Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches ein shum ye’ush ba’olam k’lal, This day, do not despair at all!

Think about it: if our lives were equations, any mistake, any difficulty we encounter, any wrong choice, no matter how small, would ruin us.  But for an artist, a mistake, an unexpected challenge, or a bad decision can be corrected.  And what’s more: it can be an opportunity to create something new that you had never even thought of before.

This Rosh HaShanah, I want to bless us that we see ousrelves as artists; our lives as works of art.  This involves pursuing our most majestic visions for ourselves, our communities, and our world, even if we must have patience and perseverance as we navigate the difficult pathways toward achieving those lofty goals.  Masterpieces require vision, they require persistence, they require patience.

Promised Lands of fulfillment can only be reached by wandering through rugged and trying wildernesses.

Great and free United States of America’s can only be forged from relentless struggles to free others and to be free.

“Bright and glittering daybreaks of freedom and justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, can only be brought on by breaking free of complacency and contentment with “the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Free Tunisias and Egypts and Libyas require walking down difficult roads; and all tyranny needs to persist is a lack of vision, patience, and perseverance.

A better you, the greatest masterpiece of all, beckons that you not back down from the challenge of making it so.

God invites us to make our lives works of art.  Our test is whether we will back down from the hard work, whether we will cower from the difficult paths.  Can we this day and every day summon our patience and perseverance in forging a masterpiece?

The book of Genesis tells us that, once upon a time, our father Jacob wrestled all night with a mysterious figure.  When day broke, Jacob asked his adversary for a blessing.  The wrestler responded, “lo Ya’akov ye’amer od shimkha, ki im Yisra’el, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim va-tukhal.  Your name shall no longer be Jacob.  Rather, it shall be Israel.  For you have wrestled with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”  The promise of Jacob’s life is intertwined with his capacity and willingness to struggle in fulfilling it.

And this, Children of Israel, is our inheritance. We become who we are meant to be only by facing down our challenges; and we face down those challenges with patience, perseverance, and a resilient vision of the masterpiece we want our lives to be.

May this year be the year in which we all claim that inheritance as ours.

Shanah Tovah!

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