By Rabbi Michael Berk
Mr. Schwartz takes his tallis to the cleaner, and the cleaner says, “It’ll be $10 to clean this shawl. Mr. Schwartz returns a few days later, and is presented with a bill for $345! “What is the meaning of this? You told me $10.” “Yes,” said the cleaner, “but it took us a long time to untie all those darned knots.”
All those darned knots. As the years have passed, I have come to appreciate the knots, but of course, I speak of different knots. I’m talking about the knots, or ties, that bind us, ties that bind us to our families, our community, and to our God. This morning, I want to explore some of these bonds with you, especially in light of our Torah portion, The Binding of Isaac. “Vayakod Avraham et b’no Yitzchak: And Abraham bound his son, Isaac, and put him on the altar.” Every year I ask myself, why, of all the stories and teachings of the Torah, why was this terrible story selected to be read on Rosh Hashanah? Today I want to suggest to you that one reason can be detected in the knots that get tied and untied in this story. For you see, my friends, in the story of those knots we discover that the Akedah is about us. It teaches us about all the ties and the bonds in our lives. And it teaches how binding, unbinding and binding those ties again and again is life-long.
Our tradition teaches that on this day, Rosh Hashanah, five thousand seven hundred and seventy-five years ago, when God created the first human beings, they were physically bound to one another. Male and female were created back to back and then separated. But there remained the yearning to be bound together, as one. Bound, unbound and bound again. A cycle of life.
From the moment when labor begins to bring a child into the world, we worry whether the umbilical cord is knotted around the child, and it is this very cord – the link of life between mother and developing fetus – which is cut at the moment of birth, as if to say: all life is attachment, all life is letting go.
In marriage, we tie the knot. We place a wedding band on the other’s finger and then we are bound one to the other. And even if there is divorce, even after we attempt to sever the bonds that bind us, we find that it is not that easy, that we are bound to the other through ties of family, of history, of shared experiences and memory.
When death comes, we cut the fringes of the tallit, and written on our stones is a Hebrew abbreviation that stands for the words: “May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” We find ourselves bound to our dead. Several years have passed since the death of my parents, and it is a rare day that goes by without my thinking of one or both of them. I am sure that many of you have lost parents, siblings, and God forbid, children, and know as I do that though death has removed loved ones from our sight, there is a link of memory and love which persists.
Binding, unbinding, and binding again. Such is the story of our lives. Yet, too often, we seek to flee from the ties that bind us. How we fled from our families when we were younger! How quick we were to repudiate our ties, to declare our own individuality, our freedom. We burst away, pulled away, ran away. We cut the Gordian knot by moving to opposite coasts. But as time has passed, we find that the need to individuate ourselves has become more muted.
In the New Yorker, an author from Appalachia once recalled his early childhood. He wrote that as a high school student, he visited with an old member of the community. “I…approached him”, he related, “as one would a sacred relic. I sat down on the porch rail facing him. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. Eventually, I blushed. I smiled at him and nodded. He smiled back and said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Reba’s boy. Clara Mae’s grandson.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Reba’s boy.’ It seems significant for me now that when I told him who I was, I didn’t give him my name. My position as an individual was secondary to my place in the lineage that had led to my sitting on his porch. I identified myself as a small part of a greater whole.”
One of my favorite movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding and my favorite scene was when the young man came to visit his Greek girlfriend’s home for the first time. She stood outside on the lawn. Behind her were about 75 members of her family. The look on her face said to her boyfriend: This is me. This is who I am. I am bound to all these people. They are my family.
By the way, when I am called to the Torah I am known by the name that binds me to the generations: Michael son of Hershel and Hannah. And Hannah was given to my daughter as her name. We are all tied together in bonds of love and tradition.
As we get older, we realize that we are shaped by and bound to the generations before us. And how wonderfully ironic, that as we reach the stage of life in which we begin to appreciate the knots that bind us to our parents, we are also struggling with the knots that bind us to our children. We begin to realize how hard it is for us to let go of them.
This reluctance to let go starts when they are young. We struggle to leave them with a sitter for the first time, to spend a night away from them. We are reluctant to leave them for the first morning of pre-school, to be off at sleep away camp, to be in Israel for the summer. Some of you may find this strange, but I was sad when my son no longer was in diapers. I had a hard time then, as I do now, with all his transitions. I remember when I bought him what I knew would be his last toy, and I grew sad as I made that purchase and realized what was passing. For with each new stage of his life, the bond between us necessarily loosens. That is necessary and healthy, but I felt viscerally the pain of his slowly slipping away from me.
It’s not easy to loosen the knots. The bonds that tie us to our children are so powerful, are they not? We love them with a love that defies logic. And yet, the time comes when we must let go.
We are bound to our families, to our parents and those who came before us, and we are bound to our future, our children. We can try to run from our bonds, but the strings are long, and sometimes they extend even after death. And try as we might to control our children, to bind them more closely to us, they slip away.
Today, then, we declare that our lives are bound up with the lives of our family. We are bound to those who gave us life, we are bound to those who came before, and we are bound, we pray, to those who will come after us.
Today, we affirm that we are bound, and we examine the bonds that tie us. For some here, the ties are light as gossamer thread; for others, they are heavy chains. For some of us, the binds are too tight. The question, that each of us is asked to reflect upon, today, concerns the quality of our ties.
Are our family relationships slipknots, square knots, hangman’s knot? Tourniquets? Today, we examine our bonds, so that we may loosen the constraining knots, or, when necessary, we may tie up the loose ends. Today, we need to ask ourselves whether we need to bind ourselves tighter to those we love, or do we have to let go a bit more now that the bonds have to be loosened, trusting that in the cycle of binding, unbinding, and binding again, the slack will be taken up.
But we are also bound to more than our family. Today, we declare that we are bound to one another, as well. Stephen Carter, a social philosopher, wrote a fascinating book, called: Civility. In his book, he bemoans our lack of connections to one another. We feel, he wrote, as though the very people who surround us are not linked to us in any way, and therefore there are no simple courtesies that we owe them.
A couple years after Carter’s book, Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone. He described our lives well when he wrote about how bowling’s popularity as a sport had increased in America, but at the same time, the number of bowling leagues had declined. Organizational, synagogue, and church affiliation was downAnd still is, charity – down, voting – down, play and concert-going was down, movie theatre attendance was down. Home cable soared up, as did home computer usage In those years as the Internet exploded. In short, our ties to others in our community had become seriously weakened.
More recently David Brooks wrote about this malaise. he cited studies which show that friendship is not in great shape in America today. In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends, according to the General Social Survey. By 2004, according to research done at Duke University and the University of Arizona, they were reporting they had only two close confidants. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled over that time. Many of us barely know our neighbors or even care to.
Let’s acknowledge, then that today we are doing something radical for these High Holy Days: we have come together. By sitting here, as a Jewish congregation, you proclaim that you are more than an individual leading a solitary life in San Diego. You are bound to a larger community. We are bound together. We are at home here, in this place, together. This bond we have is something to cherish and marvel at. There are people here today who after Yom Kippur won’t be back until next Rosh Hashanah. Our community is richer and stronger because we are all here today. This is like that warm feeling, or bond, you feel whenever you discover that someone famous is Jewish. We feel this bond whenever we play Jewish geography with a new person we have met. Like the time my roommate’s mother visited us in Israel and found out that a girl she grew up with in Nazi Germany and whom she hadn’t seen or heard from since Chrystallnacht, was the next door neighbor of our Mishnah teacher. We feel this bond when we read the news about Israel. This summer for many of us was a time where our ties to Israel were strengthened as we stood in solidarity as Israel battled a truly evil foe in Gaza. Today, no matter how far we may feel we have strayed from our people, we come together to proclaim our ties. And we are moved deeply by bonds that tie us to holy Jewish communities all over the globe gathering much as we are in their houses of prayer, and this year, especially those villages and cities and towns in our beloved Israel.
Though there once was a time when our ties to the Jewish community were inviolate, today, that is not the case. We have the freedom now not to join a synagogue, to change our Jewish sounding name, to change our religion. We are even free to declare our Jewishness but to stay aloof from the Jewish community. Surely you know you could walk out of here today and never again put a foot inside a synagogue or in any other way identify yourself as Jewish, if that is what you truly wish for. But that is the greatness of the freedom we enjoy here in America.
But you knew that, and you are here, aren’t’ you? Feeling connected, rooted, attached. At least I hope that is what you are feeling. By coming here you deserve to feel tied to something big and grand and noble. Today, then, we declare by being in this place that we are tied to one another as a congregation, and we further declare that being together in community is important. Perhaps, feeling deeply these bonds, you may even feel the challenge of tightening your bonds with Beth Israel and the Land of Israel. Your people need you.
Finally, on this day, we have come together to affirm that we are bound, in some way, to God. On this day, we declare out loud, or we whisper deep within: Yes, God, I am accountable to You. Yes, you have some sort of demand on me. Yes, we are bound to one another, in some mysterious yet incredibly compelling way.
Today, we are asked to examine our ties with God. Have we let God in or shut God out? If God feels absent from your life, what have you done to draw closer to the divine? What call does God have on you? What do you want to share with God on this day, that will draw you closer together with the Holy One of Being?
Binding and unbinding and binding again. That is what this day is about.
On this New Year, 5775, bless us, Eternal God, so we may we be bound closer to one another in ties of friendship and community. Bind us tighter so that the hearts of the parents are turned to the children and the hearts of the children are turned to their parents. Bless us so we may feel your presence and know the loving ties which link us to You. Blessed are You, Eternal God, who in love, commands us to bind the generations to one another, and who commands us to come together as a holy people on this day. Amen.