To listen to Rabbi Cohen deliver this sermon, press ‘play’ on the below video. Return to Sermon Archive
Imagine – A voice calls out. Take your god, your only god, your favorite god – take this god to a place that I will show you and offer up your god – cut this god out of your life!
Wait! We’ve heard this once before. This was the voice that spoke to Abraham. This was the voice that told him to take his son, his only son, his favorite son and offer him up as a sacrifice. But in the end of the story, the voice stopped him. It was a test. Is this a test? Are we to listen to this voice to see if we are truly worthy of whatever blessing we are to receive?
And so I listen. I decide to go along with this voice and begin a journey, taking my god, my only god, and I walk toward the mountain – the high up place where all should be revealed. And I think to myself, this is crazy – but I’m fearful.
I walk with my god, my only god, the god that I have known my whole life. The prayers on my lips when I recite the Amidah remind me that I am connected to a chain through generations past to this god. I ask myself, ‘do I know this god?’
Yes, of course I know this god! So why am I walking up this mountain?
But then another voice begins to call out, mingling with my own.
Do you know this god? Is this your god? You recognize this god but only through your ancestral stories, those passed on l’dor v’dor. These are the stories of your parents, your grandparents, your ancestors. Come on! This journey is not so hard. You can climb this mountain, you can wield the knife. After all, the god you are thinking of, is this YOUR god?
And I start to listen to that voice and it scares me because I feel the voice is making sense.
Is this in fact my god? Or is this god my parent’s god, my ancestor’s god? Do I have any connection to this god? Maybe this journey and the ultimate goal are not so bad. Maybe it’s long overdue. When was the last time I felt this god? When was the last time I was connected to this god?
All of these questions begin to swirl in my head as I struggle up the mountain. And the voice that I do not recognize begins to make more sense. I start to believe that I can easily perform this task, I can cut this god from my life. I don’t know this god, and maybe it’s time to just dispose of one more thing that is cluttering up my life. What freedom will I have when I hold that knife above my head and allow it to slip down releasing the bonds?
I reach the top of the mountain and raise the knife above my head. The voice calls out and encourages me – go ahead, think of the release, consider the freedom. You don’t need this god.
And as the knife is high above my head, as I am about to let it break the bonds to a god with whom I think I have no connection, a god for whom I have no time, I hear another voice, a still small voice that is faint. The voice becomes clearer and pleads – wait, please wait!
You are right, this god before you is the god of your ancestors, of your parents, of your childhood. And while it seems so easy to cut the bonds, please wait! Once they are cut, you may never be able to repair them.
And the voice becomes clearer, louder in my head. It sounds familiar but I can’t quite recognize it. This God that you brought to the mountain will be your God when you allow this God to belong to you. For so long, the god in your life was not your God, it was the god of those who told you what to believe, what to think, what to pray. But now, it’s time. It’s time for you to release the bonds created by everyone else. It is time for you to create your own ties, your own connections, your own covenant with God.
I close my eyes and hold my breath and I am scared. Why must this voice give me such responsibility? Why must I be the one to create the bonds? Why must I be the one to build the relationship? Doesn’t that responsibility belong to someone else? Are not the teachings of our tradition enough? And then I wonder – perhaps others heard the voice too.
I exhale, needing to feel my breath course through my body. But I’m frightened, frightened to open my eyes, frightened to look at where I am and frightened to recognize the knife above my head. I feel all alone and I am being asked to let go of what I thought I knew and I don’t know what I’m being asked to create. The voice is louder in my head – ‘release the knife,’ it calls out to me. ‘And see that you are not alone.’
I open my eyes and my sight gradually becomes clearer. I see, I see that I am not alone. Surrounded by family, by friends, by our community; the seats are full and we are all taking that same breath and waiting, waiting for something to happen.
We are here. Together we are in this sanctuary, this beit k’nesset, house of gathering. Tonight is the first of Tishrei, it is the beginning of a new year. Generations before us sat in this space, on the eve of a new year, of new promises and hopes. And as we all stretch to hear the voice more clearly, we realize, the voice is our own. And it still speaks.
These promises and hopes don’t just appear, we have to work for them. We have to create them. We have to be responsible for them. The machzorim we hold in our hands are only words. These words can remain on the page, lifeless, without meaning as we hope for someone else’s voice to breathe life into them, or we can fill them with our own breath.
The shofar will call out in the morning light, and like Abraham when he stood on the mountain, prepared to cut the bonds with his son, his only son, the son whom he loved, we will hear the blast summon us. Will we listen or will it only be a passing memory?
Which Abraham will we choose to be? He went through so many stages in his life toward becoming Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, the Patriarch of the Jewish people. He went through so many steps in his journey that we are reminded we too have many steps to take on our own journey up to the mountain.
On that mountain together, we recognize that we each have the responsibility and the challenge to recognize our relationship to God and our own spiritual desires, just as did Abraham. What are we looking for and what do we need? The answer is going to be different for each of us – as unique as each of us are. The needs also transform throughout our lives. The relationship we have with God depends on that which we are experiencing, living, at this moment.
As we begin a new year we are given the opportunity to envision our connections to God and our spiritual self. This is not an easy task for most – it will take stretching, experimenting and sometimes failing. But that should never stop us. Let’s explore together. Let us find our spiritual selves this year and build that deeper relationship. Time may seem like it’s always against us, but only if we allow time to be a barrier.
This year we can dedicate ourselves to exploring our spiritual self. There are a number of opportunities for this very search. Make a once a month commitment to join the class: Adult Confirmation – Making Prayer Real. No previous experience is needed; Just an open mind and a willingness to challenge ourselves in asking the difficult questions about how, what and why to pray. It is about going deeper than the words themselves. This will be an opportunity to develop a prayer experience that will speak to the individual, going beyond the boundaries of the prayer book.
Finding our spiritual center is not always found in the sanctuary – we will have opportunities to hike, stretch, and even run as we feel our neshamah, our breath and soul course through our bodies, recognizing that these are God moments as well.
TBS is a beit t’fillah, house of prayer; a beit midrash, house of study; and a beit k’nesset, house of gathering. All within this house we have opportunities and the responsibility to connect to God, especially in how we connect to each other, for we are all a part of God. No one can make the connection for us and no one can instill the memory within. In the end of this section of the Akeidah between Abraham and God, God says to Abraham, Asher shamati b’koli – “That you will be blessed because you listened to my voice.” Each of us must listen for God’s voice, around us and within us.
And so we pray: ADONAI s’fa’tai teef’tach, u’fee ya’geed t’hee’la’techa – ADONAI, open up my lips that my mouth may not only declare Your glory, but open up my lips that I may express and emote who You are, O God, in my life at this moment and the journey up the mountain we take on together. -AMEN