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What we miss

Rabbi Scott Saulson
Rosh Hashanah Second Day 2004/5765
Shema Yisrael - The Open Synagogue

Who says itís easy to save a life? So begins Sarah Mangusoís poem, "What We Miss." Poem: "What We Miss," by Sarah Manguso, from The Captain Lands in Paradise. © Alice James Books. Reprinted with permission.

"What We Miss"

Who says it's so easy to save a life? In the middle of an interview for the job you might get you see the cat from the window of the seventeenth floor just as he's crossing the street against traffic, just as you're answering a question about your worst character flaw and lying that you are too careful. What if you keep seeing the cat at every moment you are unable to save him? Failure is more like this than like duels and marathons. Everything can be saved, and bad timing prevents it. Every minute, you are answering the question and looking out the window of the church to see your one great love blinded by the glare, crossing the street, alone.

But sometimes to save a life is easier than we imagine, if only we do imagine.

Let us begin, therefore, with an imaginative story - a midrash - which serves as a sidebar to the narrative of the binding of Isaac.

On the way to Mt. Moriah, "poof," there materializes a raging river. The torrent is Satan in disguise. Satan seeks to deter Abraham from his journey, to undermine Abrahamís obedience to God. Abraham must either retreat from before the vicious current or chance the likelihood of drowning therein.

The midrash reminds me of another story. In this one, three men were hiking and unexpectedly came upon a large raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea of how to do so. The first man called out to God, praying, "Please God, give me the strength to cross this river."

Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river. It did, however, take him about two hours, and he almost drowned a couple of times.

Seeing this, the second man prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength . . . and the tools . . . to cross this river."

Poof! God gave him a rowboat. He was able to row across the river in about an hour, but it was rough, and he almost capsized the boat a couple of times.

The third man had seen how things worked out for the other two, so when he prayed to God, he said, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools and the intelligence . . . to cross this river."

And poof! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, and then walked across the bridge.

Perhaps the refusal to refer to a map is a Jewish thing as much as it is a man thing. After all, Abe the man became Abe the Jew the moment he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans without a map. Nonetheless, later, during the lifetime of the greatest Jew, of Moses, wandering became our fate, not for want of a map or of its use, but because we knew exactly where we wanted to go and exactly how to get there - back to Egypt.

Still, as all good jokes do, ours contains a kernel of truth for man and woman, for Jew and gentile. What is that truth? It is that we ought to question our premises, to challenge the assumptions we hold about what is expected of us and what we expect of others. Knowing the outcome of our story, in particular, what would have happened if, in the first place, before Abe had gotten to that raging river, Abe had asked God if a ram would do? From the literary point of view, there would have been far less drama. But, from the psychological and moral points of view, there would have been far less trauma.

Common sense tells us, for example, that the great advances in scientific knowledge have come through dogged investigation and rigorous experimentation. Yet, in reality, quite often they have resulted from an apple falling on someoneís head, causing him to think in totally new paradigms; from serendipitous discoveries about phenomena theretofore considered tangential to the original problem. Indeed, advanced scientific inquiry concludes that matter behaves in ways only explicable if we accept what is not obvious, namely, that there are more than three dimensions; that matter, itself, is not tangible, but a series of wave frequencies. Sounds like a vision that Ezekiel might have conjured.

And in the realm of day to day life, we face shocks and disappointments simply because we fail to take into account that others do not see the world the way we do. I take pleasure in finding a bargain; another calls me cheap. I propose inviting birthday guests to make a contribution to a charity in lieu of bringing presents; others bristle at being directed how to express their affection. I take umbrage at gross economic disparities; opponents label me partisan. I look forward to a quiet night at home; my family thinks Iím a party pooper. So, as the good book would say, donít assume about others what you would not have them assume about you. Or, more colloquially, donít criticize your neighbor until you have walked a "fir" piece in his shoes - by then youíll be out of range of his fist and will have had a good running start when he comes after you. See, another trap - we had assumed a different moral.

Returning to our biblical episode, even now Abraham remains the iconoclast who blazed the trail of ethical monotheism. When God commands him to take his son, we are to understand, assert our sages, that Abraham challenges, "Which one?" When God commands, "Your only son," Abraham challenges, "But I have two." When God commands, "The one you love," Abraham challenges, "I love them both." When God commands, "Isaac," there is mute compliance. Abraham needed to stretch just a bit more, and challenge, "Isaac? You mean the kid with the name meaning Ďlaughterí? I take it you must be kidding!" Indeed, it turns out that God was. Missing the clue was no laughing matter. And so the shofar reminds us year after year. The mitzvah lies not in blowing, but in paying attention.

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