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Newton's Law and the Binding of Isaac

Diane Rose

The story we read on Rosh Hashanah morning, the story of the binding of Isaac, just came and went in our annual Torah cycle, so I wanted to share the sermon I gave Rosh Hashanah morning for those that missed it. After all, isn’t every day a potential New Year? It’s up to us to choose today as the first day of the rest of our lives and call it day 1.

Enjoy!

It was supposed to be an ideal trip. 10 days, mostly unplugged and unreachable, trucking through Alberta, Canada in an RV. We planned to spend every night sleeping with the trees, after days full of hiking and discovery in one of the most stunningly gorgeous parts of the world. We were to ride down the river in Banff, go on a scenic cruise in Jasper, and row our way around Lake Louise. We were to visit the quaint towns that hosted each natural treasure and soak in all of that Canadian kindness we all envy these days.

At least that is how it was supposed to be.

Okay, I have to admit that our kids weren’t as thrilled as we were about the idea of us being stuffed into an RV together for 10 days, but we figured we would barely spend any time in the vehicle. Days would be out exploring, and evenings would be spent sitting around the campfire, making up silly songs, roasting marshmallows and trying to figure out how to make the jiffy pop really pop. And with our daughter heading off to college in two years, we realized this was probably our last chance for such a memorable experience. However, the kids must have known something we didn’t, for this trip was definitely not meant to be.

It all started out okay other than the grumbling from our kids about… well… most things. But then we ran into a few issues.

First, we were told we weren’t allowed to use our stabilizers, so anytime someone walked around the RV, we felt nauseous and like the world was wobbling. Annoying, but nothing to write a sad song or a sermon about. Then we were told that there was a ban on all fires in the campgrounds. That meant no songs around the crackling fire, no cooking dinner on open flames, and worst of all, no s’mores. Okay, that stank, but we could always sing songs anyway and make s’mores on the stove, right? But then it started to rain. A lot. Which brought the mosquitos… which meant meals inside instead of at the picnic table. In fact, my husband slapped one with his lightening fast eye/hand coordination (which, by the way, has been clocked at astronaut level speed) and blood went running down his leg. Gross, but we carried on.

Did I mention my daughter got a cold, then I got a cold, then my son got a cold? But we were fine enough. Did I mention that the hoses started leaking? The water coming in and the water (and other things) that had to run out were not, well, secure. Kind of wasteful in one direction and kind of disgusting in the other. But fixable, so we carried on again.

But then, the phone started ringing. We weren’t even sure if we would have any cell service in the campgrounds, but, unforunately, we did! First was a minor work emergency for Andy. Nothing scary, but it took some phone and internet savvy directions to get what needed to get done, done. Then a day later the phone call was something positive, but something that had to get dealt with that left me and Andy reading documents on his phone. But a day after that, it was something big. An emergency that had to get dealt with right away, which left my poor husband not only having to deal with driving the RV, having hoses leak all over his shoes, but also spending most of his time talking on the phone to clear up an important issue rather than participating in all of our planned fun… which the kids and I also coudn’t do because he was the only one who knew how to drive the dang RV!

Sound fun yet? Wait! There’s more!

While we were driving, the sleeping level over the head of the driver started to sink. The pin fell out that holds it up (okay, maybe we forgot to put it in, but we would like to think it fell out). Next thing we knew it was totally lopsided and no longer usable. We were down a bed. We decided to find a hotel to spend the night and call the RV company to make the repair, which they did, and we intended to return to the vehicle. But while they were there, they discovered that the refrigerator had stopped cooling and that overnight all of our food had spoiled.

We had had it. Everyone was cranky, cooped up, and tired of dealing with problems. So, Andy and I made a decision. We drove the RV back, found a hotel in Calgary (which by the way is a lovely city, especially in the summer), and spent three days being the urban people we are.

We actually had a wonderful time in Calgary. We searched for the perfect bean bun at all of the bakeries in Chinatown. We ate delicious omelets at a little French diner and grilled our own food at a Korean BBQ. We went to Monster Mini Golf, a VR arcade, and an escape room. We took walks along the perfectly manicured park that runs along the river, and we went to a fantasic music museum where we learned how to sing Indian scales and heard a player organ demonstration. We drank great coffee, we swam in the hotel pool, we slept in comfy beds… We made lemonade out of lemons (figuratively, not literally!), and although the trip ended up nothing like we planned, we at least had a few truly memorable days at the end.

And this all relates to the Torah portion we heard this morning.

Personally, I have trouble changing directions once I am on a path, and I was definitely the most resistant to changing course on our trip. If we were supposed to be in an RV, gosh darn it, we were going to stay in the thing and see it through. If we were supposed to go north, it stressed me to no end to switch and head east. When there is a plan and a process, it fills me with great pain to break the plan and change the process. I am the human embodiment of the scientific principle that a body in motion stays in motion. I have the feeling many of us probably are.

Newton’s first law of motion says that a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. In order to accelerate or decelerate or change directions, an outside force must be acting upon it. This is also true for people. In the Huffington Post article that considers the human embodiment of this law, “Why Humans are Goverened by the Law of Inertia Too,” the author says:

We can now see that people aren’t “stuck” as so many refer to themselves, when they are dissatisfied with their lives. In reality, they are moving at warp speed propelled by multiple forces along their life path. As a result, small forces such as a modest insight, a brief ‘Aha!’ moment, or a nudge from a friend simply won’t provide adequate force to counteract those that currently drive us. On the contrary, because of the great forces that are already controlling our lives, even greater forces must be applied if there is going to be significant change.

… People may feel helpless to change the course of their lives. As much as they may want or have tried to, they just can’t seem to alter its trajectory. And the reason that change is so difficult is that first law of human motion. If they’re going to change, they need to apply forces that are greater than the forces currently controlling the direction of their lives. To slow down, change direction, and go where they want to go will take a huge amount of fresh energy.

So, let’s return to Abraham and the Torah. The portion we heard this morning, in which Abraham is willing to sacrifice his beloved son because God tells him to, is so difficult to explain, so horribly out of the characteristics we hope for ourselves, that many communities have stopped reading it on Rosh Hashanah morning all together. After all, are we to emulate a faith so deep that we would be willing to sacrifice a child because a voice told us to? Are we to keep secrets from our spouse about the fate of our beloved baby in fear she will hold a mirror up to us (Because you know Abraham’s wife Sarah would have stopped this!)? Traditionally the interpretation of the Akedah, the binding, is that we are to admire Abraham’s relationship with God — a belief that ran so deep that he was willing to do what God said was needed (which, again is odd because at other times Abraham argues with God). Well, that doesn’t sit well for most progressive Jews, so instead we talk about the fact that Abraham’s life didn’t go so well after this incident, and that therefore maybe we are to learn that we should NOT listen to a voice that demands a passionate commitment so vast that we would be willing to harm another. We also talk about the possibility of the portion being a historical source that included this story to direct its readers against human sacrifice at a time when it was still practiced by other religions. Or, we preach that we have this story in order to consider our own tests and sacrifices.

Well, I have another interpretation to add to the long line of commentaries. I think this portion is about Newton’s law of motion, and the first law of human motion described in the Huffington Post.

In this story, Abraham, for better or for worse, believes he has to do this act. For a moment, let’s not concern ourselves as to whether or not God in fact tells Abraham to do so as the story suggests or if Abraham is in fact hearing some other voice of direction. All we know is that he is silently climbing Mount Moriah with his son with all intention of sacrificing him as he believes he needs to. Let’s picture Abraham… his son now bound to the alter they built together, his hand raised in the air with blade pointing toward his boy. What kind of emotions must be heating up inside him, how much energy built up in the arm ready to thrust down to fulfill this most painful of all actions? Abraham is definitely a body in motion, physically and spiritually, so in order to change directions, it has to be one heck of a strong external force working on him. So, what stops him? What has enough power to pull him off his course? Another voice. Traditionally it’s taught that it is the voice of an angel, an extension of God. But perhaps it is another person, maybe even Isaac’s voice Abraham really hears. Or it could be Abraham’s inner dialogue or an imagining of what his wife Sarah would say, that tells him to stay his hand. No matter what the voice was or is, it’s so powerful, it stops him in his tracks.

It’s easy for us to judge Abraham for what seems like an insane act, but perhaps we should not condemn him too harshly. I mean, Abraham, for reasons hard for us to understand, believes he is on the right path and is determined to see his task through. If in the story there had been a boulder blocking him, I believe he would have found a way around it. If the story described blinding winds and rains, Abraham would have trudged through it in order to perform the act he thought necessary of him. None of those could have been forces strong enough for him to change directions. After all, the voice he trusted most had given the directions to follow, and he was following… like so many of us do.

Let’s look at ourselves. How many of us are walking along a path that may seem necessary, listening to voices inside or outside of us that we believe we must obey, but we have a nagging feeling it isn’t truly the correct path or at least not the ONLY correct path? How many times do we march around boulders and trudge through wind and rain, because we are sure this is where we need to be and the direction in which we need to go, even if we hate that path as much as Abraham must have despised his? How often do we keep our heads down and carry on, sure not to look up for fear we might see our own suffering reflections in a loved ones eyes much like Abraham must have avoided the gaze of his wife? How much outside force do we need to take a fork in the road or even turn around? It may not be a literal sacrifice we are heading for, but do we not sacrifice ourselves for what we think others expect? Are we any less stubborn about what has to happen? Do we, also, need to be affected by an energy as strong as a voice of a god to listen, ignoring the more likely whispers telling us to head toward something else?

I think about the old joke about the man who is stuck on his rooftop in a flood, praying to God for help. In case you don’t know it… This man is trapped in a flood, and another man in a rowboat comes by and shouts, “jump in, I can save you.” But the man on the roof replies, “No, it’s ok, I’m praying to God and He will save me.” So, the man in the boat moves on. Next a man in a motorboat comes by and offers the same. The man on the roof replies again that he is praying, and that God will save him. The motorboat moves on. Finally, a helicopter comes by and drops a rope to lift the man to safety. For a third time, the man refuses, and says God will save him. The helicopter flies away. The water keeps rising, and, of course, eventually the man drowns. When he reaches heaven and gets to discuss the matter with God, he is extremely upset that with all of his faith, God allowed him to die. And God replies… “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter! What more did you expect??”

Perhaps the man on the roof in the joke read the Akedah, our Torah portion this morning, too many times. Perhaps nothing more than an angel or a voice of God could convince him to change directions. But we can’t take the voice literally. We have to keep our eyes open to the warning signs that are often silently blinking and standing in our way or we will be too stubborn to see or hear the forces nudging us toward our new paths.

When we were leaving our RV, I told my 16 year old daughter that a sermon was forming in my mind about our experiences on that trip. I gave her a quick summary of what, in fact, this sermon is about. She said to me, “Sometimes a broken refrigerator is the voice of God.” She was kidding, but she’s right. We have to read the moment and be like water, ready to flow as needed rather than stuck in one direction. As my husband’s mentor used to say, “Grab an oar and row.”

Well, here we are on Rosh Hashanah. Every year we ask why this of all Torah portions is designated for this day. And yet, this time, it all seems very clear to me. This is the day we change directions. This is the day we plant a seed and make a plan for the next 10 days and the year ahead. This is the day we throw our mistakes into a body of flowing water (or for us, the promise of a body of flowing water) and tell ourselves we are ready. No hand of God or angel of God or voice of God is going to tell us which elements of our lives are ripe for a change of direction. It will be a gentler nudge, a whisper, a breeze. And although scientifically it is an outside force that must work on us for us to embrace newness, it has to be an internal recognition of that outside force to make it so.

Yes, change is hard. It’s easy to tell someone else how to change, but it is extremely difficult to tell or allow ourselves to change. So, let’s observe keenly the actions and hints offered by the people and situations around us. It may be the words of a spouse or a friend offering advice that we know deep down is sound but is still difficult for us to hear. It may be obstacles in a path that at first feel like tests but start feeling like true roadblocks. It may be our own inner pain. But let’s not be so stubborn, as I often am, that it has to be a kick to the head as monumental as a holy voice for us to pay attention.

Today is the day to begin that journey toward renewal. Abraham just told us so. We don’t have to change everything about ourselves or our lives. But there is at least one path that each and every one of us is on that is begging for a fork in the road or a U-turn. So let’s pay attention. The cue may be a man in a boat, or a broken refrigerator, or a voice from within or without, but let’s listen. Today, and for the next 10 days, let’s hear, watch, think, and see as Abraham could eventually see.

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.

Sat, September 14 2019 14 Elul 5779