Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Personal Nisayon: Lessons from the Akeida

They tell a story of a hasid of Rebbe Shneur Zalaman of Liadi, the Baal Hatanya, who learned in the beit medrash all his life. He worked only enough to support the basic needs of his family. The rest of his day was devoted to Torah study. When he reached his seventieth birthday the hasid came to the Rebbe for a bracha. He expected the Rebbe to praise him for his life of dedication to learning Torah. The Rebbe said to him "A bracha I can give you...but praise for your learning is not in order. Would you praise a cow for giving milk?".

Rosh Hashanna is nearly here. While the tefilot of Day of Judgement, the Yom Hadin, speak to us loud and clear of the theme of Divine providence and G-d's rule over His world, the story we associate with the holiday carries a different message. Its the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeida. The Akeida is in essence about humans, not about G-d. It tells how Avraham, in accord with Hashem's command of him was willing to offer his precious son Yitzchak as a sacrifice.

The test of Avraham according to our Sages was not simply a challenge to surrender his son, difficult as that would have been. It was more. Avraham's very excellence was in hesed, serving G-d through love and kindness. He was the one who invited strangers into his home to feed and offer hospitality. He was the one who prayed for the cities of Sodom and Amora that they be spared if possible. He was the one who pained over the sending away of his son Yishmael, the reading of the first day of Rosh Hashanna.

That same Avraham whose whole life radiated hesed, was called by Hashem to curtail his loving feelings and obey the will of the Divine by killing his son in submission of his will to that of G-d's.

Why do we read this story in synagogue on Rosh Hashanna. There are many reasons. But I would suggest that one might be to teach us about the nisyanot, tests in our own lives. We each have them. Often we do not recognize them. We live our lives doing what comes natural to us.
If we keep commandments more than likely its because we find shmerat hamitzvot consistant with the life we want for ourselves. If we do hesed, say in giving tzedaka or inviting guests its because we enjoy it. It feels true to who we want to be. If we invest in raising our children and serving the community it all fits with our sense of self.

These are all good things, excellent in fact. But they do not earn us praise. Doing most of what we do in life deserves no more praise than for the "cow giving milk". Like the hasid in the story above, we are doing what comes natural to us. His learning was a wonderful thing. But it was not his life's nisayon.

The tests that we have in life are the ones that challenge us to do something that is not in our nature. We may be called to confront when we are typically retiring. We may be called to lead when we feel ourselves followers. We may be called to say "no" when "yes" feels natural to us.
We may be called risk when we have always played it safe.

Its those moments, the ones that challenge our modus operandi that give us the opportunity to rise to greatness. If we say "I can't", "I won't" "Its for someone else, not me." We failed our test.
And we have missed our chance for personal becoming.

The reading of the Akaida on Rosh Hashanna is not about Avraham. Its about us. Its about realizing that we too have our nisyonot. And while they may not be as dramatic as the Binding of Isaac, they are just as important in our yearning for shlaimut, completeness in the service to Hashem.

As the shofar sounds we would do well to remember the Akaida. Not only to ask Hashem to show us mercy in the merit of our Patriarch's self sacrifice. But to pledge our own commitment to do what is outside our nature in fulfilling our purpose in this life.

Your tests are before you if only you pay them heed. Yes, they are for you, not for someone else more fitting. You can do it. I know its not natural for you. That's the point. If its before you its meant for you. You have the hero's journey, not the cows !

Be a child of Avraham. Reach beyond your comfort to create a life worthy of praise! That's the message I hear this Yom Hadin, and will do my best to take to heart.

L'shana tova tikateivu v'teichateimu. May the year ahead be full of meaning, growth and joy for you and all those you love.

Shabbat Shalom

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