Sermon delivered on Rosh Hashanah Day 5767 – September 23, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
I will never forget the awe-inspiring moment when our younger son Daniel was born. Please don’t think I’m playing favorites here. Robert’s birth was also an unparalleled life experience, but he was born by Caesarian Section, so the two occasions were very different. Daniel was born the way that women have given birth as long as our species has existed. As the father, I had the privilege of standing right there, as my son emerged from being part of his mother’s body. I glimpsed his head, and eventually his full body, as he became an independent human being. I saw him take his first breath.
I’m far from the only man in this Auditorium today who has seen the miracle of the birth of one’s own child. Not incidentally, the mothers are there, too, they have an obstructed view. Be that as it may, all of us who are parents have been offered the opportunity to behold a blessed and unique encounter with creation. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and relatives, too, rejoice at what is often called the “miracle” of birth.
And yet, I wonder, how many among us really see the hand of God, even in that moment of a child’s birth? Do we experience the miracle, right before our very eyes?
The modern world tempts us not to notice. Most babies are born in the hospital. The medical environment suggests that birth is a scientific matter for health care professionals to control. We may even subconsciously think of childbirth as pathological. People don’t normally go to the hospital unless they are sick!
More to the point, we know how babies are made. Some of us, who have been through fertility treatments, feel particularly blessed, but at the same time, we are even more aware of the science involved. In so many ways, birth is a natural experience, which means that it is not supernatural. We can some to see even the birth of our own child, as an act not of God, but of nature.
For me, though, the miracle was clear. God’s presence was palpable. In that moment of Daniel’s birth, I became aware of the continuity of life, of all the generations that had come before him, and all that would come after him, long after I am gone. Martin Buber taught that any experience with God becomes mundane the moment that we try to explain it. But let me say that I experienced God there, because what I was seeing was so much more important, so much greater, than any act of nature. I saw, and I see, my children’s births as moments when God intervened in my life. I witnessed a miracle.
Sarah and Abraham also saw the supernatural in Isaac’s birth. Sarah makes clear that no such thing could happen naturally to a couple their age. A few chapters before the section we read this morning, the impending birth is revealed to the prospective parents. When Sarah is told, she laughs. Her body is no longer fertile; and neither, she suggests, is Abraham’s.
We are not meant to understand Isaac’s birth as natural. Many Christians view Sarah’s sudden fertility as foreshadowing their own faith’s virgin birth. The Rabbis go to some lengths to describe the extent to which a miracle is involved. Sarah’s body is said to produce so much milk, that it flows freely as though from fountains.
In our modern day, most people offer one of two responses to biblical miracles. Some say such things never could have happened, that the Bible is merely offering a fable, perhaps for a worthy purpose, but not to be understood as history. Others argue that the bible is historical, but that there must be some rational, scientific explanation for each purported “miracle.” For example, these folks suggest that the ten plagues on Egypt were all natural phenomena, beginning with red silt floating down the Nile from its headwaters in Ethiopia. The Nile, they say, turned red, and the people just thought it was blood.
I tend to disagree with the latter type of explanation. I believe that the Torah is true, whether or not specific aspects are historical. Our faith is emboldened by the loyalty of our people to a tradition that God turned the Nile into blood, not red silt. Our people lived past its first generation, because of the improbable birth of a baby to an infertile couple, historic or otherwise. The very existence of Judaism, to this very day, is a miracle, if we will only see it.
The miracle didn’t stop with Isaac’s birth. The worship of our God should have gone out of business when the first Temple was destroyed, in 586 B.C.E. People were conquered, and their Temples laid waste, throughout the ancient world. Vanquished people assimilated, and gods of the desecrated holy places were no longer worshiped. Consider much greater ancient civilizations, Egyptian and Babylonian. While those lands exist today, the people of both consider themselves to be ethnically Arab, tracing their lineage to the Saudi peninsula, not to ancient Egypt of Mesopotamia. We may read about their gods, but who worships Amon-Re or Ishtar? By contrast, early Israelite civilization was barely a blip on the radar screen of the ancient world. And yet, when our people was conquered and our Temple destroyed, the people of Israel lived on; the worship of the one God flourished.
Can we offer a historical explanation of why our faith and people survived? Yes, but no history lesson will make our survival any less miraculous.
An anonymous prophet, known to us only through his writings, appended to the Book of Isaiah, saved our people from annihilation. Isaiah was no warrior. Instead, he preached to the Israelites, exiled in Babylon. Contrary to the views of his day, he insisted that Jerusalem had not been conquered because the Babylonian gods were stronger. Instead, he said that the destruction had been God’s will. With continued faith in God, Isaiah taught, with a refusal to assimilate or to worship the gods of Babylon, the Lord would never desert God’s people.
It’s a fact: Isaiah’s message of hope sustained the people, until Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon, and returned Judea to Israelite control.
It’s a miracle: Unlike every other people, and every other religion of the ancient Near Eastern world, the Jewish people lives. We continue to worship our God, and now we are joined by billions around the world, who worship the same God, albeit in very different ways, as Christians and Muslims.
We moderns are not good at recognizing miracles. At the same time, we do tend to see God’s hand in tragedies. We ask, “Why would God allow such a terrible thing to happen?” The question is understandable. Wrestling with God is entirely appropriate in Judaism. But do we ask: “Why would God cause the great blessings of my life?” The sad fact is that, when things are going well, most of us are not looking for the hand of God.
Let’s consider the Torah portion traditionally read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and the one that you have most often heard at Temple Beth-El: the binding of Isaac. Legitimately, we ask: “Why would God ask Abraham to do such a thing?” Our rabbinic sages, though, tended to focus more on that ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Midrash teaches that the ram had been there since the days of creation, miraculously placed there, for the very purpose of ensuring Isaac’s salvation. If the ram had been there so long, some ask, why wasn’t it eaten sooner, either by man or beast? The ram, we are told, was caught deep in the brush, where nobody, not even a carnivorous predator, could sense it. The miracle, then, isn’t just that the ram was there. The miracle is that Abraham could see it. The ram is sacrificed in place of Isaac. Not only Abraham’s son survives; the children of Israel come into existence as a result.
In a few moments, we shall hear the call of the ram’s horn, the shofar. It’s no coincidence that our primary Rosh Hashanah ritual and this great narrative share the same symbol. As we hear the shofar, let us be reminded of God’s great miracle of old. And let us recognize the possibility of miracles in our own day.
God is present in the birth of a baby.
God creates miracle we call the Jewish people, living yet today, despite every kind of temptation, humiliation and adversity.
God inspires the voice within, calling us to follow God’s ways, to do what is right.
At this sacred season, each of us is offered a miracle. Today, and again on Yom Kippur, we acknowledge that we are all sinners. We have distanced ourselves from God, from ourselves, and from each other through our misdeeds. We are likely to continue our bad behaviors, because we can not imagine the miracle of God, reaching into each of our souls, pulling us toward penitence. Let us open our eyes, as Abraham did, and see the miracles around us. Let us open our ears, and hear the sound of the shofar. Let us open our hearts to the possibility that God can enter, and we can be better: happier with ourselves, more loving and loved among the people around us, more pleasing in the sight of the Lord.
Now that would be a miracle for the new year.