Tag: High Holy Days

Abraham Failed God’s Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”

Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn’t listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?

Originally posted in 2007

Teens Take Over High Holy Day Services

In the midst of inspiring and emotionally charged Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur), an utterly unexpected yet totally welcome reality set in as our Congregation Or Ami teens all but took over our High Holy Day services.

For years synagogues and Jewish denominations have been seeking models of successful teen engagement. Ever since the Union for Reform Judaism challenged communities to prioritize teen engagement, the clergy and lay leadership teams at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) have been experimenting with teen engagement strategies. We seemed to have stumbled into a successful strategy: invite them in, set clear goals, and get out of the way. Recently, we have applied that strategy to the most sacred of synagogue rituals: the High Holy Days.

Teens Sing and Inspire
It began a few years back when our Cantor Doug Cotler invited four teens to sing Sim Shalom at Yom Kippur morning services. Their sweet voices lit up the sanctuary; worshippers literally leaned forward in their seats to take it all in. Since that service, Cantor Cotler has continued inviting a handful of teens each year to sing, and added in others who share poignant poetry which speaks to the service’s theme. We set high expectations: The teens have only two rehearsals – a week before the service and the day of. Participants are sent sheet music and an MP3 of the song and are expected to practice at home. Each has risen up to the task; their sacred performances have been stellar.

Simultaneously we turned to teens to webcast our services and to serve as Visual Accompanist for our Visual T’filah. With minimal rehearsal and preparation, each technology leader performed very well and has since been tasked with training their successors.

Creating a Cadre of Levites, a Teen Musical Liturgy Team 
Last year, Cantor Cotler and Or Ami’s Rabbi Julia Weisz schemed to create youth High Holy Day service leaders. Recruiting a newish guitar player, a pre-teen violinist, and a talented teen singer, they taught the trio the basic prayers and songs. Their initial task was to accompany Rabbi Julia as she led services for three youth services: Pre-K through 2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade, and 6th-8th grade.

Teens Rehearsing for Youth Services
Not pictured: Olivia Sharon and Annie Reznick

Deputizing Teens to Plan and Lead the Entire Youth Services
This year, prior to taking maternity leave, Rabbi Weisz engaged another group of teens and deputized them as service leaders. This group of 5 teens – each actively involved in either the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY youth movement, URJ Camp Newman or both – created a schedule for the three youth programs, developed age-appropriate activities and services, and coordinated with the adult leaders of the youth programs. The teens ran their work by me for input and advice. They coordinated with the teen music leaders.

On the morning of the High Holy Day services, I wished them good luck and then headed off to lead adult services. Youth participants and their parents kvelled like never before, calling these “the coolest services and activities ever.” The secret to our success: being clear about goals and expectations, checking in and supervising, and then getting out of the way.

Are We Crazy? Inviting the Teens to Lead the Neilah Concluding Service
Two days before Yom Kippur, someone approached me suggesting we let the teens lead the Neila service. (Talk about waiting until the last minute!) The idea had such merit. What better way to trumpet our commitment to youth engagement than to have teens lead the congregation through the final moments of the High Holy Days.

With Facebook and texting we quickly gathered teen volunteers; moments later, service parts were distributed along with dress code and bimah sitting instructions. Excited and prepared, the teens led with a real sense of sacred responsibility.

One of our veteran members, a woman in her late 80’s wrote that seeing the teens lead services for the community provided her with assurance that the congregation was healthy, forward looking and stable. Another noted that our integration of the teens into all parts of congregational life was the primary reason that they remain members of Or Ami.

So What Did We Learn about Youth Engagement?

  • Clear goal and high expectations present teens with a clear path toward success. 
  • Personal invitations to teens – especially from clergy – propels them toward active involvement. 
  • More than being a novelty, full teen participation in even the most sacred of moments of congregational life inspires others to continue involvement and support. 
  • Rather than leading to the congregation running amuck, deep teen integration and participation in all aspects of synagogue life can invigorate and energize a community. 



Where Might We Go from Here?
Imagine the positive response that might ensue if we…

  • Invited teens to deliver a collaborative sermon on one of the Holy Days. 
  • Asked the youth group LoMPTY to lead an interactive multigenerational study program during the time between the Morning and Yizkor services on Yom Kippur. 
  • Paired teens with older members of the congregation and tasked them with researching and brainstorming engaging, creative innovations – in music, prose, prose and multimedia – to enhance our High Holy Day experience.
  • Other suggestions???

At Congregation Or Ami, We Look Forward to Exploring These and Other Avenues 
How have you succeeded in integrating teens into the most sacred and central places of congregational life?

High Holy Day Homework

So you went to Rosh Hashana services (or not), and you plan to go to Yom Kippur services (or not). Maybe you say a few prayers, listen intently to the rabbi’s sermon, allow the cantor’s music to suffuse your soul.  Have you fulfilled your High Holy Day responsibilities? Can you check off this week’s To Do list – “Get into the metaphoric Book of Life”?
Sorry, that’s not really how it works. The High Holy Days are about doing the work, spiritual work. Called Teshuva or repentance, this High Holy Day work requires that we prepare before, work during, and follow up after these awesome Jewish days.
To make it easier, I have for you a High Holy Day Homework sheet. It is self-explanatory. It is surprisingly simple to fill out. Once you complete the form, you just need to follow up – by seeking out those you have wronged, and starting the process of repair. 
Sure, the process can be much more complicated, but you might use this worksheet to get you going. Luckily it is self-graded by you (well, many believe God will be the ultimate judge too, but that depends on your theology). 
Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Repost: Akedah: Abraham Failed God’s Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”

Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn’t listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?

Spiritual Calisthenics: Selichot as the Warm Up to Rosh Hashana

You can’t go for a run without stretching first.

You can’t just suit up for baseball, step up to the plate, and hit a home run. (You gotta take some practice swings.)

You can’t teach a lesson, deliver a presentation, make a pitch, without preparing and practicing.

So why do we think we can just walk on into High Holy Day services and have a meaningful, spiritual experience?

Prayer, like almost everything of significance, requires that we limber up and practice before we can expect to hit a spiritual home run.


At Congregation Or Ami, we stretch our spiritual selves and engage in some reflective moral calisthenics during Selichot, a Hebrew word meaning “forgiveness,” which refers to special prayer service on the Saturday night just prior to Rosh HaShanah. (At Congregation Or Ami, our Selichot service takes place on August 31, 2013 at 8:30 pm. We have a pot luck dessert at 7:30 pm.)

Candle lit, musical and stirring, this moving service calls us to reflect on the year that is ending. We begin with Havdala service on the bimah to bring Shabbat to a close. With strains of the High Holiday melodies as a backdrop, we utter our first confession of the season, as well as Sh’ma Koleinu, asking God to hear our voices. Finally, we change the mantle (covers) of our Sifrei Torah (scrolls) from blue to white, symbolizing the purity we hope to bring into our lives. Selichot is a solemn and fitting preparation for 10 days of reflection and self-examination.

Whether you come to Selichot services or not, make time to turn inward, and consider deeply who you are, who you could be, and how you will move from who you are to who you could be. That’s the work of the High Holy Days.

5 Meaningful Moments of the High Holy Days

When Congregation Or Ami met at for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, we celebrated five sacred moments:

  1. Moment of Reflection: As we look back on the previous year 
  2. Moment of Counting: As we count the blessings in our lives.
  3. Moment of Celebration: As we celebrate the creation of the world 
  4. Moment of Jubilation: As we reconnect and recommit to the Holy One of Blessing 
  5. Moment of Looking Ahead: As we consider who we could be (should be) in the year to come. 

With prayer and peacefulness, song and story, sermon and silence, we will encountered ourselves, our loved ones, our memories and our God.

Do you feel prepared now to move into the New Year 5773?
For most of us, the work only begins on the High Holy Days. We take each day continue to reflect, count, celebrate, jubilate and look ahead.

So do the work still, as you walk ahead on the path of life.  Take some time in the days to come, and ask yourself:

  • How will I be blessed this year? 
  • Who can help make my life better this year? 
  • How will I helped improve the world this year? 
  • Where might my connection with holiness and the Holy One deepen? 
  • What need I do to improve my life and the lives of those whose lives touch mine?

Keep pushing forward!

Weaving Social Media into the High Holy Day Services

When the Jewish High Holy Days arrive, is it necessarily more appropriate to log out of our social media apps, or can social media enhance the spiritual experience of these traditional days? Must Twitter, Facebook and texting just pull us back into our own private (even narcissistic) world or can they provide individual connections to a communal religious experience?

Recently, the New York Times reported For Young Jews, a Services says ‘Please Do Text‘ on one synagogue’s experimentation in a service for Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. Congregation Or Ami, always open to innovation, similarly experimented with Facebook, Twitter and texting during this year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur morning services.


What is the Shofar Sounding Saying to You?
As profiled in JTA’s In some shuls, congregants encouraged to keep phones on during services, Or Ami took a leap of faith to engage the faithful:

Rabbi Paul Kipnes [planned] to encourage congregants with smartphones to use Facebook to reflect on the shofar after it is blown for the second time during the service. “Maimonides says, ‘Awake sleepers.’ Most of us hear the shofar and continue sleeping through it,” Kipnes said. “It’s [not] a show, not an alarm clock. I’m saying OK, everybody, sit up, wake up, reflect.”

Given that so much of the High Holidays liturgy is in the collective — “We have sinned” — Kipnes says it is appropriate for congregants to share their thoughts collectively during the service.

“Prayer,” he said, “is not supposed to be a spectator sport.”

On Rosh Hashana morning, dozens of texts, Facebook messages and tweets responded to the question, What is the shofar sounding saying to you? Worshippers responded:

  • It reminds me that I have a chance to redeem my past actions to work toward a brighter year.
  • The shofar sounds like an ancient song coming to us from thousands of years ago.
  • We need to wake up and see what is happening in the world we live in. We are at a tipping point and at stake is the existence of both the State of Israel and the life we cherish.

For the first time in a long time, people did not clap after the sounding of the shofar. Does this mean the invitation to respond by social media turned them inward? It was unclear. While such innovation can be meaningful, such breaks with tradition can also alienate others. We did hear how social media engaged some participants more deeply in the experience. One Or Ami congregant texted after the service, “Thanks so much for today. The texting during the service was engaging.”

There is Holiness When…
On Yom Kippur morning, we twice invited the congregation to interact through social media, promising that their thoughts would become part of the sermons. As LA Weekly reported in Texting During Yom Kippur Services? How One L.A. Rabbi IsBringing Social Media to His Synagogue,

…giving congregants tacit permission to mentally check out of
services was not Kipnes’ intention in bringing social media to the bimah (the
stage); in fact, it was quite the opposite. “Look, worship is supposed to
be an interactive experience, but in many places it stopped being that,”
he explains in an interview.

Before a particularly inspiring prayer-song on kedusha (holiness), we invited worshippers to complete the sentence “There is holiness when…” The responses, shared as part of a drash on holiness, included:

  • When I am with family and friends, people I truly love.
  • When we are humble.
  • When you realize you have wronged another and you then correct that wrong with a right. That is truly holy. 
  • When you wake up every morning and walk out of bed and get ready for the day ahead.
  • When we all come together to pray to the One who gave us the power to pray. 
  • When all hatred fades, when all differences dissolve, when all judgment dissipates, and when we can all look at each other as one under God. 

To Me, the Brit (covenant) with God Means…
Lisa Colton, Founder and President of Darim Online, has been agitating for rabbis to experiment with the Social Sermon, wherein rabbis announce topics ahead of services and invite social media conversation during the week. The sermon that is preached (or the Torah discussion that ensues) on Shabbat, incorporates the discussion that has preceded it. The Covenant Foundation similarly has blogged about grassroots-driven preaching, in Twitter + Community + Jewish Education = Social Sermon.

Marrying the social sermon with our willingness to push the boundaries of traditional prayer, we wove  a d’var Torah in realtime as the congregation responded to the statement “To me, the brit (covenant) with God means…” Since Or Ami like many Reform synagogues reads Nitzavim (Deut. 29-30) on Yom Kippur morning, the slew of social media messages allowed a wide ranging exploration about our connection today to the brit between God and the Jewish people. As worshippers explained, “To me, our Brit with God means…”

  • To stay with it NO MATTER WHAT. To never give up on the truth of our souls. 
  • Dedication to an unbreakable chain.
  • To do the right thing when no one is looking, and to pass down our value system to the next generation.
  • That God does God’s part and we must do ours. 
  • Our covenant is continued, when our Torah breastplate, rescued from the ashes of Kristallnacht, still adorns our scrolls and dances through Jews 74 years later.
  • That we can even question our brit with God.
Is Social Media Integration into Worship the Wave of the Future or Just Techno-Heresy? 
Initial comments following services about these social media experiments during the High Holy Days were overwhelmingly positive (but not unanimously so). Still, we heard that some participants preferred to leave their electronic umbilical cords turned off. So whether Jewish worship is flexible enough to integrate Social Media in an ongoing, meaningful way has yet to be seen. Or as LA Weekly’s Amanda Lewis wrote: 

On a holiday meant to generate inward reflection, does it
make sense to ask congregants to take out their phones but avoid the plethora
of temptations, distractions and push notifications?”

What do you think? Wave of the future or Techno-Heresy?

Introducing Torah Surfing (TM)

Challenge: Over 1,000 congregants gathered for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. All 1,000+ worshippers want to be able to touch or kiss the Torah during the Hakafah. We have only two aisles in the Fred Kavli theater in Thousand Oaks where we worship, and those aisles go up the sides of the theater. Too much of a balagan (craziness) when Torah scrolls are carried up the aisles because of the lack of space in those side aisles.

Idea: Have you ever seen a concert when the musician on the stage turns around, leans back, falls into the up-stretched arms of the crowd?  It is called “crowd surfing“.  Sometimes it looks like this.

Solution:  What if the Torah went crowd surfing? 

This year, after removing the Torah scrolls from the ark, we had congregant honorees carry two scrolls, one up each of the aisles.  Then…

Introducing Torah Surfing (TM): Before the Torah service we explained the following:

Since we have so many congregants who want to honor Torah by touching it or kissing it, and since we only have two aisles down the sides, we want to introduce Torah surfing.  After we remove Torah scrolls from the Ark and sing the appropriate prayers, we will send two scrolls up the side aisles, and two scrolls up the center of the crowd.  If Torah comes to you, hold it like you would a baby.  Use clean hands (and a pure heart); adults only hold it. Using all necessary means, do NOT drop the Torah (which results in a 40 day daytime fast for this whole community; or instead, expect to quadruple your High Holy Day pledge).  Go slowly so that everyone has a chance to kiss Torah, using either their tzitzit, their machzor (prayerbook) or their CLEAN hand.  Ushers will be at the back of the sanctuary space to receive the Torah scrolls and bring them back to the bimah.

The Result? Check out this video by Michael Kaplan (Torah Surfing (TM) may be seen midway through are pictures/video).  Worshippers lovingly carried Torah, held it alot, and stretched out so others could get to touch/kiss the Torah.  It was freilich (happy, joyous) and meshugenah (crazy).  And it increased Ahavat Torah (the love of Torah).

Sukkah as Time Machine

This year, we built our sukkah in stages: the structure was reconstructed by the boys and my parents, the top was relaid by me late one afternoon, and the decorating happened betwixt and between with the help of the whole family.  It was wonderful to welcome friends, relatives and some members of our Or Ami family into our sukkah for dinner and celebration.

Recently, I came across this beautiful explanation of the sukkah.  Compliments to the website of Temple Isaiah of Los Angeles:

In many ways the sukkah is like a time machine. When we sit in this sketch of a home, we are transported to the desert where the Israelites wandered for forty years. We might remember that the rabbinic legend which says the sukkot the Israelites dwelt in were made from clouds God provided for them. We are also transported to Israel, where during the harvests the farmers would live out in their fields in little booths to be able to keep watch over their crops. As we sit in the flimsy sukkah, we might also be transported to Skid Row where people live in flimsy makeshift homes of boxes and scrap wood. We might think about the tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, and how despite the walls we build, how vulnerable we really are. When we build a sukkah we remember that our strongest foundation lies in our relationships with each other as well as our deeds. 

Sukkot is more than the reenactment of the Israelite’s wandering in the desert toward the Land of Promise. It is the acknowledgment that we are all wanderers in this world. We are all transients in the world’s ageless history, and when we erect a temporary sukkah, we are essentially nailing our tent pegs into the rich earth of eternity. We are acknowledging that we are transients, but we are simultaneously staking our faith in everlasting truth. When we realize the beauty and hope of Sukkot, we cannot help but rejoice.

May we rejoice of the many blessings and abundances that we count in our lives.

Video: Kindergarteners Show Us How to Begin Teshuva

Saying “I’m Sorry” is not always easy. It can be uncomfortable or downright embarrassing.  Still, we learn from the Talmud that on Yom Kippur, for the ways we have harmed others, the holy day does not atone until we make peace with that other person.

Kindergarten students from Congregation Or Ami’s Mishpacha Family Alternative program, led by Mishpacha Coordinators (HUC students) Sarah Lauing and Lisa Berney, made this video to begin the work of teshuva (repenting our mistakes).  Teshuva never looked cuter!

Repost: Akedah: Abraham Failed God’s Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.” Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to ¬¬show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn’t listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he? [For footnotes and citations on this reading, see What Does God Want from Us?]

Interested in the implications of this reading of the story? Check out:

The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory

M’lo Chol Ha’aretz K’vodo: The Whole Earth is Filled with God’s Glory
A Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Rosh Hashana 5770/2009

[for citations of rabbinic and modern sources, see the sermon on the Or Ami website]

Lead in: Sheryl Braunstein and Or Ami Chorale sing “B’tzelem Elohim”

Sheryl’s beautiful song reminds me that we all were created in God’s image and therefore can “see” God’s face in our encounters with other people. This summer, I encountered another face of the Holy One. And it moved me deeply.

I spent the summer on sabbatical, dedicated as a Shabbat, an opportunity to retreat, reflect, refresh. While our daughter was a CIT at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa all summer, Michelle, the boys and I “mini-vanned” across America. We stayed at 3 Jewish Summer Camps; visited 9 Baseball Parks; boated in 6 waterways; danced at 5 amazing concerts; meandered through 10 American history museums; wine-tasted throughout the Northwest; and snapped over 3,000 digital photos. During our summer odyssey, we drove over 6,000 miles, visiting 20 States in 31 days in our own Odyssey minivan.

Most memorable of all were the 14 amazing National Parks. There, we were overwhelmed by America’s natural beauty. Its spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Its purple mountains, majestic; those low-lying, fruited plains. Wherever we drove, from the mountains (in Colorado) to the prairies (in South Dakota) to Oregon’s oceans white with foam, I kept encountering… HaMakom.

Of the 70 names for God referred to in Torah, HaMakom, meaning “The Place”, stayed with me during the sabbatical. Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe.”

My heart first opened to HaMakom, “God as Everywhere”, as Michelle and I meandered for two days up the gorgeous Oregon Coast. Each scenic overlook brought us to a view more breath-taking than the last. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature surrounding you that you lost track of time, of priorities, of yourself? Every inch of the Oregon coast was so darned beautiful. It was God’s country. It is God. HaMakom.

I felt a little like Adam in that first week following his creation. After the work of naming the animals, and the fun of dallying with Eve, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century collection of rabbinic stories, tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator!

Imagine that! The first human being, Adam, the first to behold God’s creation, was so inspired that he became Creation’s first poet. Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One.

Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world.

The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.

Like Adam did, so often this summer I perceived signs of HaMakom, God’s Presence: in the ocean, in the mountains and the sky. My ears began to hear the praise-songs of nature. My heart, inspired beyond its usual capacity, began to burst.

Often we, who live closed off in cities, drive around in climate-controlled cars, work in climate-controlled offices, forget to take notice of the glorious splendor which surrounds us: California mountains and Pacific seashores, desert palm trees and picturesque sunsets? We make ourselves too busy, too stressed, too worried about money, or time, or our jobs, to see the wonder. We use every excuse to remain in our homes, walled off in our cars.

That was me. For most of my life. As many of you remember, I used to live with my gaze firmly locked on my CrackBerry. I used to walk around with my head down. Then I finally understood just what the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, was trying to say all those years ago: M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo, the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic creations, yet we humans take our hands and cover our eyes. Except during isolated moments, my hands blinded me to the beauty around us.

And then we visited the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. And then my eyes were truly opened wide.

And then I was awed into silence by the grandeur of Creation. It was like I was seeing clearly for the first time.

We were driving north by Jackson Lake, planning to scout out Yellowstone in the north. (Anyone been up there? Gorgeous, no?!) I had to pull off to the side of the road because I could not catch my breath. My family thought I wanted to take pictures. My son wondered if I was praying. Like Adam, I was just overwhelmed by the beauty. I needed to stop moving, and just take it in. I needed to find words to express the inspiration I felt.

This time the blackberry served a holy purpose. I took it out and wrote about my experience of wonder. I had to write something. The yearning was so powerful. The need to praise brought tears to my eyes.

In Torah, we read that when the Biblical scouts returned from scouting out the Holy Land, argue as they might about the Israelites’ ability to take possession of the land, they nonetheless wholeheartedly agreed in their praise of the land. They called it eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, a land flowing with milk and honey. I imagine how they must have welled up with emotion as they recounted discovering Israel’s beauty.

In the Grand Tetons, in the Louisiana Bayous, and all across this beautiful country of ours, I too welled up with intense emotion. America, every inch of it, is flowing with its own flavors of milk and honey. Some of us see it. Many of us miss it. The eighth century prophet Isaiah said it best: m’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s magnificence. God created. God sustains. God is. Here. In this place. The Place. HaMakom. This is God.

There once was a time when we Jews were inextricably tied to the land. Back in biblical times, we farmed and we harvested. Our holy days – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot – were dedicated to celebrating the agricultural cycle- planting, reaping, harvesting. Following Israel’s 20th century rebirth, the poignancy was that we were once again reconnected with the earth. But for most of us here in America – few of us farmers – the distance between our lives and any land is vast and growing. But it wasn’t always that way.

I discovered, for example, that the humans, who have inhabited southern Utah for over 10,000 years, were integrally connected to a mysterious canyon, we now call Zion Canyon National Park. Originally it wasn’t to hike or take pictures, like we do. Or to rock climb or rest. They came for food and water… it was as simple as that. Human survival meant gleaning from the land its scant harvests. Archaic peoples, Ancestral Native Americans – Pueblo Dwellers and Southern Paiutes – had extensive and intuitive knowledge of the plants, animals, and seasons. They would hunt, fish, and gather. They grew modest crops, and, like Jews do on Sukkot, would harvest only after they offered thanks for the generous bounty.

Of course, this ancient way of life is gone now. Today, when most of us travel on vacation, our temporary home isn’t a brush shelter, but a hotel. Our water source comes from a tap, not the natural springs in the rocks. We don’t need to forage in order to live. Still, we turn to the land to harvest its gifts. What might our harvests be? For many National Park travelers, we come to collect not things but knowledge, not resources but memories, not trophies but satisfaction.

And so it was for us when we hiked through Zion Canyon National Park. The sun warmed the earth. Buds blossomed and birds soared. A quiet liveliness rustled through the park. And I encountered something else. In the sound of the song of a river, as a canyon wren scolded us, amidst the giant cliffs that made me think big and feel small. I stood silent, mouth agape; eyes open wide at the astonishing landscape. Despite unsettling changes in our world, while standing there and gazing deep into the soul of that canyon, I found contentment, a place of peace.

That, my friends, is the encounter with holiness, with kedusha. That is what our ancestor Jacob experienced when he sensed a ladder rising up to the heavens and sensed God standing beside it. In the middle of nowhere, he realized, Achen yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh vanochi lo yadati – Wow, God is in this place and I did not know it. He identified where he stood: Mah norah haMakom hazeh – How awesome is HaMakom, this place. Ein zeh ki im beit Elohim v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim – This is a house of God, a gateway to the heavens. HaMakom. God. In this place. Everyplace. A gateway to heavens. Everywhere. Yeish. God’s here. There. Everywhere.

Of course, this contentment and peace so often eludes us. Whether driving around the city, journeying through the High Holy Days, or stumbling through our lives, we easily miss the serenity within our reach. So how can we encounter HaMakom, the Divine right here?

My story: It was a hot, August Sunday, just before our cross country travels were to come to an end. Michelle, Daniel, Noah and I set out to hike up the Virgin River, a beautiful, flowing tributary that bisects Utah’s Zion Canyon National Park. Two hours into the hike, we entered the Narrows, so called because of the narrow space created by the towering canyon walls as they leaned in. Though awesome sights encircled us, rocky obstacles lurking beneath the water’s surface sought to trip us up. Walking sticks were needed to probe the path ahead for underwater holes.

Here one must tread carefully. Too much attention focused on the surrounding beauty, and a foot misplaced on the slippery upcropping of underwater rocks sends you splashing into the river. This is a lesson of everyday life. Pay attention or you might get tripped up.

At the same time, don’t miss out on what’s right before your eyes. The Narrows also taught us that when we spend too much attention focused on each individual step – so afraid of stumbling and getting soaked – we might miss the grandeur of creation: cascading waterfalls, multicolored rock shelves, turquoise blue skies. We might walk right past Jacob’s ladder, sha’ar shamayim, the gateway to heavenly inspiration.

It’s right there. And here. And everywhere. HaMakom. We work hard to maintain balance and find equilibrium. Sometimes we have to play it safe and walk with conservative care.

Yet other times, we can take a risk. Look up and around, open up to the splendor. As the mystics remind us, Ein Sof, there is no end to God’s Holy space.

So remember that HaMakom, The Place, God’s Place, is right here. At the Agoura Hills-Calabasas Community Center. This afternoon, at Paradise Cover in Malibu. And on Sukkot, around a campfire in Old Agoura. Yes, HaMakom is up top of Big Bear. In Malibu Creek State Park. On the hiking trail out behind your back gate.

In these difficult times, life’s pressures threaten to push us over the edge. But we can still go find the Holy One. There you just might find that contentment and peace you seek. On a walk with a friend around Calabasas Lake, watching the stars with your kid up on Mulholland, sharing a cup of coffee with a loved one in the back yard. It’s a tried and true path to spirituality. As Naturalist John Muir said: “…break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend [time] in the woods. [You will] Wash your spirit clean.”

That’s the secret to finding God. Remembering that it’s all HaMakom, a sacred place. This whole world is Kadosh, holy. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed it. The psalmist Doug Cotler sings it: M’lo kol haaretz kvodo, the whole world filled with the Creator’s glory. “[And] Even when it’s hard to hear, Surely God is always near For everywhere we stand is holy ground.” Kadosh.

Song: Cantor Doug Cotler and Or Ami Chorale sing Cantor Cotler’s Kadosh