Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur’s Drasha – Yom Kippur 5777
According to the Jewish tradition, Moses stuttered: an odd handicap for a leader chosen by God to communicate with his people.
Many Jewish stories still deride his affliction. Here is a famous is a joke you most probably know. It says that while in the desert, the Israelites ask Moses to which country is he taking them, and what is this Promised Land flowing with milk and honey? Moses tells them, indicating a direction: « Ca_Ca_Ca_Can … ». The Hebrews immediately head towards Canaan. But they discover the land and its environment is rather hostile, and they say to Moses, “Is this what you call a land flowing with milk and honey? » Moses answers them, « I did not say Can_Can_Canaan, I said Can_Can_Canada!”
Moses is not the only biblical hero to suffer a disability. Isaac was blind. Jacob limped and matriarchs were barren. But we must admit that a stuttering Moses is most surprising. How could this man who struggled to communicate become our spokesperson? I decided to reflect with you tonight the meaning behind this language impairment. In terms of our tradition, what exactly does Moses’ stuttering signify?
Yom Kippur has also been considered a day of repetitions, generating changes
It is especially important to talk about this today more than any other day of the year. If you open the book you hold in your hands, if you follow the liturgy of Yom Kippur, you have to admit one thing about the prayers we chant for the next twenty-five hours. We’re about to stutter over and over and over again. More precisely, we will constantly repeat ourselves, saying the same phrases, repetitive mantras, words such as Aneinu avinu aneinu, aneinu borenu aneinu, aneinu goalenou aneinu. Or say, almost like a broken record, Al chet shehatanu, al chet shehatanu, al chet shehatanu… “Here are our sins, our sins, our sins. God answer us, answer us, answer us …”.
Repetition is undoubtedly a central theme for Yom Kippur. Why? Because, according to our sages tell us to, as surprising as it sounds, repeat but never reproduce. Repeating the contrary is always the key to a non-identical reproduction.
The best illustration of this paradox is the little phrase that we all wish each other day after day this season. We repeatedly greet our family and friends Shana Tova, translated as “Happy New Year ». Shana translates to not only “year”, but whose root suggests two other meanings: the verbs leshanen and leshanot, literally « repeat » and « change. » So when I say Shana Tova or “Happy New Year » in a single phrase, I also tell you « good rehearsal » and « good change ». The New Year is etymologically, in Hebrew, the repetition of a moment that is supposed to generate changes.
Great, you might say, but how does this principle work?
Let me illustrate my premise with an exploration into a most famous and complex biblical episode. I mean the Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac mistakenly called the « Sacrifice of Isaac ». This episode is at the heart of the celebrations of Tishri.
We read it on Rosh Hashana. We are constantly referring to it during Yom Kippur until the shofar blast that will resonate tomorrow night which directly recalls this episode and the goat that replaced Isaac on the altar of sacrifice.
This story haunts us and disturbs us so much because potentially it justifies fanatical delusions. It reinforces the worst submissions to violent and bloody religious events as it suggests a priori, that a man may one day, lead his son to death; sacrificing what he loves simply because he believes his God asked for it. Is this really the God we are worshipping? Is he really expecting a blind obedience from us to a murderous injunction?
To fully understand, we need to listen carefully to the repetitions of the scripture and more specifically, the moments in this biblical episode, when the text stutters. Here is the proof with a more attentive reading of chapter 22 of Genesis.
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלהִֹים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי
Vayehi ahar hadevarim aele It happened after these facts
Veaelohim nissa et Avraham That the Lord submitted Abraham to a test
Vayomer elav Avraham Vayomer Hineni God calls Abraham, who responds, “Here I am”
« It happened after these facts » (after which facts? Mystery! I’ll come back to these words) « that the Lord submitted Abraham to a test » (according to the Midrash, this is the last test for Abraham, who went, during his life, through many other tests). « God calls to Abraham, who responds Hineni » « Here I am », “I am here. »
You know the rest of the story: God then asks the Patriarch to raise Isaac to the place that He will show him. « Raise » in Hebrew, Ola, can be interpreted in two ways; an elevation or as the injunction of offering a sacrifice to be completely consumed by fire. This is what Abraham hears. So he immediately, unflinchingly and without protest begins this murderous project. He, who has in many circumstances been able to negotiate with God and even stand up to Him, remains silent here. Abraham is silent and obeys. And only when Isaac is tied up on the altar and the knife is lifted in the air, ready to sacrifice the his child, do we read in Verse 11 of the same episode:
וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה מן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי
Vayikra elav Malah Adonai min Hashamayim An envoy of God called Abraham from heaven
Voyomer Avraham Avraham voyemer Hineni And said Abraham Abraham, and he responds here I am
An envoy of God called Abraham from heaven and said, « Abraham, Abraham » and he responds Hineni, “I am here », « Here I am ». You hear it, and it is the same response of the patriarch to the divine call, Hineni. But the call in question is not at all the same.
At the beginning of the episode, God says, « Abraham, » אַבְרָהָם. At the end of the episode, the voice from heaven says, « Abraham, Abraham » אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם. What happened between these two moments of the story? One of two things, either Abraham has meanwhile become deaf (after all, Moses was well stutterer and Jacob lame); or, at this moment of the story something stutters. And if so, why? What teaching do we receive from the stuttering text?
Commentators are passionate about this issue. How do we interpret this strange repetition? Avivah Zornberg, in her book The Murmuring Deep, suggests an interpretation, a reading that requires us to make a little detour into the past of Abraham and more specifically his childhood.
The binding of Isaac begins with וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, Vayehi ahar hadevarim aele: « It happened after these facts. » After what facts? After the distant past we must now remember. As if it had been previously repressed. Avivah Zornberg suggests that we cannot understand this last test of Abraham if we do not look at the first, as the Midrash tells us.
Abraham is the child of Terah, a Chaldean idols dealer. When Abraham destroys the idols of his father, Terah decides to take his son to a local court for trial and he’s convicted. The Midrash affirms that, on this very day, his father accepted Abraham to be thrown into a furnace, which should have burnt him to ashes, but he will miraculously emerge unscathed. It was then, says the Midrash, after this first test, that Abraham leaves the country of his father to journey to Canaan.
According to the Sages, this episode in the life of the Patriarch will haunt him. Abraham is the child who almost died, consumed by fire, according to the will of his father. To the point, he is a man haunted by the temptation of the infanticide that he almost suffered. And this episode of Abraham’s life, as delivered by the biblical text, suddenly allows us to read complexity into the binding of Isaac.
Repeat to not repeat
When God tells Abraham « raise your son », in Ola, Abraham responds Hineni, not only to God but also to his past. « Here I am » again facing the same story, « Here I am » against the consuming fire. Here are the specifically summoned ghosts of the Chaldea, his origin where fathers immolate their sons. Abraham cannot understand, at that moment, the word Ola as any other meaning than as an injunction to sacrifice. This is a misunderstanding that is an accurate reflection of his story. And the test of God is precisely that. A question is asked to Abraham: what will you make of this episode of your life? Will you liberate your son it or repeat actions identically?
When the heavenly voice emerges again, it says Abraham Abraham. The Zohar explains the mysterious repetition of the verse: “The Abraham first called by the voice is not the second Abraham the voice calls. » In other words, the first Abraham is the man who will sacrifice his son as he was almost sacrificed himself. The second Abraham is no longer that man. From that moment begins a new era, one beyond the trauma. A world where one does not sacrifice the sons but where one sacrifices the human sacrifice.
And it is because he faced this past, because some-thing repeated itself; history may not repeat itself identically. Stuttering text is here the indication of a possibility for change. Change is a voice that says that you were another and can become something new. What you think I heard might be a misunderstanding. But if you do not confront this past observing the stutter, you have no chance to find out.
Stuttering suggests a promise of change
That is why, dear friends, we read this text loop during the holidays of Tishri and continuously creating allusion: the story of Abraham is of all of us, have we not once been thrown into a theoretical furnace. For each one of us, there is the possibility of a change, the possibility of being Shone, if there is a Mishneh, to repeat or not repeating.
Tomorrow night, almost at the same time, will resonate precisely the history of Akedat Isthak by the voices of the shofar, our sound reminder of this episode. The sounds of the shofar, I was telling you during Rosh Hashana, are a reminder of our brokenness and our inner flaws. But if you listen to them carefully, you will realize that they are exactly the breaths that stutter.
Tekia is the consolidated sound, the one like Abraham said initially Hineni, « Here I am », determined and with no hesitation, ready to obey what I thought I heard. Then Shevarim arises: The speech is impaired and kind of disabled. Followed by Teruah, which sounds like speech morphed into the severe impediment in extreme stuttering. It is after these rehearsals that resonates Tekia Gedola. Long like a double appeal. It is the one that hears « Abraham Abraham.” It acknowledges that one has become someone else, another man, another woman, now able to tell the world Hineni, here I am freed from the shackles of the past that almost made me a criminal.
All stutters are promises of change. They say get on the road, across the desert to a promised land whatever the name you give it. This is what Moses, our guide, represents par excellence in our tradition. This is also what Kippur represents and invites us throughout the day to come. To repeat words, in order to not repeat our history.
SHANA TOVA – שנה טובה
SHANA TOVA – שנה טובה
SHANA TOVA – שנה טובה