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God and People Mutually Accountable

On these holy days we attempt to hold ourselves accountable. The tradition also acknowledges that the human condition isn't easy, it's hard to be good. We need compassion and care to feel safe in this dangerous place. That sense of safety will, indeed, help us make better choices.

The liturgy makes room for us to express our longing for an easier world even as we hold ourselves accountable and try to become better people. The Mahzor hearkens back to Abraham in order to make these points.

In the "Zikhronot - Memories" section of the Rosh Hashana liturgy, we recite, "Remember Adonai our God for our sake: the covenant, the love, the promise that you promised to Abraham on Mount Moriah (to bless and multiply Abraham's seed, Genesis 22:16-19). May you see clearly how Abraham our Father bound Isaac, his son, on the alter. As Abraham conquered his love in order to fulfill Your will, so too, out of Your great goodness - may Your love conquer Your anger and turn away Your wrath from Your people."

This prayer can be confusing because one would expect the "as...so too" construct to cohere on a common expression of a feeling like love. One might expect something like, "As you loved Abraham, so may you love us." But love is not the glue of this prayer. In Abraham's case he repressed his love for his son, and now we are asking for God to love us. The logic common action that Abraham and God share that forms the logic is conquor. We AND God can at times be expected to CONQUER the behavior that might come most naturally in order to affirm a relationship or a covenant.

Theologically this prayer is problematic because it assumes God has feelings and struggles with issues like self-discipline and restraint etc. For me, once I acknowledge the theological difficulties, I can allow the language to speak to me emotionally.

The person praying is bargaining with God: "Okay God, I've got zekhut avot (merit of the ancestors) coming to me. Abraham, fighting against all his passionate love for his child Isaac was willing to kill him FOR YOU, God. That was unfair. You owe us big time on that one. Here is the deal: Yes, you are justly angry with me. I've sinned, and sinned some more. But just as Abraham needed to overcome his love in order to serve you, how about you now overcoming your anger and directing some love toward me, even if I don't deserve it based on my actions."

These words express our longing to be taken care of. They communicate our disappointment and distress at just how harsh this world is. The binding of Isaac was totally unfair. God has misbehaved (read: the world is unfair, death, evil, are all way too strong). And yet, I haven't fully done my part either, not averting sin when I had the chance. So let's reconcile; let's both acknowledge that we are part of the problem (the world is too harsh - God's responsibility, we make poor choices - human being's responsibility). This reconciliation can lead to a sweet round year full of joy and renewal in which I've accepted the limitations of the world while I work toward making better choices.

Twice daily in the liturgy we say, "shma Yisrael." We are calling ourselves to listen to what God demands of us. But on Yom Kippur we say five times, "Shma koleinu Adonai Eloheinu" "Listen God to our voices." Even at this time when we are introspective and self-critical, our needs and longings still count.

Type: Dvar Torah