This piece is part of a Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience series of sermons contributed by Hillel Directors for the 5775 High Holidays.
Have you ever been called to do something in your life?
Our lives are filled with things we’re supposed to do like getting more exercise, volunteering more, and reading more of the books on that list that so many of us keep.
There are also a wide variety of things in our lives that we have to do – like responsibilities at work and with family.
But have you ever really been called to do something in your life?
This is a situation that transcends the categories of things we have to do and things that we’re supposed to do.
Being “called” is something more like an overwhelming sense of obligation. We might describe it as a kind of duty that is thrust upon us and that takes us outside of ourselves and outside our routine set of responsibilities.
The moment when we’re called never comes at a convenient time.
It’s always some Tuesday morning when we’re running a hundred miles an hour and just barely managing to hang on.
That is the moment when we get the call that a parent or family member is sick or that there is a close friend who is falling apart.
These are such difficult moments. We never feel like we have enough time or the additional emotional strength to take on one more thing. And yet, we have to.
One of the ways that our lives will be measured is by how we respond to these moments.
Eventually, each of us will have to step up and take some responsibility in these kind of situations, the question is how long does it take us to respond? Who do we hurt in the interim?
Judaism offers some positive and negative role models for how to respond when called.
The Akedah – the Binding of Isaac – the story we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the most dramatic example of a calling in all of Jewish tradition.
The text is terse and understated.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם
God simply speaks to Abraham.
God doesn’t call to him. God doesn’t ask him. God simply speaks. Depending on how you read it, it’s almost as if God only has to whisper.
Yet, Abraham’s answer is swift and bold.
And Abraham said, “I am here”
This is perhaps the hardest response to offer when called—to answer simply and affirmatively: “Hineini” – Tell me what you need.
And now comes the terrifying request:
וַיֹּ֡אמֶר קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְך
Then God said, “Take your son”
Your only son
The one you love
וְלֶ֨ךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּֽרִיָּ֑ה וְהַֽעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה
Now take him to the land of Moriah, and offering him up as a sacrifice there
Even though this is the son that Abraham and Sarah had been dreaming and praying about, Abraham doesn’t hesitate.
The Torah tells us
וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַֽיַּֽחֲבֹשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ
Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey.
Rashi (one of the most well known medieval Torah commentators) explains that this sentence teaches us that Abraham was such a faithful a servant of God, that even though God asked him to perform this terrible errand, he nonetheless woke early the next morning and rushed off to fulfill God’s request.
If Abraham is the model of someone who answers the call in all the right ways, we also have examples of how a someone can do it all wrong.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, we’ll read the story of Jonah.
When God calls him to go to the city of Nineveh, Jonah also gets up early and rushes out—but this time it’s in the opposite direction as he tries to flee from God’s request.
Rather than play the part of God’s loyal servant, Jonah takes on the role of the reluctant prophet.
While we see both of these motifs in other Biblical characters, Jonah and Abraham stand out as almost exaggerated representations of each possible response.
The level of avoidance exhibited by Jonah is almost comical.
He tries to run from God by setting sail upon the sea.
To get Jonah’s attention, God casts a mighty storm upon Jonah’s boat.
While the crew fears for their lives and offers prayers to their gods, where is Jonah? He is asleep down below.
Finally, they bring Jonah up to the deck. The crew casts lots to find out who is responsible for this storm.
All of this seems so inevitable.
Of course the lots fall on Jonah. Even though everyone in the story seems to know what’s going on, Jonah is still in denial.
Next comes an incredible moment of irony. After the lots fall on Jonah, the other shipmates ask him, “Who is your God?” Jonah answers:
I am a Hebrew
וְאֶת־יְהֹוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י הַשָּׁמַ֨יִם֙ אֲנִ֣י יָרֵ֔א
And Adonai, the God of the Heavens, is the one that I fear
אֲשֶֽׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הַיָּ֖ם וְאֶת־הַיַּבָּשָֽׁה
The God who created the sea and the dry land
All of a sudden Jonah is so pious.
When speaking to others, Jonah refers to Adonai as the God he fears and that the Hebrew God created the sea and the Earth.
He didn’t seem to fear God when he ignored God’s call and surely he didn’t seem to think that God had control over the sea when he chose to flee there to avoid God.
But Jonah has not learned his lesson yet. At this point it’s all talk.
He still needs to spend a few days in the belly of the fish in chapter 2 before he really comes to understand that his divine mission is inescapable.
Finally, in chapter 3, Jonah accepts his call.
This incredibly rich story offers us great insight into the way that so many of us react when called to do something that we might not want to do.
We hide, we procrastinate, and we avoid—all the while knowing that in the end, we probably don’t have a choice.
In this way, the test of character is not whether or not we accept the call, but rather in how we respond when we receive it.
How long are we stuck in denial? How much havoc does our procrastination create those around us?
Jonah is an extreme example. In fleeing from his responsibility he nearly kills a boat full of strangers and puts his own life at risk.
But isn’t this how it really works? When we shirk the call to responsibility it often creates all sorts of unexpected pain and misunderstanding for those around us.
In this way Jonah is easy to relate to.
Even if we don’t actually flee from the calling in such a dramatic way, most of us may want to.
This desire to flee comes from more than just a fear of accepting responsibility.
It also is fueled by a fantasy that most of us hold very dearly: That there is a real goal in life to have things under control.
That if we can just get organized enough, disciplined enough, or far enough ahead on our “to-do list,” we will come to a place where everything is just right—the way things are supposed to be.
This myth is just like a mirage in the desert, as soon as we think we’ve arrived, it vanishes as the sacred chaos of life reasserts itself.
So the models of Jonah and Abraham provide dramatically different models of how to respond to the call.
On the one hand, Abraham provides and inspiring and idyllic version of how one can respond to the call of responsibility.
On the other hand, Jonah, while he is clearly wrong, makes for a very sympathetic character to which many of us can relate.
So what does this mean for our lives and for the work that we need to do at this time of the year?
The obvious answer is to be a little bit more like Abraham when we are called to some duty or responsibility that we don’t quite want and we haven’t quite planned for.
Abraham teaches us to step into the breach and answer: “Hineini – here I am.”
But the real wisdom is learned from Jonah.
Jonah teaches us what happens when we don’t respond in the right way. We hurt others and ourselves for no good reason. In the end, a real calling cannot be escaped.
But there are other layers of wisdom here as well.
First, when we fail to answer the call, we also miss a chance to grow.
Most of us imagine that we could never carry more responsibility or do more than we’re currently doing.
And yet, when we have to, we can.
We can expand our hearts and minds to love more and to care more.
While the hours of the day are finite – time is incredibly elastic. We always have more power to rearrange our priorities than we think we do.
Second, answering the call gives us a chance to be the very best version of ourselves.
The reason that most of us fear that added level of duty in our lives is not because we’re bad people, but it’s because we’re trapped by something we cannot even see.
I call it “benign-selfishness” – when we’re just a little too self-protective. We’re focused on what we need. This includes our physical needs, our emotional needs, and financial needs.
While all of these are real sources of anxiety, they ignore another foundational need we have.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the difference between humans and animals is that while animals have needs, the most important need of a human is to be needed.
This means that when we hesitate and don’t say “hineini” - We also ignore a chance to be needed and in doing so pass up chances to claim a life of deeper meaning for ourselves.
The most important things we do, the things that really bring the most happiness and satisfaction, are the things for which we sacrifice ourselves.
Think of caring for children or exhausting ourselves from some social justice cause we believe in.
These moments filled with sacred mission can be the most rich and fulfilling moments of our lives.
So as we enter the Asseret Yamei Teshuvah – the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—I want to suggest that we consider a different type of sin this year.
The sins we have committed by not answering hineini when called.
So I pray that this year be a year when we step up and accept whatever duty calls us with grace, generosity, and love.
And that each moment of duty, while difficult, will be filled with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Rabbi Mike Uram is the Executive Director at Penn Hillel.