The Return of Rafiki
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5776
Temple Beth Israel, Fresno CA
Rabbi Rick Winer
I’ve been to a lot of bris’s.
I’ve seen quite a variety of what takes place at our continued practice of the ancient ritual.
I’m sure a lot of the men are starting to squirm.
I’ve learned the signs when we need to get certain people, typically very manly men, to sit down before they faint.
I’ve learned… to stand clear when the mohel removes the baby’s diaper…
Out of all those bris’s, just a few times, I’ve seen the mohel do this particular maneuver… he took the baby and lifted him high into the air.
I know what you’re thinking… I certainly thought it… how many of you are picturing that opening scene of the Lion King when Rafiki, the shaman baboon lifts, Simba, the future lion king up high and presents him to the whole land. All the animals are rejoicing. There is such potential in the air.
When I first saw the mohel do this, I thought it was a bit overdramatic, but then I’ve grown to really appreciate it.
Yes, just like the lion cub Simba, we lift up each new child and celebrate their potential.
It’s why we traditionally have a Chair of Elijah at our birth ceremonies. It’s not just a soft chair for an honoree to sit in and hold the baby. Elijah’s role is to herald the coming of the Messiah. We treat each newborn as if he or she could be the one to tip the scales, to bring on the messianic age.
But if you remember the story of the Lion King… and if you don’t, go out and watch it this week… a tragedy occurs. Simba loses his father and blames himself, probably because his evil uncle tells him it was his fault. Subsequently, the adolescent prince chooses to take off and finds a life of carefree, irresponsibility with his friends Timon and Pumbaa the meerkat and warthog. They sing Hakuna Matata… No Worries. Snappy tune.
Until a wind brings Simba a scent of home… Hmmm… I talked about Ecclesiastes last night who spoke of wind that dispersed the mist of life…
Wind is a powerful, ancient symbol… It can bode ill or signal change… change that we can choose to read as positive.
Anyway, back to the Pride Lands…
Simba is faced with a choice… do I continue this carefree life or do I return and face my responsibility.
Then comes my favorite scene in the movie.
The adolescent lion, Simba, is at this turning point in his life. He ran away from the troubles of his past, and now he has news that he is the only hope for the future of his pride back home. He does not want to face the past.
In a tree behind him, he hears nonsensical chanting, 'hai da, hai da, hai didi dai da, hai da... something like that… ok maybe not.
Simba, annoyed, asks him to 'cut it out'.
Rafiki responds, 'can't cut it out, it will grow right back' - an example of classic rabbinic humor. Now they call it ‘Dad Humor,’ the kind of humor that makes my kids’ eyes roll. Oh, and there are a bunch of you who are every bit as guilty as me. You know who you are.'
Simba says, 'creepy little monkey, will you stop following me.'
So far it sounds like my typical exchange.
Simba doesn’t remember the baboon from his birth ritual and I don’t know anyone who remembers their mohel.
Simba asks, “who are you?”
Rafiki responds, 'the question is - who are you?'
Simba - I thought I knew, now I'm not so sure.
Rafiki - Well, I know who you are. Shhh, come here it's a secret. [Simba leans close just to have Rafiki again start chanting nonsense into his ear, getting louder and louder.]
Rafiki shows the lion his own reflection in a pool but he sees his father’s face. And then Rafiki explains how his father lives inside of him and he carries the legacy, the values his father taught him. It is his choice to keep his father’s memory alive.
Then, the classic rabbinic moment, the classic rabbinic device - Rafiki takes his ceremonial staff and hits Simba over the head with it.
Simba winces and asks - Ow, geez, what was that for?
Rafiki - It doesn't matter - it's in the past.
Simba - Yeah, but it still hurts.
Rafiki - Oh yes, the past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it. [Rafiki takes another swipe at the young lion, Simba ducks and avoids the blow.
The young lion finally gets the message and as he heads home, toward his responsibilities, Rafiki cheers him on. I often feel like a spiritual cheerleader.
Of course, Simba returns and helps save his kingdom. It’s inspirational with a great happy ending.
Then we return to the story from our Torah portion this morning. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and he sets off to do so. At the last minute, God stops Abraham but we’re still left troubled by God’s request in the first place.
This passage comes back to us every year. It challenges us every year and, while I’ve found explanations that help, it occurred to me this year that this passage gives us a huge question.
Are we sacrificing our children?
I do believe that this chapter of Genesis tells us not to sacrifice them. I believe it’s a polemic against child sacrifice and helped break our ancestors of the practice prevalent in surrounding communities.
And, yet, it occurred to me that we may still be sacrificing our children.
Every community across the country has been touched by senseless violence… and the youth are especially susceptible.
Here in our valley, the air quality is compromising the health of so many… and the youth are especially vulnerable.
We’re experiencing ongoing crises with the management of our natural resources… and it is our youth who will be left with the results of our management… or mismanagement.
Our educational system has serious flaws. It’s not keeping up with other states and other countries… and our youth suffer the consequences.
I could go on and on.
Are we sacrificing our children?
This morning’s portion with the not-quite-sacrifice of Isaac is just one mention of a host of sacrifices chronicled throughout Torah. Many involve animal sacrifice but other offerings are different, offerings such as the wave offering. I keep picturing the wave offering like we see at the ballgame… and, actually, it may not have been so different. I’ve read a description of our ancestors, lined up in great numbers, all stepping forward and back in a synchronized fashion. I’m sure it was something to see. Then there’s the elevation offering. One would take something like grain from the harvest, lift it up and then bring it back down.
And then I realized, that’s exactly what this is… when the Mohel lifts up the baby, Rafiki and Simba… it’s an elevation offering… it’s a presentation to God and to our community… saying I offer this child to Your service, to the service of humanity, to the service of our world.
And as our children reach the age of B’nai Mitzvah and take on the mitzvot, our sacred obligations, they make the choice, like Simba, to heed the call of the community and serve it.
Simba was inspired by his father even after his father’s death. There are many inspirational figures here in our own community.
I arrived here to find the legacy of Rabbi Greenberg who created lasting and impactful interfaith programs and Cantor Loring who not only created great music but also engaged in social activism.
If I start naming current names, I’m going to get into trouble because there is no way I can do so without missing someone. So many of you, in so many different ways inspire me daily with your activities, your dedication, your love of this community…
I must mention one of our own, a child of our community. Andy Levine is the Executive Director of Faith in Community who connected me with so many local leaders by walking into my office and nudging me to check out this worthwhile organization. It was much gentler than Rafiki’s nudging Simba but no less effective.
I’m meeting people around the city… I hear the legacy of Rev. Chester Riggins who marched with Dr. King and continued to inspire the community until his death in 2009 and still his legacy inspires. My friends, Pastors Paul Binion, Booker T. Lewis and DJ Criner to name just a few who carry Pastor Riggins’ tradition forward and work to make our city a better place.
I found further inspiration when I met the Imam at the Islamic Center, their manager Reza Nekumanesh and many others of their community who are leaders in local efforts to improve our city.
And many more in the interfaith community and in other facets of community involvement.
All of these people inspire me. All of these people inspire me to do more to engage in the work of our community. When I’m choosing whether or not to avail myself of the opportunities to participate in Tikkun Olam, I hear each of their voices and push myself to act for our community and for the children who live here now and the children who will be born into our world.
I hear the words from next week’s Torah reading from Deuteronomy that I mentioned last night…
19…I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your children will live.
The call comes in many forms… a wind… Ruach Elohim, the breath of God.
The blast of the shofar, the horn left behind, caught in the thicket by the ram taken to sacrifice in place of Isaac…
Will we choose to hear it… to heed it?
Like our ancestor before us, when Abraham heard the call, he responded, “Hineini, here I am.”
We faces choices every day that impact the lives of our youth, the youth of today and the youth of tomorrow.
When we hear the call, will we lift up our children as an elevation offering..
Will we give them every opportunity to bring closer the day of Messianic redemption?
When we hear the call of the shofar this morning… let us remember the child saved. Let us remember that Isaac lived and let us heed the call to choose life for us and for our children.