This is a season of birth and rebirth. The Torah portion for today speaks to that theme, beginning with the birth of Yitzchak, a miraculous gift from God to Sarah and Abraham in their old age. After decades of trying to conceive without success, Sarah had given up on the dream of having a child and told Abraham to sleep with her maidservant Hagar, and Yishmael was the result of that union.
In today’s Torah portion, Yishmael first appears at Yitzchak’s weaning party. When Sarah sees Yishmael, she gets so upset that she tells Abraham to kick the boy and his mother out of the household. Sarah feels threatened by the presence of Abraham’s first-born son, so she takes steps to secure her own son’s position in the family hierarchy. Abraham is not happy about Sarah’s plan, but God tells him to listen to his wife. So Abraham casts Hagar and Yishmael out with limited provisions and Yishmayel nearly dies of thirst.
There is a lot that is troubling about this Torah portion. Our forefather Abraham seems to have no moral backbone; he goes against his better judgment and follows a plan that endangers the lives of others, of his own flesh and blood. Our foremother Sarah shows signs of jealousy, hunger for power and extreme lack of compassion. And yet, we pray in their merit. We did this a half hour ago, earlier in today’s service, at the beginning of the Amidah; we recited their names in our prayers, Elohei Avraham, Elohei Sarah, “the God of Abraham, the God of Sarah.” They are supposed to be tzadikim, righteous people. They are the couple known for their open-tented hospitality. Clearly that is not the case in today’s Torah portion.
We have to face that our biblical ancestors are flawed and not just a little flawed. The truth is that we don’t have examples of perfect human beings in Torah.
Isaac seems almost invisible to us, as he is limited and does not come into his fullness due the severe trauma of coming so close to being sacrificed by his own father. Rebecca and Jacob co-conspire; they lie and manipulate to steal Esau’s birthright. Joseph is a braggart and also lies and manipulates, and his brothers are so jealous of him, that they throw him into a pit to die. Moses is short-tempered and reluctant, and at times overly protective of his position of power. David is so covetous of Uriah’s wife, that he sleeps with her, gets her pregnant and then tries to cover up his misdeeds by sending Uriah to the front lines of battle to die; and then David marries Uriah’s wife. These are just a few of the many more examples of flawed behavior in the Tanakh. Yet these same flawed figures also have moments that are worthy of praise. They are generous, loyal, brave, self-sacrificing, wise. Some have deep moments of spiritual connection. Some reflect deeply on their lives and try to make amends and do deep teshuvah. We see the teshuvah impulse in the book of Psalms which is attributed to King David.
We read the stories of our biblical ancestors over and over again, week after week, year after year, and look for lessons in their lives. You could say that their flaws make them seem more human, more relatable. That does not mean, however, that we should erase or excuse their flaws. Because they have impact.
Our flaws also have impact.
In Torah, human frailty appears hyperbolic which makes it harder to ignore. The frailties become a giant mirror that we can hold up to ourselves to ask difficult questions. Who among us has ever been jealous or shown signs of entitlement, arrogance, anger or impatience? Who among us has ever lacked compassion for another, or been blinded by our needs and desires? Who among us has fought to maintain control? Who among us has bent the truth to manipulate an outcome? And yet, even if we have erred in those directions, we are not all that. Yes we are flawed, but that’s not the whole story. We have also been generous, loyal, brave, self-sacrificing, wise. Some of us have had moments of deep spiritual connection. Some of us are here today because we are deeply committed to doing teshuvah. And at times, that can be super hard because we also know that some of our actions have had a negative impact on others. We can’t erase that. But still, while holding the truth of what we’ve done, we can also do better, because teshuvah is a journey that also has impact.
Torah teaches us that the journey of trying to create a rich meaningful life, of trying to build family and community is of key importance – of trying to find a place for God/goodness to dwell within us. All of that is the path to redemption. Like with our biblical ancestors, there are so many obstacles in the way; some are out of our control and some are not. The obstacles that are more within our control are likely more ego-based. They are the flaws that we can do something about.
In recognizing the flaws of our ancestors, we are asked to recognize the flaws in ourselves, in our communities and in our history. During the Days of Awe, we focus on what needs to be corrected and healed. And at the same time, we must give ourselves and our ancestors kavod, for journeying, for trying in the state of brokenness.
We have made mistakes and we are more than our mistakes. We are not perfect and never will be. Perfect does not exist. Perfect is static and lifeless. Trying, being awake to the moment, responding with our heart, serving with love, having the courage to recognize the truth of who we are in the moment, is the work of Teshuvah. We must commit to that journey. That is why we are here today.