Rabbi Debra Rappaport, AARC, 5783/2022
Introduction to the Torah Service
As we move into the Torah service, I want to give you a bit of context for what we’re about to read. The Rabbis of the Talmud designated two different – both poignant and challenging – stories for the two days of Rosh Hashanah that were to be observed in diaspora. As an interesting aside, Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday for which the second day is still observed in modern Israel. Most of the time, when congregations observe one day of Rosh Hashanah, we read one or the other of these stories. This year, Deb and I thought it would be meaningful to read the eventful parts of both stories, and no, it’s not a longer Torah service, it’s the same number of aliyot you usually do.
Why do we read these particular stories?
The rabbis of the Talmud first linked Rosh Hashanah with the birth of Isaac, thus connecting the new year with new life in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The Talmud also linguistically links Biblical verses about remembering to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah with God remembering Sarah in our Torah reading, and Hannah in our Haftarah reading. God remembered them, and their children were conceived on Rosh Hashanah (BT Rosh Hashanah 11a). This is our traditional first day reading, where we’ll start.
The subsequent chapter of Torah, Akeidat-Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, connects the story of Abraham’s trial – being told by God to sacrifice his son – with aspects of the shofar service. According to a rabbinic legend, Abraham bargained with God at the end of the trial, insisting that, because he had done his part by not withholding Isaac, God must now protect Isaac’s descendents by remembering on their behalf this act of sacrifice every Rosh Hashanah, the annual Day of Judgment. God agrees to this demand and tells Abraham that, in order to remind God of this agreement, Isaac’s descendents should blow a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah in remembrance of the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera, 23).
After the Torah service, we’ll share some reflections. So I invite you to follow along in whichever language you understand, and ask yourself, what can we learn for our lives and our world by looking at the stories together?
[Aliyot from Genesis 21 and Genesis 22]
After Hagbah and Galilah
These stories, read together, wow. Each year, they certainly invoke God-wrestling! And reckoning with our own judgmental natures.
20th century Israeli poet Haim Guri, in a poem called Inheritance, ended his version of the binding of Isaac with these words:
The child, freed of his bonds
Saw his father’s back.
Yitzhak, it is said, was not sacrificed.
He lived a very long time,
Seeing the good, until the light of his eyes dimmed.
But that hour
he bequeathed to his descendants
still to be born
in the heart.
What we’ve inherited is heavy. Many poets, including Yehudah Amichai, Chana Block, Alicia Ostriker, and more have captured the paradoxes of these stories in their words, helpful somehow in integrating them. Sometimes I’m grateful for annual opportunities to wrestle with our patriarchal stories; sometimes I want to say to my fellow Jews: team, it’s time for some new foundational stories, stories of collaboration.
But these are our stories, our people’s stories. The rabbinic endeavor has always been to redeem them, to find the good. Here’s what I offer in that lineage: these are stories of human trauma. We tell them to learn from them, not to emulate our ancestors’ behaviors.
I offer three teachings I’m receiving from the two stories taken together.
- The first is that our job of teshuvah, making amends and turning into our best selves, needs to include empathy. Marsha Pravder Mirkin teaches in depth about this in Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the Holidays. Mirkin explores the interpersonal backdrop of these stories, looking at moments of empathy (like Abraham arguing with God on behalf of the righteous citizens of Sodom) and many moments prior to these stories in which Abraham shows an extraordinary lack of empathy toward his wife. She picks up on the wording of God’s response to Abraham, regarding Sarah’s complaint. God tells Abraham, “shema b’kola” (21:12) – listen or hearken to Sara’s voice – and then God promises to make nations of both his sons. Mirkin writes, “Traditional interpretation takes these verses to imply that God meant Abraham to obey Sarah and expel Ishmael. Such traditional interpretations often hear language through a patriarchal sensibility. However, a feminist understanding of this language creates a world of difference between “listening to her voice” and “obeying.” Sarah was distraught, she was lonely, she was frightened. She needed Abraham to empathize with her feelings, to listen to her feelings. She did not need him to take action, nor do we need to hear God’s words as a request that Abraham take action.” The message here is that in several pivotal moments, our protagonists were not able to see or hear what was really before them, and that teshuvah requires cultivating empathy for ourselves and others, and an intentional effort to give people the benefit of the doubt.
- A second learning also comes from noticing what was absent for our patriarchs and matriarchs. Avram had been told by God to leave his land and his people to go somewhere new. He and Sarah did not have any community. Sarah didn’t have friends to vent her insecurities to. Abraham didn’t have friends who might have said, “are you sure that’s what God told you?! – what are you thinking? Maybe you should wait…” This past week I learned that my dear friend’s son and his wife are splitting up, even though they still love each other a lot. In the year and a half they’ve been married, this couple has lived in three places, during the pandemic. They had no opportunity to build community. It’s too much pressure on any one family to figure out challenges by ourselves.
- Last but not least, I want to share where I find inspiration in these stories: In the darkest, most severe life-or-death moments, a third way opens up. In both cases, the protagonist hears a call from God or an angel, alerting them to change course. Then they both see with new eyes. Hagar, at the moment she is wailing her son’s immanent death, “God opened her eyes,” and she saw a well of water. Similarly, Abraham heard a call to not sacrifice Isaac, and then vayisa Avraham et eynav vayar’a – Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw – and check it out, there’s a ram! The learning is not only about finding another way when we feel trapped, but in coming back to our physical senses, hearing, seeing, knowing through more than our minds, knowing through integrated experience what is true. And aligning ourselves with that.
My personal version of this involves some combination of being in nature, moving my body, and prayer, which when things feel really dark will eventually bring me to a big cleansing cry. Somehow the world then moves from grey tones back to full color, and choices seem to soften around the edges. Unfortunately I can never think my way out of those sorts of binds, so something feels powerful and true about sensory interventions.
These Torah stories place the struggles of our own lives in the context of human nature, and remind us just how difficult life can be. In closing these reflections, I offer a quote from Jewish Buddhist master teacher Joseph Goldstein:
Seeing the suffering in the world around us and in our own bodies and minds, we begin to understand suffering not only as an individual problem, but as a universal experience. It is one of the aspects of being alive. The question that then comes to mind is: if compassion arises from the awareness of suffering, why isn’t the world a more compassionate place? The problem is that often our hearts are not open to feel the pain. We move away from it, close off, and become defended. By closing ourselves off from suffering, however, we also close ourselves to our own wellspring of compassion. We don’t need to be particularly saintly in order to be compassionate. Compassion is the natural response of an open heart, but that wellspring of compassion remains capped as long as we turn away from or deny or resist the truth of what is there. When we deny our experience of suffering, we move away from what is genuine to what is fabricated, deceptive and confusing. (from Seeking the Heart of Wisdom)
May we all learn from what Sarah and Abraham were tragically unable to grasp. May this holy season help our hearts open so that we may return, shuv, to presence with our essential compassion and essential inter-connectedness with all life.