So often when we think about the story of the Binding of Isaac, we focus on the actual sacrifice. We think of Abraham tying up Isaac, we think about Isaac, who was just 16 years old according to some, willingly offering himself up; we think about the Angels coming and saying “stop!” at just the right moment. But we don’t think about how this one event impacted those associated with it.
Where is Sarah? Is she aware that her life’s partner, Abraham, is about to offer up the son that she prayed and prayed for to God? Does she loose her trust in Abraham that day, believing that he will always be there to protect her and her family? After all, how could he protect her, if he is willing to kill her son? She lost her family that fateful morning. Specifically for Sara, though Isaac never died according to the Torah, she lost him. In fact we learn that they never did see each other again. There is a tradition that Sara did discover what was happening on top of Mount Mariah and it crushed her.
What about Abraham? He lost his wife; their relationship was never the same. Not long after this event she dies.
What about Isaac? He seemed too scarred by this event that he did not participate significantly in the world around him again.
For the key players – Abraham, Sarah and Isaac this event was tragic. They each lost something significant as a result of it.
NO one can say in this room that they have not lost someone or something. Everyone has experienced loss. Perhaps it was a loved one. Perhaps it was a child. Perhaps it was a loved business or perhaps it was a pet. Perhaps it was a love. Perhaps it was a career. Some of us have lost money and therefore our status within society. Others of us have lost our marriage. More significantly as we age most of us lose our mobility and independence. We lose trust that our body will respond the way it always had. Whatever it was for you – your health, your family, your career, or even a dream – we have all lost something we loved.
When I engage with a person or a couple in pastoral counselling, often I hear about them describe a problem. Sometimes, I hear strong emotions like hurt and anger or betrayal. But usually, if I work closely with them, I can find something else. I can find what is lurking behind those emotions – what is lurking is usually a loss of some sort.
Everyone has experienced loss. Sometimes that loss is exacerbated by feelings of entitlement. That this was not supposed to happen to me; yet I assure you this happens to you because you are a human being and suffering is part of the human condition.
Yet we can learn things from our suffering.
The poet Irving Layton wrote:
“There were no signs”
By walking I found out
Where I was going.
By intensely hating, how to love.
By loving, whom and what to love.
By grieving, how to laugh from the belly.
Out of infirmity, I have built strength.
Out of untruth, truth.
From hypocrisy, I wove directness
Almost now I know who I am
Almost I have the boldness to be that man
And I shall be where I started from.
From suffering we learn how to have compassion for others and how to understand others. When we see that someone has suffered a loss, whether it is developmentally appropriate like watching them grow up to learn that the world is not black and white. To losing their innocence by discovering that the dream they wished, hoped and prayed for erupts before their very eyes. We know about loss. As we experience loss we can tap into the well of empathy and compassion we have for one another.
We can help hold that person in the deepest bonds of love.
When I was a little girl, I would spend a week every summer visiting my grandparents. My grandparents, I thought were the coolest – they had cable and MTV. My mom was opposed to cable and we never had it when I was growing up. Therefore I could watch a ton of MTV and my sister and I could have dance parties – i.e. the best time ever.
What was amazing about them was my grandfather’s love with John Wayne. He loved almost all of his movies. Whenever there was one on, he would watch it. During my maternity leave, I decided to watch a John Wayne classic while walking around my living room at 1am trying to get Daniel to go to sleep. I got to see John Wayne in all his glory. He was the American ideal – total independence! Yet the more I thought about John Wayne as our ideal, the more problematic that image became for me.
How could he choose to help others or have sympathy for others? If he suffered anything, he would swallow the pain and trudge on. In the end of the film, he would have regained what was lost; he was always in control and always won. This, in many ways is the myth of America – that we need only rely on ourselves. That the pain we are experiencing will make us tougher. One of the things that we often say to each other is: “God only gives us what we can handle and that it is a test for us to pass on our own.” But imagine if you are hearing that phrase. How untrue it is. Someone says it because they can’t handle that amount of pain and they want to feel separated from it.
But that is not the Jewish way. The Jewish model of community is something that teaches that we are supposed to rely on each other. That we are supposed to be present with and for one another by bringing that pot of chicken soup to someone who has the flu; a food tray to a house of mourning; rocking a newborn baby so that a tired new mom could sleep. These are things that I have seen this community do for each other. This past winter we had an unprecedented loss that our community experienced. Two individuals – one a past president and one someone who grew up here passed within in days of each other. What I saw from this community was also a miracle. People drove from one shiva minyan to the other one to ensure that there was a community presence at both places. People held both families in loving arms. When a few days after that, a member of our board lost his mother, again people came together to his house to help create a minyan. When this community lost a Rabbi, the community rallied. When the daughter of this community who became a cantor passed while still in her prime, the community rallied. When her sister passed away, the community rallied.
Whenever this community experiences loss, this community rallies. In spite of all of the pain of those losses, this community stood up and said: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad”. “Hear oh Israel Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” We remembered that the letter Yain and Dalled appear larger in the Torah. When put together they spell the word AID or witness and that we are taught to witness people’s suffering just as much as we are commanded to be present with the bride and groom and bring joy to every occasion. When a mom in this congregation was sick and unexpectedly hospitalized, this congregation stood up to say even though you have lost your health temporarily, we are here. Let us help take care of your children so that you can recover.
The Jewish way is to pray and act as it says in the Talmud, “a man should always associate himself with a congregation.” (Berakhot 30a) We cannot offer our prayers individually, but our stormy and tempestuous hearts must merge and blend into a beautiful chorus. We must, “rise above our individual uniqueness to achieve a sense of communal unity” (Soloveitchik p. 76). In the book of Job, we learn that one of the lessons Job understood from his suffering was how to be a member of his community. To be present when the community suffers and celebrate the joys when the community finds happiness. That is the meaning of the verse: Then “the Lord turned the fortune of Job, when he prayed for his friends.”(Job 42:10)
I want to offer my own experience of this community, of how you supported me. Some of you know that my last pregnancy was a hard one for me physically. I was in the hospital on 4 different occasions because I had such a hard time keeping food down. I want to say thank you for being there for my family and being so supportive. You are amazing community! You are a blessing to those around you!!!
One of the biggest stories of loss is the story from the Garden of Eden. The Garden was a place of paradise where we had our needs met. We were not wanting anything or missing anything. Yet when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, we as a society lost our moment in Paradise, we lost our innocence. In a way we have always mourned that loss. We strive to live in a feeling of utter joy and happiness all the time, to recreate the garden around us. But God taught us that it was lost to us. God put angels as guards to the entrance and hid the entrance to us so that we could not get back. Do you think that the Garden of Eden ever left us or we left it? It is still with us, though we will never be able to reenter the actual place. That is why we have moments in our lives of absolute bliss.
We tell each other the story of the Garden of Eden because we don’t want to accept that we will never be allowed to go back. Yet we cannot return.
There is a before and an after. We had something and then we lost it. Things will never be the way they were before. There will be a new normal.
For victims of the Holocaust, there was life before and there was life after, and there was hell during. How were people able to pull their life back after facing such a catastrophic tragedy? How did they go on living after losing so much? Did they find God or did they decide, because of all of their loss and pain, that God did not exist anymore? What is then experienced is God’s silence.
Victor Frankel describes his reconnection with God and feeling redeemed after leaving a concentration camp.
One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the lark’s jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky – and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself r the world – I had but one sentence in mind – always the same: “I called to Adonai from my narrow prison and God answered me in the freedom of space.”
Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik, a modern orthodox rabbi, wrote an article offering a theology of loss. In his article he offers an understanding of the binding of Isaac by emphasizing something powerful about loss. He taught that when God explained to Abraham what he had to do, he also explained that he would never have Isaac back again. Therefore the Akeidat, the Binding of Isaac, challenged Abraham both in the present and in the future. This tragedy and loss that Abraham and Sara were to undergo, therefore impacts every subsequent experience.
When I speak to someone who has a strong belief in God, I hear someone who has a dual experience. At various moments they feel God’s nearness while at other times experience God’s distance. We love to say that there was a good reason for suffering, yet for many of us, loss is so terrible that no reason could possibly be given that would be good enough. We will never understand the “why?” of suffering. All we can do is utilize our experience by asking a different questions: “for what?” “What was the purpose of my suffering?”
I have been privileged to walk with many of you in your loss. It has sensitized me further to concealed pain. When I perform funerals I find myself even more appreciative of the finitude of life and value the sweetness of the present moment all the more. Why is it that we must experience actual pain to have developed this sensitivity? Why can’t I just read about it in a book? The answer is that it must be lived! It must be experienced because we are human beings with both an intellect and a body. “Hesed means to merge with the other person, to identify with his pain, to feel responsible for his fate.” (Solovetchik).
I have found that when we come together, when we arrive and are present then the Holy is with us!
I hope and pray that we are able to enjoy the present in a far sweeter way. It is only in enjoying the present moment that we can truly become sensitive to all aspects of life. May we be able to continue our quest to experience God, to cleave to Him, as he communicates to us through a cloud of mystery and uncertainty. I know that somehow we will find our way through our losses, with God’s help along with the help of our community and loved ones.
May you have a shannah tovah u’metukah. A sweet, healthy and happy new year where you are able to celebrate the joys of life and present for its sorrows while still feeling deeply connected to those around you.
 Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe, CCAR Press, New York 2015. p.35
 Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe, CCAR Press, New York 2015. p.35