HHD 5780/2019: Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

Several years ago, Tom and I were in NYC over the Thanksgiving holiday and we saw the Broadway musical “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theatre. Has anyone here seen it?

“Wicked” has an unexpected and unique perspective.  Rather than looking at the Land of Oz through Dorothy’s, the Tin Man’s, the Lion’s, or the Scarecrow’s perspective (as portrayed in the 1939 Judy Garland classic), the 2003 Broadway musical tells the tale of Oz from the perspective of Dorothy’s nemesis, the “Wicked” Witch of the West,” that awful witch who pursues and threatens Dorothy. “ I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog, too.”

“Wicked” has now been running for over 15 years. Why is “Wicked” a cultural phenomenon?Why is it meaningful to consider the Wicked Witch’s Story? 

We usually hear tales and stories from just one perspective. Our friends tell us about disagreements they have had with a colleague, spouse, or loved one. And, as good friends, we listen.  We support. We buttress our friends. Typically, we don’t raise or consider the perspectives of our friends’ colleague, spouse or loved one. I am not sure why we don’t. I do know that as a child I only, and always, saw the world of Oz through Dorothy’s eyes, and never through the eyes of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch’s real name. I loved having Dorothy be good and having that green witch be all bad. Yet, there is richness, nuance, and perhaps even healing, that may arise from imagining the world through the eyes of another. And not just “another” – but one quite different from ourselves

On Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis, Chapter 22. Thiscore biblical story of our tradition is told through the eyes of a narrator who focuses almost exclusively on Abraham, our patriarch. Abraham, the first monotheist. Abraham, a man of great faith. Abraham, the man of unquestioning obedience. As you recall, God called to Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Unquestioning and obediently, Abraham sets off to do so, with complete and unwavering trust in God.

As a child, I remember sitting around the Rosh HaShannah table with my mom and dad. As we ate mom’s delicious homemade desserts of honey cake and teiglach, I asked, “If God asked you to sacrifice David, (my eldest brother), would you?” 

I’ll never forget their responses.  

Dad replied, “Yes, I would.”  

Mom replied, “Never!”  

They each had their reasons for their answer. 

What are the benefits of unquestioning, absolute faith and what are its limitations? There are no simple answers to these questions. 

This morning, however, I am not focusing on Abraham and his choice. Rather, I want to focus on his son, Isaac.  What of Isaac? But, what of Isaac? How did the akeda – what we callthe “binding of Isaac” — affect him that day and throughout the rest of his life? 

The text is filled with silence. 

What do the silences communicate? 

What might we fill in with our imaginations? 

Or, in other words, what midrash might we create? 

What life lessons can we learn from exploring Isaac’s reality?

What lessons can WE learn by examining his experience?

Let’s recall the story: Early one morning, Abraham awakens two servants and his son, Isaac, and off they go. Initially, perhaps, Isaac is excited to be taken on an important journey, to spend time alone with his father.  They begin to walk and walk and walk. They walk for three days. On the third day, Abraham tells his two servants to wait where they are. He tells them that he and Isaac will go on ahead to worship. While his father carries a big knife, Isaac carries wood on his back. Heavy wood. 

Perhaps he feels proud that he has been given this responsibility. He is a big boy, his dad’s helper. They walk and dad is quiet, very quiet. Isaac, confused, inquires,“Father, here are the firestone and the wood. But where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” His father replies, “God will provide.” They continue walking together, silently. Isaac trusts his father. Why wouldn’t he? After all, are we not taught to trust our parents? Then, at the place God showed Abraham, Abraham stops. He builds an altar, and lays the wood on it.  Now, this is the part that blows me away. We are told Abraham binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and raises a knife above his son.

Shockingly, according to the biblical text, Isaac does not say a word. He does not do anything.  He does not fight off his father. He does not shed tears or cry out. He does not resist his father’s efforts to tie him down.  Early rabbis suggest that Isaac was a willing sacrifice. 

That does not sit right with me. Perhaps Isaac does not say a word, or fight off his father, because he is in a state of complete and total shock — frozen and speechless. His sense of security has been shattered.

 I imagine that Isaac, like many people undergoing a traumatic event, disassociates from his body and numbly watches the events transpire. 

Let’s return to the story. We know that eventually an angel calls out to Abraham and instructs him not to raise his hand against Isaac. “I know you have reverence for God, since you would not even keep your favored son from Him,” says the messenger. Abraham looks up, sees a ram, and offers it to God as a burnt offering. God then calls to Abraham a second time and says, “Because you did not withhold your son, I will bestow a blessing on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars.” 

We are then told that Abraham returned to his servants, and “they” (the text does not clarify if this includes Isaac) returned to Beersheba. Isaac is not mentioned. In fact, we do not hear about Isaac again until chapter 24. I’ll return to that in a moment, but first, let’s ask a few more questions:

 What happened to Isaac? How did this ordeal affect him? What helped him to heal?  

 My imaginative thinking about Isaac and the aftermath of the akedais informed by the work The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in Healing of Trauma.I highly recommend this groundbreaking and award-winning book by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk who has been studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (known as PTSD) since the 1970s. There are different kinds and sources of PTSD. 

There is shell shock and combat fatigue caused by war; there are haunting scars from emotional and physical child abuse; there is the trauma from repeated sexual violence and domestic violence; there is the trauma experienced by our Holocaust survivors; and there are even the psychic blows caused and endured by watching acts of terrorism, such as the World Trade Centers falling on September 11th.  Many of us, like Isaac, carry the scars of our personal and communal traumas.

(Let’s return to early years)

Perhaps Isaac had flashbacks. Perhaps his sleep was interrupted by images of his father trying to kill him.  If that was indeed the case, Isaac’s brain likely made no distinction between the past and the present. Isaac would not have been able to think straight and his body would have flooded with adrenaline. His heart beats would have been fast and hard. Perhaps afterwards,at the sight of normal or routine things — like firewood, knives, or the mere sight of his own father— Isaac routinely sweated, hyperventilated or felt anxious, panicky. Perhaps in order to not feel anything, Isaac drank way too much.  Or, perhaps like many survivors of PTSD, Isaac was so numbed out by keeping the demons at bay, that he could no longer engage with, or feel, life’s pleasures. 

Is that the end of Isaac’s story? Is that it for Isaac? No, it is not!  Our Torah and our brilliant tradition offer us lessons. We learn from the life and example of Isaac that people can survive, heal, and even thrive after traumatic events. Now in our time, scientific research is catching up and explaining why and how that is so.

(Let’s return to the biblical story)

When we next hear about Isaac, in Chapter 24:62, we are told Isaac is living in a region of the Negev, Ber-Rohi-Roi, that is quite a distance from where Abraham, his father, resides. Perhaps Isaac needed to move away. Perhaps every time he was in the presence of his father, he became anxious, unable to speak, frozen, frightened. I think like many survivors of trauma, Isaac needed first and foremost to distance himself from his abuser.

To quote Tara Westover, the author of the terrific memoir, Educated, “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them. You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.” 

I also believe that Isaac needed to learn how to feel safe when he was by himself. He needed to befriend his body. He needed to befriend his mind. Physiologically, his body and mind needed to learn that the danger had passed. Perhaps Isaac’s healing began when he took regular walks in the fields (L’Soach b’Sadeh). 

 Our rabbis,hazal, teach that Isaac meditated during these daily walks in nature. I like to think that in time, Isaac gained wisdom and realized that his life had been narrated for him by others, and that their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had probably never occurred to Isaac that his voice might be as strong as theirs. Perhaps Isaac began to hear his ownvoice and thoughts on those long, daily walks.

 Today’s research shows that certain kinds of meditation and yoga can reconfigure the imprint trauma leaves on our mind and body. In studies involving neuroimaging of the brain before and after regular yoga practice, scientists have shown that the areas of the brain involving self-awareness are activated. Those are the precise areas that get locked out by trauma and that are needed in order to heal it .  

Our minds and bodies can learn to move away from fear while practicing mindfulness meditation. It is not a surprise that almost every religion recommends and offers meditation/mindfulness as a spiritual practice. I am happy to share that this year we at SOS are now offering a weekly drop-in meditation group at the Frisco Community & Senior Center. 

Finally, in chapter 24, we learn of the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac. We are told that upon meeting Isaac, Rebekah raised her eyes and saw Isaac. Those are the words: She saw Isaac. Isaac almost immediately took her for his wife. We are told that Isaac loved Rebekah, and that he at last found comfort after his mother’s death. Perhaps Rebekah was the first person Isaac ever told what had happened to him. Perhaps he shared the family secrets. Perhaps what Rebekah offered Isaac was a loving, safe. and intimate relationship in which he could be  seen and heard. This is one of the few times in ourTorah in which the word love is used to describe a relationship between two people. 

According to contemporary research, one way to heal from traumatic events is through safe, intimate relationships in which one is truly seen. By that I mean when one is truly seen in their entirety; when attention is paid.  Absolute safety lets one unwind trauma. Attention is love, and love heals. 

Friends:  families are very, very complicated. Even in the same family, two children can experience childhood very differently. We each have our own versions of our childhood, of our parents, and of our own children. We each have our own story, and too often it is a story defined by trauma. 

I pray that those of us who have experienced trauma willrealize that they are not alone and will seek help and begin the process of healing. 

I pray that we will have the courage and the equanimity to hear the truths of our loved ones. Perhaps then we can begin to heal, and perhaps even renew our relationships with them.  This is what the High Holidays are all about. We need not be like Abraham and Isaac who never say another word to each other in the Torah.

I pray that we, individually and collectively, will have the wisdom to not sacrifice our children (or grandchildren) for the sake of our own needs, aspirations or dreams.

 To the Wizard of Oz

It will not be as easy as clicking our heels three times. It will take effort and work. May we each have the necessary patience, courage, support, faith and love.

Keyn Ye’Hee Ratzon– May It Be So.