5776 Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Dvar

Posted September 16th, 2015 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
5776 Rosh Hashanah Day 2
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
September 15, 2015 ▪ London, Ontario
Thank you to John Stoffman for chanting haftarah and to Beryl Chernick, our ba’al kriyah, for chanting Torah.
Shanah tovah! The Torah reading for today is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. It is horrific. God calls to Abraham telling him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham and Isaac travel to Mount Moriah. When they arrive, Abraham builds an altar, binds his son, and picks up a knife to slaughter him. An angel of the Lord interrupts and stops the murder. Abraham offers up a ram in Isaac’s place. Abraham departs for Beersheva. The story ends there. We aren’t told where Isaac goes.
As awful as the Torah reading for today is, its aftermath is as bad, perhaps worse. The very next parsha is Chayyei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” but that is not what the parsha is about. Rather, it is about her death. The parsha begins וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע, “Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to 127 years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba.”
The midrash makes much of the juxtaposition of the near-murder of Isaac with the death of Sarah. Midrash, ancient rabbinic interpretations of biblical texts, are creative and dense with meaning. One thing they are not, though, is consistent. Midrash provides at least three different explanations of how Sarah’s death is linked to the Akedah. Today we will focus on two of these explanations.
In one from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, a collection of midrash from around the 2nd-century, Satan goes and tells Sarah that her husband took Isaac and sacrificed him as a burnt offering while her son cried and wailed because he could not be saved. Sarah cries and wails and then dies.
Note that in this version of the story Sarah believes (wrongly we know, but she doesn’t have the same information we do) that Isaac is indeed dead. In this version of the midrash, it is entirely understandable that the news kills her. She believes that her son is dead and that her own husban killed him.
The second midrash, from VaYikra Rabbah, a later midrash of the first millennium, tells a story different in important details. Remember that the text of the Torah tells us that Abraham departed for Beersheva, but Isaac’s whereabouts are not reported. The midrash from VaYikra Rabbah supplies this information.
It imagines that Isaac returns to his mother. Sarah says to him, “Where have you been, my son?” His answer is literally heartbreaking, at least for Sarah. Isaac says to her, “My father took me and led me up hill and down valley, and up to the top of one mountain, and he built an altar and arranged the wood, and he bound me, and took the knife to slaughter me. And were it not that the angel called out from heaven, I would already be slaughtered.” And Sarah says to him, “Oy!… were it not for the angel from heaven, you would already be slaughtered!” Then, Sarah screams and dies.
This version of the midrash is even more disturbing than the first version. Here, the person telling Sarah about the Akedah is her own son. She can see and hear that Abraham did not in fact kill him. Isaac stands before her. She sees that he lives. Yet the horror of what Isaac has experienced at the hand of her husband kills her. Sarah screams and dies just as she did in the first version of the midrash, when she had every reason to believe that Isaac had died.
The contrast between the two midrashim is unsettling. It is unsettling because it illustrates, as we reflect on the year that just passed and on the year to come, that survival is not enough. Isaac survived, but it still destroyed Sarah, just as it did in the first midrash, when she believed him dead.
That survival is not enough is something we know in our own lives, even if it isn’t something we don’t always articulate. We survived last year. If we had not, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning. But that is far from saying that we didn’t suffer debilitating loss – such that on some level, Sarah’s fatal response to Isaac’s news feels entirely understandable, perhaps the best option given the circumstances.
Untane Tokef, a gruesome liturgical poem that we recite each day of the High Holy Days, gets this point. Not all the fates its lists end in death. We ask not just “who by sword and who by beast; who by fire and who by drowning,” but also “who will rest and who will wander; who will be at peace and who will be tormented; who will grow rich and who will become poor.”
Modernizing these questions shows what is at stake: Who will celebrate a bris and who will suffer a miscarriage? Whose business will boom and who will have a fruitless job search? Who will get married and whose spouse will come home from work wanting a divorce? Who will enjoy great health and who will get a diagnosis? Who will travel the world together and who will lose a spouse?
The answer to these questions is not a matter of one’s own life and death, at least not right away. It isn’t survival but it makes all the difference in whether this past year was a good year or a year of almost unbearable pain. It will make all the difference in whether this next year is one filled with pictures and videos to enrich future happy times or whether this next year is one filled with worry, one a person never wants to look back upon. The wrong answer to one of these questions might not be deadly, but it is almost certainly devastating.
That is why survival is not enough, just like Isaac’s survival in the second midrash did not change the outcome for Sarah. The loss is still devastating, and we are left with the question of how to live with loss at a level above mere survival.
A commonality shared by the two midrashim has something to teach us on this point. At the end of the first midrash, from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, the one in which Satan tells Sarah that Isaac is, in fact, dead, Sarah cries three sobs, corresponding to the Tek’iah notes of the shofar, and she wails three more times, corresponding to the staccato notes of the shofar. Then she dies. At the end of the second midrash, from VaYikra Rabbah, the one in which Sarah knows that Isaac lives, Sarah screams six times corresponding to the six Tek’iah notes of the shofar, but before she can finish screaming, she dies.
What went wrong? In both midrashim, Sarah expresses her grief, but incompletely and the result is suffering so severe that it kills her. In the first midrash, as Avivah Zornberg, the Israeli Torah scholar points out, her staccato cries echo the abyss, rather than seek to connect. Sarah cries out with no possibility that anyone will hear her and respond. Her cry expects, and receives, no comfort.
In the second midrash, Sarah intends to cry out six times, but does not. She had more wailing to do, but for some reason, she is unable to finish crying. Her expression of loss is cut short.
Both midrashim are counterexamples to how we should cry out in times of devastating loss so that we can do more than just survive. Unlike Sarah in the first midrash, our cries must seek to connect us with those who can help. Friends can support you through pregnancy loss. Family members lean on each other after the death of one of their own. Social networks, including congregations, can create connections that lead to a job. There are support groups and mental health professionals to help with just about everything.
Unlike Sarah in the second midrash, we must finish our cries. We must find the friends who don’t callously think we should be “over it” already, but are willing to listen to the same pain again, if this is what we need. (Not incidentally, we each need to make sure that we are NOT the callous friend). Most importantly, we must allow ourselves to feel whatever it is we feel. Rarely do I see a coping mechanism more counterproductive than being mad or impatient with oneself for “still” being angry or sad or scared or whatever emotion one is feeling.
We must note also where it is that we hear the Tekiah and staccato notes, the same notes that Sarah cries, according to the midrsahsim. We hear these shofar sounds here, at shul, teaching us that a synagogue, including during services, can be a place to cry. Our liturgy is full of words which allow us to pour our hearts out to God. Our hope, our fear, our secrets, our dread – all of it is in there, making prayer an exactly right fit for emotion. If crying here is what will help you be not like Sarah, but able to live despite devastating loss, then cry here.
For that is the goal of grief – to be able to live fully despite loss and sorrow. Sarah was not able to do it. Isaac survived the Akedah, but it wasn’t enough. The Binding of Isaac killed Sarah anyway. According to the midrashim, she died because the expression of her grief over the horror of what Abraham had done and what Isaac had suffered was insufficient.
The liturgy of the High Holy Days, whether expressed through the Akedah or Untane Tokef, makes clear that our lives will include loss. However, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also give us the opportunity to express our pain so that we can live despite this loss.
LeShanah Tovah Tikateivu. May you be sealed for life in the new year.
We continue with the Prayer for Our Country on page 197. Please rise. Let’s read all three English paragraphs together.


5776 RH2 Sermon v4

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