Journeying Forth and Coming Home to Oneself Again
Rabbi Dena Feingold
So here we are at the start of a New Year again, and, as much as we desire change each year, some things never change. The story of Abraham and Isaac and their frightening encounter on Mt. Moriah has pierced our consciousness again, and we find ourselves wondering why. Why do have to focus on this terrible act again just when the New Year invites us to look the future and find a better path? Why must we confront Abraham’s terrible choice to answer God: “Hineni. Yes, for You, I will kill my son?” And maybe most of all, what does this upsetting story have to do with us?
These are good questions, and to answer them, we have to try to get into the heads of the rabbis who chose the scripture readings. What were they thinking in putting this story before us on Rosh Hashanah? I do not think the main point was to frighten us with the terrible act of the near sacrifice of Isaac. There are many possible interpretations.
Some of the commentaries zero in not on the moment on Mt. Moriah, but on what happened after the fact. They are interested in the how Abraham and Isaac responded after this horrible event; how they had to face their own personal turmoil and find themselves again, apart from and informed by this incident. The choice to place this story on Rosh Hashanah may have been primarily about encouraging us to look at our own traumas and choices of the past year. Perhaps the sages offered up the example of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to help us see the path forward and the way home to our best selves.
Yes, each year we begin a journey after the Yom Kippur break-fast. We set out with hope and resolve for the coming year. We will do better; we will choose wisely; we will grow; we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. That’s behind us, and we are moving on. But, inevitably we veer off from the path we intended.
We can count ourselves lucky that the Jewish calendar comes equipped with an automatic correcting tool for this universal human backsliding. Like the “re-center” feature on the GPS app on our phones, Rosh Hashanah serves as a homing device that guides us in turning back toward our internal, home base, and the Akedah is one of the “re-routing” tools that help us in this quest.
I wonder if the Akedah is presented to us as a Torah text on Rosh Hashanah because the rabbis wanted to send us into a dark space from which to emerge at the end of these Days of Awe.
Regrettably, some of us have no problem getting into a dark space inside; indeed some of us operate in an unhealthy way out of that space on a regular basis. Surely there are many among us this morning whose hurt and pain, whose failures and travails, define who they are, and the retelling of the crisis of the Akedah journey is a moment of catharsis for their personal journeys.
Some in this category may identify more with Abraham and others with Isaac. Like Abraham, some may regret their own acts: “I really messed up. How could I have thought that was the right thing to do? I’ve caused a loved one pain.” On the other hand, those who see themselves in Isaac may feel victimized: “I’ve been wronged, traumatized, done an injustice. I am hurting. What did I do to deserve what happened to me?” For some, the drama and pathos of the “Binding of Isaac” brings all of this brimming up to the surface.
But for others, there is estrangement from the dark place from which we need to emerge on these Days of Awe. We have all caused harm and been hurt in ways large and small in the past year, but none of us really like to look at that part of ourselves. We err; we do something that made sense at the time, but now we regret. In a moment of passion or anger we make a poor decision, we get distracted, even addicted, and go off track. We make just plain bad choices. We miss cues because of our blindness. We get sidelined by illness and disability. We suffer losses. Some of it we cause and some of it happens to us. The Jewish way is to go in deep to the places inside of us that bury these feelings and truths on Rosh Hashanah, and to bring them into consciousness for our teshuvah journeys.
In her book, Recovering, writer May Sarton starts keeping a journal at the end of December. She has had a mastectomy and is dealing with depression. A relationship is ending. She uses the imagery of the short days and long nights as triggers to speak of the dark places in her life. In addition to dealing with losses in health and in love, she is lonely. She muses: “It is not strange though it is mysterious that (the secular) ‘New Year’ comes at the darkest time in the seasonal cycle. When there is personal darkness, when there is pain to be overcome, we are forced to renew ourselves against all the odds,….” (p.16)
But, the Jewish New Year does not come at the winter solstice when encroaching darkness is the theme of the season. The Akedah story comes to provide the dark overtones in the Jewish New Year and to give us the impetus to renew ourselves at our New Year.
Rabbi David Wolpe said, once we revisit the painful pieces of our lives, it is crucial not to stop there. “Yes, we have seen the horrors,” says Wolpe, “but they should not be the sole shaping forces of our vision.” (Hope is an Ability, Hadassah Magazine, June/July 2011) Indeed, the Akedah story quickly moves us from the excruciating pain of the moment of near tragedy to a
way forward. That way forward begins with an honest assessment of self, and the Akedah points us in that direction.
I mentioned last night that one of the names of this first day of the Jewish Year is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Part of being judged on this day is taking a good hard look at ourselves. “The beginning of wisdom” writes Rabbi Sue Elwell, “is to know oneself and to judge oneself.” (Four Centuries of Women’s Spirituality, p. 270, cited in Benjamin Levy, A Faithful Heart, p. 68) In the Akedah, the moment of self-judgment comes when Abraham’s intention to slay his son is halted by the call of an angel, and his eyes light upon a ram caught in a thicket. Not only does Abraham see the ram, but some commentators say that, for the first time, crazy as that seems, he finally sees the error of his ways and the tragedy in the moment. To mark this moment of self-enlightenment, Abraham names the place where this reversal occurred “Adonai Yireh,” and he explains the use of the word Yireh, saying “On the mountain of Adonai there is seeing.” (Gen. 22: 14)
Like Abraham, we are called upon on this day to shine a light on our innermost selves with honesty and clarity. This can be exceedingly difficult. We have all faced trials in our lives, some self-imposed by our personal shortcomings and others imposed upon us by others’ foibles and the harsh reality of an unfair world. Like Abraham, we have been tested. Once we force ourselves not to ignore the pain of those tests, but to really sit with it, the message of “yireh,” “there is seeing,” shines through.
Abraham’s new found vision in the Akedah teaches us that it is essential to take this time on Rosh Hashanah to consciously review and evaluate our travails. This is the part of the teshuvah process known as cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul. (p. 13 Levy, A Faithful Heart) Like a judge who listens to all the evidence, hears arguments pro and con, and then renders a judgment, we are required to go through this process in evaluating ourselves.
For some of us, hard truths will be revealed in this self-judgment. In the Akedah, undoubtedly Abraham’s new found vision brought with it agony and self-loathing for what he had done. For Isaac, who is thought to have been already a young adult in this story, the moment could be seen as a crucible in which he realized his own complicity in following his father’s wishes. This self-realization may have enabled him at this juncture to finally step out on his own into a new future that would not require assenting to his father’s every wish. In fact, if we look carefully at the denouement of the Akedah, Isaac seems to have left the scene. Abraham returns to his servants waiting at the foot of the mountain and then to Be’er Sheva, but Isaac is nowhere to be seen. (Gen 22: 19) In that moment of clear vision at the altar of near death, Isaac saw a need to separate from his father and become an independent person. (after URJ Torah commentary, p. 146)
The final and most important step of the Akedah’s message for us this Rosh Hashanah morning is the need to take concrete and positive steps to move forward after fully facing and evaluating our deficits and losses, to click on the “re-centering” arrow and begin a journey home to our true selves.
In the Akedah, this is what Abraham and Isaac both do. After the section we read this morning, in the remaining verses of Chapter 22 of Genesis and the beginning of the next chapter, we learn that father and son have both found positive new paths in their lives. You see, the story of the Akedah is not actually complete as of verse 19, where we concluded this morning. And, in fact, the remaining verses are provided in our prayer book on p. 241. Here, we find a genealogy that points to the birth of Rebekah, who will become Isaac’s wife.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz writes that what follows for Abraham and Isaac after the Akedah crisis is a “productive, creative response to personal tragedy.” He cites the end of this story, when Abraham, even in his grief after Sarah dies, turns toward finding a wife for Isaac and a future for his family. This act, says Steinmetz, shows us “…how to use past crises to teach us the lessons of future renewal.” (What I am Praying For This Rosh Hashanah, 2005, cited in MHN, p.242)
And Isaac also embraces enthusiastically this opportunity to start again. The text tells us that Isaac takes Rebekah into his tent, loves her and is “comforted after (the death of) his mother.” (Gen 24:67) As writer May Sarton put it after she closed one relationship and began to consider the idea of something new: A person grows “through opening ourselves to other human beings to be fertilized and made new.” (p. 205)
Surely it is true that our past misdeeds and traumas, our troubles and transgressions, make us who we are. To recognize how we’ve added to or been subjected to further imperfections in our souls during the past year is part of knowing who we are now and how to act on that knowledge. It is not starting all over and returning to who we were last year at the end of Yom Kippur. It is going forward.
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of teshuvah (repentance) as “the most unnoticed of all miracles.” “Teshuvah,” says Heschel, “is not the same thing as rebirth. It is transformation, creation.”(Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, p. 69 ) In other words, it is becoming someone new, the persons we are meant to be, carrying with us the scars and gaps that have marred us along the way as integral to who we are today.
Teshuvah is active. Like using the “re-routing” feature that appears on our GPS devices when we go astray, we have to actively pursue the right path. We ignore the “re-routing” option at our
own risk. In an essay on the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy, Rabbi Avi Weiss speaks of turning fate into destiny. (Who By Fire, Who By Water, pp. 177-181) Fate is what happens to us: Adversity, those dark places in which we find ourselves. Destiny is the outcome we actively pursue that determines the future, an outcome over which we do have control. He quotes Rabbi Yosef Dov Solveitchik: Destiny “is an active existence in which one confronts the environment into which he or she is cast.” (Listen, My Beloved Knocks, pp.5-6)
How do we do this? We act on new commitments that arise from recognizing past mistakes. We perform deeds of kindness to counter the unkindnesses of the past. We make a real effort at turning a weakness into a strength. We share a lesson based on something we learned in going astray. May Sarton was truly energized by the opportunity of taking hold of her destiny. She wrote: “For a week or more, I have been in a state of extreme excitement, as on the brink of revelation…. (O)nce the decision (is) made, one is free at last to go home to the self….” (p.204)
A new direction, whether born of loss or of transgression, can indeed be freeing and even exciting. And the wonderful thing is that it can also be comforting. I imagine you have noticed, like I have, that since the invention of GPS and its re-routing feature, making a wrong turn isn’t quite so scary anymore. If we learn to trust the GPS, we can relax, knowing that even though we may have erred and lost a few minutes, if we heed its instructions, the GPS will still take us to our destination. The rabbis’ choice of the Akedah for the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, seems to be a similar homing device, with the message: Relax, you can find your way back home to yourself. Just follow the new instincts that you have gained from having taken an honest look at the dark places you’ve traveled through this year. And re-route with confidence and purpose. “Return — to the land of your soul.”