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Rosh Hashana 5771

RH II – 5771

“Three Isaacs”

September 9, 2010

“Abraham then returned to his servants, and together they went back to Beersheva. Abraham stayed on in Beersheva.” (Gen. 22.19, trnsl. Chanan Brichto)

Our Torah portion ends with a whimper, not a bang. Think of the Oireworks of the previous 18 verses:  Abraham is asked the impossible and attempts the unspeakable.  God interrupts the sacriOice by saying, “Never mind…” The Torah then treats us to a travelogue as you have just heard: “Abraham then returned to his servants, and together they went back to Beersheva.  Abraham stayed in Beersheva.”

Abraham stayed in Beersheva? I wonder where? Was it a Hyatt or a Marriott? Did he get the AARP rate cause he was over a 100 years old? I wonder if he ordered the “early bird?” What does the Torah mean, “…stayed in Beersheva?”

And more importantly, where is Isaac? The text does not tell us a thing! It is up to us to imagine what happens to him between the time of his binding and his sudden appearance back in the family tent, ready to take a bride. The text is so open, so sparse, it begs us to Oill in the gaps.

So let us try. Imagine…Isaac left on top of the mountain. He is alone, his father having gone on with the servants. Sweating, panting, confused about what just went on up there. He is still in shock. Where should he go now?  What should he do?

As his head clears, he makes up his mind. If Abraham went South, he would go North. Given the knife in his father’s hand, it seemed like a good career move.  And without even thinking about it, he Oinds himself retracing his father’s steps from years ago, when Abraham and Sarah Oirst came to Canaan from the North.

He arrives at Sh’chem, where his father had built his Oirst altar to God.

There he is greeted with honor. He wonders at this, until he hears himself introduced as Isaac, son of Abraham. The crowd buzzes – Abraham? The warrior and man of God? No wonder Isaac is treated like royalty! But he knows this is not his place, so he keeps heading North.

Isaac walks on until he comes to southern Lebanon, to the well called “Be’er l’chai Ro’i,” well of the living shepherd. There he sees a beautiful woman from afar as she draws water for her Olock.  But before he can approach and greet her, he hears rough voices from the tents, shouting at the young woman to hurry with her task.  The voices are not kind.  Isaac backs off.

Isaac meditates on what to do – return home or stay away?  He misses his mother. His father was really old by now. Should he go home and claim his place as head of the tribe? Or maybe it was safer to wait until he heard of the old man’s death?

This young woman intrigues him, though, she has touched his heart. So he hides and waits for her to come and draw more water. Finally, she appears alone.  He quietly approaches and tries not to startle her.

“What’s you name?” he whispers. “Rebekah,” she replies. “What’s yours?” she asks. “Isaac,” he says softly. She asks, “Are you friend or foe?” He smiles and says, “Friend!” She smiles back. In that moment, their fate is sealed.  That is when they hear men’s voices again.

“Hurry! Don’t let them see you!” she whispers.  Isaac steps back without a sound.  Turning to her one last time, he says, “Don’t forget me!  I know that I’ll see you again!”  He walks on, regret in his heart.

Isaac stops at the magniOicent oasis called Elon Moreh, literally “the teaching tree.” He looks up, willing the wisdom of branch and bark into himself. And he realizes in that moment that he must go home, whatever unpleasantness he might Oind. There is just too much unOinished business.   So he heads south to Beersheva, where he arrives after a week.

When he enters camp, he is stunned to Oind his mother Sarah dead and his father doing just Oine!  Abraham called to his son and said,  “I’m glad you’re home.  I was worried about you.”

Isaac was having none of it. “If you were so worried about me, why did you leave me up on top of the mountain? If you were so worried about me, why did you tie me up as an offering?”

Abraham said, “I could never explain it to you in a million years. But I’m glad you’re home.  It’s time to Oind you a wife!”

Isaac said, “I met someone I’m interested in, Dad.” But Abraham wouldn’t listen. “I’ll handle this. It’s my job, not yours.” He called his servant, Eliezer, and told him to go north to Oind a wife for Isaac – a place called “Be’er l’Chai Ro’i.”

Isaac remembered the place and his heart leaped! That was where he had met Rebekah!  And just one chapter later,  Rebekah Oinally arrives in camp with Eliezer.   Their destiny fulOilled, the Oirst love story in the whole Torah! Sigh…What a lovely story!

Over the years, many have asked where rabbis, scholars and others like me get the chutzpa to rewrite the stories in Torah. After all, they say, it’s the Torah – unchangeable sacred text! The answer is simple: We Jews have been rewriting our stories for more than 3,000 years.

Midrash, Talmud, Mystic text, Commentary – all offer rewrites according to the imaginations of our teachers over the centuries. We have been doing rewrites since the beginning of our tradition – no wonder so many Jews Oind work in Hollywood!

Listen to what our Sages in the Midrash actually wrote: While Isaac was still bound on the altar, he ascended to God’s seat in heaven. The light was so bright it blurred his vision, which deteriorated for the rest of his life. That is why he was blind when his two sons, Esau and Jacob, were at each other’s throats over his blessing and inheritance.

The Midrash goes on to explain where Isaac went from the mountain.

Quoting our portion, the Midrash says, “And Abraham returned to his servants.” The commentary inquires: “And where is Isaac? R. Berechya in the name of the other rabbis says that Abraham sent Isaac to Shem (son of Noah) to study Torah.”

Now, get this: Shem is the son of Noah, who lived ten generations before! And of course, the Torah itself will not be given for another 430 years. But that does not stop the rabbis from imagining that Isaac got a proper Torah education to prepare him for his future role as a Patriarch!

Our Sages, who spent their lives studying Torah, sent Isaac to the Yeshiva, because immersion in Torah study was the most important things in their lives. If we in our day are to take this, our sacred text, seriously and not just dismiss it as myth, we have to Oind another place for Isaac to go.  We have to do our own rewrite of the story.

Why? Frankly, we don’t share the faith of our Sages. Even those of us who believe deeply in God, as I do, don’t accept the unquestioning faith of early tradition. We moderns, witnesses to war, holocaust, ethnic hatred, anti-­ Semitism, anti-­Zionism, world-­wide pollution and climate change, political intolerance, economic upheaval, can’t just send Isaac off to the Yeshiva to learn Torah!

And not just us! An English poet/soldier, Wilfred Owen, killed one week before WWI ended in 1918, wrote of this story, placing Isaac in the midst of the terrible battles of the war fought to end all war:

…Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps And builded parapets and trenches there

When lo! An angel called him out of heaven Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him, thy son.

Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns, A Ram.  Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

(Wilfred  Owen, 1893-­1918)

Today we need an Isaac of our own, not a Yeshiva student, not a casualty of world war.  We need an Isaac who personiOies our struggles, our doubts and our hopes. The alternative is to say there is only a “Torah-­True Isaac” interpreted by the Orthodox alone.  No.  We need to Oind meanings beyond our Sages’ vision.  We need an Isaac for our day who can help us Oind an authentic path between blind faith or shallow skepticism.

This Rosh Hashana let us imagine three Isaacs. We’ll keep it simple and call them: Isaac One, Isaac Two and Isaac Three. What are their stories? How do they respond to being left alone on the mountain?

Isaac One is so scared he will not move. He is paralyzed by fear and trauma. He will not move from his safe perch on the summit of the mountain. There, he sees everything and does nothing. As time goes by, and he still does not move, Isaac One blames everyone around him for his predicament. He didn’t ask for this life. He got it anyway. He didn’t ask to be traumatized. He resents having to deal with its aftermath. He doesn’t owe anything to anyone. And he will not move for anyone. He becomes one with the mountain, solitary, unmoving and unmoved.

How many of us know someone like this Isaac? This Isaac could be 13 or 83. Living on a mountaintop and refusing to even look down. For those who identify with Isaac One, there is only fear and danger down below. Far easier to stay put and hope things don’t get worse.

I once knew a man whose wife was secretly beating their children. Not just spanking them, the way many of your and my parents did. No, she beat them, often with objects she wielded as clubs. Her husband was a kind enough man. He came to services, but something seemed off and no one knew what it was.  And we rarely if ever saw the mother.

Things came to a head when his wife died from a sudden heart attack. I spent time with the family to prepare for the funeral.  I encouraged the kids, aged 9 and 7, to bring up happy memories of their mom. They were utterly silent. I thought maybe their grief was so strong it rendered them mute. The more I inquired about their mother, the more they physically shrank back from me into the arms of their father.  He Oinally said, “You know, she was a complex woman. I’m sure that we as a family will come to terms with her loss in our own way.”

I found out about the abuse shortly after the funeral. When I visited the house, the father was more relaxed, the kids more playful. He met me at the door and said, “I know what you’ve come to talk about. Please don’t. We are Oine.  Sometimes doing nothing is the best way to go.  These problems will take care of themselves. We will survive.  Thanks for coming, Rabbi.”

And he closed the door.  And we never spoke of it again.  When I saw him at Temple, all he ever had to do to stop me in my tracks was to raise an eyebrow, and I got the message. It took years for the children to begin to climb down from their mountain, with many a fall and stumble on the way.

I could not help but think – doesn’t this staying put make the trauma live on? Doesn’t settling into the memory of pain, fear and even guilt render us emotionally immobile for the rest of our lives?

I am sure that here, today, in our family of families, there are some whose experiences of trauma mirror these children’s lives.  There are among us some who, even years later, remain paralyzed by doubt and fear over the past and are still terriOied about the future.   They will wait for blessing or curse to come to them, because staying put is safer than moving, inaction more secure than action.  Our hearts ache for these Isaacs.

But it is not just trauma that can trap you on the mountaintop. Self-­ centeredness can keep you up there just as easily.

I remember speaking to a couple planning to get married. They glowed when they looked at each other. You could tell there was such deep caring and love in their eyes. I told them mazal tov and asked where they were getting married.  They said some place on the West Coast.

In passing, I told them I wished them a long and happy marriage and wonderful children.  At that, their faces darkened.  The woman said, “Rabbi, we are not going to have children.” When I asked why, the young man looked straight in my eyes and said, “You know the condition the world is in: Oil spills and global warming and a contaminated food supply.  You can’t even eat an egg without wondering if you’re going to get sick.  There isn’t enough penicillin in the world to cure the super-­diseases our kids will almost certainly get!”

“And that’s just in nature! There’s Iran and North Korea with nuclear weapons, not to mention the powder keg of Israel and its neighbors, which is never going to get solved. We are in a permanent state of war in Afghanistan. Our children will be brought into a world Oilled with deprivation, misery and pain, as well as dangers from climate change. Who could honestly and ethically bring a child into a world like this?” he asked. “Besides, children are really hard to raise these days.”  “And expensive,” his Oiancée added.

Hearing these words, I couldn’t help from trembling just a little. I remember my friends saying these same things in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. But they were referring to the Vietnam War, the Cuyahoga River on Oire outside of Cleveland, forced desegregation of schools and the ramped up nuclear tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.

Remember the old television show, “All In The Family?” Michael and Gloria Stivic say to their parents, Archie and Edith Bunker, that they will not bring children into a world as it is. And all Archie and Edith can do is remember what a terrible world it was during WWII. Death and deprivation and the real possibility of Nazis ruling the world. And yet, somehow, they had the faith to have children.

“What will your family be like if you choose not have children?” I ask.

They say, “We’ll just be us.” And pardon me for saying it, but it sounded so sad. They were not talking about infertility or about possibly losing a child to health problems. They were talking about forestalling bad things from happening by living solitary lives.  They will look down from their mountaintop and probably enjoy a nice chardonnay as they gaze out to the horizon.

Of course, my cynicism aside, it is their choice not to have kids. But we Jews, who have been through tragedy, both natural and man-­made, have outlasted tyrants and brought kids into the world despite the harshest of decrees. Can we accept the pessimism that says Isaac will simply stay on the mountaintop alone for the rest of his days? No future generation needed or even desired? Ever?

How terribly, terribly sad. And antithetical to Jewish history! It is a strange fact that one of the highest periods of Jewish reproduction was during the war, even in the camps. There is something primal about making babies when we are threatened for our lives. But if you won’t get off the mountain, you can’t even do that.

Isaac Two was different. He sat down and thought through the possibilities. He could stay on the mountain and either die or be saved. Or he could get down as quickly as possible to see what was what.  He saw another ram headed down the mountainside. Isaac watched its every move and successfully made his way down behind it.

But now that he was down, Isaac Two had another decision – where to go? What to do? Should he simply follow his father home and go into the family patriarch business? What about his own thoughts, his own dreams? Wasn’t there another way in this world, or did you have to follow the path of someone else, either your father, a ram or something else? The enormity of the choice froze him in his tracks.

There is an entire generation facing this dilemma today. These are young people in their 20’s and 30’s. They have been told that the path from danger to security is found in just following their parents’ way. A path tried and true – go to college, excel and Oind a meaningful career.  Get married, have kids and urge your kids to do the same.  Repeat each generation.

Many have made it through the Oirst hurdles, the mountain of their undergraduate years.  It may have taken more than 4 years, but they succeeded in getting a degree. And now what? Many went on to do graduate work in law, medicine, engineering or bio-­sciences and got advanced degrees. And guess what? The path forward is still not clear! How many people in their 30’s have advanced degrees and still have not found a job in their Oield?

Getting down the mountaintop does not assure one of a goal, a destination, a place to go.

Isaac Two has another problem. His attention is fragmented. He multi-­ tasks, receiving more and more data and accomplishing less and less.

What do you do once you’re off the mountain and there is no more ram to follow? What if your ram doesn’t have a GPS? How do you decide a path? Check out one of the new apps on your phone? Do you text a friend? Do you ask your 749th friend on Facebook?

Isaac Two actually has too much input from all the devices at his Oingertips.  How many here and now are listening to me with one ear and checking out the latest text or e-­mail or news or sports or fantasy team at the same time?

As a reporter on technology for the New York Times put it recently, if you are looking at a device, you are no longer present. Your body may be here, but you yourself are not! Maybe as I am speaking to you now, one of you is texting a friend, saying that the rabbi is boring. Busted!

I’m just teasing. But underneath my tease is a real concern. How many young people here and in our community and country will settle for bells and whistles on their phones?  How many will get stuck at the mountain’s foot and not move? Just how little will it take to satisfy you? Will you be bought off with a bigger Olat screen tv?  The promise of an inheritance from a parent or grandparent who has already made it?

Isaac Two, following the ram, takes the easy path and ends up not knowing where to go. So when all is said and done, he goes home, and submits to Abraham’s plans, and goes into the family business after all, which brings heartache after heartache.

It will take a different Isaac to step up and Oind a different way  with courage, clarity and vision. This is Isaac Three and I believe we desperately need him if we are to meet the challenges we face today and tomorrow.

From the mountaintop Isaac Three sees a Land of Promise stretched out before him. He decides to depart the mountain and go forward and he will not be deterred. There are so many young men and women who answer to this description who are unheralded and unsung because they don’t kvetch and are not merely interested in themselves.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote about you recently, saying:

“Although no generation lacks warts, our 20-­somethings are terriOic.

We worry about the youth of America turning into distracted Twitterers with superOicial values who will never Oind jobs, but ever single day I trip on recent college graduates who are amazing – funny and smart with an astonishing work ethic.  They all seem to be working on 14 different useful projects, most of them unpaid. If I had had to compete against them when I was 21, I’d still be working on my graduate school application!”

(Gail Collins, NYT, 7/28/10)

This Isaac knows the past, but will not be held prisoner by it. This Isaac believes in him and herself as well as creating a better future for us all. How?

This Isaac is going to get married, straight or gay, and it’s going to be legal throughout the country. And this Isaac, our Isaac is going to parent terriOic Jewish children.

This Isaac is going to demand more from money than a good return on a pension fund, she is going to demand her tzedaka donation make a difference in the world by supporting the values that matter and endure.

This Isaac is going to embrace Torah with courage, Oinding in our tradition the wisdom to see the world as it is, but unwilling to wait for a Messiah to make this world as it should be.

This Isaac will show how following the compass of values and vision keeps one from getting lost in the desert of self-­centeredness and low expectations.

This Isaac will douse the Oires of hate that would set the Koran on Oire this weekend. She knows that burning books is merely the prelude to burning people.

This Isaac is going to Oind a way to stand clearly and without apology for Israel’s right to exists as a secure Jewish state.  This Isaac will refuse to let hope be destroyed by political maneuvering or terror in Israel, Lebanon or among the Palestinians.

This same Isaac is also going to work for and succeed in making sure that Palestinians get their own country to satisfy their legitimate national aspirations.

And you know? This Isaac does not have to be a 20 something. This Isaac can be you, whether you are middle aged or even 90 years old. You see, Isaac lives the longest of any of our Patriarchs and still inOluences future history when he is old and blind.  But old and blind does not mean stupid.

In his old age, he sees with his inner eye farther than both of his sons, Jacob and Esau, combined. Even in his last days, Isaac’s blessings are powerful enough to change destinies.  So it is with the older Isaacs among us here today.

So I say to our beloved elders here this Rosh Hashana Day: Do not withhold your blessings from a younger Isaac who may need your encouragement, guidance and cheering to Oind a path from a lonely mountaintop of despair. Some of our younger congregants are eager, even desperate to speak to our older Isaacs:

Isaacs who literally Olew off the mountain in their lifetimes, who stormed the Japanese at Iwo Jima and the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge.

Isaacs who immersed themselves in building businesses and careers and still found time to nurture both Jewish and communal causes with their own hands.

Isaacs who faced job loss and divorce and the contraction of entire industries and refused to be cowed, who got up and dusted themselves off and found a different direction in life than they ever thought they would Oind and did so with dignity and determination.

Isaacs who give away more than 10% of their income knowing that our values do not thrive without our express commitment to give more than is asked.

Isaacs who dared to discipline their children, knowing that in the long run, they would be better for dealing with setback and failure, rather than being patted on the head and conferring unearned esteem.

Isaacs who are powerful grandparents, who refuse to retreat to their rooms to watch “The Price is Right,” who are unafraid to share their successes and their failures with young people who may think that stories only come in comic books or cartoons or manga books.

This Rosh Hashana, I say we cannot live without these Isaacs, regardless of their age.  Without them there is no more Jewish history; no Israel, no Torah, no Talmud, no Spiritual Courage in the face of oppression, dying for Torah when necessary, living for it wherever possible.

Today, according to our tradition, is the Day of Decision. Not God’s decision. Yours.  Which Isaac to be?  Isaac One, the Victim?  Isaac Two, the Naïve Follower? Or will you be Isaac Three? Isaac the dreamer, the doer, the darer, the decisive. Isaac, the unafraid, the unbowed and uncowed. Isaac, who Olies, who Olares, who champions, who cares.  This Isaac, who stands above Abraham and Jacob, because of his struggles to live bravely and honestly.

Isaac was delighted when he heard that his father’s servant brought back Rebekah, his cousin from the North. It was what he had hoped for ever since that day he Oirst saw her at the well.  And now they were together.

Their Oirst night together was like a Garden of Eden.  They gloried in each other with knowing smiles, glad to have made that Oirst promise to each other, delighted that their fondest hopes were realized.

In the darkest hour of the night, still awake, Isaac Oinally tells Rebekah what happened on the mountaintop. She is very still, not wanting to interrupt the Olow of her husband’s story.  She is sad and alarmed, fascinated and repelled.

“Do you hate him?” she Oinally asks.  Isaac himself is silent.  And Oinally, he answers, “He taught me the hardest lesson of all – It was not allowing myself to be bound for sacriOice.  It was not watching the knife in his hand.”

“No, the hardest lesson was being left alone on the mountaintop to take responsibility for my own life. I passed God’s test the moment I decided to come down on my own. I passed God’s test when I saw you and decided you would be my wife, no matter how long it took.

I passed when my faith defeated my fear. I passed the test when I believed more in our hopeful future than in my tragic past.”

“I passed when I declared: I am no lamb, stuck in slaughter. I am no ram, wandering without aim or purpose. No, I am Isaac. I am my name -­ laughter.  Deep, purposeful, intentional laughter.”

“Despite trial and trauma, I laugh!” “Despite fear and faltering, I laugh!” “Despite tears and crisis, I laugh!”

“Laugh with me, Rebekah! Laugh with me, all my sons and daughters here today!  Abraham may be stuck in Beersheva, but your Isaac Olies into a future of hope and faith and love.  And laughter.  Laughter! Laughter!”

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784