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Rosh Hashanah 5775

"Rosh Hashanah 5775 – Three Letters"

By Rabbi James Gibson
Rosh Hashana Eve

RH II – 5775

“Three Letters” September 25, 2014

Isaac and Ishmael just stared at each other. The brothers, never close, were back together for the first time in decades. Why? To bury their father, Abraham, their common father, though each had a different mother. Ishmael, born to Hagar. Isaac, born to Sarah.

They grew up, if not hating each other, at least distanced. Sarah saw Ishmael as a threat from the moment she gave birth to Isaac. And who knows what Hagar told her son about the other side of the family?

“That kid is not going to inherit from us!” Sarah screamed. “Ishmael’s my first born,” Abraham replied. “The law is clear. He gets 2/3 and Isaac will get the rest.”

“Not if I can help it,” retorted Sarah. “No, no, no. I will make your life a living hell unless you get rid of him.” Abraham sighed. He liked Hagar, the handmaid who finally broke the family curse of infertility. But he loved Sarah and there never was a question as to what he would do in the end.

Why was Sarah so vicious toward Hagar and Ishmael? It all came to head one day when she observed the boys playing. Well, maybe not exactly playing. The Torah reads: “Va-tei-rei Sarah et ben Hagar ha-Mitzrit asher yal-dah l’Avraham m’tza-cheik.” And Sara saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she bore to Abraham, playing (Genesis 21.9).

Rashi, the greatest of our commentators leaps on this word m’tza-cheik. He says that Ishmael was not playing. No, he was mocking his brother. Another source notes that this word, m’tza- cheik, has a sexual connotation, that Ishmael was actually abusing his brother.

The effect was instantaneous. In the very next verse, Sarah says to husband, “Banish that woman and her son! He is not going to inherit along with my son, Isaac!” (Genesis 21.10)

The story continues, detailing the near death experience of Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, after Abraham banished them to the desert. The Torah teaches that God saved them both and promised that Ishmael would become the father of a great people himself.

The very next chapter relates Isaac’s own escape from death by a mere fraction of a second thanks to a persistent angel calling to Abraham. So, both Ishmael and Isaac had reason to hate their father: One banished, almost to death. The other, almost murdered for God. But after years of separation, they came together to bury him. They came for his funeral.

We know this scene. We’ve played it. News goes out of a family elder who has died. Relatives feel the tug of family obligation. Those who don’t even like each other sigh and go online to make travel plans. The day of the funeral they find themselves face to face after years.


Think of Isaac and Ishmael trying to do the same at their father’s grave. No established mourning customs. No hushed silence in the room. No room! Just a body and open air. Plenty of opportunity for the worst of them to come out. But somehow, it doesn’t.

Who know what words were spoken to break that silence? Maybe they copied their father, who said so little during his life. Abraham only ever exchanged 15 words with Isaac, and exactly none with Ishmael. The service must have been brief.

So, how surprised they were when after the burial, they were each handed a letter by a local who looked after the family plot in Hevron. Letters from their father. Letters from beyond the grave.

Isaac and Ishmael looked at each other and then down at what lay in their hands, torn parchment with clear, bold writing. Isaac said to his brother, “You go first.” So he did.

My dear Ishmael, my first-born,

If you are reading this, then I have been gathered to my kin and you are standing at my grave. You must feel strange, wondering why you even bothered to come. You didn’t have to, I know. You could have simply lived the rest of your life, prosperous and the patriarch of a new clan.

But, no. You are here, taking care of my remains, showing me honor I don’t deserve. You must have so many questions!

Life is a challenge, I don’t have to tell you that. Balancing responsibilities with what we want out of life is often near impossible.

You were born under awkward circumstances, as you well know. Your mother was the first surrogate mother in our history. She agreed to bring you into this world. It was my job to nurture you, form you and shape you into the man who would lead our clan and insure our survival. For all the promises God gave me about being the father of multitudes with Sarah, I just couldn’t see it happening, not after I turned 85.

So everyone agreed I should be with Hagar, your mother. But Sarah never reconciled herself to this. She was always resentful of you, calling you “Daddy’s kid.”

And then the angels came to visit. They announced Sarah would get pregnant. Sarah laughed. I laughed. But wouldn’t you know, Isaac came 9 months later despite Sarah being 90 and me over 100!

As a mother, Sarah combined two difficult traits, being possessive as well as set in her ways.

I tried to stay out of it. You know how I always hated fighting in the tent. Sarah and your mother would go at it like tigers! I thought they could work it out and you would not suffer. But I was wrong, and suffer, you did.

All the time, I was silent. I didn’t intervene. I excused myself, saying I’d just make it worse. But I just guarding myself from the mess. And I didn’t realize the toll it took on you.

How unfair! You were the first born, but never got to enjoy the benefit. And after Isaac was born, you became an afterthought, a placeholder until he grew up and took my place.

I’ll tell you a secret. If you had stayed, it would have been worse. I know – worse than what? Not having a father? Almost dying of thirst in the desert? But it would have been worse. You and Isaac would have tried to kill each other. I couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for one of you dead at the hand of the other, a rerun of Cain and Abel.

I’m sure you hate me for this, even though it breaks my heart. Sometimes, though, life is harder than we can imagine. We make decisions in the dark that often don’t make sense until years after. And there are no guarantees, as you well know.

I want you to know I always believed in you. I always thought you were smart and strong. And you proved me right. I have followed you and your exploits with great pride. To see you come into your own, head of your own clan, warms my heart. What you have become is no thanks to me. And I ache because of the distance that took us away from each other.

But I love you. I have always loved you. Thank you for coming and setting my weary bones in the earth. Someday, in the next world, we will be reunited and I will shower you with all the love you missed from me the first time around. Know how much I care for you, even now, my first- born son.

Love, Dad

Isaac stared at his half-brother, who face was wet with tears. “What did it say?” he asked. Ishmael just waved him away and pointed to the letter in Isaac’s hands, motioning him to read it.

My dearest son, Isaac,

From the moment the angel forced me to put down the knife, I knew we could never be as we had been. I knew that the days of walking side by side, exploring the hills around Beer Sheva were gone forever.

You became a man that day. You became a man the moment you realized what was going on and didn’t run for your life from your crazy, old father. What was I doing, you must have thought?

Well, as you must have realized, I was doing what God asked of me, as I always tried. God asked so many hard things, leaving my father’s home, fighting a war to rescue my nephew Lot, telling me to send your brother away. I got used to simply agreeing with God. As you’ve found out by now, it’s not easy to refuse!

But when it came to you and the knife and the mountain, I should have at least raised doubts and protested the whole thing. Don’t think I couldn’t! When God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, I gave him the argument of a lifetime to save the innocents. And they were strangers, not a son of my own flesh and blood like you!

Which makes my silence regarding you more troubling. Sometimes we find ourselves in battles for people we don’t even know and we assume that everyone at home will be just fine with it. We presume that because we love them, they will understand and forgive us for just about anything.

But there are things that are unforgivable. Taking you up the mountain, evading your question as to what we were doing there; making you carry the wood for your own sacrifice; not even telling your Mom what I was going to do. Any one of these could shatter a lifetime of trust. And I did all of them.

Here’s all I can say. What God wanted in this test was not you, but me. All of me, including you. God did not see you as separate from me. God wanted the most I could possibly offer. How was I to say no, though I should have?

And I swear to you, had I taken your life, I would have taken my own as well. In my heart I knew that neither of us was going to descend that mountain alive unless both of us did.

But you could not know that.

I ask your forgiveness, even at the grave even though you have no reason to grant it. You have the responsibility for the entire family now, and certainly you have seen how difficult family issues can be as my grandchildren, Esau and Jacob, have shown.

I wish you the fatherly wisdom and forbearance I lacked. I wish you ears to hear pain that is not always audible and that you have the willingness to dry the tears of those you love, and not assume they will dry on their own.

Years from now, one of our descendants, a very thoughtful Jewish poet named Leonard Cohen, will co-write a verse that I wish I had known before we ever started out toward the mountain: “We run around, we fall, we fly

We mostly fly, we mostly run Every now and then we try

To mend the damage that we’ve done…

So many hearts I find Broke like yours and mine

Torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo.”

(Song of Bernadette, Jennifer Warnes, Leonard Cohen, 1986)

I wish I had tried to mend the damage that I had done to you, those many years ago. But now, here at the end of my life, let me try:

I loved you so much, Isaac. I never wanted to harm a hair on your head. I wanted you protected, cherished and nurtured. I wanted to teach you everything I had learned about God, faith, people and our covenant. I wanted to prepare you to lead the way I was called to lead.

But then another call came. Neither of us wanted it. And the world changed forever for us, didn’t it? When I returned alone from the mountain to Beer Sheva, I was not surprised that you had run off. I ached for you. And I knew that my part in raising you was over. You would figure out what this all meant without me.

And you have. I am so proud of you. All I want is for you to be the father to your boys the way I was never able to be for you and Ishmael. For you have impossible decisions to make, just like I did. Esau or Jacob, who should lead? Who should stand up for the covenant? Almost as hard as deciding between you and your brother.

We don’t ask life for the crushing weight of our problems. They just come with the territory. Just know that I not only love you; I believe in you, my Isaac, my son.

Love, Dad

And so it was Isaac’s turn to weep.

Take a breath. I know – this not what the Torah says. There are no letters from the grave in the Biblical text. But the Midrash asks similar hard questions. These letters are simply another form of Midrash, pointing our hearts at this moment to think about our own precious families.

I mean, we don’t leave things unsaid, do we? We, who put our entire lives on Facebook and Twitter every single day without fail? We, the most tell-all generation in human history?

No one would dare say that we have stifled ourselves and don’t express what we really feel in our hearts to those we love.

No one would claim that we harbor silent grudges planted against those who have hurt us.

No one would claim that we have failed to ask for forgiveness or that we have not been generous of heart in granting it to those who have hurt us.

No one would claim that we have not always been loving to our children or patient with our parents.

No one would accuse us of being short-sighted or short-tempered with our partners or siblings.

No one would accuse us of leading our children on impossible journeys, demanding from them what we would never ask of ourselves.

But maybe that is why we have this season, this moment, made sacred by Torah and tradition, to let those we love know that we know – the hurts we’ve caused by our thoughtlessness and our arrogance.

After Abraham was buried, his spirit ascended to be with his Maker. But he was surprised to be stopped at the gate of heaven. The attendant said, “You are not to be admitted until you read this.” And he handed Abraham a letter on parchment worn with age. His eyes grew wide when he opened it.

Dearest Abraham, my love,

I know that you are eager to come into this next world. And you are probably going to look for me, your loving wife, Sarah. I’ve asked them not to let you in until you read this.

You need to know how much you hurt me when you took Isaac that day without telling me a single word. I’ve replayed that day in my head a thousand times. I know you. If you had spoken to me that morning you would have said you were on a mission from God.

And you knew I would question you. You knew I’d demand to know what kind of God would want the blood of our son, our Isaac. You knew I would hold on to him for dear life and scream if you tried to pry him from my arms. And so you stole him away like a thief in the night.

After all our years together, you owed it to me to tell me what you were going to do to my son. You abused him. You abused me. And look what happened? Even though Isaac lived, I died! And never held my son again.

Abraham, I love you. Someday, when we are finally together again, I may forgive you. But not until you acknowledge the pain you caused me, your wife; me, Isaac’s mother, me, the matriarch of our clan to be.

Even the terrible can be forgiven, my love. But not without sorrow and regret. Not without declaring, once and for all, that God does not desire the blood of children nor the tears of women. Not without teaching our descendants that what you did will never be asked of any father, mother and son again.

I hope you can do these things. Because I love you so much. I really, really do. For smashing the idols of your father, I love you. For your caring and patience, I love you. I need to know, though, that you will now be as faithful to me as you were to God. If you agree, close your eyes and nod twice. If you don’t, well…

Love, Sarah

Abraham sighed. But he didn’t have to dwell on it. He closed his eyes and nodded twice, vigorously. When he opened them, there she was. They embraced with a tenderness born of love and sorrow. They were finally reunited, this time forever. And some day, Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar would join them and they would be a family again at last.

If only that wholeness would be ours this day! Would that we could nod twice and the breaches in our lives be healed. Would that we might no longer be torn when we reach our final resting place!

But we are still here. We do not have to wait for the grave. We don’t have to wait for the painful funeral to acknowledge the “damage that we’ve done.” We can do it today, here, now.

I hope with all of my heart that when it is our time to leave for good, there does not have to be a letter waiting for us.

I hope and pray that we, starting today, take our loved ones aside to tell them we know the hurt we have caused; that even the most reasonable excuse does stop the bleeding inside.

I hope that healing starts with acknowledgement and is completed only when we change for the better.

We were not meant to be torn forever. We were always meant to be whole. It starts today. You don’t have to write that letter to someone from whom you feel distanced. But you could. Or you could simply hold them, look at them, share the love in your eyes and words from your heart.

But please, do not leave your love unsaid, your words unspoken. Don’t write a life story like Abraham’s that causes heartache for generations.

Learn from the foibles of our greatest heroes. Be greater than them, who lived their lives in painful silences. Shatter the silence that keeps you apart from someone you love. Declare your love. Say it aloud, today. For wholeness. For good. Forever. Forever.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784