Sign In Forgot Password

Rosh Hashana Day 2

11/03/2019 11:16:34 AM


Rabbia Marcia Plumb

The Queen, when giving her Christmas message to the British people, called the year of Charles and Diana’s divorce, her annus horribilus--her horrible year.

  1. wonder if we would give that name to our past year. Politics, anti-semitism, the Climate Emergency, shootings, more anti-semitic attacks, more rising sea levels, and more shootings….every day there was something else that added to our fears. In every Mussar class, at services, in the hallways, someone brings up their fears about our government, the lack of civil discourse, the tone and devisiveness of our leaders and citizens, and anxiety about the climate. People have been more on edge, as have I. Many of our Holocaust survivors, and others, have worried that we have returned to 1933 Germany in our country today. In this past two years, we entered a new “normal” that is anything but normal with it’s persistent heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

People of a certain generation often recall where they were and how they felt when President Kennedy was shot. Anyone over 30 can describe in great detail the morning of September 11. Our teenagers can tell you where they were when they heard that 17 of their peers were gunned down in Parkland, or about the Boston marathon bombing. All of us are amassing traumatic memories. And they’re taking a toll. Who among us hasn’t had an internal debate, asking, even briefly: should I go to that concert? Might something happen at that rally? Is it safe to go to shul?

Psychologists are increasingly concerned about the negative impact of our continuous exposure to and awareness of traumatic events. Our children, especially, now grow up with active shooter drills in school and have started to tuck their Jewish stars into their shirts when out in public. The cumulative impact of our increased contact with trauma is real; it’s distressing and scary and has deep implications for our individual and collective psyches. Maybe you have seen in yourself or others glimpses of the impact of this stress – less sleep, uneven emotions, sadness or deep worry – all of which get in the way of our ability to be good partners and parents, friends and co-workers. All of which diminish our ability to embrace new adventures, take risks and be our best selves.

Today we read of an individual who, like all of us, lived with trauma. In a moment beyond his control he came face to face with death. It changed him. It left him emotionally shaken, his sense of safety and security gone, his perspective on the world forever altered. I speak of our ancestor Isaac, who on this very day, according to the Midrash, lay bound and vulnerable under the blade of his father Abraham’s knife, in the harrowing narrative we call the Akedah. In thinking about this, my colleague and dear friend, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, reminded me of Isaac and how much he has to teach us about our time.

Remarkably, Isaac went on to live a very full and fulfilled life after the Akedah. The trauma of today’s story could have destroyed him, poisoned him with bitterness and fear, but somehow, he found the strength and resilience to fill his days with value, meaning and purpose. We rarely give Isaac much attention because many see him as A passive bridge between the two greats – Abraham and Jacob. But this year, I want to shine a new light on Isaac. I believe he can model for us not only how to cope with a harsh and changing world, but most importantly how to seek out and embrace the good in the same world. Far from a minor character, Isaac can teach us to live purposefully and joyfully – even and especially in the wake of ongoing trauma.

Many have called the story a test of Abraham’s faith. But though Abraham’s test ends here, for Isaac, it will have only just begun. His is a life- long struggle to live in the shadow of the horror of the Akedah.

It may not come as a suprise that, after his father tries to sacrifice him, Isaac disappears. Gone. Vanished. We read that Abraham returned home with his servants, but Isaac is missing. The Torah doesn’t tell us where he went or what he did. I imagine that Isaac was traumatized. There are many stories, Midrashim, about where Isaac goes in the wake of the Akedah. Of course, no one knows for sure, and he is gone for a very long time.

Sadly, many of us can identify with Isaac. I know that some of you have gone through life-changing ordeals, sometimes like Isaac, in a matter of minutes. And many of you have felt tested, possibly even beyond your limits. Perhaps, like Isaac, someone hurt you who was supposed to protect you. Maybe you have faced a situation so dreadful and so unexpected – illness, violence, abuse, financial disaster, a #metoo affront, bullying, estrangement, the list is painfully long. Maybe like Isaac you withdrew in some way, or at least wanted to.

But eventually Isaac returns, and when next we see him the Torah says he: Yazey Lasuach B’sadehgoes out to meditate in the fields.” The verb Lasuach appears only once, only here, in the entire Bible. No other patriarch or matriarch or king or even prophet – is said to have meditated, pondered, or reflected like Isaac did. Surely his near-death experience on that mountain changed him. Maybe his confrontation with the precariousness of life prompted him to wonder: “Who am I?” And… “Will I have the strength to heal? And…who will help me?”

  1. have spoken about my love of silent retreats. I attend them once or twice every year. I meditate every day. Believe it or not, even though I talk alot, I love silence. This summer, I meditated in an Italian forest, and found deep solace from it. I can see Isaac alone in a beautiful field, Lasuah, reflecting on his life and assessing his trauma, considering the power it would, or would not, hold over him. imagine him slowly starting to shift the Akedah from the emotional part of his brain to the cognitive, thinking part, beginning to grasp that he need not be defined by the experience. In that open field Isaac turns his back on death and re-engages with life. Once he begins to heal from the past, he is able to recieve a gift that will help in the future.

For it is in that very field, after some time Lasuah, of musing, that Isaac finds the gift comes to sustain him through life’s challenges. The Torah says that Isaac ‘lifted his eyes’ and saw Rebecca. And she ‘lifted her eyes’ and saw Isaac. And they married.

This is the first time that the Torah tells us that a couple loved each other. For the Torah to mention it for this couple – well – it must have been exceptional. Isaac invested himself fully in this relationship and the text says that Rebecca returned that love and gave him comfort. Later, when they were unable to have children, Isaac takes the initiativee to plead with God on Rebecca’s behalf; something neither Abraham nor Jacob did when they were in similar situations.

Deep, vulnerable, love - I don’t know where Isaac realized how important that is maybe...on the the field...but the connection he and Rebecca shared helped him to find a way forward. The love and support in their marriage enabled Isaac to take control of his past and shape his own life, rather than be the object of other people’s actions.

Whose love sustains you in this way? Who do you call when you just feel overwhelmed by it all? With whom can you open yourself, unafraid to show your scars, your fears and your hopes? Who gives you the support and comfort you need to move forward and not back?

One more story of Isaac’s life shines a spotlight on his resilience. One more event shows how we know that despite his traumatic experience under the cold blade of his father’s knife, Isaac sought out the things that would make him whole.

Eventually, Isaac settles down in Gerar where his family lived for many years, and where his father had dug wells for his clan. We all know that in the Middle East wells are critical for survival. Of course they provide essential water. But we know from other biblical stories that wells are also a place for community building. If we go to the well once or twice a day, we see our neighbors. We learn who is upset, who is pregnant, who is ill. At the well we talk about life, bosses, gardening techniques, personal disappointments, the challenges of aging, and the cute baby next door. And if something traumatic happens to one of us, or all of us, the bonds that we have built will cushion the blows and be critical for our emotional survival. Isaac understood that he needed a community. We need community too. A place to gather, to feel heard, to feel safe.

But when Isaac arrives in Gerar, he finds the wells have been stopped up. He starts digging and opens them. The local Philistines see his work and claim that the wells are theirs. If Isaac had been like his father, he would have started a war to keep the family’s wells. But Isaac decides to give those wells up and dig others. Three times this happens; and three times Isaac picks up his shovel, literally grounding himself in this Life-giving goal, and somehow finding the energy to go at it again and again.

It’s impressive that Isaac has stamina and resilient commitment. All of his effort – physical and emotional - turns out to be worth it. Eventually, the Philistines respond. They are so impressed by his determination and generosity that they make peace with him. And he ends up becoming just as ‘well-off’ as Abraham and Jacob. I’m imagining how their shared peace and shared wells changed the culture and social norms of the land. These two adversaries learned to respect and learn from each other. Could Isaac have understood the benefits of such a community when he put his shovel in the ground again and again?

Like Isaac, each of us has a well we have to return to, to re-dig, to open up not only for ourselves but also for others, and for our community. Like Isaac we need tenacity – going again and again – to yet another rally to combat gun violence, to yet another meeting at school about prejudice. We will sit down to write yet another letter to our representatives. Yes, it’s hard. Each time there is another incident that drags us down, that traumatizes us, we want to lay down our shovel and just walk away. But like Isaac we need to invest in those things that allow us to go back again, to dig deeper and open our wells. We need to find our field--our place for reflection and healing, whether internal or external; we need to connect with our Rebecca --with ones who care for us and we lean on, and share our lives with our community.


It’s fitting to link Isaac, the survivor of trauma, to another survivor, one who lived through the Holocaust. Elie Weisel is, of course, the exemplar of survival as well as the exemplar of living a full and meaningful life after trauma. In his book Messengers of God, Weisel wrote about Isaac and the Akedah. No surprise that he felt close to Isaac and identified with his suffering as well as his choice to embrace meaning, love and peace.

Weisel asks, “Why was the most tragic of our ancestors named Isaac, a name which evokes and signifies laughter?” His response reflects both his and Isaac’s life. Weisel suggests that as the first survivor, Isaac had to teach us, the future survivors of Jewish history, that it is possible to struggle and live an entire lifetime in the shadow of trauma and still experience and embrace joy. It is Isaac’s resilience, encoded in his name and his life that should guide us and help us as we make our way through the era of trauma in which we live.

  1. I worked on this sermon, I felt my own worries soften. I felt stronger as I walked with Isaac through his life. I am inspired and comforted by him. Sadly, it is likely that between now and when we gather in another year at these High Holidays we will be shaken and scared yet again. Will we turn to one another for strength and comfort? I hope so. Will we have made time to walk in the field and listen to our treasured souls? I hope so. we embrace a New Year with joy, we will have to take up our shovels again and again. But as Isaac learned, it will all be worth it. In our fields, with our supportive companions and community, shovels in hand, we will work to bring joy and peace to the New Year.


Sun, July 12 2020 20 Tammuz 5780