“Wrestling With Discomfort”
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773 – September 16, 2012
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich
Four years ago during the High Holy Day season my father lay on his deathbed. Ginny and Jude, then an infant, and I crossed the country from Tahoe to Charlotte to be with him in Salisbury. It was this time of year so I had a lot on my mind – repentance, apologies, sermons, being a new father and losing my own.
In addition to all of that, I arranged for my mother to travel from New York to Salisbury, and figured out how to get her a moment with my father. My parents had been divorced for decades, and both had remarried. There had been many rocky times between them and their families. Years after the worst of the drama, my mother says she talked to my father once a week, maintaining a friendship that began in their teens.
Visiting my father for the last time was difficult enough, why did I have to make it even more complicated by arranging this awkward reunion? Bringing my mother into my stepmother’s home at a private time, a time when I had plenty to deal with on my own. Still, it seemed like a good idea for me to get out of the way. Allowing my parents – long divorced, but friends for all of their adult lives – to say goodbye before my father’s death offered them something. My mother would always have regretted not seeing my father before he died, and maybe it brought my father some comfort. It wasn’t the path of least resistance, but it made sense to me.
Families and our tensions – while many other things bring us here at this time of year, we are often seeking repentance, making amends, and hoping for forgiveness from loved ones most of all. Our families, close and extended, can be our bedrock. Because we are so close, our families can be our greatest source of difficulty too. And that’s OK – after all, even though we are close, we may still want different things at different times.
On Rosh Hashanah we aim to set a good course for the New Year. If we were to craft a healthy method for solving any problem between people, even family members, it might look like this.
– Conflict happens – however we define it
– We acknowledge the conflict. We grapple with it internally.
– This allows us to work towards reconciliation – we take the steps with the people involved to solve the original conflict and move on to more opportunities to do better.
Seems simple – conflict, struggle, resolution – if only getting it right were so easy.
Every year we reread the Torah and it recalls our history of coping and not coping with conflict. Sometimes the stories show us how well it works out, sometimes they remind us of our persistent human failings. Often we find helpful models, and perhaps just as often we find paths to avoid. Depending on our changing points of view over time, we may find both teachings, and more, in the same story. We may find different ways into our scriptures, and different lessons from them, continuing to see new meaning in each rereading.
We come back to the same text year after year – when we change, what the it offers us may be different too. Now we look back at an old story with different eyes, seeking new meanings within it.
One of the highest points of crisis on these holy days can be found in the Binding of Isaac, which we read tomorrow morning. While we often read this as the climax of a story about Abraham and God, let us look at a more personal reading. Let us imagine that the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, is the last straw in the conflict between Abraham and Sarah.
This story is about a complicated family. Abraham and Sarah married. Along the way, Sarah worried that Abraham would have no children, so she gave him Hagar, her handmaiden, as a concubine. Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael. Later on, Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac. All through their lives God helped them out. A complicated family that we may recognize – there’s a couple, a child, a second wife, a half-brother, and in the role of a helpful grandparent, God.
We don’t have to look too deeply to find conflict in this set-up.
A short summary of the difficult incidents includes:
– Abraham uprooted and moved the family constantly.
– Abraham and Sarah played at being siblings and, with God’s help, used this ruse to swindle local kings by getting them to try and marry Sarah.
– Sarah, despite suggesting that Abraham have a son with another woman, grew to hate both the woman and the other woman’s child. With God’s help, Sarah convinced Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael.
When we imagine ourselves in this family’s shoes – five people and upheaval – we can see they have issues.
Abraham and Sarah seldom spoke directly to each other. Abraham moved them when God said. Abraham decided on his own to have Sarah act as his sister when they ventured into dangerous situations. Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham with no discussion. Sarah commanded Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out, and God convinced him to do it when he felt uneasy about Sarah’s command. They all conferred with God, who comforted them, helped them with little interventions, and never turned them back in constructive ways to work it out with each other.
Tension and difficulty dominated this family. They barked orders at each other, threw the others into webs of conflict that grew more intractable as the years went by and never, ever, did they stop and say to themselves or each other, “Something’s wrong here – we have to work it out.” They did have God though, who frequently helped. I think we all know though, when we rely on someone outside of the situation to solve our problems, we’re not really solving them at all.
Finally, we get to the Binding of Isaac – God tested Abraham. Abraham left with Sarah’s only son early in the morning to offer him up as a sacrifice. What made Abraham think this would be OK to do? Abraham argued for justice for the sinners in Sodom, how could Abraham accept this command to kill his son without question?
We often say that this was a test of faith. God wanted Abraham to show God absolute devotion. Here’s a different reading, one that may make us uncomfortable.
We can read this as a test of Abraham’s devotion to God’s promise to help his family – that God’s blessings would continue through Sarah’s son.
God may have wanted to see if Abraham cared about Isaac as much as he cared about Ishmael.
Maybe Abraham could contemplate killing Isaac because he wanted to take Sarah’s son from her the way she had taken Ishmael from him.
Abraham’s difficulties with Sarah allowed him to see their child as a pawn in their struggle. Only someone totally overwhelmed with other issues could see slaying their child as an option. It says in the text that Abraham rose early in the morning – perhaps he snuck away so that Sarah wouldn’t interfere. Again, Abraham got himself into a situation and only God’s intervention saved the day, in this case Isaac’s life and the future of God’s blessings. This was also the end for Sarah and Abraham, since Sarah died before Abraham and Isaac returned.
This is a difficult reading of this story. It challenges me too. Like all of us, and all of our ancestors who read this before us, I want Abraham to be a hero. And maybe he still is, since in the end, he stayed his hand. At that last moment, with some flash of insight, and a helping hand from God, Abraham realized that sacrificing Isaac was not an option.
As a model for resolving conflict, this story serves as a cautionary tale, not a solution. We must check in with each other sooner, we must not allow ourselves to fight fire with fire, we must step back from the brink, and do the hard work of talking to each other. None of us wants to end up on Mount Moriah, with our children, or our friends, or our spouse, on the altar.
How about a better story?
Abraham and Sarah had descendants who better navigated conflicts, struggled with their unease after difficulties, and eventually worked towards realistic reconciliations.
A successful story emerged from the first. Abraham had grandsons, twins, Esau and Jacob.
Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his firstborn birthright and fled when Esau plotted to murder him. Jacob caused a major conflict, and ran away from it.
After many years Jacob came back to the land of his fathers, and encountered his brother Esau. Jacob’s scouts warned him of Esau’s strength – 400 men. Jacob realized that he must truly return to the emotional scene of his crimes, and do real tshuvah, real repentance. He knew that he must face Esau.
Worried about the fate of his family, Jacob delayed their reunion. He showed Esau great respect, sent him gifts by way of groveling emissaries. Jacob imagined how wronged his brother might still have felt, and so he went the extra mile to make amends. Having exhausted his options, Jacob tried to sleep on it, waiting until morning to meet his brother these many years later.
Jacob didn’t sleep. Instead he wrestled with a mysterious figure all through the night. Having survived the struggle, Jacob earned a new name, Israel, “God wrestler”. Jacob prepared to confront the brother he wronged by transforming himself – he was no longer the deceiver that fled his crimes decades earlier.
Upon finally reaching Esau, Jacob learned that his brother prospered over the years. Esau was eager and thrilled to reconnect with his brother, as the text reads:
Gen. 33:4 Esau ran to meet him, he embraced him, flung himself upon his neck, and kissed him. And they wept.
Throughout this incident Jacob was really worried. He feared that Esau’s men would swoop down upon his family and wipe them out in vengeance for his prior sins. Unlike his grandparents, Jacob worked to solve his conflict with Esau – the problem was between them, so Jacob had to struggle to overcome his fear of seeing Esau again. He faced the consequences of his bad actions, and traveled towards the reconciliation between them. Jacob did the hard work, wrestled with an angel, and returned to make amends.
We want to emulate this Jacob. Like Jacob, we may cause conflict. We are all human, so we may also, at first, flee the scene of the crime and fear to return to it. Jacob confronted his greatest fear – maybe Esau still wanted to kill him. This time of year reminds us that we should try to make that return too. Jacob who became Israel teaches us to grapple with ourselves – to atone we must find some internal transformation because when we do, and then go apologize, we may have become the person that will not make the same mistakes again.
All of us are children and many of us are parents. Most of us have some complications in our families. Abraham and Sarah led lives that mostly revolved around founding a people – they needed a place to live, and resources, and descendants. They had little time for attending to the family they worked so hard to build.
My parents grew together and then apart. They had kids, then got divorced, then had new spouses and new kids. We are a very modern family – that is we are families. Not unlike Sarah and Abraham, my parents had a lot on their plates. One family takes up a lot of time, but two families plus careers – I can barely imagine how they coped. I remember helping in small ways.
I also participated in making it worse.
In part, I helped as an easy go-between – I remember times when they couldn’t talk to each other except through me. I would be on the phone with one of them, and in the room with the other. I also remember how we comforted each other – my mother and I would complain about my father together. My father and I would complain about my mother together. We formed little duos of convenience – seeming to draw closer, but perhaps in hindsight amplifying each other’s pain.
I have no doubt that my parents needed to be apart – their marriage needed to end. Their divorce was not the issue – how we behaved afterwards was. We had our confrontations but we never addressed the real issues – we allowed other priorities to get in the way of taking care of the tensions between us, and even with professional assistance we allowed those issues to be conversations with everyone except the person we had the problem with. We all sacrificed each other in small ways.
As a teen, when I served as ambassador my parents allowed me to do it – it made things easier. I felt important too – if I sacrificed a little of me so that I could help them, then I was doing something good, right?
And when I brought them together to say goodbye before my father died I stepped right back into that old role – I allowed my own needs to be sacrificed for theirs. My mother lost her friend. I lost my father.
When Isaac stared at his father over him with the knife he knew that he mattered less than something else. Who knows what scars he bore with him from that moment?
We may end up in any of these roles.
I hope that I brought my parents some comfort in a small way. I hope that their conflict, wrestled with for a long time, led to some peace. My mother and I continue to build love and peace between us.
Loving people means loving all of them, even their complexities.
Our stories are complicated. We dive into them, face the hazards in our depths, time and time again, hoping to emerge with new insights, and perhaps some healing. For all of my families, we always try to get better at doing this together. We strive to be brave, to face what we need to do as individuals, to bring the problem to each other, and to positively move forward.
My wrestling continues. I try to learn from my own experiences, as well as those who went before me, both in my family and in the Torah.
Judaism and our High Holy Days ask us to walk in the shoes of all who we’ve wronged, and all these characters who went before us. We must struggle with when they wrestled and when they didn’t. Entering their stories allows us to enter our own and find new paths for ourselves.
I want to avoid Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice others.
I want to follow Jacob. I want to wrestle and confront difficulties within myself, and then make amends with the people involved.
We explore these stories and make them our own.
We put down the knife. We wrestle with our inner angels and demons. We struggle to enter the New Year better than we ended the last.
I wish all of us meaningful struggles that lead to greater wholeness and peace – may we find blessings in our own stories for the New Year.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to us all.