Descending the Mountain: Rabbi Jill Maderer Rosh Hashanah Morning 2021/5782

L’shanah tovah.

Quite a journey.  Each step up the mountain stretching limits, even each step down the mountain demanding courage.  A journey through unfamiliar wanderings, along an uncertain path, on a quest for purpose.

When Abraham and Isaac ascend Mount Moriah and Abraham prepares to fulfill what he believes to be God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, what could Isaac be thinking?  When Abraham lifts his knife and at the last minute God’s angel calls it off, what could Isaac be feeling?  When the worst of it is over and it’s time to descend the mountain, how can Isaac move forward?

The Midrash tells us that before Isaac is spared, while still poised under Abraham’s knife, the angels hover over him and in their dread, they weep.  As they do, the angels’ tears fall into Isaac’s eyes, forever changing his vision. 

Even once the peak of the ordeal concludes, it is not over. As, shaken, Isaac descends the mountain, the angels’ tears remain.

The haunting narrative of the Akeda/the Binding of Isaac, in this morning’s Torah reading, tells among the most inconceivable stories in our tradition. Commentaries attempt to understand the purpose for the story, and possible ways to perceive God’s and Abraham’s thinking.  For me, in this story it is impossible to understand God or to put myself in Abraham’s shoes. 

But Isaac—we are all Isaac.  We all face loss, fear, uncertainty, loneliness, and many of us face trauma, of this year or of many years. 

When the peak of the ordeal concludes, as we descend the mountain, the angels’ tears remain in our eyes.  We are shaken.  Forever changed. 

The question is, changed how?  Scholar Betsy Stone offers this non-clinical definition of trauma: “the response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes our sense of self and ability to feel the full range of emotions.”  Having endured the peak of the pandemic as well as other life experiences, many of us can relate to trauma or to adversity. 

The journey is ongoing; we are not done facing this pandemic. But we are in a different stage than we were, having experienced it enough to reflect back and to grow.  To ask: how have the tears, changed our vision, even offered insight?

As we reflect, consider the “COVID-keepers” – the new insights we seek to keep in focus.  I’ve heard from you many spiritual “COVID-keepers.”  We have learned: to no longer take for granted a meal with friends, to accept imperfect circumstance, to conquer unworthy fears, to release a need for control, to renew our sense of purpose.  If these COVID-keepers stick while we descend the mountain – while we walk forward into the next phase of our lives — that’s transformation; that’s growth. 

Jewish tradition knows, it is not Isaac’s choice, whether to be impacted by trauma, and it is not ours. Without blaming Isaac, or any of us, for those times when trauma causes debilitating consequences… through Isaac, the text does brings inspiration for how we might grow in the wake of adversity.

As Isaac descends, the angels’ tears remain.  When the story of the Akeda/the binding of Isaac concludes, what happens next?  There is no word about Isaac. Where is he? Perhaps, initially, Isaac is wandering, just figuring out how to survive.  The unknown in the text honors us in our own wandering – Where are we?  Sometimes we just need to figure out how to survive. 

In this, I have such compassion for you all, for our congregation, and for our world.  We are all Isaac this year and any year, for no one escapes hardship.

Now, beyond the wandering, with angels’ tears still in his eyes, what are other layers of Isaac’s response to his experience?  And what is our response to our own? 

Following Isaac’s unknown whereabouts, consider his first step: Isaac travels out of his way.  Isaac visits a well – a well that is mentioned chapters ago — as the destination of Hagar.  Perhaps Hagar — the maidservant who was cast out of Abraham’s home, in her suffering – is still at this well. Imagine that Isaac visits, looking for Hagar, seeking to offer compassion to her* – understanding they are both members of Abraham’s household who suffered.  With the angels’ tears still in his eyes, Isaac responds with compassion.

With tears still in our eyes, what is our response to adversity?  Compassion.  It’s in the small moments: the warmth and technology-tips at the start of each Zoom.  It’s in the deeper moments: Amid this year’s heartbreaking losses were bright spots of compassion. When one recent widow—someone young to be a widow—learned of other congregants who this year lost spouses young, she reached out to make a connection. Granting permission to share with you, she said to me: “the shared support is comforting, and also gives me purpose; I can understand something in their lives, most others cannot.”  Like Isaac, she returned to a place of suffering – she returned with compassion.

I have faith in our renewed call to compassion.

We are all Isaac, this year and any year. Angels’ tears still in his eyes, when Isaac returns from Hagar’s well, consider his second response.  In what may be the quietest moment in the Torah, the text says: Isaac goes out meditating in the field, as evening draws near.  In his journey forward, he responds with reflection.  

And in our journey, we respond with reflection. As we all asked ourselves: how do we live this pandemic life?… we also asked ourselves: how do we live this life – period.  As we watched groceries, schools and our congregation forced to reinvent, in ways we could not have imagined, the impossible became possible. We began to ask ourselves, if the notion of what is possible, in our institutions has been expanded, what possibilities, in my own life path can I expand?  With intention, recalibration and prioritizing, we saw that our growth from a scary time, could somehow clear away the hindrances of fear or lack of imagination.  How blessed we are to be part of a synagogue, a home for such spiritual search.

I have faith in our renewed call to reflection.

We are all Isaac, this year and any year.

After his walk in the field, consider Isaac’s next response.  Isaac’s meditation is followed by the Torah’s greatest love scene.  Isaac’s family has arranged for Rebekah to come meet him.  While out meditating in the field, Isaac looks up and sees camels approaching.  Raising her eyes, Rebekah sees Isaac. She dismounts her camel –or perhaps falls off, as she falls in love — and says: “who is that man walking in the field toward us?”  Isaac and Rebekah become husband and wife.  Isaac loves her and thus finds comfort.

Love. Oh, those tiny outdoor COVID weddings, because as Jews we do what we can, to not delay joy.

Now, for those who were hoping to fall off a camel for someone this year… well, a shout-out to you, who were searching for romantic love during the pandemic—it was a tough time for dating.  This summer was predicted to be a hot summer for young singles who were finally vaccinated.  As it turns out, when singles would meet in a bar and they left together, according to data, they were likely to just, talk. The common experience of the pandemic left them unprepared for light flirting or casual relationships; they ended a night in deep conversation.

Depth of relationship, and even love, is a part of our response.  Beyond romantic love, friends, family, and the community have found new ways to opened their hearts and prioritize relationships: grandparents teaching preschool to grandchildren, long distance relatives zooming family reunions, teen-agers cooking dinner for their parents—or so I’ve heard! 

I have faith in our renewed call to love.

We are all Isaac.

After Isaac builds a family with his beloved Rebekah, consider how he continues to respond and to grow. Later in his life, Isaac digs anew the water wells, which had been dug in the days of his father.  When another tribe in the neighborhood, quarrels over 2 of the same wells, Isaac sees beyond his own family’s needs.  Isaac shares equity, and commits to other groups’ interests, as well as his own.  He resolves conflict, identifying a third undisputed well, and he establishes a peace treaty with Abimelech, king of the Philistines.  Relentlessly, Isaac takes responsibility for his own community, for the surrounding community, and for the future.

Amid our own trauma, this congregation has not averted our eyes, from the injustices of our city and our world.  Congregants have dedicated themselves to voter engagement, to our Breaking Bread on Broad food pantry, to anti-racism work.  As the injustices remain: from systemic racism, to gun violence, to homophobia, to voter suppression, to a gender gap leaving 1 million more women than men to leave their jobs this year, to the misogynistic assault on reproductive rights, to the anti-Semitism that, as with so many other times of fear in human history, has been emboldened… I have faith in our renewed call to responsibility.

How do we ensure that we keep shining light in our areas of growth, that we remain devoted to compassion, reflection, love, and responsibility? 

According to Jewish law, a sanctuary must have windows. The brokenness of the outside world cannot be ignored in our words of prayer.  And the values we share in the sanctuary must inspire us to shine our light into the world. Each ray of light, in Hebrew, Keren Or, inspires our growth.  Through those tears in our eyes, we see the rays of light and we become Keren Or, a ray of light.

Isaac cannot un-see the knife. Angels’ tears still in his eyes, he can only descend the mountain.  There’s no going back to the old normal, there’s only moving forward.  Now part of the way there, as we move forward together,

May we travel, out of our way, inspired by compassion,

May we reflect, that our lives be led with intention,

May we find great love, and express it in our actions,

May we dig deep, and keep our wells, and our eyes, open.

Finding growth, even with tears still in our eyes,

May we enter this new year so full of potential for goodness.


*Drawn from a teaching from Rabbi Shai Held.