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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II

This d’var is about my colleague, Mary, her husband Ed, her nine-year-old son, William, and her three-year-old son, Ben. Ben was buried on Wednesday.

Ben had a long bout with leukemia. Not just any leukemia, but a rare form, AML-M7, that is essentially incurable. He was diagnosed almost two years ago with a grim prognosis but a range of cutting edge treatments at Detroit’s Childrens’ hospital ahead of him. These included central line implants, spinal taps, innumerable bone biopsies, a bone marrow transplant (his brother William was a perfect match), steroids and other drugs to facilitate the transplant, two lung biopsies, and more regimens of chemotherapy than we can count. And this was just what we knew about.

Mary seemed to bear it all with a matter of fact grace and dignity that was breathtaking. She would come to work when she could and teach her class to adoring, but respectful students (we teach quantitative methods, after all). She would come to meetings, sometimes distracted, but drawing on some inner faith beyond my realm to engage with us, with her husband, Ed, with William, and with Ben. Many of us swim as fast as we can as family, work, and health flow together, but the calls Mary received almost daily were much more dire than most of us will ever receive.

As time went on, Mary and her husband Ed had fashioned a workable routine alternating a few days at home with a few days at the hospital where they were regulars. We, their colleagues, family and friends, eagerly awaited the days when Ed came off his watch and would take the time to chronicle the week’s events on email and web page, interpreting, philosophizing, and doing all he could not to vent.

And then on Monday morning we got the call that Ben had died on Sunday. That was it. Too many battles on too many fronts. Ben’s lungs were compromised and a bone biopsy revealed the cancer was back, full bore, in spite of a recent dose of the latest experimental chemo.

When we got the call I struggled to find my emotions, to think of Mary. Nicole and I walked around the block. But I process life events like this very slowly. In a strange way they don’t fully penetrate at first.

With Rosh Hashanah coming up I looked to the Torah for guidance. Often when I’m groping like this I find not necessarily solace, not necessarily comfort, but an understanding of who I am and why I am the way I am.

The conventional interpretation of the Binding of Isaac would say “God’s will is God’s will and if God calls for a child we must comply as did Abraham and this is an example for us.” Whether or not I believe in a supreme being, and whether or not that the supreme being invents AML-M7, this explanation of God’s will leaves me empty.

And so I wrestled with the story again. Then I woke up in the middle of Monday night and realized it might be the right story, but I was interpreting it in terms of the wrong child. The wrong child.

In Chapter 21, Abraham, at Sarah’s behest, sends Ishmael, Abraham’s child with Hagar, to what will likely be Ishmael’s death. God reassures Abraham that Ishmael will be ok, that a nation will be made of him (Gen. 21:13), and Abraham gave modest provisions to Hagar before sending them off. But for all Abraham knew, Ishmael was dead, or, at the very least, lost to Abraham.

At first, Abraham is seemingly unaffected emotionally by his actions as he buries the hatchet with Abimelech, establishing the conditions for Isaac to thrive amidst peaceful neighbors. Maybe, like me, he is a slow processor. But then Chapter 22 begins with “Vayahee ahar,” translated as “some time afterwards.” Maybe this is just a simple transitional phrase. But maybe it is over time that the grief has sunk into Abraham’s psyche. No longer focused on preparations for Isaac, the grief and agony over the loss of Ishmael must have been overwhelming.

But how to understand what that grief means? For Abraham. For Mary and Ed. And for many of you who I know have lost loved ones in the past year.

And now I read the rest of the passage that opens Genesis 22 (verse 2), that Nigel pointed out can be interpreted as a conversation. God calls to Abraham and says “take your son, your favored one, Isaac” (verse 2). Nigel’s interpretation is that the cadence suggests a conversation—“take your son,” which son? “your favored one,” I love them both. “Isaac.”

That’s one way to read the conversation, but another is in light of Abraham’s grief, Ishmael consumes Abraham’s consciousness: “take your son,” you mean Ishmael? He is gone— “your favored one,” But Ishmael is my favored one, as I pleaded to you on his behalf [Gen. 17:18] and he is gone, how can I take him?—“Isaac.” Oh, Isaac. Him. Ok, and what should I do with Isaac? Kill him? Why not? If Abraham was compelled by human and divine forces to send Ishmael away, then why not carry it to its logical conclusion and take Isaac to his death?

And so Abraham dutifully makes preparations, organizing his servants, splitting wood for the offering, etc. The methodical approach reveals his wayward soul. Is this the Abraham who mocked God’s promise to make him a great nation: “Since you have granted me no offspring, my steward shall be my heir” (Gen. 15:3). Is this the same Abraham who bargained, aggressively and successfully (in terms of a revised contract), with God for the lives of fifty, forty five, forty, twenty, or even ten good men in Sodom and Gomorrah? (Gen. 18:22–33). And now the same Abraham dutifully prepares to kill his own child? If this story is about a test of Abraham, then I would say he failed with his failure to challenge God’s request. Grief has suppressed Abraham’s will, has taken away his appreciation for human life. He is not the same.

And then I read the story of the emergence of the here and now, through Isaac, in Abraham’s consciousness. It begins as Isaac carries the wood—at least he is good for something. But then Isaac calls “Father” and Abraham answers, maybe out of habit, but with his lifelong refrain of “Henane: Here I am.” Isaac may well know what’s up, but manages a respectful question, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham essentially dismisses him—“God will see to the sheep.” It’s not quality time, but it was an exchange. Isaac, by being, is pulling Abraham into the here and now.

It is just enough. Because instead of killing Isaac, Abraham has just enough sense and engagement in the world to recognize the sheep as an alternate sacrifice. Maybe it is the sheep that God provided. But maybe it is a sheep that Abraham has decided God provided, emerging from his grief enough to recognize the living son in front of him.

This story has taught me... About the slowness of grief, and how it can seep in. I do not read this story literally or as historical fact, with the implication that children are God’s to take. In fact, once the story has been written I infer that the taking of children is not in God’s domain at all. Children, like Ishmael or Isaac, are taken or saved by natural forces and by our awareness of those forces and reactions to them. The divine can open our eyes to salvation as God does for Hagar so that she could see the well that would save her and Ishmael, or for Abraham as he sees the ram as an alternate sacrifice. And the Torah has maybe given me a glimpse of how powerful, if slow, grief can be, and of the role of the here and now that calls through the fog of grief.

And now I return to Mary and Ed's family. Perhaps Abraham’s grief gives us a glimpse of what they have yet to go through. And they do have another son, William, who is nine. And, I believe and hope William will help pull them into the realm of the everyday, of the living, of the community around them. But this the task is too great for a nine-year-old to accomplish on his own. We must all be the voice of Isaac, calling out from the here and now to those who grieve.

—Ken Frank
Tishrei 5767 (2006)

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