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That’s How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen singing "Anthem."

Leonard Cohen singing “Anthem.”

Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.

The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.

This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.

Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.

Emerging from Trauma

Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Issac. Marc Chagall

Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Issac. Marc Chagall 1958

Isaac, son of Abraham, is one of the most tragic figures in the Genesis narratives. When he was just a boy, he suffered the loss of his older brother Ishmael, when Ishmael and his mother Hagar were expelled from the household into the wilderness by Isaac’s mother Sarah. Then, sometime after this, Isaac walked for three days with Abraham his father up to Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, only to be set upon the sacrificial altar. There he lay, as his father took the knife in his hand and raised it up, until at the last second, an angel shouted from the heavens, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand upon the lad; do nothing to him; for now I know that you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me!” (Genesis 22.11-12)

Now, in the frailty and blindness of old age, Isaac bestows upon Jacob the blessing intended for his older son Esau.
The great midrashic scholar Avivah Zornberg characterizes Isaac as a “survivor of unbearable trauma.” It would seem that Dr. Zornberg is spot on. The trauma that a boy would suffer from such a shocking and horrifying near-death experience, at the hand of his own father, would be deep enough to scar anyone for life. Dr. Zornberg explains: “In recent times we have become painfully familiar with the notion of a response to trauma that is delayed, repressed, and that emerges in psychosomatic dysfunction. Just such a repression is implicit in the notion of Isaac’s delayed blindness. Imprinted deep in Isaac’s consciousness is the spectacle of his own death. In old age the vision explodes in fatal bloom: his awareness of death fills every moment of life. ‘Look now, I am old, and I don’t know the day of my death . . . . Let me bless you, before I die (Genesis 27.4).’ Death haunts his imagination, the angst of one who nothing else in an eternal moment of his youth. (Isaac in fact lives sixty years after this ‘death bed’ speech!)”(Excepted from Dr. Zornberg’s book “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” Knopf, 2011.)
I am moved and pained by the level of trauma that Isaac suffered in his early life. Very often the deep wounds of profound trauma stay with us throughout our lives, and are never very far from our consciousness. Certainly survivors of the Shoah have testified to this, but also any of us who has suffered any sort of profound shock to our sense of equilibrium in life. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Isaac’s life after Moriah was not a total loss – not in the least. He managed to sustain a marriage and raise two sons. He owned and cultivated land, and herds of sheep and cattle. He had many servants, and dug many wells. By material definition, he was a very wealthy man, and became the envy even of the Philistines. As with his father Abraham before, God appeared to him and promised him blessings and numerous descendants.
While the scars of deep trauma may remain within us throughout our lives, we human beings are also endowed with great power to live our lives well despite it. We can find a way to integrate pain into the totality of our lives and not lose ourselves altogether. While Isaac may be a particularly tragic figure, he also owns his own place of great significance in the saga of our Matriachs and Patriachs, and in the formative history of the Jewish People.