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Rosh HaShanah II 5782: A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

September 9, 2021

Every year, twice a year, my heart breaks with the reading of Akeidat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. It hits me at different verses each time - sometimes, I am heartbroken and confused by God’s initial request of Abraham - now that Abraham has exiled his elder son Ishmael, it seems that God is asking Abraham to sacrifice his remaining son - as God says, את בנך את יחידך אשר אהבת את יצחק - your only son, whom you love, Isaac (Gen. 22:2). I cannot believe that the loving God to whom I dedicate my life could ask for the death of the miracle child whom Sarah bears after decades of believing in her barrenness. 

Sometimes, I am struck by Isaac and Abraham’s exchange while they ascend Mount Moriah:

Avi! Father!” Isaac says, and Abraham answers with the same words he offers God throughout their relationship, “Hineni, b’ni, I am here, my son.” Isaac continues, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “God will see for Godself the sheep for the offering, my son.”

Does Isaac sense what is to come, or does he simply trust his father to provide? Is Abraham lying to his son or hoping that God will change God’s mind?

And sometimes, I find the most sadness in the Midrash that Sarah’s death in the following chapter is caused by maternal grief upon hearing of the binding of her son.

This year, as I began to practice today’s Torah reading, I found myself stuck on a verse that repeats itself twice. As Abraham and Isaac walk up Mount Moriah, va’yeilkhu shneihem yahdav - and they walked, the two of them, together (22:6, 8). I cannot help but visualize a trusting son staring up at his father, proud that he is helping out by hoisting supplies up a steep slope. But on the way down from the mountain, that phrase - va’yeilkhu shneihem yahdav - is absent. When Abraham returns to his servants, Isaac is no longer present; father and son are no longer together.

Whether or not Abraham passes God’s test, and whether or not Isaac knows what will happen when they reach the top of the mountain, at the end of the day, Abraham performs the traumatizing actions of binding his son onto an altar and wielding a knife above his head before God’s angel has a chance to stop him. Isaac knows he cannot bear to be present with his father past this moment in their story together, and thus, Isaac cannot descend the mountain with him. In fact, Isaac and Abraham do not appear together again until Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s exiled son, bury their father. 

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) teaches, Eit l’hashlikh avanim v’eit k’nos avanim. A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones. Eit lishmor v’eit l’hashlikh. A time to keep and a time to cast away (Ecclesiastes 3:5, 6). Just as Isaac chooses to distance himself from his father, we too, have the ability, and sometimes, the responsibility to distance ourselves from unhealthy relationships. 

Isaac is not the only person in history to find himself in an untenable relationship with a parent, friend, or partner. Often, such relationships are frustrating or just not the right fit - a partner with no chemistry, or a friend who asks for help often but never returns the favor. Other relationships can be dangerous, both physically and mentally. Abuse and coercion can occur under the guise of love or God or family. As Isaac must realize while tied to an altar and staring up at the knife in his father’s hand, such excuses cannot be accepted. As God’s creation, we are deserving of a love that entails respect and boundaries, consent and compassion.

In Masekhet Sanhedrin, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tanhuma teach of a love of the other that necessitates love of the self, through the Levitical verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). According to Rabbi Akiva, our verse implies that one should not say that just like I am despised, let my fellow be despised with me; just like I am cursed, let my fellow be cursed with me. Rabbi Tanhuma adds: If you act in this manner, know Whom it is you despise, for “in the image of God, God made the human” (Gen. 1:27). On the surface level, Rabbis Akiva and Tanhuma remind us of the importance of treating the other with dignity because of their inherent humanity. More pertinent to us, the Rabbis remind us of our own divinity. Just as the other is made in the image of God and is unworthy of hatred or curse, we too, are made in the Divine image and are unworthy of mistreatment. 

In some circumstances, a relationship might just need work - therapy, more intentional, open communication, or even a good vacation or meal together. But in other cases, it serves us better to leave a relationship. Perhaps, this person prevents you from fulfilling your basic needs, or even from simply performing mitzvot you know you could otherwise achieve. Perhaps staying in a relationship endangers your life or the lives of those you love - remember that pikuah nefesh, saving a life, is more important than the vast majority of commandments in our Torah.

Maybe, this person has acted in ways you cannot forgive. Even in this High Holy Day season, in which we often hear about the sacred nature of asking for and granting forgiveness, we may look to Maimonides, who teaches that some wrongdoings are so extreme that they deserve no human forgiveness at all. Especially if the other person has not accepted the damage she has wrought, refusing to take that step to ask for forgiveness, you may not be able to forgive someone you love or have tried to love. Sometimes, a relationship is so broken that trying to fix it does much more harm than good. 

Even when we know that it is time to walk away, we can keep our distance without being cruel. Even though we never hear Abraham ask for forgiveness from either the son whom he banished, Ishmael, or the son whom he almost sacrificed, Isaac, both sons still come together to bury Abraham at the end of his life (Gen. 25:9). We, too, can honor parents and family members by helping to take care of their needs without enabling or excusing. When death comes, we can mourn for those we have loved, even a bitter love, and lost. For those relationships from which we can safely leave, we can express our reasons honestly. And for others, it is our imperative to leave safely, knowing that telling authorities or loved ones about danger does not constitute lashon ha-ra (evil speech); rather, it allows us to get the help we need, the help others need, and perhaps, the help our partner or friend or family member needs. Once we have left, we can carry forward the lessons we have learned from our experiences in relationship, through our future deeds and through how we will choose to communicate and to love.

In yet other relationships, there will be a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones back together. In that distance of casting away, we learn of loneliness - we learn what we need and want from one another, and we learn what we are relieved to live without. We may ultimately choose stones to polish, stones to leave in place, and stones to throw far, far away, so that we may rebuild stronger structures of relationship than we ever had before. In every relationship, we set boundaries, we break boundaries, and we reset them, as we learn and grow and change, as individuals, as couples, and as teams. We can, and sometimes, we must cast away those relationships that hurt us or are holding us back. At the same time, we must hold onto the people who teach us our self-worth, who inspire us to seek health and compassion. 

Eventually, from a distance, Abraham arranges for Isaac to marry a woman chosen for her confidence and generosity. Rebecca becomes the first woman that the Torah says her husband “loves,” and Rebecca, too, is so excited to see Isaac for the first time that she falls off of her camel. Isaac and Rebecca’s relationship has its tenuous moments - Isaac tells the men of Grar that Rebecca is his sister, exposing her to their gaze, and Rebecca fools Isaac into giving his final blessing to a different son than he had intended. At the same time, the Torah describes their relationship as one of play, and it seems, of mutual attraction. When I fill in the blanks of Isaac and Rebecca’s story, I think of a couple who complements one another - quiet and decisive, humorous and playful. And I think of a couple in which both parties have crossed the line, perhaps kept their distance for a while, and then redefined their relationship. In the end, Isaac finds a partnership with Rebecca that is far from perfect, and yet, a relationship worth revisiting and rebuilding time and time again.

Today, I bless us that we may find the strength and courage to leave those relationships that are no longer healthy or safe for us or for those around us. More importantly, while all of us will experience relationships that end poorly, my greatest blessing for us today is that we have many more relationships worth keeping, guarding, and cherishing. L’shanah Tovah u-m’tukah. May you have a good, sweet New Year.

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782