Rabbi David Walk
Over time reading Biblical stories has become very complicated. The combination of the wealth of commentaries and the awe in which we hold these texts drives a wedge between the reader and the material. We sometimes have difficulty seeing the raw power of these passages, because we're afraid to approach the verses without the filter of traditional interpretations. Many times we lose our personal proximity to this exquisite literature, and that's sad. When our Sages declared that Biblical passages have seventy gleaming facets like a stunning diamond, I believe that we must reserve one of those sparkling surfaces for our own intimate impression. I don't mean that we should declare traditional approaches wrong or try to derive legal positions on our own, but just have a private get together with these messages from holy realms. Although the patriarchs and other Biblical heroes are much greater than we, we can't forget that they're also human. If these people were totally devoid of the emotions and motives common to us all, then I wouldn't be interested in their stories because they wouldn't be relevant to me. I read my Tanach to be inspired by two things, first our instructions from God and then to identify with the amazing characters who populate those pages. Then maybe I can merit emulating them.
This brings me to the Biblical readings for Rosh Hashanah which emphasize parent-child relationships. On the first day we read in the Torah about the birth of Yitzchak. This joyous event is marred by the specter of his older step brother, Yishmael, denying him the environment required to grow into the heir of Avraham's monotheistic legacy. This reality is hard on Avraham who loves Yishmael very much, but God instructs Avraham to heed Sarah's warning, and cast out his oldest son. Hard parenting decisions have not gotten any easier in the last four thousand years. The Haftorah that morning is the powerful story of the infertile Hanna praying for a child. Although many rabbinic sources emphasize the lessons gleaned from this reading which instruct us about how to pray, I think that the parenting issues are paramount. We want children so much that we don't feel fulfilled without these repositories of our DNA, but also of all our hopes and aspirations. Her husband, Elkana, professes his devotion, but it's not enough for Hanna. We learn two lessons, one about our relationship with God and one about our feelings for the next generation.
But I really want to discuss the readings on the second day. First, in the Torah, we read about the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak. This tale of Divine ordeal has so many profound interpretations of the philosophic importance of the trial that the simple humanity of the characters is often lost. Our dedication to God's directives can tear asunder family relationships. But that doesn't happen in our narrative. The verses testify and emphasize that father and son walked together, trod the same path. However, the catharsis in this saga comes from the potential sacrifice of Yitzchak. Every parent who sends their child off to the army knows the feeling. Just like Avraham, we don't always understand why my child has to do that potentially lethal job, but somehow we carry on, and answer the call. Send them off with honor and glory, and pray that they return whole in body and mind. The commentaries are fascinating and informative, but one Tekes Hashaba'a (Swearing in Ceremony) teaches volumes.
Then we finally get to the Haftorah of the second day. Jeremiah informs us that there is one individual who stands up for us before God throughout eternity. And that's our Mother Rachel. She becomes the paradigm from which all other mother figures in history are drawn. He records the pathos of her tears for the children who are no more. Now what does that mean? In what sense are these no more? The answer is: in every sense. She is crying for her children who have died before their time; she is crying for her children who are lost in distant exile; she is crying for her children who have wandered from the Torah path; she is crying for her children who are no longer Jewish. This dramatic image of Rachel weeping uncontrollably inspires us still. A visit to her traditional grave site is so moving because of all the modern mothers and would-be mothers emulating her example.
What was the effect of Rachel's tears? This is the reaction of Ephraim, her grand son: You have chastised me, and I was chastised as an unruly calf, O lead me back, and I will return. After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth. (Jeremiah 31:17-18). The children are moved by her depth of feeling to recommit to God and the Jewish way of life. How many Jews have remained loyal to Torah and mitzvoth because the alternative would break their mother's heart? Rachel taught us that.
How did God react? Again the unvarnished verses present a dramatic picture. Here's what God says: Is not Ephraim still my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him (verse 19). Readers of the Bible know Ephraim split the Jewish state into two and led the northern kingdom away from God. Those ten tribes were seemingly lost forever, because of their sins and God's awful judgment. But Rachel's prayers and tears bring reconciliation. Even the Unmovable is moved, and longs for the wayward son.
This story, just as it is, brings us to understand the power of parenthood. It reminds us of the profound depth of the love we hold for our children. And on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, it informs us that our Parent in Heaven feels the same for us. May these stories help us achieve an inspiring holiday, returning us to the bosom of family and of Maker, and a happy, healthy, sweet New Year.
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