Living with Uncertainty
Increased terrorism in the United States and Canada
Sermon, RHII, 5764
Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer
Abraham and Sarah did not sleep that night.
It was the anniversary of 9/11 and terrorism was very much on their minds. They kept thinking of the tragedy two years ago. And of the repeated terrorist activities all over the world. The church burnings, the synagogue burnings, the Jew shot on the street in Toronto. The el-al passenger waiting to fly to Israel. The JCC shooting in Los Angeles some years ago.
And Isaac, their only son Isaac, attended kindergarten in a Jewish institution.
"Maybe the JCC should increase its surveillance cameras and identification procedures", Abraham suggested. "Maybe the shul should put a lock on the door and only let approved people in, like that synagogue in Turkey that your brother-in-law tried to visit. Remember he could not get in for shabbat services because he did not make an advance reservation and let them know he was coming? Maybe we should move Isaac to a different school where he might be safer."
"Should we stop going to shul, too?" asked Sarah. "Stop attending services, and meetings, and adult education classes? Stop sending Isaac anywhere where there might be lots of people, particularly lots of Jewish people? That sounds safer."
"But Sarah", said Abraham, "what should we do?"
"I don't know," said Sarah. "But I do know that tomorrow afternoon I have to bring Kobi home from school with Isaac; his mother just had a baby. And when you go shopping this week, don't forget that the Schwartzs are coming for Shabbat dinner; they arrive home from vacation Friday morning. I think I will give Mrs. Cohen a call, it has been three months already since her husband died. I'll bet the invitations have started to taper off and she must be very lonely. Maybe she would also like to join us for Shabbat dinner, we had such a nice time last time. Oh, yeah, and I have to confirm with the Katz's. They promised to watch Isaac when we go over to the shul Wednesday evening to help build the Sukkah And speaking of building the Sukkah when are you planning to build our's? There is no Sunday between Yom Kippur and Sukkot this year, so make sure to plan to build it early. And, Abraham, let us both make sure to say some special prayers of thanksgiving that we are all together and we are all fine.
Abraham and Sarah did not sleep that night.
Their meager belongings were all packed, the coach was hired for sunrise. The three of them, Abraham and Sarah and their small son Isaac were leaving Poland for good.
Sarah looked at the familiar lines on the ceiling. She thought of their little town where she knew every man, woman, child, and goat by name. She though of the Heder that Isaac attended every morning except Shabbat. She thought of the church, dark and forbidding, where boys would come out and throw stones at her Isaac on his way home from Heder. She thought of the letters from her older brother, talking about life in the mysterious place called New York, were people lived in impossibly tall buildings and spoke in a babel of languages. She sighed.
"Abraham," Sarah called. "Abraham, are you sure we are doing the right thing? I have heard that America is a goyish place, that men shave their beards, and even work on Shabbat. Will our Isaac remain Jewish in America?"
Now Abraham sighed. "I don't know, Sarah, how could I know? But we will hardly be the only Jews in America. Your brother is there and his wife and their children. And my cousin Yankel is there. And Rukky from down the street left six months ago. We won't be alone. We will have a kehila, a whole community there! They will help us now, and when the next person comes, we will help them.
Abraham and Sarah did not sleep that night.
It was the 9th of Av in the year 70 and the Temple was in flames. A long line of starving, skeletal Jews, filed out of Jerusalem. Abraham and Sarah walked numbly, each clutching one hand of Isaac, the child of their dreams. What had happened to all their dreams? Abraham and Sarah kept walking.
"Abba," Isaac said. "Where are are going?" "I don't know, my son," Abraham responded. "Ima," said Isaac. "What is going to happen to us?" "I don't know, my son," Sarah answered. The three kept walking. Isaac did not ask anything else.
But suddenly Abraham stopped, bent down, and looked Isaac straight in the eyes. "My son, we don't know where we are going and we don't know what will happen to us. The Temple is gone and Jerusalem is destroyed. We don't know what will happen to Judaism either; it will never be the same again. But this we do know: God will go into exile with us. God did not burn with the Temple or perish with Jerusalem. God will always be with God's people. Whenever things are difficult, like now, God will be with us, giving us strength to continue, giving us courage to persevere. Do you understand this, my son?"
"I think so," Isaac said bravely. Abraham's eyes filled with tears. And the three kept walking.
Abraham and Sarah did not sleep that night, not since Abraham had received the chilling call from God: "Abraham, take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and bring him to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as an offering, on one of the mountains that I will show you."
Abraham had uttered only one quick gasp of shock and sorrow and then he was silent. The weight of what he was about to do to his son, the example he was going to set for the history of the Jewish people, the burden was too heavy for words.
"Take your son, the one you love, and offer him as an offering on a mountain that I will show you."
The Torah tells us that Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his own donkey, and went off with Isaac to fulfill the word of the Lord.
A Midrash relates that Satan met Abraham on the way and tried to dissuade him from continuing the journey. "Abraham," Satan said. "Right now there are three Jews in the world: you and Sarah and Isaac. You and Sarah are old, you will surely have no more children. Isaac is the only one who can carry on the promise of the Jewish people. The whole future of the Jewish people rests on Isaac. Will you kill Isaac and abort the Jewish people?"
But Abraham was not convinced by this rational argument. "I must follow the command of the Lord," he responded. "My job is to be a Jew. The future of the Jewish people is up to God."
We know that the story has a happy ending. God had no intention of allowing Abraham actually to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham was stopped before it was too late, and he happily offered a ram in Isaac's stead.
But Abraham did not know what the outcome was going to be. For three days he kept going towards his destination, allowing nothing to distract him from being a Jew. In the scheme of history, three days does not seem like such a long time. But to Abraham, no doubt, those three days were an eternity. For three days he had to live, not knowing what was going to happen. Was God really going to make him slaughter his beloved son? Would he really be able to go through with it? How would he explain it to Sarah? How would he live without Isaac? Is being Jewish worth the sacrifice? What was to become of him?
We know the answers to Abraham's questions -- for Abraham. But the burden of his doubts weigh upon us even until today. For we, like Abraham, must live with uncertainty.
What will happen to us after the death of a loved one? We cannot know. What will happen to our children as they navigate throughout life? We cannot know. What will happen in Israel, now that there is a new government and a new agenda? What will happen in this country as proliferation of weapons continues to make claim innocent victims in hate crimes and wild shooting sprees? We just do not know.
We give ourselves in love, not knowing what will become of that love. We bring children into the world, not knowing what will happen to them. We support and visit Israel in spite of, maybe because of, our concerns for Israel's future. We make our choices, in the face of uncertain outcomes. We don't know what the future will bring. We don't know what is going to happen.
On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed; who shall live and who shall die, who shall be ill and who shall be well, who shall be uneasy and who shall be at peace. On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, sealed so that we cannot know the contents of the decree.
Who shall live and who shall die. And when someone near to us dies, how do we go about expressing our grief and mourning? Judaism offers a distinct structure for caring for and mourning a deceased loved one.
The dead are accompanied, washed and dressed with utmost dignity. Burying the dead is a mitzvah of great importance. And after the funeral, the community as a whole gathers around to support and nurture the mourners in their time of grief. Taking their cue from the mourners, the visitors may share stories or memories of the deceased, or they may simply sit in silent -yet shared- reflection. The community makes sure that the mourners do not have to prepare food for the week of shiva. Mourners derive tremendous solace from the community.
And, at this difficult time when the mourner may be overcome with feelings of grief and anger, Judaism offers the mourner a way to reconnect with God. A minyan is gathered and the mourner says Kaddish, reaching out to God. Sometimes God is there, taking the brunt of the anger. Sometimes God is there, giving strength and courage to the mourners. Sometimes it does not feel like God is there yet, but the potential for God to be there exists, we know that God will be there.
When we face the uncertain future after the death of a loved one, Judaism provides structure, community, and God. Likewise upon the birth of a child. Judaism celebrates the birth of a child, be it a boy or a girl, with a religious ceremony that welcomes the child into the covenant of Israel and thanks God for God's blessings. Traditionally invitations were not extended to a bris; everyone knew that everyone was automatically invited and that anyone could come. Welcoming a new child was a job for the community as a whole. Traditionally also one of the parents comes up to the Torah to bench gomel, to thank God for God's mercies in helping mother and child get through the birth safely.
Structure, community, God. Are those not also the prime components of the Jewish way to mark time? In Hebrew, only one day of the week has a name: Shabbat. The other days are simply called Yom rishon, Yom sheni, the first day, the second day, the third day, and so forth, six days leading up to the climax of the week, Shabbat. And on Shabbat what happens different from the other days? For one thing, we gather together in shul as a Jewish community. And for another, we think, talk, and sing about God, we bring God into our lives on Shabbat. Naturally we can gather as a Jewish community at other times as well, and we can think about God any day of the week. But Shabbat offers us a special opportunity to do these things. The structure of the whole week is governed by the coming of Shabbat.
And of course, we mark time not only by the week, but also by the season: Sukkot in the fall, Hanukkah in the winter, Pesach in the spring, Tisha B'Av in the summer. The year is punctuated by holidays and events, some celebrated in the larger community, some with family gatherings and traditions. Often personal occasions become interwoven in the web. You would have to ask me my son's birthday twice to get me to give a date; Rafi was born erev Purim, we celebrate his birthday on Purim, his Bar Mitzvah will be pretty close to Purim. The rhythm of the year ebbs and falls with the holidays and events that bring us together as a community, remind us of God, and provide the structure of our lives.
Abraham and Sarah were up late talking, prioritizing, making decisions. Finally Sarah said, "Abraham, as long as Jewish rhythms provide the structure in our lives; as long as we make ourselves part of the Jewish community; as long as we do not forget about God; Isaac will be all right. No matter what happens."
And Abraham and Sarah fell asleep.
Judaism does not answer the question: "what is going to happen?" The future is sealed; we do not know. What Judaism does instead is offer us ways to cope with the uncertainty of life. Judaism offers us meaning and structure for our lives, community to share our lives, and the embrace of God within our lives.