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Chayei Sarah: Finding Resilience

11/28/2022 03:27:34 PM


Rabbi Ezray

          I try to take a moment and reflect on the week as Shabbat approaches. I often find myself holding onto contrasting emotions. Part of me is so happy for Blair and her family and celebrates some wonderful celebrations in my family. At the same time, the ongoing litany of antisemitic episodes, polarized politics here and in Israel, and sad losses like the one experienced in our community also sit in my soul. It's hard to hold onto everything.

          At times like this Jewish wisdom guides us. As we turn to the stories of our ancestors, we find wisdom and guidance. Frequently, I turn to the patriarch Isaac when I need strength and wisdom; I needed Isaac this week. He is someone who faced trauma, and yet finds ways to transform it into purpose and meaning. 

As a young boy, Isaac witnesses the tension at home between Sarah, his mother, and Hagar, his father’s other wife. His brother Ishmael was banished from their home. Being bound on the altar by his father surely traumatized him for life. The image of his father holding the knife over his head sears into our souls, and we can’t imagine what it must have been like for Isaac.

We wonder how he can move forward, and yet, he does. The impact remains and we see it when we read his story, and at the same time, we see that he transforms pain into meaning.

          Let’s begin with his pain. In some ways, Isaac disappears from the story.  When you read the story carefully, you notice that the text says Abraham came down the mountain alone. Where was Isaac? Perhaps this small detail suggests that Isaac was estranged from his father, so much so that even when Sarah dies, Isaac is nowhere in the story. Later, Abraham asks his servant to find a wife for Isaac; Isaac is not part of that story either! In fact, Abraham and Isaac never again speak again in the stories that are presented. 

But Isaac is much more than a person moved to the shadows of the story.   He is the one who understands the subtle work of responding to pain with meaning.  He shows us what it’s like to live a spiritual life even in the aftermath of pain as he shapes a life of his own. Eliezer brings Rebecca back to Isaac’s home; we learn that Isaac settled in the Negev, a different place than Abraham. The text hints at Isaac creating distance and independence, something necessary for some to heal.

Reading closely, we come to see Isaac as a deeply spiritual person. Look at Verse 63: “And Isaac went for a walk in the field toward evening and looking up he saw camels approaching.” Nothing particularly spiritual here, but the Hebrew is more evocative. Vayeitze Yicah la’suach basadeh. As we explore what the word la’suach means we discover ways to develop our own resilience.

 What does it mean when it says ‘la’suach ba’sadeh?’ The word doesn’t occur anywhere else in the Torah. As commentators seek to explain the word, they paint a picture of Isaac providing lessons in resilience.

Many traditional commentators, like Rashi, say he was praying. In the Talmud this is seen as the source for the afternoon service. Isaac prepares to meet his future wife with prayer, perhaps prayer about who he will be in relationship or about the home he and his wife will create. Maybe it is a prayer of pain and his hope that life will get better with relationship. Isaac teaches us to pour out our hearts in prayer.

Related to this translation of praying in the field, some translate the word as meditating, becoming fully present to the moment he is in and having a conversation with himself. In modern Hebrew, sicha means conversation. Picture Isaac quietly having an internal conversation; reflecting on the moment and its meanings. Amidst the stress of the pandemic, polarization, and a world that seems beyond repair, Isaac’s lesson of turning inward; finding the holiness of a moment or encounter as we listen to our deepest truths teaches us. Meditation can be internal conversation, breathing in and out, concentrating on each breath, guided meditation, walking with awareness of what we experience. There are many ways to meditate; it changes us. We often find new insights or let go of pain.

I recently learned about a young woman named Etty Hillesum who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. There is a beautiful book of her letters and diary where we learn the lesson of la’suach – to meditate. She dealt with the trauma of war by finding quiet and wisdom inside herself. Listen to what she wrote amidst the war in March 1941: “My ‘center’ is growing firmer by the day…deep inside me there is a center of strength which radiates strength to the outside.” In June 1941 she writes: “I’ll ‘turn inward’ for half an hour each morning before work and listen to my inner voice. Lose myself. You could also call it meditation. I am still a bit wary of that word. But anyway, why not? A quiet half-hour within yourself…But it’s not so simple, that sort of ‘quiet hour.’ It has to be learned.”  Etty Hillesum, like Isaac, learned the power of la’suach – to meditate, converse with oneself, listen to deeper truths. I think about Isaac and Etty and realize there is so much wisdom in making time for this type of spiritual activity. Sadly, Etty died in Auschwitz in November of 1943, but we are blessed with her and Isaac’s lesson about the resources each of us have to with the day as it comes.

Let’s continue to reflect on the word la’suach. Maybe the translation, “walking in the fields” is accurate as well. The commentator Ibn Ezra relates the word la’suach to the Arabic word sacha, to travel about. Isaac was out for a walk. Being in nature allowed Isaac and allows us to find awe each day in the wonders of nature. Being in nature humbles and grounds us, opening our hearts in unexpected ways. I just read a beautiful article about how veterans suffering from PTSD find healing through equine therapy. Horses mirror our emotions and feed off our energy. Knowing the horses mirror emotions, the veterans learn to focus, breathe, and make the horse comfortable. Animals and nature connect to heart. One soldier reflected: “It was as if [the horses] understood our sorrow. We started to become comfortable with our existence again.” (People, November 14, 2022). Isaac opens the door to the healing power of nature.  

Another interpretation of la’suach, building on the translation of having a conversation is Ramban, who pictures Isaac having a conversation with friends. While the Torah does not mention any friends, Ramban imagines them there. Facing the difficulties of the moment, Isaac turns to friendship. I know I have relied on friends to face the past couple of years. People who listen and care, who I can pour out my heart to, and who will tell me what I need to hear, even if I may not want to hear it. Real friends.

I want to learn from Isaac. To turn to God with heart, to turn inward and listen, to allow nature to heal, to rely on friendship. And as we open the door to Isaac’s lessons, we discover that he is the one who made peace when there was conflict with neighbors. He was the only patriarch who stayed in the land of Israel steadfastly. He prays next to his wife when she was in anguish over infertility. He was the first patriarch about whom it is said that he found love. Isaac is the first person who the text uses the word love to describe his relationship. In Ellen Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam, she asserts that after all the pain he has endured, it is when Isaac marries Rebecca that he discovers the power of love as an agent of healing. We too turn to love as we face pain in life.

In July 1942, Etty Hillesum writes: “For a whole year now I have been working at the quiet space within me, so that it has now grown into a great hall, palpably present.” As we discover the great hall inside ourselves, we find the ability to face difficult days and discover new possibilities. May we, like Isaac know love and discover the strength, wisdom and heroism that resides in each of us. May it grow into great halls, palpably present. Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784