Sermon/Bat Mitzvah Charge for Elana
Parashat Chayei Sarah
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
At the end of last week’s parasha, Vayera, we experienced the harrowing and traumatic story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. The narrative relates to us, the readers, of God’s test of his faithful servant Abraham, demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, the beloved son of his old age and the key to the continuation of the lasting covenant that God had promised Abraham. Hearing God’s command, and despite any apprehension or doubt he may have felt at the incongruity of this demand with the covenantal promise, Abraham zealously gets up early, saddles his donkey, and sets off with Isaac on what Abraham initially can only assume will be a journey that will end in personal heartbreak, even if it simultaneously affirms his faith in God. And what does Isaac know or understand about this journey? Not much, it would appear, until the third day, when Abraham and Isaac separate from the two servants who were travelling with them and take the wood, the firestone, and the knife and continue their trek alone, with Isaac himself bearing the burden of the wood while Abraham carries the firestone and the knife, “vayelchu shneyhem yachdav”, “and the two of them walked on together”. It is only at this juncture that Isaac begins to wonder what is happening here, as he notices that they have the instruments necessary for a sacrifice, but they are missing the most critical element of all: a sheep.
When he asks Abraham about this problem, Abraham informs him that God will provide the sheep. Isaac questions no further, either because he accepts his father’s answer, or because inside his heart and mind he has concluded that he is the one destined to be sacrificed. But regardless of how he is processing his reality in the moment, nevertheless, the Torah text reports again, “vayelchu shneyhem yachdav”, “and the two of them walked on together”. The repeating of this exact same phrase as the one offered before Isaac questioned his father suggests that Abraham and Isaac appear to still be on the same page as to their commitment to what lies ahead. Fast forward to the dramatic end of the story—Abraham binds Isaac, lifts up the knife to sacrifice him, and is stopped at the last moment by an angel of God intervening and telling Abraham that he has proved his faith and that he instead should offer up the ram that suddenly came into view in a nearby thicket. When all is said and done, and Abraham has sacrificed the ram and named the site “Adonai yir-eh”, “God will see”, it’s time to go back and meet up with the servants he had separated from along the way. Except in this moment, the Torah only reports the return of Abraham to his servants. Isaac is now conspicuously absent. Where did he go? He certainly didn’t stay there by himself on Mt. Moriah. We find at least a partial answer to Isaac’s mysterious disappearance from the story in our parasha for this week, Chayei Sarah, when Isaac suddenly returns to the narrative two chapters later (Genesis 24:62). We are told that Isaac “ba mi-bo b’er lachai ro-i”, “Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Be’er lachai roi”. This is not a random location, a pit stop on a journey home; rather it is a place we have been introduced to before, back in Genesis 16, when Sarai’s servant Hagar had run away from her on account of her harsh treatment, and was wandering in the wilderness. In that moment an angel of God spoke to Hagar, comforted her, and told her she would give birth to a son. Hagar reacts by calling God “El-roi”, “The God who sees me”, and the well from which she was drinking became known as “Be-er lachai roi”. This incident and the name of the site seems to indicate that this place became a symbol of God looking out for the disregarded ones, those who might not have otherwise been noticed. And it is this place that is Isaac’s last known location in the mysterious gap between his aborted sacrifice at Mt. Moriah and his return home two chapters later; moreover, we subsequently learn a few verses later that Isaac ultimately settles down near Be’er lachai roi. So what can we infer from this? Why did Isaac choose to go to Beer lachai roi, of all places? Isaac needed some space and some separation from his father after his father’s unwavering commitment to God led to a direct conflict between that commitment and his devotion to his son; that’s understandable. So Isaac went wandering to find a place where he could encounter God in a different way, not the God who simply demanded faith and piety at whatever cost it extracted from followers, but a compassionate and thoughtful God who looks out for those who have in some way been disregarded or ignored; or sacrificed, in all but the biblical sense, at the altar of conviction. Isaac needed to find God in his way, and not in his father’s way.
As I thought more this week about the Akeidah and about Isaac’s barely mentioned journey that followed which may well have been to find himself and refashion his relationship with God, I was struck by the parallels between Abraham and Isaac’s story and the story of me and my children, Jonah and Elana. Abraham believed strongly and passionately in God and in bringing ethical monotheism to the world, and desired to help others find their faith in God and find their footing on the path of God’s ways. Abraham uprooted his family and moved wherever that ambitious and challenging mission was going to take him, not knowing that it would ultimately be Canaan. And the command to bind up Isaac, even if ultimately revealed to be only a test, forced Abraham to make what at the time looked like an impossible choice between his God and his family. These descriptions of Abraham’s reality could just as easily apply to me or any congregational rabbi in our day and age. As a rabbi, I am animated by a deep-seated love of Jewish practice, Jewish community, Israel, and God, and believe passionately in my mission to connect with Jews of all backgrounds and help them engage more in Jewish life through both ritual and ethical pathways. As a rabbi, I have now served in three congregations, in Charlotte, in Maryland, and now here in Dallas, and thus recognize full well that this career path and mission does require the sometimes-painful uprooting of family in furthering new opportunities to faithfully serve the Jewish community. And as a rabbi, and thus, as a pastor to many, I am also constantly aware of the difficult balancing act I must do between devoting myself to caring for a congregational family and devoting myself to my own family, when choosing how to allocate my never-enough hours in any given week.
What about the viewpoint of Isaac, or of my children, in this story? Isaac in his day, and my children now, have been subject to many of these factors which are out of their control, like being told they are moving, from Charlotte to Maryland when they were little kids, or from Maryland to Dallas when they had already reached their teen and pre-teen years. There’s nothing easy about that kind of transition, and it’s not something they ever asked for or chose. And as for the tension between mission and family, well, my children can certainly speak to the many long days I’ve spent at work and come home for 15 minutes for dinner, only to run right back to the synagogue, to countless weeks of me being out at meetings, classes, and events for 2-4 nights weekly, and to me being pulled away from family time at home or while on vacation to deal with a pastoral emergency. In this vein, too, it’s not a life they chose, but one I effectively chose for them. You could even say they, as the children of a congregational rabbi, are the very definition of sacrifices made, in the same way that Isaac was sacrificed in all but deed on account of his father’s devotion to his faith. It would be all too easy for a rabbi’s children to be resentful of their God, and of Jewish community, both of whom their father often serves at the expense of being there fully for them.
(invite Elana up to join me)
Elana, this is the life you inherited from me and Mom. We started your Jewish journey for you by bringing you into the covenant with God and the Jewish people just over thirteen years ago. And over these thirteen years since, we have been shepherding you along as best we can, trying to share with you our love of Jewish life, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, bringing you to shul weekly, sending you to Jewish day school, keeping kosher in and out of the house, taking you to Israel several times, and shielding you when at all possible from the fishbowl of being the daughter of a congregational rabbi. Moreover, we tried very hard to help you and Jonah see the beauty and meaning in our traditions, and not to regard them as burdens, like the wood that Isaac himself had to carry to what looked to be his own sacrifice. And now, as you have grown and matured as a young Jewish woman, you have begun to seek to create your own path to God and to Jewish connection, evident in the ruach, spirit, and energy you bring to leading tefillot or songs or reading Torah, today or any day, evident in your enthusiasm for Jewish studies at school, and evident in your deep love for the land of Israel. Most of all, whether you are engaging in Jewish rituals or making Jewish ethical choices, your kindness and compassion always shows through, and you do what you do with a smile and a warmth that is infectious and invites others to be part of those moments with you.
Thinking back once again to Abraham, he had Isaac carry the wood on their journey together, the wood that represented obligation and sacrifice, the choices Abraham made for himself that also affected Isaac in direct and potentially detrimental ways. Of your own choosing, you have set the wood down and, like Isaac, have sought to find for yourself the aspects of God on display at Be’er Lachai Roi, the immanent God that embraces us and takes note of us as individuals, and you have sought to approach our tradition with a lighter touch, with a focus on ruach, joy, and compassion. I’m so happy to see that instead of the wood, you are choosing to carry the eternal flame, the beautiful fire of our people, which I can so proudly see burns brightly in your soul and through your smile. It’s my prayer for you, my sweet daughter Elana, that in the months and years ahead, you seek and find ways to fan that flame and keep feeding your inner fire for Jewish life and learning, nourishing yourself and inspiring those around you towards a love of Torah, a love of B’nei Adam, of human beings, and a love of God. You have already brought Mom and me so much pride and joy, today and every day, and we look forward to seeing you continue to grow into a young and menschy woman who is beautiful both inside and out. We love you.
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