Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

“After these Things. . .”—Testing, Fear, and Failure (A Late Love Letter)

In the end, we all failed. Although our love was great, our fear proved even stronger. Driven by anxiety, we tried the trust of those we held most dear. Today, with the benefit of almost four thousand years of hindsight, it seems obvious: once the testing started, failure was inevitable.

But at the time, it didn’t feel that way. Despite our advanced ages, we were deeply insecure and unprepared to overcome or even recognize our limitations. Beneath his heroic exterior, my husband Abraham, the world’s first Jew and legendary father of nations was riddled with doubt over whether he was worthy of God’s election and love. Behind my laughter at bearing a child at ninety years old lay a lifetime of fear: where would we wind up, following a calling from a God who demanded so much of us in exchange for something so vague and unrealized—the long delayed promise of a land for our posterity. At thirty-seven, Isaac, the miraculous son of our old age was not yet even a man in earnest. And truth be told, God Herself always struck me as a nervous wreck. After twenty long human generations and one genocidal flood’s worth of experience—that whole disaster with Noah—it turned out She still had a lot to learn.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Our tragic endings were no foregone conclusion; they did not ordain the course of our lives. We made our own choices as we proceeded along our shared journey—some shrewd, some foolish, and everything in between. Yes, there was plenty of pain, but we were also blessed with extraordinary moments of beauty, hope, and contentment. And even though, ultimately, Abraham and God and I all succumbed to our fears, our collective story may yet prove redemptive—if you, my children, take it to heart and learn from our mistakes, which still seem to plague so many of you. So come, sit awhile with me, your foremother Sarah. Listen as I share my tale, which is yours as well, for if you are courageous, faithful, and wise enough, you may yet re-write the ending.


In the beginning, in our beginning, we were young and adventurous and desperately in love. Abraham—or Avram, as he was still known back then—and I were powerfully drawn to one another from the moment we met at the local watering hole. As we got to know one another better, we came to see that, as is so often the case, our mutual attraction sprang from a common history. We shared a lot. For starters, it turned out that we were cousins, which was, back in our day, reason enough to get married. But more importantly, we recognized in one another significant parts of ourselves. We were both iconoclasts, at odds with our more traditional families. Avram was strong and outspoken, and unlike most of his peers, he possessed enough self-confidence to be comfortable with a woman who shared those traits. When most men sought wives to be maids and mothers, he wanted a partner, which suited me perfectly. And we both felt the pull of the open road. We never really fit in with the crowd in Haran, and as the years went by, as we remained childless, our lack of offspring rendered us shameful to our own kin. For all of these reasons, and a few other little personal ones, we tired of our ancestral country and its hide-bound allegiance to the old ways. Like many of our descendents—like many of you—we were eager to leave our birthplace, to make a new start, to strike out for a life of our own making.

So I was more than willing to play my part when my husband informed me that God had told him that we must abandon our homeland and settle in the distant land of Canaan, which was, at the time, a provincial backwater. I was so thrilled to hear the news, I didn’t even ask him about who this “God” character was, or when and where he had started speaking with her; I had no idea, then, of how prominent a role she would come to play in our relationship. All I knew is that I wanted out, and this seemed as good a reason to go as any. I would later come to regret my lack of curiosity, to wish that we had discussed this decision as we had the rest of our life choices up until this point, talking openly and in detail about the move and God’s role in it. But in the moment, I mustered provisions, gathered the livestock, prepared our team of hired hands, and said farewell to friends and family.

The trip itself went off without a hitch. The weather was perfect, our flocks enjoyed abundant pasturelands along the way, highwaymen and vicious beats left us alone, and our entire clan made excellent time. When we arrived in Canaan, we marveled at our safe passage, and at the beauty of the land, which, to our surprise, flowed with milk and honey. We pitched our tents, settled down, prospered, and shared our blessings with our new neighbors.

It was, in short, an idyll, quite wonderful while it lasted, and to our great fortune, it lasted for many years. We became wealthy, acquired a large entourage, forged new friendships, and made a good name for ourselves. Abraham and I achieved all of this together. Our partnership felt unbreakable and our household overflowed with love.


Even now, with centuries of hindsight, I cannot identify exactly when things started to change. There was no such single moment in time, no one initial breach of trust, no defining act of betrayal that eventually brought us down. The shift occurred so gradually we could not see it happening; it was as if an underground spring of suspicious waters eroded away the solid rock of our love’s foundation, at a rate imperceptible to the human eye. Somehow, with the passage of time and a dose of benign neglect, we unknowingly empowered our separate fears rather than our shared hopes. Abraham started spending longer and longer hours with his God, which left increasingly little time for me. He said nothing, but I felt his growing impatience with my requests for his companionship. And the more he left my by myself, the more I came to brood over—and resent—our childlessness. In my deepening loneliness, with middle age encroaching on both of us, I pined for a son or daughter. But I found myself paralyzed by my fear, unable to confide this longing to my husband—just as he could not bring himself to share with me his longing for God. And so, instead of trusting in the love that had always sustained us, we began to test it.


Finally, after many years of slow, incremental deterioration, our partnership began to visibly unravel. I knew we were in trouble when my husband asked me to leave home again, to travel with him to the land of Egypt. My sense of foreboding proved well-founded as we approached the border, when he shocked me with an appalling request. Worried that some powerful Egyptian would desire me and murder him in order to take me as his wife, Abraham asked me to engage in a high-stakes game of deception: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well on your account and my life will be spared because of you.”

I could not believe these words coming from my husband’s mouth; as I heard them, my stomach sank and I was overwhelmed by nausea and loathing. He was asking me—telling me—to lie, to sacrifice myself, my body, my heart, my integrity, for his personal gain. I wanted to scream: “If Egypt is that awful, that dangerous and morally bankrupt, why do you ask me to accompany you there? If you must go down to Egypt to forage for food, go by yourself!” But I could see the fear written on his face. He was terrified, and in his terror, he was testing me. Our years of subtle but costly drifting apart had brought us to this wretched place. Now he was too afraid to open a heart-to-heart conversation with me, and I met his fear with my own.

Through his silence, I could hear the test. In words unspoken, he pressed me: “If you love me, you will descend and deceive for me, in Egypt’s dark and narrow land.” And in my silence, I answered, “Yes, I will go.”

So as you know, as Torah tells, I went, and thereby passed his test. But even as I passed, I grieved, and wept alone in my alien room for our fraying, failing love.


Eventually, we came home to Canaan. I dried my tears. Life went on. We enjoyed prosperity and endured famine, fought wars and established peace. To the outside world, Abraham and I remained model partners and, indeed, we had much to be thankful for. But in private, we continued to try one another in countless small ways, and the silence and neglect born of our fears fed our lingering resentments.

I bear my share of responsibility for that. I let my long-standing anger and anxiety get the better of me when I exacted my own trial. “Abraham,” I grumbled, “For all the time that God demands of you, She sure doesn’t offer much in return. If She’s so great, why can’t She give us a child? You keep telling me that She has promised this, but we’re getting old and I’m thinking She’s all talk and no action. Maybe She’s jealous and wants to keep all of your love for Herself.” Then, before he could respond, I laid out a test for him, by way of a request: “Take my handmaid, Hagar, and bear me a child with her.” He hesitated and as he absorbed my proposal, I recognized the fear in his eyes. I knew that I had said enough. He read my unspoken thoughts with painful clarity: “If you love me, you will do whatever it takes to provide me with a child.” And in his frightened silence, I easily deciphered his pained reply of “Yes.”

Nine moths later, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who I raised as my son. Then, against all odds, I became pregnant and bore my own child, Isaac. The more I loved him, flesh of my own flesh, the more loathsome both Hagar and Ishmael became to me. Finally I tested my husband again, demanding that he cast them out. Again, he said nothing. But again, he complied with my request. And again, in posing and passing that test, we both really failed, for our testing only eroded the trust that it purported to prove. Our sorrow and silence deepened, the rift between us became a chasm, and our long-suffering love was dealt a mortal blow. Once again, we turned away from one another. Fatefully, I turned toward Isaac and Abraham turned to God. And so we set the stage for our tragic final act.


Alas, I was right: God was well-intentioned but every bit as insecure as we were. This may be hard for you to comprehend all these years later, after centuries of philosophers and theologians insisting that she is all-knowing and all-powerful. But if She was omniscient and omnipotent, She would have recognized my husband’s unbounded love for Her and trusted rather than doubting it. She not have needed to unleash that awful trial that shattered us all.

No, God was neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. She proved Herself to be, tragically, just like us, the frail creatures that She created in Her image: fearful and jealous for Abraham’s affections. Even after a lifetime of my husband’s loyalty, Her insecurity drove Her to test his love. And so, in the twilight of our lives, at nightfall, she came to Abraham with that terrible last request: “Take your son, your only one, who you love, and sacrifice him on the mountain that I will show you.”

You know the rest of the story. You have just retold it this morning, as you do every year on Rosh Hashanah. It is now as much a part of your shared history as it is my own.

No one said a word. Abraham, who had confronted God so bravely when She told him of Her plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, silently acquiesced to Her unimaginable trial. Isaac bore the wood upon which he would be his own burnt offering, then lay soundless and motionless as his father laid the knife’s cold steel upon his throat. God, too, was silent. At the last minute, She sent a messenger to stop the slaughter, but She, Herself, said nothing. As for me—well, in their separate silences, God and my husband and my son all conspired to keep me in the dark. I did not know a thing about the whole unspeakable affair until after it was over and done.

Torah teaches that we passed the test. Superficially, I suppose that is true: we all did what was asked of us. But as I lamented when I began, at a deeper and more enduring level, we all failed. Our fear proved stronger than our love. Once the testing started, our failure was inevitable, for when we test the ones we love, we do so out of fear and lack of faith in them. We can never prove ourselves enough. We should have trusted rather than tested one another.

Torah tells us this, too, as it presents the heartbreaking aftermath of the last trial. After that fateful hour on Mount Moriah, Abraham came home alone. He and Isaac never met again. He and God never shared another word. My son spent the rest of his life in a kind of perpetual dusk, strangely passive, half-blind, and incapable of decisive action, rarely speaking with God at all. Me? The midrash recounts my distressing end. When Abraham finally returned to me, unaccompanied, pale and forlorn, he told me in a trembling whisper all that had transpired. I tried to take in his words. I looked desperately, pleading, one last time, into his grieving eyes, then surrendered my soul to the Angel of Death. And though you were not born at the time, you continue to know the steep price of our trial. As the poet Haim Gouri has written, we bequeathed that hour to you, our offspring. Your heritage includes our fear and our difficulties in speaking of it, our dangerous temptation to test one another, our struggles, in difficult times, to trust in the power of our love. You are born with a knife in your hearts.


Alas, over the centuries, our story has been re-experienced and retold in countless variations, but always to the same sad ends. It is the subject of drama, poetry, and prose, fables and fairy tales. You know it from the Princess and the Pea, and Othello and Desdemona. Talmudic commentaries offer another version, the tragic tale of Rabbi Meir and his brilliant wife, Bruriah. Doubting her love, he devised a test, and sent one of his students to seduce her. When, after many frustrated attempts, the student finally succeeded in undermining Bruriah’s faithfulness, she committed suicide out of shame and Rabbi Meir went into life-long exile. So many trials, so many tears. Over three millennia of so much suffering, so much like my own. When will you, my descendents, come to see that testing only breaks the love that it purports to prove?


And yet I have not lost faith in you, my children. As I listen to you share our story here again today, I feel a rebirth of hope, for history need not be destiny. Look, for example, to God Herself, for in the wake of our tragedy, She learned from Her mistakes and grew in wisdom, trust, and forbearance. She continued to reach out to humankind, and as She matured, Her love became unconditional, unbound by jealous and circumstance as it had been with us. Yes, She still got angry at times, at Rebecca and Jacob and Moses and Miriam and David and all the prophets, poets, preachers, princes, and myriad ordinary people who followed. But She no longer allowed her rage to compel her to try the ones she loved. Occasionally, as with Job, She slipped up, and to this day, she still makes some serious mistakes. But what matters more is that She continues to grow in Her every encounter with you, Her beloved partners in creation. And in so doing, She urges you to do the same.

Yes, like Abraham and me, you will all endure troubled times. Your relationships, like ours, will wax and wane over the years. You will all suffer through prolonged dry spells, when you will be sorely tempted to succumb to your fears.

But you need not give in to that temptation. Where we were silent, you can speak, honestly and tenderly with one another. As hard as it is, you can acknowledge and address your fears, and in so doing, deny them the source of their power, for they thrive in silence and darkness, but wither in the daylight of open conversation. When you are lonely and afraid, instead of subjecting the people you love to the kinds of small trials we impose all the time, and which they cannot possibly pass, reach out to them. Instead of assuming they know your feelings, share them. Instead of expecting your loved ones to automatically give you want and need, ask them. Instead of letting your anger simmer against friends and family, tell them what angers and upsets you. Give the ones you love a chance: love them first and let them love you back. Respond to others’ failings with forgiveness. And when insecurity and mistrust raise their ugly heads, as they inevitably will, to try to seduce you into testing your family and friends, know that the only real test is the one that rests up on your own shoulders. It consists of just this: mustering your courage to reach out and share your hearts and souls, more than ever, through the doubt and despair. For that is what it means to love unconditionally. And the ultimate lesson of my own journey is that any love which is less than unconditional is, in the end, no love at all. This is the way you take the knife out of your own heart.


In just a few moments, as your service draws to a close, you will recall our trial one final time, with the sounding of the shofar. The raw cry of the ram’s horn brings it all back, the testing and the struggle and the unfiltered pain, for the shofar’s voice echoes my own. Indeed, the Rabbis teach that the shattered staccato notes of t’ruah correspond to the three times I wailed in grief upon hearing of that last trial, just before I died.

But that staccato t’ruah is not the end of the shofar’s sounding. We conclude with a single long blast, tekiah g’dolah. Its proud, unbroken sound is a clarion call to wholeness, hope, and healing. As its notes fill the room, listen, and know that it is in your power to transform our pain and suffering into something redemptive. “Choose love and trust”, the shofar cries, and in so doing, re-write our story. Be faithful, courageous, and wise, my children, and you will have passed the only test that really matters. The shofar calls you to live and to love, unconditionally and without fear. Now listen, for me, and follow its call.

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