Laura Gittleman Rosh Hashanah 5771
The story told in today’s torah portion, the binding of Isaac, or the Akedah, is familiar to many of us. Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac, Sarah’s only child, whom God gave to her late in life. God tells Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah, build an altar, bind the boy to it, and prepare him as a burnt offering. At the very last moment Abraham’s hand was stayed by the voice of God, this time telling him to let the boy go and use a ram instead.
Isaac had to have been traumatized by his father’s intent to slit his throat and make of him a burnt offering. I don’t believe there is or ever was a culture wherein a young man could calmly face having his throat cut before being burned to charcoal cinders. According to a book called The Last Trial by Shalom Spiegel, all manner of scholars have tried to explain this story by applying myriad twists of Rabbinic logic and Talmudic magic, from the ridiculous to the sublime. One argument was built on the proposal that Isaac was also the name of Abraham’s most valuable and healthy sheep, he just didn’t understand God’s instructions. Sheep, son, you can see how it could be confusing. That seems far-fetched, doesn’t it? So while my interpretation is based purely on my own conjecture, I stand in good company with the esteemed and venerated scholars of the past.
I think I know what Isaac felt when he was on the altar, with his father holding the knife above him. He was deeply terrified. That knife is the only thing he saw. His heart hammered, his breathing was shallow. I am sure some of you here today have known a similar moment. This was Isaac’s moment, quoted from Genesis:
“And they came to the place which God had told him of, and Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son.”
Pretty chilling. At the last moment Isaac was set free – and Isaac suffered no knife wounds, he carried no visible scars. But maybe he lost the chance to be a great man because the trauma of the Akeda followed him the rest of his life.
I am not Isaac. I have had an exciting career, fun hobbies, I married a great guy, and I have wonderful children, but Isaac and I share a frightening experience with a knife. When I was nineteen years old I was living with a friend in an apartment in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. I was an art student, young and naïve. One morning I was at home by myself in the apartment I shared with a friend. It was a bright, shiny, blue sky day. The doorbell rang but I chose not to answer it, I wasn’t expecting anyone. A minute later I heard a strange noise in the kitchen. I went to investigate, and as I entered the tiny kitchen a man was just coming in through the open window, three stories up over an alley. As I turned to grab the phone he picked up a knife and held it to my neck. He was crazy and strung out and very nervous – he didn’t expect to find anyone home. I was deeply terrified and changed forever by what happened over the next 20 minutes or so. I have never been more “present in the moment” in my life. From the moment I heard the noise in the kitchen my brain was at hyper-speed, analyzing all incoming data (tone of voice? perspiration? movement of knife?) in order to respond, react and survive. Did Isaac feel the same when he asked his father “I see the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep?”
In the end I suffered no knife wounds; I was left with no visible scars.
What did Isaac do when he was set free? I picture Isaac leaping from that altar and running as fast as he could into the wilderness – stark desert, blazing sun, blue sky. I picture him stumbling into some ancient city or town, feeling utterly alone, reassessing his strengths, trying to figure out how to be self-sufficient, make it work. But he can’t do it. Perhaps he is afraid his father might find him, and try it again. He is jumpy and nervous, unable to feel safe, settle down. Isaac slinks home, then disappears from the story for awhile.
There is a description of his mother’s elaborate funeral and burial, from which her only son is strangely absent. There are recitations of the generations of the branches of Abraham’s lineage, Isaacs step siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc., but not a word about Isaac. The next we hear of him his father is looking for a wife for his son. Abraham, who is wealthy and powerful, tells his servant to look in Nahor, Abraham’s old home town, but he insists that Isaac can not go with him. We see Isaac is controlled by his father. The servant returns with Rebekkah, she and Isaac marry and move in to the family tents, and they have twin boys, Esau and Jacob.
At last Abraham dies and Isaac and Rebekkah move to the land of the Philistines because of famine. The Torah tells us Abraham had dug many wells in the land of the Philistines, implying he was a significant presence there – the wells were to water his livestock. He named the wells symbolically and the Torah describes all the connections. After his death Philistines stopped up the wells, so they could not be used by others. Aside from the literal image of ruined watering holes, this text also implies Abraham had been very powerful in that land, but Isaac had not managed the wells since his death. The Philistine king sends Isaac out to re-dig his father’s wells, and Isaac digs them and then names them exactly as his father did, implying a lack of innovation, of entrepreneurship. We see Isaac is a follower.
Also, while in the land of the Philistines Isaac tells everyone his wife is his sister “lest the men of the place should kill me for Rebekkah, because she is fair to look upon”? We might forgive Isaac for being especially sensitive to the threat of death, but the king of the Philistines is horrified when he finds out. He scolds him, and I quote from the text: “…one of the people might easily have lain with your wife and you would have brought guiltiness upon us”. We see Isaac is a coward.
Finally Isaac is an old man, blind and feeble, ready to hand over his fortunes to his older son, Esau, but Rebekkah and Jacob plot to fool him. Jacob pretends he is his brother and receives the blessing of his father – he will be the next patriarch. When Isaac discovers that he has given Jacob the blessing meant for Esau “he trembles very exceedingly”. And after lecturing Jacob to get a wife from his mother’s tribe, the generations of Isaac are recited; he disappears from the story, never mentioned again.
Isaac did not become a great man, though he is the son of a great man and the father of a great man. He is passive, timid, dominated by his father, easily fooled – in short a less than self-actualized man. What happened to this patriarch of the Jewish people? He became not a leader of men, but a man of regrets.
Last year at this time I decided I didn’t want to end up like Isaac. I didn’t want to be haunted by that traumatic attack in that old apartment any more, and I was haunted by it over the years. I have spent a lot of time worrying about my personal safety. One example: do any of you remember phones that were attached to the wall by cords? For years I needed extra long extension cords for my telephones, I would even spice them together, so I could leave the phone at the bottom of the stairwell to my second story apartment in Berkeley. I picked up the phone as soon as I walked in the front door, dialed 9-1-and kept my finger over the final “1″ while I walked upstairs and made sure everything was safe. And I had two roommates! Another example: Once a window slammed down spontaneously, loudly, and suddenly as I walked across the kitchen. Bam! I was frozen like a statue in mid-step. I was unable to move a muscle for 45 minutes, really not move. I was barely breathing, listening hard to find out what might happen next. After that I was sore for days.
After my attack I clenched my jaw for weeks. I realized something was wrong when I was feeding myself frozen peas one by one, barely slipping them past my teeth. The police had me down to the station where they showed me book after book of mug shots of some of the scariest men on the planet. My heart rate escalated violently every time I got on a city bus for fear I would see one of these people or my attacker, whose face I could no longer remember.
One thought that plagued me was that when the guy who attacked me left, he went out the window. I was so scared of what I would do I even yelled at him “Use the door! Use the door!” But he went out the window and I easily could have pushed him to his death or at least serious injury – I could have just pushed him! But I didn’t, (I couldn’t!) and I was ashamed because I thought this meant I was weak. I didn’t tell anyone. When I did tell people about the incident I didn’t want to upset them so I would gloss over things, accent the positive, make light of it. Make light of being robbed and assaulted in my home!! I didn’t want this horrible occurence to define people’s perception of me, you know, like …”well she was never the same after that nasty incident,…”, but the thing was, I never was the same. And I had a lot of regrets about what had just happened to me.
Something changed for me during the Holy Days last year. I became aware that during this period of intense personal reflection between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur I identified the same regrets over things that had happened in the past year after year after year. And then I realized how many years this had been. And I realized I could be having these same thoughts at this same time of year for another 30 or 40 years, God willing. This seemed untenable. Torture, even. Right now I am speaking of the kind of everyday regrets we all have. For example, I walk a certain trail frequently with the dogs, and the trail crosses a stream. Once, I brought a friend on this walk, and she slipped crossing the stream and fell in. She was embarrassed, and I felt bad. Now every time I cross that stream I remember her falling. I’ve been crossing that stream at least once a week for eight years since, and every time I remember her falling. Can you imagine how many times she has fallen in my head? Do I have to keep doing that? How do I stop??
I came up with a plan. I was 49, approaching 50 years old and it was time to decide what memories, habits, regrets, etc. I did and did not want to carry into my fifties. I planned a program of mental cleansing. I had a vision of scrubbing my conscience of accumulated clutters of thought patterns, reflexes and behaviors I had learned over time that were unnecessary, annoying and hurtful. I pictured emerging from this brain bath renewed, shining and brave. Some of what I wanted to be rid of was small, like my friend falling. Other things were bigger, like the after effects of that violent crime so many years ago. I called my plan The Year of Me. During the Year of Me I decided to inventory the lingering effects of that trauma and actively choose what to keep and what to throw away.
I’m pretty naïve about self-improvement. I started by making all the doctor and dentist appointments I usually avoid because I thought avoidance was one of the behaviors I’d like to get rid of. Gradually I sought a deeper level of self-awareness. I noticed how George always felt renewed by meditation retreats, so I went to the beach alone for a weekend, and I brought nothing but clothes and some food – not a book, not a pen, not a hobby or a project. And I was silent. And all of you who have done extended meditation retreats know what happened next: I was exhilarated, I was amazed I was joyful and then I was miserable and frustrated and bored, and finally I was ecstatically calm. It was great.
Finally I was ready to tackle the hard stuff, so I made an appointment for EMDR therapy – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a therapeutic technique that transforms memory through the application of bilaterally alternating gentle stimulation through sight, or feeling, or sound. Memories are unlocked, and changed. The idea is to re-remember events that happened in the past, to tell the story the way you wish it had gone. You lay down a new memory so whenever you think of that scary event your reflexive response is calm rather than fear. The technique has been used extensively with victims of trauma and much of the research comes from the treatment of Israeli soldiers.
I was intrigued and a little intimidated by this approach to mental housekeeping. Before the Year of Me, I would have never have tried it, but this year I pursued it. EMDR is provided, with a referral, at Kaiser, among other places, and Kaiser is not exactly an alternative medicine center (did I mention I work for Kaiser?. EMDR is a practical, mechanical, goal-driven, short term (one or two sessions) process, and for me it worked. The proof of its success is me standing up here telling you this story none of you has heard before because I have never talked about it. Today this story has passed through my Year of Me cleaning regimen, and much of its power has been scrubbed away.
I’m not going speculate whether EMDR would have been useful for Isaac but we all have regrets which hold us back, which lead us to think less of ourselves, even when the causes of regret occurred long ago, and are remembered imperfectly. What I learned this past year is that we all have the chance to let regrets go, to forgive ourselves and move on. I learned to stop old narratives from replaying in my head, and I learned to talk to myself, to remind myself to quiet down all my chattering voices of self-criticism (still working on that, by the way). Finally, I learned that one of the benefits of aging is the opportunity to say farewell to the power of a 30 year old secret.
Now, as the Year of Me comes to a close, I am planning for the future. It’s not as if during the past year I evolved into an expert at self-actualization. Like learning anything new, the work ahead is in sustaining the new habits and behaviors I have discovered. But I have changed the way I live my life. Not profoundly, but subtly and enjoyably.
According to me, today’s torah portion teaches us about regrets and recovery. As we travel through the holy days together, consider the story of Isaac as you consider your own. What has happened to you and how do you want that stay with you? Perhaps this year is your year to gain more control of your memories, to reflect on the past while altering your approach to the future. Ask yourselves: in the year ahead, what wells will you dig and how shall you name them?