On the Road to Resilience

8 Sep

Sermon delivered Rosh Hashanah Day 2, September 8, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah.

At Boca Raton Regional Hospital where I serve as a chaplain, the last month has been quite challenging. In our area and around the state of Florida, there has been a surge of cases of COVID-19.  This surge is a result of a combination of lax attitudes and practices towards masking and vaccinations and the arrival of the Delta variant. I wasn’t working in the hospital during the earliest waves of the virus pre-vaccine. I know from what colleagues tell me that those were terrifying times because there was no vaccine to provide protection for front line workers. However, in raw numbers, the surge we we have been seeing in recent weeks is the largest ever. Our ICU is full with COVID patients, and there has been a shortage of beds. Every week, I join the head chaplain, for staff wellness rounding in which we go floor to floor to offer support and encouragement to the nurses and doctors and other staff who are on the front lines. Many of them are exhausted, burned out, angry and traumatized. We meet with the staff to make sure that their work is recognized and appreciated. In so doing, we strive to cultivate resilience so that these crucial employees will choose to continue to share their gifts of healing. 

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a trauma expert who wrote the acclaimed book on the subject “The Body Keeps the Score.” He writes: “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.” (21) Dr. Van der Kolk also writes about effective responses to trauma: “Resilience is the product of agency: knowing that what you do can make a difference.”

Today’s Torah reading, the Binding of Isaac, is ripe with trauma. However, embedded in the text and in the chapters that follow is an account of a path towards resilience. 

In our culture, we are used to Hollywood endings. The heroes overcome their challenge and ride off into the sunset. We know that in the end Abraham does not kill Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The story, though, does not exactly have a Hollywood ending. Have you ever noticed that Abraham and Isaac do not walk off together? Have you ever noticed that they never speak to each other again? After this episode, the very next piece of information we learn about the house of Abraham is that Sarah dies, possibly from shock over the news from Mt. Moriah. Hers is not the only body keeping score; Isaac is later described as blind, which the midrash connects to his traumatic experience on the altar. 

There are tragic consequences to the Akeidah. More than a paradigm of faith, the Akeidah is the ultimate recipe for how to traumatize a family. Within this complex story, though, or at least in its aftermath, we find a layer of hope and redemption. Who is the hero of the redemption of this family? Without a doubt, it is Isaac. This may come as a surprise. Because of his submission on the altar in apparent silence, we tend to regard Isaac as passive. A fresh reading of the text yields a new perspective of Isaac. The secret to understanding Isaac’s greatness lies in the map on your handout.

We know from the end of the Binding of Isaac narrative that Abraham travels to Beersheva, a distance of more than forty miles. This is curious because we are told in the next chapter that Sarah dies and is buried in Hevron, only 20 miles from Jerusalem. This suggests that Abraham knowingly bypasses Hevron on his way to Beersheva. He knew Sarah was there and perhaps suspected that she would excoriate him (to say the least) if she heard about the Akeidah. According to the midrash, word does reach Sarah soon enough, and indeed she dies from the shock. Abraham retraces his steps and walks 20 miles back to Hevron to bury Sarah.

Meanwhile, Isaac is missing in action. He does not accompany his father to Beersheva and is not present at his mother’s funeral in Hevron. This is odd because we’re told later how sad Isaac was over the death of his mother and that he does not overcome his grief until he marries Rebecca. So where is Isaac? In the lead-up to Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, we are finally told his location, Beer Lahai Ro’i (Gen 24: 62). This is an oasis deep in the Negev desert, perhaps another 40 miles from Beersheva. After the Akeidah, Isaac ran as far away as he could from his father and the life he knew. Except, there are two people in Beer Lahai Ro’i whom Isaac knows and knows well: Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, and Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother. We read about their banishment from the house of Abraham on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. When we learn from the Torah that Be’er Lahai Ro’i becomes Isaac’s home, bells should go off in our minds that he went to live near Hagar and Ishmael.

Isaac when growing up probably sat for dinner with his parents in their tent and heard stories that cast Hagar and Ishmael in a poor light. But after the Akeidah, Isaac sees the world differently. Isaac now understands what it’s like to be abandoned. Hagar and Ishmael are the only two people on earth who would understand the trauma he experienced at the hands of his father. Moreover, he understands what they went through when they were banished into the desert. To put it in COVID-19 terms, Isaac wanted to spend lockdown with Hagar and Ishmael and no one else. 

We have no record of any conversations in Beer Lahai Ro’i. We only know that when Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah. This often overlooked scene is one of the most powerful in the Bible: Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham and fathers of two separate nations, stand side by side in brotherhood at their father’s grave.

Think about all that transpired beforehand. The family of Abraham had collapsed. Hagar and Ishmael had been banished, and Isaac had nearly been killed on the altar. Abraham feels he will never be forgiven and cannot face Sarah ever again. Sarah, to the extent she was able to process the events before her death, probably felt betrayed and abandoned. Five people, five lives, five hearts traumatized and wracked by pain.

I believe that Isaac earned his name as a patriarch by doing the quiet work behind the scenes to enable the reconciliation between himself and Ishmael. When Isaac emerges from the trauma on Mt. Moriah, he could have taken different routes. A more outward-driven personality might have seized the moment for PR. He could have broadcast his victimhood to the world. He could also have lived the rest of his life in seclusion. Isaac does neither. He actively works behind the scenes to effectuate change. Instead of living with hurt and resentment, he taps into his pain to seek out an opportunity for reconciliation. Earlier, the pain was so raw he couldn’t even bear to meet his father at his own mother’s funeral. Isaac understands, though, the need to connect. He may feel abandoned by his father, but he is not resigned to a life of abandonment.Through Isaac’s insight and courageous initiative, the sons of Abraham reconcile. Isaac, in partnership with Ishmael and Hagar, illustrate the verses from Ecclesiastes: 

4.Kohelet 4:9, 12

טוֹבִ֥ים הַשְּׁנַ֖יִם מִן־הָאֶחָ֑ד אֲשֶׁ֧ר יֵשׁ־לָהֶ֛ם שָׂכָ֥ר ט֖וֹב בַּעֲמָלָֽם׃

Two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings.

כִּ֣י אִם־יִפֹּ֔לוּ הָאֶחָ֖ד יָקִ֣ים אֶת־חֲבֵר֑וֹ וְאִ֣יל֗וֹ הָֽאֶחָד֙ שֶׁיִּפּ֔וֹל וְאֵ֥ין שֵׁנִ֖י לַהֲקִימֽוֹ׃

For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls with no companion to raise him!

וְהַחוּט֙ הַֽמְשֻׁלָּ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בִמְהֵרָ֖ה יִנָּתֵֽק׃

A threefold cord is not readily broken!

Isaac’s resiliency also demonstrates what is known by caring professionals as post-traumatic growth. For some, resiliency and post traumatic growth are synonymous. For others, here’s the distinction:  “Resiliency is the personal attribute or ability to bounce back… PTG, on the other hand, refers to what can happen when someone who has difficulty bouncing back experiences a traumatic event that challenges his or her core beliefs, endures psychological struggle (even a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder), and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth. Post traumatic growth is not innate. It’s a process that “takes a lot of time, energy and struggle.” 

Isaac’s achievement is significant. Just look at the ground he had to cover on foot to get a sense of his effort. In our quest for resilience and post-traumatic growth in our response to COVID-19, we have to show kindness to ourselves, because the process of bouncing back is hard. 

Rabbi Mychal Springer, founder of the Center for Pastoral Care at the Jewish Theological Seminary said in a recent online presentation for rabbis:  “Resilience is something we aspire to. And we know we can’t always feel resilient. Sometimes we are laid low, and we have to respect the process. It’s not a question if one of us will fall. We will fall. When we fall we can pick one another up.” Rabbi Springer says that a resilient person understands that falling is a part of life and that we need to build our lives around the reality that falling happens. We can be self-sufficient with certain kinds of falls. But with others we need support. In the case of Isaac, he needed that support from Hagar and Ishmael, the two people in the world who “got him,” who could relate to his trauma. I imagine that they supported one another with open hearts to turn their respective encounters with death into a collective affirmation of life. 

For the last 20 months, we have all been hyper-aware of our mortality because we have been surrounded by illness and death. Even if we have stayed physically healthy without infection, our collective isolation and loneliness have heightened our stress levels. Resilience and post-traumatic growth will not occur through ignoring or denying the world around us. Rather, renewal comes about through our leaning in to our stress and our fear of mortality. Our task is to let our mortality serve as our catalyst to bring more compassion and loving kindness into the world. 

The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about acknowledging our fears and choosing resilience. We dress in white and draw death close. Our proximity to death allows us to take seriously that we only have one precious life to live. With a mindset towards making the most out of our life, we are reoriented to what we need to do for meaningful living. And that is resilience. Out of our brokenness comes our agency because we can make a choice in the time that we have. We have that ability. There’s so much we can’t do, so much that is out of our control. Then there is what IS in our control. When others are feeling down, we can make sure we see them. And when we’re feeling down, we can make sure that others see us. As Kohelet teaches us, טוֹבִ֥ים הַשְּׁנַ֖יִם מִן־הָאֶחָ֑ד two are better off than one… וְהַחוּט֙ הַֽמְשֻׁלָּ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בִמְהֵרָ֖ה יִנָּתֵֽק׃ and a three-fold cord is not easily broken. In this new year, let us renew our commitment to helping one another through the crisis of our times, and may God grant us the strength to bring more compassion, loving kindness and peace into our world. 

Amen. 

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