Rosh Hashanah Morning 2017: “Our Nation’s Attic”

My mother’s email was short and to the point. “I’ve sold the house and will be moving into an apartment,” she wrote to all her kids. “If there’s anything you want, you’d better come this week and get it.”

The email sent me into a bit of a panic. How in the world was I supposed to drop everything and sort through decades worth of possessions? My late father had been the pack rat in the family, and although mom had culled a lot of his belongings over the years and given us things she knew would be meaningful – there were an awful lot of drawers, closets, and storage areas to be investigated in the big townhouse with three full stories and an oversized garage.

In the end, we all ended up with a few things that we wanted before mom made herself comfortable in a nice apartment building with good neighbors and lots of amenities. And, truth be told, she made it easier for us than for others our age – because she didn’t insist on foisting things on us that we really didn’t want or need, but might end up taking out of a sense of family obligation.

It’s a near-epidemic these days. When we’ve talked before about dealing with a family’s ‘stuff,’ we usually talk about the psychological baggage in a person’s life that often traces back to childhood. But lately, as the eldest of the baby boomers age and downsize, family ‘stuff’ has taken on a physical manifestation that pits one generation’s trash against another one’s treasure.

A recent New York Times story carried the headline “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It.” The author, Tom Verde, reminds us that our parents and grandparents were being good Americans, not just good providers. They were encouraged to accumulate lots of material goods in the economic boom after World War Two. No new home was complete without wedding china and sterling-silver flatware and cut crystal glassware. When the children came, so did big dining room sets and cushy den furniture and ritual objects and reels and reels of eight-millimeter home movies that never made it onto video tape, much less DVD.

But there’s more – much more – in the attics and basements and guest-room closets of many American homes, where parents have accumulated stacks and bags and boxes of stuffed animals, baby shoes, and seemingly every English essay, every report card, and every art project that every child ever made or received. The objects hold precious memories that many parents just can’t let go of – and they think those objects – as well as the memories they hold – should be as meaningful to their children and grandchildren as they are to them.

The trouble is, they’re not.

As Tom Verde writes “For a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.”

The Times then ran a follow up story of reader responses to the value – or the cost – of keepsakes, and the difficult conversations they’re having within the family about just what is valuable and what is not.

A lot of readers were downright disappointed that their kids and grandkids didn’t want their precious things, for which they often saved and sacrificed for years. One older person wrote: “My generation used to scrimp and resourcefully use everything. My 20-something children prefer to have kits from Ikea rather than castoffs I put aside.”

A younger person – part of a generation that lives smaller for longer than their parents did – summarized the quandary in this question: “Now we’re supposed to buy houses we can’t afford just to store your stuff?”

I happen to know of at least one congregational family here today that is downsizing right now and struggling with a huge houseful of stuff accumulated over 40 years, that the kids see mostly as a burden they don’t want. And another selling her house that the kids grew up in, who fears losing the memories, and the people, that those possessions represent. And yet another asking themselves: Do we stay in grandma’s house because it was grandma’s house, or do we find something new that suits the way we want to live?

There are no simple answers to these issues. Every family has to make its own choices, trying to respect both parental wishes and limits to what the children can take. It’s a mighty generational struggle – one that is reflected in the Torah portion we read this morning.

Just as our family’s attics are full to bursting with stuff and memories, so is the Jewish nation’s virtual attic.

The story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, is one of those possessions that makes us conflicted and uncomfortable about our heritage. Is it a story of child sacrifice that presumes our Israelite God would ask such a thing of a most faithful servant? Is it a story about a child’s self-sacrifice, an Isaac willing to accept and bear his father’s burden? Is it about a dysfunctional family where the mother is the last to know the fate of her beloved son? And why, if it’s so important, is the Akedah not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah?

This is not just a 21st century dilemma. The rabbis have struggled with these same questions for two thousand years. For them, it is absolutely crucial that Abraham’s reputation come out of this unscathed, and that the Torah, as the word of God, retain its literary perfection. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave enough to ask a lot of important – and sometimes impertinent – questions.

They have come up with a lot of possible answers – some more fanciful, and some more incredulous than others, many of which we studied in our adult-learning sessions this past year.

Maybe, they write in the Midrash, Abraham simply misunderstood God’s intention. After all, the angel stays his hand just as he raises up the slaughtering knife. In this scenario, God says to him – I just told you to bring him as if you were to offer him. Now that you brought him up, you can take him home.

Or maybe this test of Abraham was instigated by Ha-Satan, Satan, the trouble-making angel they would later see in the Book of Job. Maybe Satan taunted God into trying Abraham’s honor and faithfulness, and then proceeded to put every obstacle in his way, including turning himself into a raging river that stood between Abraham and Isaac, and Mount Moriah.

Or maybe this story is meant to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. Abraham and Isaac must have walked through the Valley of Gehinom, where pagan peoples around them sacrificed their own children, on the way to Mount Moriah. Abraham – and all of us – would understand the difference between our God and all of theirs, when God would not let Abraham go through with the offering.

For we 21st century Reform Jews, it’s not as important to us to see Abraham as a wholly righteous character, or that every bit of Torah is consistent with every other bit. Many of us see the Torah as divinely inspired but not the literal word of God. And yet, in some ways, our task is more challenging. Because, unlike the material possessions of our parents and grandparents, the literary inheritance of our people is not something we can give away, or discard completely, or just say “thank you, but no.” It is, quite literally, a keepsake.

This is the burden of what’s lurking in our people’s attic: child sacrifice, blind faith, capricious gods. The redactors of the Torah may have smoothed over a lot of its inconsistencies, but they retained the vestiges of an old religion that had all of this and more. And I think they did it on purpose, so that we would be forced to confront and understand our history in each and every generation.

And then the sages connected it to Rosh Hashanah so that we would be forced to confront and understand it at the beginning of each and every year.

In fact, I think that struggling with the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice is an essential rite of passage to the New Year, to the feeling of renewal we all seek. Because, like the entirety of our Torah-reading cycle, it not only forces us to confront what’s in the attic, but it also allows us to see our nation’s possessions in a new light. When Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught us about the Torah “turn it over and over again, for everything is in it,” he meant that year by year, as we get older, as we experience more of life, we gain new perspectives about our spiritual inheritance. Rather than rushing to “preach against the text,” so to speak, we begin to see the value that it has, even in its difficulties.

Not every big, hulking dining room set can be made useful again with new seat covers and a coat of paint. But the Akedah, like so many old things we have re-discovered in our peoples’ attic – mikvah, Hebrew, ritual objects like tallit and kippot – can be made into something new, fresh, and meaningful. Women are going to the mikvah to mark important events in their lives, from marriage to menopause. Hebrew is a living language that identifies us around the world. Wearing a tallit can feel like a big hug from God. But it’s up to each of us to find meaning for ourselves, this year, at our age, at this stage of our lives.

I can’t tell you what the Akedah could or should mean to you. I can only tell you what I see in it today, this year, at this stage in my life.

For me, right now, what draws me to this story is a huge question at the very end (Gen. 22:19):

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:

“Abraham then returned to his servant lads; they got up and traveled together to Beersheba, and Abraham settled in Beersheba.”

Abraham returned. But where was Isaac? What exactly happened between father and son that separated them, maybe forever? Because, as far as the Torah tells us, the two of them never saw each other again.

We could look at this as a terrible tragedy, a family torn apart by anger, guilt, and fear. But this time around, this year, this Rosh Hashanah, I prefer to see it as something quite different. Not as a trauma, but as a triumph. One small note in the Reform movement’s Plaut Torah commentary suggests:

“Is it possible . . . that Isaac now became a man who for the first time could let his father go and who would return later, at his own choosing and time? Isaac’s nature is not radically changed in the Akedah, nor can his early childhood be denied its formative influence, but in the binding Isaac becomes an individual in his own right. If Abraham was tested and purified in agony, Isaac was liberated by it.”

In this perspective, Isaac chooses what to accept and what to refuse of his father’s possessions. He will literally follow in his father’s footsteps, retracing Abraham’s steps and digging wells and settling down where Abraham lived.

But his concept of God, of the human-divine relationship, is different. He seems more sure of both sides of the covenant, and more comfortable in it. And because he – unlike his father – does not feel he has to choose between his faith and his family, he seems to enjoy a more peaceful life, freed from the angst and battles that he saw his father endure, culminating in that fateful trip to Mount Moriah where he found himself bound on the altar, his father knife above his throat.

After Abraham sacrifices the ram in place of his son, the text tells us:

יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְהוָֹה ׀ יִרְאֶה

“Abraham named that place Adonai yireh, God sees, or God will see.”

But the Torah doesn’t tell us just what God sees. Here’s my suggestion for this year: Adonai sees that Isaac is now a man, and will see him thrive and perpetuate the covenant of his father, but on his own terms.

Isaac was able to climb up into his family’s attic and sort carefully and thoughtfully through the inheritance that Abraham had prepared for him. What would he take on? What could he re-use? What needed to be recycled? He understood that one generation’s treasures can turn into the next generation’s burden – and if you feel it as a burden, you will never cherish it the way you might if you were able to choose it freely.

Each of us is here today, welcoming the New Year together, because we have chosen freely to be here. We are not here out of obligation, to carry a burden that has been foisted upon his against our will.

That is what it means to be a Reform Jew in 21st century America. Not to reject what’s in our peoples’ attic, and not to stuff it into our own homes beyond what we can bear. But to sort carefully, study thoughtfully, and create a Judaism for ourselves that we can live with dignity, share with joy, and save for future generations, who will make their own choices.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

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