You Never Know!

Today is Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. We always associate the New Year with renewal and new hopes for the future. Isn’t it strange that, in the midst of this hopeful spirit, our tradition would thrust such disturbing images and stories upon us? Take, for example, the Torah reading on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah—the story of the binding of Isaac. You remember the story: God tests Abraham and tells him to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering, and Abraham complies, leading his son on a three-day journey to the top of Mount Moriah, where he binds up his sons hands and feet like an animal to be slaughtered. He places his son on a wood pile, and lifts up his knife, about to cut his own son’s throat, until an angel calls out: Abraham, Abraham! And at the last moment, Isaacs life is spared. So imagine with me being Isaac at that moment of horror: hands and feet bound, on the wood pile. Your own father with knife raised high in the heavens glaring in your eyes, about to take your life! It’s truly unthinkable. The worst horror, the worst kind of betrayal. How does one ever recover from such a trauma. The Torah says so little about Isaac, nothing about what he said afterward, or how he felt. We know he didn’t return home with his father after that day. We know, of course, that Isaac went on to marry and to father the twin sons Jacob and Esau. But what kind of darkness lived in Isaac’s heart after that trauma?...

The ancient rabbis of the midrash, the rabbinic stories, try to capture the nature of Isaacs emotional and spiritual scars. They teach us that when Abraham placed his son on that altar, all the angels wept tears that fell down from the heavens and implanted themselves in Isaacs eyes so that, years later, his own eyes would grow dim. And indeed, we know that Isaac eventually became blind. Was his blindness, indeed, a kind of somatic reaction to his having seen what no child should ever see?...Indeed, Isaac stands for that part of our own soul, within each of us, that can feel betrayed by life. His blindness is our own not wanting to look upon life when we experience life as betraying us, when life does not meet what we hope or expect it to be…

What a puzzle this God of the Torah is! The same God who brought such deep trauma upon Abraham and Isaac is also the God of Redemption and justice and compassion, the God who rescued us from oppression and slavery under Pharaoh, and led us out of Egypt to the promised land. But even this glorious liberation is a double-edged sword. In the book of Deuteronomy, God tells us that the new land of Israel “lo k’eretz Mitzrayim hi,” it is not like the land of Egypt, a land watered all year long by the flooding of the Nile, like a perennial vegetable garden. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, is a land “limtar shamayim tishte mayim,” that soaks up water only from the rains of the heavens. Israel, in other words, is a land entirely dependent upon God, and God’s will alone to sustain its abundance. It’s a land that can have years of rain and green and abundance, as well as years of drought and death. In Egypt, you can rest secure that, almost always, abundance will come from the yearly swelling of the Nile. But the Land of Israel, where there’s no guarantee of abundance, this land we call Eretz HaKodesh, the Holy Land! Indeed, it’s holy because you can never completely rest secure in its abundance! It’s the Holy Land because you never escape the undeniable Truth that you’re not in control!

We would all so very much like our religion to be a bouquet of teachings that instantly soothe the soul. We all want only joyful, uplifting stories and messages from our Torah, from our tradition. But somehow our Torah and tradition regularly refuses to play into any such facile simplifications of Truth and Reality. Instead, it’s as if our Torah speaks to each of us, saying ‘You want to understand the meaning of blessing, goodness, and holiness? You want a life and a world of peace and joy? Then you must first deal with this: Betrayal! Violence! Tragedy! Loss! Powerlessness! We can’t look away. The only way to understand the peace of God is to have the fearlessness to walk through that valley of the Shadow of death that lurks right in our very own souls. There’s no way around the challenging Realities of life, the only path to God is right through our worst nightmare.

For so many of us this year, even if we intended to avoid that dark valley in our souls, we can’t get away with it now, as this so-called ‘Great Recession’ seethes and wreaks havoc on so much that we have come to expect. All of our plans for retirement and growth and optimism are now so distant as we are deeply contracted in fear of what the future may bring. Who among us hasn’t tried to push away fearful visions of being homeless and desperate and powerless during this past year? In having those thoughts, we are like Isaac bound on that altar, powerless before his father. Who among us hasn’t walked around desperately looking for signs of hope, anything at all to hold onto, trying to escape our fears? In that fear, we are our Israelite ancestors in the Land, praying fervently for rain to come and to end the drought in the land. So is there any hope at all? Indeed, there is! All those harsh stories in the Torah are there to show us the way home, the way to peace and to blessing that we so yearn for during these times of such uncertainty…

Perhaps you’ve been to a wedding or a bar mitzvah, or at a communal meal here at shul or at someone’s home on Shabbat, where we say the Birkat Hamazon, the traditional Grace after meals. Perhaps you recognize its jaunty little melody, Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, Hazan et Ha’Olam Kulo b’tuvo b’chein v’chesed v’rachamim…It’s fun to sing it and join in with everyone, pounding on the table, and to have a good time. But perhaps you didn’t realize that, when you actually read the words, it’s one of the most chutzpadic blessings in our tradition. Here’s how it works: you’ve just finished a nice good meal, your belly is stuffed, and you use that feeling of being satisfied to express gratitude, but you do it in a totally Jewish way: you imagine yourself to be an Israelite who has just returned from exile to the Land of Israel. Your feeling of being sated in your body is symbolic of the Land of Israel in its abundance. So it’s a kind of embodied wish-fulfillment for you and for all the Jewish exiles returned to the Land, in all its blessing from God. And what do we say when we’re metaphorically returned from exile to the Land of Israel? Tamid lo chaser lanu, v’al yechsar lanu mazon le’olam va’ed! We have never lacked, nor shall we ever lack food, sustenance forever and ever! And about God, what do we say: Hu heitiv, Hu Meitiv, Hu Yeitiv lanu, God was good to us, God is good to us, God will always be good to us! Yeah right! Dream on! Where indeed do we get the chutzpah to say such things when our very Torah and our very history attests to the fact that God has put us through such ordeals, that the ‘good land’ that we bless has indeed betrayed us; that this life that God has given us has so often left us powerless and out of control? How could we have the chutzpah to express such faith and confidence in Abundance in a world where Great Depressions and Recessions, and all manner of murderous violent destructions are possible?

It’s important to note that our ancient rabbis never thought that we were totally powerless on the Land: our own moral behavior, according to our ancient sages, determined our standing on the land. As the book of Deuteronomy teaches, if we’re good and do mitzvot and remain faithful to our covenant with God, then God will provide the rain its proper season and the land will yield its abundance. And so it’s all up to us: if it’s not going well, it’s our own fault! It’s Jewish Guilt 101. But don’t worry, the ancient rabbis were also very sophisticated. They recognized that this nice system didn’t exactly work out so neatly, and that in every generation, bad things happen to good people. And despite this Truth, the rabbis still instructed us to affirm, every time we eat a meal, to celebrate a God who is, was, and always will be good and beneficent. What gives? How can we both recognize that loss and bad things happen that make us out of control, and still celebrate that God is infinitely good and blessing us?...

There’s a story told about a young Chasid, a young student, who approached his rabbi with a problem. He said ‘Rabbi, no matter how hard I try to draw close to the Kadosh Baruch Hu, to God, in my prayers, I’m blocked. I know you taught me, rabbi, that we must ‘Ivdu et HaShem b’simchah, we must worship our Creator with joy, but I can’t find the joy. There is just so much suffering in this world, so much hardship, so much loss, so much that I can’t accept. What can I do?’ His rabbi replied, ‘There is one man who can teach how to overcome your obstacle,. You must go and see Reb Zusya of Hanipoli. He can show you how to find the joy even with all the hardship of life.’ The young Chasid trusted his rabbi, and so he set out on the journey to find this Reb Zusya. After a lengthy trip, he arrived at what he was told was this great teacher’s address. As soon as the young Chasid beheld Zusya’s home, he understood why his rabbi sent him here: it was the most miserable little hovel he had ever seen in his life. Here was a man who understood hardship and the worst kind of suffering. When the young Chasid knocked on the door and was bid to come in, what he beheld astonished him even more: the conditions of the inside of the hovel were worse than the outside, and this Reb Zusya who stood before him was a man in abject poverty, near starvation, who had clearly been battered by illness and difficult times his whole life. ‘Reb Zusya, thank you so much for welcoming me,’ said the young Chasid. ‘My rabbi has sent me here because he said that only you could teach me the wisdom of learning how to accept the terrible suffering of life, and still find joy and closeness to God.’ ‘He sent you to learn what from me?’ asked Reb Zusya. ‘…To learn how to accept life’s suffering with joy.’ Reb Zusya laughed. ‘Young man, I’m so sorry to disappoint you, but I really have no idea why your rebbe sent you hear to learn such a lesson from me. I have nothing to tell you about such matters. You see, God has been very good to me my whole life. Maybe you should go and learn from someone who has had some real misfortunes, God forbid.”

Reb Zusya was not a meshuga. He was not in denial of life. Not at all. In fact, he was totally the opposite of being in denial. He was one of the greatest and wisest teachers among our people because he truly understood the message behind all those challenging stories and messages of the Torah. He understood the fundamental chutzpah of the Grace after meals: that when we behold our lives from our hearts, and not from the fear in our heads, we can see a world transformed. When we behold this world through the deepest part of our souls, we no longer have eyes for lack and for loss. We can see the goodness and the brachah, the blessing of life, of all of it.

It’s very easy to misinterpret the story of Reb Zusya. Zusya isn’t just showing us that if we think about life and its misfortunes differently, then we’ll all be okay. The message I bring today is deeper than that: it’s that life really IS blessing. There really IS abundance. It doesn’t matter how bad it seems to be: Life really IS okay!...

I would like to come back to Isaac, the son who was bound and blinded by the sight of his father’s knife raised above him. Isaac is a typology, a figure of blindness who’s life experience we associate with darkness and hiddenness, of not seeing and not knowing. In his life’s career, he digs wells deep into the dark earth of the Land of Israel, probing the earth and the dark, shadowed places of the soul. His life of not seeing and searching in the darkness comes full circle when he is a blind old man, and while he favors his son Esau and plans on giving him the blessing of the first born, his other son, Jacob is more deserving of the blessing. And so Jacob tricks his blind father and dresses like Esau in order to procure his father’s innermost blessing. And this deception deeply confounds Isaac: “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” Isaac says, “ but the hands [the touch, the feel of him] are…of Esau.” The great modern Bible teacher, Aviva Zornberg, points out that in this moment, Isaac can’t decide which son is before him. Isaac is in an ultimate state of his own uncertainty: those angel’s tears from heaven are now completely blinding him to a place of total not-knowing. Isaac’s whole life has been leading up to this moment: in his not-knowing that is so total and complete, he becomes the embodiment of total acceptance of his own inability to really know, and from that place, his Truest, and innermost blessing can emerge. And what is that blessing? A total message of infinite abundance: “May God give you/Mital haShamayim, Of the dew of Heaven, u’mishmanei ha’aretz, and the fat of the earth,/v’rov dagan v’tirosh, Abundance of new grain and wine/…um’varach’cha baruch, blessed be those who bless you.” The Mei HaShiloach, a great Hasidic commentary, points out that even the trope, the musical cantilation of this moment hints that Isaac discovered, to his surprise such joy in his not knowing: “Kasher Kilah Yitzhak l’varech et Ya’akov”: the trope is long and drawn out, like Isaac is reluctant to let go of this moment of acknowledging so much blessing.

The rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 42a) teach this lesson: “Rabbi Yitzhak said, Blessing is found only in that which is hidden from the eye… The School of R. Ishmael taught: A blessing comes only to that over which the eye has no power, for it is said, y’tzav adonai itcha et habrachah ba’asamecha : The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden thing.(Deut. 28:8)” What do they mean by this? They mean that we can never see True Blessing in life if we try to find it with our mind’s eye: if we use only our capacity for thinking, for reasoning; if we look from our fears, and our perceptions of economic decline and fears of future loss. When we do that, we’re not really seeing. We’re just blinded by life’s apparent hardships the way Isaac was. The secret to finding blessing in life is not just shifting how we think about life. It’s in having the courage to relinquish control, to acknowledge that we don’t know, that we can’t know what will be and—like Zusya—have eyes only for the blessing of what is.

The trick in life is to learn the lesson of the Land of Israel and the Birkat HaMazon: that we were never ultimately in control of how much money or food or health comes and goes in our lives. Never. Yes, we can manage our funds and our diet and our medications, but it is arrogance to think that we’re in control of these ultimate factors of life. Yes, it seems terrifying to let go of that sense of control, like looking up at a knife ready to kill us. But here’s the great secret to all of Torah: It’s all okay! That knife didn’t kill Isaac. Somehow, he lived! How? Why? Who knows?! You can never know! It may certainly look like the ultimate nightmare looming in front of you, no doubt. The nightmare may come to pass, but then again, you can’t ever know if it will or not. It’s hidden from the eye! When we really accept this Truth, what’s left? Only everything…

When he finally gave up trying to figure out what was in front of him, Isaac realized that the blessing of his innermost being was just so much bigger than he was, it just flowed from his lips, it moved right through him. He realized that this moment is all we have ever had and all we ever will have. And--have you noticed?--we have all the money, all the food, all the health we need right now to be able to experience this very moment, the greatest blessing in the whole world, this Life that we have now. This moment might not feel good, or the way we had hoped. We may be painfully aware of how we now have less. But look deeper: every loss you have ever known before made other blessings—perhaps later on in life—possible. Today’s experience of loss IS blessing—that’s the promise of Torah—it’s just hidden from the eye!

No denial is necessary of the realities of the world to experience brachah, True Blessing. Yes, we’re in a recession. Yes, people do experience lack and hardships in the world. Yes, we live now with less than we once had. Yes, the future contains many possibilities. And Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov said it best: Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od: the whole world is a very narrow bridge; Veha’Ikar Lo Lefached Klal, and the point of life is not to be afraid at all. Just take this one step on the bridge. Look at that, we’re okay! Now take this step. Now this step. Notice how wonderfully, miraculously solid that bridge is under your foot—despite your fears. In this one step, the blessings don’t stop coming: the air we breathe is here for us, the sunlight, the strength in our bodies, the lifeblood in our veins: no matter what happens in the world, all the blessings that we need are always here for us. In this time of uncertainty, may this message of Brachah transform our hearts, and transform the world. Adonai Oz L’Amo Yitein: May the blessing of strength be our portion. Adonai yevarech et Amo baShalom: And may the innermost blessing of our hearts be a blessing of abundant peace, and let us say, Amen.


Harry said…
Thank you so much Rabbi Steinlauf for sharing this sermon with us. So many of us in Ridgewood miss you!

Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Chatima Tova to you, your family and the entire Adas Israel family!

Harry Eisenberg

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