Rosh Hashanah Day One

Rosh Hashanah Day One FJC 5777

How many of you who are in this room today have had the experience of being wheeled down to the operating room to go under the knife? When I say “under the knife,” I am talking about serious surgery, not tonsils or knee cartilage. Surgery that had you worried about what they would find, or that they would find what they could not fix. If so, please raise your hand.

If you have had that experience then you know that you are never quite the same again. You know that your perception of life changes on that day and you see the world in a different way from then on for the rest of your life.

If you have ever had that experience of going under the knife then you have experienced a moment when the normal, pulsing heartbeat of the world suddenly stopped and the normal, rhythmic breath of life was hushed and life itself stood still. I think that is how it was.

I want to talk to you today about a man whom you and I know who went through that experience of going under the knife. I want to tell you how I think his perception and his personality were changed forever as a result. The man’s name was Isaac. And we read the story of that experience which he had from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Not here, maybe someday here, but you know the story. It even has a name, the Akeydah/binding. God commands a father, Abraham, to take his son, his only son, whom he loves and offer him as a sacrifice. And the father, Abraham, agrees. We have lots of questions and concerns about this story. What kind of a God commands that?  What kind of a father agrees to that?  But, at the very last moment, just when Abraham is about to lower the knife, an angel intervenes and says: Stop! Now I know that you are sincere. You need not sacrifice your son.        

What to make of this story? is usually considered to be an example of the faith and the loyalty of Abraham. Or maybe its point is that God does not really want human sacrifices, which were common among other peoples at that time. But either way, the story troubles me, just as it has troubled thousands of readers before me. What kind of a God could issue this kind of a command?  And what kind of a father could obey it?  The story troubles us if we read it as a reflection on God or on Abraham. But this time, let us read the story differently. Let us read it as a reflection on  Isaac. I never really thought to do that till I saw a piece by Rabbi Brad Artson that has very much inspired my words today.

The reason I want to read the story from the point of view of Isaac is because you and I have never been in the position of God, and you and I have never been in the position of Abraham, but many of us, at some time in our lives, have been in the position of Isaac. Many of us, at some time in our lives, have been under the knife, as he was, and therefore we can identify with him and learn from him.

First, a word about Isaac’s place in our history. There are those who say that Abraham and Jacob, the other two patriarchs of our people, were giants and that Isaac was a pygmy compared to them, and that his only significance is that he was a biological link between them. I used to think just that. Now I am not so sure. It is true that Isaac is different from his father, Abraham, and from his son, Jacob. Abraham and Jacob are travelers - they go to Egypt; they go to Syria. Isaac never leaves home. Abraham and Jacob are public figures - they talk to Pharaoh; they talk to Avimelech. Isaac never does. Abraham and Jacob are warriors and they fight with swords. Isaac never does. And so it is easy to think that they are heroes and he is not. But if you study each of their lives carefully I think you will see that Isaac was a hero too, a different kind of hero. And you will see that the central moment of his life that made him into what he was, the moment that changed him forever, was the moment when he went under the knife.

What happened to Isaac that day when he went under the knife?   I think that for one brief, agonizing moment Isaac came face to face with his mortality. For one brief moment, when he looked up at that knife, before the angel intervened, he must have come face to face with the knowledge that he would someday die. And from then on, for the rest of his life, he must have lived with that consciousness. And I think it changed him in  many ways.

Of Isaac and only Isaac, it is written that he meditated. Nowhere does the Torah say that Abraham meditated or that Jacob meditated or that Joseph meditated. They were men of action, people who ran big businesses, people who were busy day and night. Of Isaac, and only Isaac, does it say that he meditated. I picture him as a person who walked quietly on this earth, who took time to contemplate, something that no other biblical figure ever did. Somehow, when you have been under the knife, you are different from then on. From then on, you think in different terms. From then on you think in terms of: who am I?  And where am I going?  And why am I here?  And what am I doing with my days?  And not just about how much do I have? Or how much faster can I go?  Or who can I beat? Or what can I win?  When you have been under the knife, if you recover you go at a different pace and you live in a different way from then on, and you meditate, as Isaac did.

Not everyone reacts that way. You have probably had the following kind of experience I have had a few times. I am visiting someone in the hospital. He has had a major heart attack and had just been moved out of the intensive care unit to a private room. I walk in and I find him making a long distance call and dictating some memos to his secretary. I look at him and I don’t say anything but he must have guessed what I was thinking for he grins at me sheepishly and he says, “I’m doing it for the children.”

No he wasn’t. His children were already grown up and taking care of themselves very nicely. He was doing this because he was addicted, because he couldn’t stop. But most of us are not like that. Most of us are more like Isaac: once you have been under the knife you become more contemplative. It concentrates the mind.

Next, the Bible says of Isaac that he married Rebecca and then it says that he loved her. That is not a common expression to find in the Bible. Hardly anywhere else in the Bible does it say that a man loved his wife. Nowhere does it say that Abraham loved Sarah or that Moses loved Tzipporah or that Isaiah loved his wife. They probably did, but for a man of antiquity to admit it, for a man of antiquity to show that he cared that much about his wife, was unusual. But Isaac did. He cared so deeply for his wife that the Bible records it. And the Bible records that he cared so much about her that he prayed to God on her behalf and he felt her pain as if it was his own. That is unusual.

And there is something else unusual about the relationship of Isaac and his wife. It says in the Torah: “That Isaac played with her.”  That too is said of no one else in the Bible, that they played with each other, that they relaxed with each other, that they enjoyed each other. The other biblical figures were much to busy to do that, Isaac wasn’t. Because he had been under the knife and so he knew what was important and what was not. He took time to have fun with his wife, to relax with her, to enjoy being with her, because that was important.

So, Isaac meditated, and he loved his wife. Isaac is different from his father and his son in a third way. He never once lifts a sword or a fist or wrestles as they do. He is a man of peace. Three times he digs a well and three times the Philistines contest his claim, and each time he gives up the well and digs another rather than wage war for it. Why?  Because Isaac knew that he was wealthy with or without one more well, and he would not measure his worth or his wealth just by the number of wells that he possessed. He knew that once you have reached a certain point in your accumulations, once you have as much as you need and a little bit more than you need, you need not kill yourself to acquire more. He felt that his life and the life of his family and the life and safety of his followers were worth more than a few more wells of water. Having once been nearly offered up on an altar he was not going to sacrifice his life or the lives of his servants for the sake of one more well.

And it worked. Because Isaac was committed to peace, the Philistines eventually responded with peace. They were impressed by his gentleness and his generosity and so they ended up making peace with him. And he ended up becoming just as well off as Abraham and Jacob were, even though he did not fight, as they did.

I think, friends,  that Isaac learned under the knife the importance of love and the unimportance of so many of the things that we usually trade for love, to our regret. Isaac looked at that glistening blade over his head and he saw in its reflection his own eventual death. And the awareness that his life would one day end changed him forever. In that instant, he realized that fame and power and publicity and status and all those other things that seem so important to so many other people were meaningless in the face of death. All of a sudden he realized that the only possessions of ultimate worth are: the love and respect of a wife and family, a sense of connection to the land and a bond with God. And all the rest, all the narishkeit that occupied us and frustrates us so much really isn’t as important as we think it is.

This is what I think Isaac learned that day while he was under the knife and the Torah records it, to his credit and for our benefit.

Friends, the only bit of wisdom that I want to offer you today, the only bit of wisdom that I want you to consider, is very simply this:  if this is the lesson that every human being learns when he or she is under the knife, then why can’t we learn it now, before we go under the knife?  Why can’t we learn it now and live by it now and not wait until then?

Many times during the year I go to the hospital to visit sick people. I go in order to give a bit of strength and support if I can. But nine times out of ten I come away heartened and encouraged and inspired and informed by what the patients who are there teach me. Let me tell you what I have learned. So far, I have never yet heard a patient in the intensive care unit or in the recovery room say to me: rabbi, I made a mistake; I should have earned more money. Or, rabbi, I made a mistake; I spent too much time with my children. Nobody has ever said that to me yet. Instead, what they say to me is what Isaac said: if I get better, I am going to be smarter. If I get better, I am going to run around less and I am going to meditate more. Or, if I get better, I am going to fight less and I am going to give more. Or, rabbi, if I get better, I am going to make more time to be with my wife, my family. This is what people tell me when they come out after they have been under the knife.

I think that the Sages were right in making us read the story of what happened to Isaac the day that he went under the knife. They are right in making us read this story every year in order that we might learn, from his experience, the simple lesson that everyone already knows in our heads and that no one really believes in our guts, which is that we are all one year older than we were a year ago, that another year of life has passed, never to return. We are all one year closer to the end now. Are we one year wiser or not?

Let Isaac be a model. I never thought I would say that, but living in this area in this time in history, when everyone is working and competing and busy all day and night, has made me see things anew. Let Isaac be a model. All he did was just love his wife and find the time to enjoy life with her. All he did was just get along with his neighbors and win their respect. All he did was just farm his land and stay loyal to his God all the days of his life. That is all he did, just that. All he did was live like a mentsch from the day he went under the knife until the end. That’s all. But isn’t that a lot?

May we, who are the children of Isaac, learn from his example. May we find the time to love our mates and teach our kids and farm our little piece of land or whatever it is that we do to earn our living and be loyal to friends and to our God. May we, before we go under the knife, learn Isaac’s secret and strive to be like him. Amen.