Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 2014
Monday, 29 September 2014 | 5 Tishri, 5775
Rosh Hashanah Day 2
It’s a juggling act!
Rabbi Ralph Genende
Some years ago I told you about the great analogy of life being a juggling act – we’ve got all these balls up in the air; they are called work, health, family, community, soul, friends. Occasionally one slips through our fingers or we impetuously drop them. And that’s when you realise that they are not made of rubber…you don’t automatically bounce back into health, or pick up that relationship that you have ruptured.
The balls are more fragile, sometimes more like glass. Maybe that’s why we break a glass at a chuppah, a reminder of the vulnerability of the bonds of those closest to us. A glass is easily broken. Trust is so easily shattered. Drop your friends and you have lost something of inestimable value…no matter how many you have on Facebook the loss of one good close friend cuts deep…
And even if the ball isn’t broken or destroyed once it falls it gets marked, nicked, damaged and its never quite the same…
Along with health family is probably the most delicate of those balls. Family therapist Salvadore Minuchia calls it society’s smallest unit; it’s the tiniest cell from which we develop such complex connections; it’s the nucleus of civilisation it’s where we learn how to live and how to love; how to trust and how to try.
Maya Angelou perceptively observed that if a child lives with security he or she learns to have faith in themselves and in those around them. Judaism has long recognised this and the Torah well understood that when a child is betrayed something fundamental is undermined.
Our founding father, Abraham cynosure of our hopes and visions, represents what is best in family – he is the exemplar of faith, fountainhead of compassion, heart maker, soul-shaker, dream-taker. God plucks him out of seeming obscurity because he knows this man will teach his household the ways of Tzedakah and Mishpat, charity and justice, rightness and righteousness, chesed and courage.
Yet for all this when we look closely at his life-story, unpick his biography, it is shot through with inconsistencies and none more glaring than his relationship with his family.
He himself is a rebellious son challenging the most cherished ideals of his father Terach. The Midrash has him literally destroying his father’s idols and wreaking havoc on his dad’s business of icons and statues. He takes an axe to all those little stone Bubbas and Buddas driving his father to despair. He is an unrepentant iconoclast, unable to accept the political and religious system he grew up in.
In desperation Terach turns him over to the authorities; the Chief Justice King Nimrod after trying to convince him of the error of his ways, throws him into a fiery furnace. Miraculously he survives but something very basic has been broken in him.
If he has emerged from the fiery furnace he has not escaped unharmed. He carries now forever with him the scars of a traumatic childhood; a father who didn’t recognise and appreciate the creative albeit radical genius and expansive heart of his defiant son.
He is, as Michael Lerner avers, a man whose experience of childhood pain will remain, just as each of us carries into our adult life the imagined and sometime real pain and even oppression of our childhood. And while he grows in stature, Abraham carries with him the trauma of his childhood. He becomes immensely successful, wealthy, admired, a politician and diplomat of distinction but he is willing to abandon his wife Sarah to the house of Pharaoh. Admittedly he sees it as a life-death situation but nonetheless says the Ramban, this was a grievous wrong; he should have found a different way…Even more shocking is his willingness to abandon his sons. First Yishmael into the harsh desert, then Isaac to death on the cold altar.
No matter how much we try to whitewash Abraham and most of our commentators are strenuous in their defence of this knight of faith, nonetheless there is something abusive in his treatment of his sons as there is in his dismissal of his love partner Hagar and his emotional detachment from his wife Sarah.
Freud talks of repetition-compulsion – the tendency of human beings to act out on others the trauma that they experienced as children. As Cary Grant said – “insanity runs in my family. It in fact practically gallops”. In truth repetition compulsion is a way of trying to gain control over situations in which we were once powerless and victimised. It’s why victims of sexual abuse often become abusers themselves.
It’s what we have witnessed across Australia with the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse and the recent reports of the horrific level of child sex abuse being reported in Victoria. It’s been very uncomfortable for us to acknowledge the reality of child abuse in our community. Sadly it also confirms what we have always known that most abuse begins close to home, kids being abused by those they trust most, fathers more often than mothers, teachers, coaches, madrichim, youth leaders…
It also explains a critical difficulty in yesterday’s Torah reading – how Sarah the woman who suffered so much to have a child, so harshly banishes the surrogate child Ishmael and his mother Hagar from her home. The commentators say it’s because Ishmael was sexually abusing his younger half-brother Yitzchak – that’s what the word מצחק metzachek alludes to. Sarah saw him literally playing with his brother. She was convinced the only way to save her own child was to drive Ishmael out.
Raising a Jewish child is a difficult and delicate art. Sometimes it demands tough and heartbreaking choices. Children need love and limits, restraint and responsibility, friendship and fairness. They also need parents who act in one common voice, who are consistent and caring, who are prepared to use one of the most simple words – "No". To paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, societally we need to help parents regain their voice of moral authority, to recapture the task of teaching children a clear sense of right from wrong and most importantly to give them time not DVDs, guidance not another computer game, an ethic of self-restraint and not condoms. We need to be passionate and determined in our resolve to ensure we don't echo Livny, the ancient Roman historian: "We have reached the point where we cannot bear either our vices or their cure".
Looking after family and soul is being acutely watchful of those most beautifully fragile and translucent balls up in the air.
And I would suggest that Lerner gets it right when he suggests that Avraham was never meant to sacrifice his son, that he is only driven to do so by the voices of his past. As he was thrown in the furnace by his father so he will burn his own son. But the real test was not to take his son to be killed but rather to let him live – to look into the eyes of the son he has bound for slaughter and to save him. To overcome the emotional blockage that had allowed him to cast Ishmael into the desert, to abandon Sarah and to mistreat Hagar.
At the very last moment as he is about to slaughter Isaac Abraham hears the true voice of God, the voice that says: “ אברהם אברהם אל תשלח את ידך אל הנער ואל תעש לו מאומה” – “Don’t let your hand touch this young man – don’t harm him” (Genesis 22:12). Don’t do it Avraham – you can break the pattern of the past. You can rescue the future by acknowledging the pain of the past. That’s why he is called twice: “Avraham Avraham.” There is an Abraham who could only hear the voice of the past and there is another Abraham who must hear the voice of the present and the future. The voice that says don’t let your hand touch and hurt but do let your heart touch and heal. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to another to make them feel appreciated and acknowledged. In the text there is a pesak, a literal line between the two Abrahams. They are two different people.
And it’s this powerful message that is so germane to Rosh Hashanah: we can radically reconstruct our personal lives and our collective future. Just as Avraham transcends his past, so can we. We don’t have to pass onto the next generation the legacy of our personal pain. And we don’t have to pass on the terrible pain and victimhood of the Shoah. And we can stop the pain of domestic violence and child abuse. And education and help are available ( we are also strengthening our Child Protection Policies at CHC). As Leonard Cohen (who just celebrated his 80th birthday) said some years back: “You who build the altars now to sacrifice your children. You must not do it anymore!”
Restore your trust in the family in all its colour and variety. Even if some family trees have beautiful leaves and some just a bunch of nuts, sometimes it’s the nuts that make the tree worth shaking… Family today as Family Guy and Modern Family remind us is a many-coloured thing. Families come blended and mixed. One father, no father and surrogate. Single mum, no mum, two mums. Traditional Judaism prefer the old model of the nuclear family – one dad, one mum and a lovely brood of kids but nothing is so clear today…As Phil says: “I am a cool dad. I am hip. I surf the web. I text. LOL -Laugh Out Loud. OMG – Oh My God WTF – Why the face and come to FNF – Friday Night Fever.”
But we can affirm that a family unit remains one of nature’s masterpieces; Hirsch called the Jewish family the kindergarten of civilisation and indeed it remains the bedrock of the civil society; the best framework in which to love and trust, to learn and to give, to question and to confront. Leo Iacoco says it’s “the only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that really works.” (The Burmese say: “In time of test, family is best!)
And Judaism’s secret weapon has always been the family – keep it together through education, hard work and values, through Shabbat and menschlikheid. The Shabbat with its call to put aside the week of work, silence the perpetual demand of your new i-phone 6, switch off the TV, is one of the best ways I know to foster family ties today. Friday night Shabbat family dinner is our secret…and on October 24 across Australia and in dozens of other cities across the world we are going to be asking you to pledge to keep one Shabbat – not just Friday night but the whole day! Go to the website of the Shabbat Project and commit to it! It will be good for you, for your family, for your soul, for your health, for your friends. Restore your balance by having all those balls spinning up in the air with grace and beauty for at least one Shabbat. Shabbat is also our strongest sense of security at times of change and turmoil.
So as we move into 5775 let’s give the year a High 5! Let’s pledge with Dr Seuss to be sure that when we step, we step with great care and great tact and remember life is a Great Balancing Act.