1. Sarah’s Choice
One recent summer weekend, my life — or my awareness of its imperatives — underwent a radical shift. My 28-year-old son was away at the beach with friends. He promised to be home early on the Sunday morning. But by noon he has not called or answered any of my phone messages. My mind spins off into a nightmare scenario of its own: He is at a beach known for its rip-tides, he always calls, every summer someone drowns on this beach, he might not have been cautious, why has he not made contact, there is no other plausible reason. And in an instant I slip from an anxious parental snit into an entirely altered state. I am the mother undergoing the ultimate sacrifice.
When 40 minutes later my son does call, expressing astonishment at my degree of alarm, I snap back to the present moment. I am utterly drained, yet eerily, profoundly calm. Out there in “the real world” nothing remarkable has happened. Yet, the day I dread my son drowned has provided me with a knowing as real as it is unreal, as potent as it is elusive. It has left me both shattered and oddly affirmed.
This nightmare trance leaves in its wake a new, visceral awareness: So much of our psychic energy is spent in denial of the ultimate realities. We love and we lose, we live and we die; but most days we do anything we can to dull awareness of these enormities. But on that day, I had a tiny glimpse of surrender to the inevitable. It was as liberating as it was chilling.
Abraham and his son Isaac walk side by side to the mountaintop where Isaac is to be bound and slaughtered at God’s command. The Biblical story of the akeda is considered the central text in the formation of our spiritual consciousness. This year I understand it from the depths of an experience of my own. Like Abraham, I lived out a scenario composed of inner fears involving loss of that which is most precious. Abraham was awakened from his nightmare by the voice of an angel; the ringing of the phone brings me back from mine. We both experience a transcendent moment, one that marks a new phase of our spiritual journey.
Right after the akeda, Isaac’s mother Sarah dies. The commentator Rashi explains that Sarah could not survive the shock and disorientation of her son’s almost… almost sacrifice. Sarah is not led to believe that her son has actually died, only that he came exceedingly close. What exactly is the shock that causes Sarah’s soul to fly out of this world?
Like most mothers, Sarah is fiercely dedicated to protecting her son from even remote possibilities of harm. She operates under a familiar maternal illusion that if only she takes care of every contingency she can keep her child safe. When Sarah receives the news of what very nearly was the outcome of Abraham’s early morning outing to the mountaintop, she is forced to move out of her carefully constructed world.
Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg tells us Sarah is invaded by “a sense of radical doubt.” Sarah glimpses of the existential vertigo “of not being able to preserve one’s being…. Not being able, from one minute to the next to live longer than is destined.” Zornberg goes on to say that Sarah “dies of this radical angst.” Perhaps because of her inflexible nature, perhaps due to her advanced age, Sarah “didn’t manage to come through.”
As a child at this time of yearly reckoning, I feared my lease on life would not be renewed due to an insufficient tally of good versus bad deeds. But now, a grown woman and a mom, I can better identify the life versus death drama of Rosh Hashanah. It arises from Sarah’s Choice: Either we “come through” by expanding our capacity to be with what is or in every meaningful sense, our spirits will die to the ultimate realities.
If we do not die quite yet, or lapse into unfeeling denial, our sense of what it means to live may be radically altered.
2. The Plea for Parnussah
On Rosh Hashanah we re-enthrone the Sovereign King in order to perpetuate the ancient world order. But what happens when this particular male-dominant, top down world order is reversed? What are the repercussions when a prominent journalist lets us know in a New York Times Magazine cover story that “the era of male domination has come to an end as women gain power in a post-industrial economy”?
A Confession: When I pray for parnussah, or livelihood, on Rosh Hashanah I picture a vigorous and savvy male, preferably one armed with an MBA, who will, with or without swagger, be a dependable provider. Providence… provider … it’s hard to overlook the associative link between the two.
Second Confession: I’m not really that naïve. Despite an Orthodox upbringing that endorsed the wishful construct that men rule the roost and bring home the pastrami, it doesn’t rock my world when Hanna Rosin (author of the cover story) comes out with a book called “The End of Men.” Besides, it’s nothing all that personal. Rosin explains that rising female hegemony is all a matter of economics and superior female adaptability to new circumstances. It seems that as millions of jobs were lost in the male-dominated world of manufacturing, millions more were added in healthcare and service fields to which women’s natural strengths – empathy, listening, communicating — are well suited.
Rosin’s not-so-new-news gives credence to an underground knowledge many of us little orthodox girls intuited all along, We lived in awe of the discrete strength of our mothers much as we understood that the imposed patriarchal order restored to men a power-base they did not come by naturally.
Rosin’s recent cover story “Who Wears The Pants in this Economy” goes right for the jugular of the stiff-necked, religious fundamentalists. Israeli-born Rosin plunks down her “middle class matriarchy” in the heart of a southern Evangelical community where a whole mess of men have lost their jobs while their far more adaptable wives are the sole breadwinners. These days, the pastor at the First Baptist church has to do some fancy footwork to tiptoe his way around the cherished teaching that women owe obedience to their husbands. Meanwhile a group of not so stupid women find new meaning in the reading of the proverbial “Woman of Valor,” paean to the wife whose “lamp does not go out at night” (because she’s still working) while her less than useful husband schmoozes with the elders at the city gates.
In Rosin’s southern town, as in many others, a 100-year-old company that long employed most of the men has suddenly disappeared leaving its faithful employees bereft and adrift. The company is described as playing “the role of the dominant father – kind, generous and protective, even if at times overbearing, sometimes bullying.” Sound familiar? I have often suspected that Jewish men are far more needy than are women of the structured demands of a patriarchal covenant. If women do not succumb to Sarah’s despair, they are willing to reinvent themselves in any number of ways and this without a binding contract.
This past summer I cultivated a garden and earned good money by running a small town B&B. It was a revelation and the results were surprisingly gratifying. Now I’m asked to transition from a down to earth self-reliance to a supplicant mood: On Rosh Hashanah, in these uncertain times, we petition a not particularly empathic or adaptable God for sustained parnussah.
Where does the power lie? How can we change the course of our lives? Who will grant us the things we pray for – long life, health, livelihood, safety for our children, freedom from shame? Is it God or our own ability to recreate ourselves, in all ways empathic, that will see us through?
3. Strength in Fragility
With the summer’s end, my hands will no longer be gritty from tucking tangled roots into the soil, from weeding out invaders and doling out compost. The Jewish tradition now asks me to engage in a process of self-reckoning that takes stock of my deeds and questions even my innermost desires. The New Year is the time to meditate on our fate and on our personal worthiness to alter or fulfill it.
Exceptionally, Rosh Hashanah is not an agriculture-based holiday. Disconnected from fertility rhythms, this High Holiday calls for a more abstract moral inventory. Reflexively, I shift into a state of existential anxiety.
As the summer edges away, we are asked to adopt what I call “please God” language once again. We are reminded that even though our repentance, prayer and good deeds can tip the scales of judgment in our favor, it is up to the Almighty to adjudicate who shall live and who shall die. Lest we forget that central teaching, we read the sobering story of the akeda.
Come the holiday, we ingather with a swollen-to-capacity community of worshippers. Yet, I know well that there are many among us who are as alienated as was the biblical Sarah from the commandeering God. Though the music is transporting, the poetry profound, when it comes to submission to the judgment of He Who Dwells On High, we have deep inner pools of doubt. A recent study shows that of all the Abrahamic faiths, Jews “score lowest” when it comes to certainty about a transcendent God.
I will look around me at the ingathered, particularly the many women with whom I have laughed and cried throughout the year, with whom I have studied and argued, greeted new life and buried the dead. I will nod to women who, like me, have found new ways of generating income when spouses or old ways fail. I know the many ways, both in spirit and in deed, that we struggle to live with the radical uncertainty that cost foremother Sarah her life.
On Rosh Hashanah we surrender to the special brand of spiritual strength that is conceived in fragility. The coming together of women is a powerful act in a world where, as Sarah knew, every minute is a case of almost…almost. What matters is our mutual support and shared willingness to recreate ourselves anew. This is the sanctity of our prayer, the stuff of our self-generation into the new year, the grassroots of our faith.
It does not matter who else we might be addressing.