Rosh Hashana Drasha by Yvonne Fein
A thought came into my head yesterday during the davening and before I begin my drash, I’d like to share it with you...
I realised that it is often on the yom toivim that we miss the ones who were closest to us and in this case, that notion took me to my mother (z”l). I remember when my sister and I were young, how our parents used to take us to Kew shul and how each year, our Dad used to buy Mum a seat in the front row — a little high up in the ladies section, perhaps, but right opposite the bimah. And every year, without fail, as soon as the rabbi began his drash, Mum would fall asleep. And not just asleep, but her head would drop down and periodically she would wake with a start. Impossible to miss. This embarrassed Dad to a great extent, but because he could never envisage buying a seat in anything less than the front row and because Mum couldn’t promise never to fall asleep, she simply stopped going — until HaMakom/Shira started up and then this most non-religious, unmusical of women would leave a service and say, “The music! The singing! And I could listen to that intelligent Mark Baker for hours! So I couldn’t help thinking, hoping, Mum, that somehow you found your way into our shul yesterday because the most beautiful singing, harmonious and unifying, led by Avrom and Yael,would have delighted you. and I’m sure that the intelligent Mark Baker’s drash would have kept you wide awake.
That said, let me begin with some other thoughts for the day. In 1919, in the wake of the horrendous destruction and loss of life caused by WW I, Yeats, the Irish poet, coined a phrase — “the centre cannot hold.” “Things fall apart;” he wrote, “the centre cannot hold.”
anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is set loose, and everywhere
innocence is drowned...
He was meditating on a world filled with inexplicable cruelty that looked to be exponentially increasing. He died in 1939, spared from having to bear witness to the next great war.
But only a few decades later, Elie Wiesel, who actually survived it, wrote this: “My father, an enlightened spirit, believed in man. My grandfather, a fervent Hasid, believed in God. The one taught me to speak, the other to sing. Both loved stories. And when I tell mine, I hear their voices. Whispering from beyond the silenced storm, they are what links the survivor to their memory.” While acknowledging the destruction, Wiesel chose to believe that somehow, the centre does, can and must hold.
Which one of them was right? I believe it is a dilemma that troubles many of us. What sort of universe do we live in? One where the centre does or doesn’t hold? And if we conclude that it doesn’t, then what sort of God governs it?
In trying to answer this question my thoughts eventually alighted upon memory. How Yeats remembered the First World War or Wiesel the Second, memory, whether we honour it or try to erase it — is an essential element of the human condition. So it makes sense that virtually all of us remember with great vividness those times when the centre did not hold, when it seemed the very ground we stood upon was falling away.
For example: Anyone in their late 50s, and over, will probably remember where they were when the news of President John Kennedy’s assassination hit.
The most recent example of the centre not holding, of everything falling apart, it goes almost without saying — and yet how can it not be said — is 9/11. If I went around this room and asked each person here to describe the circumstances under which he or she heard or saw that news, the stories would keep us here till well after Ma’ariv.
Yet, in a strange way, it is those stories which anchor us. Telling others where we were or what we did when something truly appalling happened is a way of returning to our own centre, of making sense — or at least trying to — of the senseless. In some strange way, the stories unite us. If we’re sharing them, it means we’re still alive to tell the tale. Stories — and surely stories are just another word for memories — are a way to affirm life when trying to live it feels most difficult.
I remember when I wrote my first novel, a tale of a private eye, Jewish and female, hunting down Nazis who had eluded the immigration authorities and were hiding in the Australian outback. On the publicity trail, I was asked more than once, what’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing writing a novel about crime and private detectives? Where’s your experience in the field? Friends asked me the same question, as did members of audiences when I sat on panels or participated in discussion groups. You live in Caulfield. If you cross over Dandenong Road it’s a major expedition on which you take your GPS. So what are your credentials for crime writing? It took me a while to find the answer, but once I had it, I knew I had stumbled upon an essential truth — not just for me personally, but perhaps for all the people who indulge in either the writing or the reading of this kind of yarn-spinning.
Crime writing is real genre writing and you don’t break the formula. The tale is always told in the first person — the hero takes centre stage and it is the nature of the hero, of the private eye who walks the mean streets alone, that her moral compass is always pointed towards true good — not to be confused with magnetic good, which is the misleading direction most of the rest of the world follows. In the end, right triumphs over might, good triumphs over evil, even if sometimes that victory comes at a great cost. But the centre holds and the hero can continue fighting the battles of morality and integrity because in the fictional world of the private detective, she cannot ever lose — neither the battle nor her life. If the centre doesn’t hold, there can be no story. This is what attracted me to the world of crime writing and made me want to write within it. Because as a child of survivors, you grow up knowing that the centre cannot hold, that good people die and evil has great power.
So how does all this relate to Rosh Hashana? Today our Torah reading takes us back to an event that may or may not have happened in real archeologically provable time, but still resides insistently in our collective memory as part of our foundation narrative. Today we remember, as it were, the “akedah”, the sacrifice God asked Abraham to make of the son born to him and Sarah in their old age. Now what I have learned in my delvings into the tales contained in the Tanakh is that where there is one story in Genesis, later on, in the section of Prophets or Writings, there will be another story that somehow presents the first story as a mirror image. In this case, the story that reflects the almost-sacrifice of Isaac is the story in the Book of Judges that relates the tragedy of Jephthah, the warrior-judge.
Briefly, his story is that of a son of a prostitute, despised not only by his brothers but also by his tribe of Menashe. He moved away from home which was in Gilead and hung out with a rowdy bunch of hooligans, but for all that he was regarded as a great fighter and strategist. Thus, when the Israelites were threatened by their enemies, the Ammonites, the elders approached Jephthah and asked him to be their leader. On behalf of Israel as a whole and in reliance on the might of God the Judge, Jephthah challenged the Ammonites and swore an oath to God: "If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever first comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered up by me as a burnt offering." It was not the wisest of vows, because even though he expected a sheep or a goat to be the first out of his gate, unfortunately it was his daughter felt duty bound to sacrifice her.
Talmudic sages link this story to the Akedah, to the sacrifice of Isaac. Isaac was Abraham’s only son through his beloved Sarah, his yachid; Jephthah’s daughter was his only child, his yechidah. Is it possible that this illegitimate son of a prostitute suddenly yearned to break out of his lowly sphere and rise to the level of Abraham? Is it conceivable that his plan was to go beyond the Patriarch by going further than Abraham had ever gone — Abraham stopping, or being stopped, just in time from killing his offspring?
Here we have two stories in dynamic tension, one where the centre holds — God’s angel stays Abraham’s knife-wielding hand — and another, its mirror image, where the centre falls away, and the unimaginable happens: Jephthah makes a sacrifice he could have avoided (the talmudic halachic discussion is clear on that) a sacrifice that God doesn’t want. That is the story we don’t read on Rosh Hashana.
Why? Perhaps the answer to that is the ultimate fabric I can attempt to weave from the disparate notions I have raised today: of life’s ability to change from one moment to the next; of whether the centre can or cannot hold; of memory and of conflicting stories in our collective Jewish chronicling and consciousness.
Rosh Hashana is surely a time when the centre shivers on its axis and may or may not hold. Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we have 10 days in which to convince God to inscribe us into the Book of Life. There is no certainly, just supplication and waiting and hoping and doing the best we can. Even after the 10 days are up, we can have no notion of what the coming year might bring. But on this day we remember the stories we learned long ago, about Abraham’s trial and Isaac’s awe and we remember even the Midrash that tells us that Satan caused Sarah to die of shock by telling her what Abraham and Isaac were up to. But just as it seems the centre is about to fall away, the sacrifice is halted and Isaac lives long enough — and beyond — to marry Rebecca and love her and find comfort in her arms after his mother’s death. A covenant has been struck between God and humanity with these stories. Perhaps the centre can hold now, as it did in days of old, and every year, as we come back here to test the truth of it and its life-affirming possibilities.