By Yvonne Fein
On Simchat Torah, when we come to the very end of the scroll, it is traditional then to lay it on the Bimah and roll it swiftly right back to its beginning, before binding it shut and covering it. Rolling it back through Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus, Exodus — all the way to Genesis. And each year as I watch it being rolled, I feel as though I’m watching time flying in reverse, till we reach the very beginnings of Creation. From an orderly, controlled, chapter by chapter progression throughout the year, on this day, there’s something wildly exuberant about the reverse refurling.
But on the second day of Rosh Hashanna, there seems to be no method, no nicety or design — and no exuberance, either. Just a kind of madness in the story we’re forced to read time and again — out of sequence, out of order — about Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, and that highly problematic incident with his son and the knife. We’ve been reading about it all the while knowing that a few chapters previously Avraham had argued at some length with God about saving those upright citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, but in today’s chapter he did not utter a single word that might possibly have changed the good Lord’s mind about sacrificing his awesome, awestruck son — this child of Yir’ah — from the knife’s blade on Mount Moriah.
Now, when we were at school, we were told the story of Terah, Avraham’s father, who was the town’s leading idol manufacturer. Who remembers this tale? Anyway, for those of you who were away that day, I’ll tell it briefly. It was a busy afternoon in the idol shop, but Terah had to go to the quarry and buy some more marble supplies for the next batch of idols. “Avremeleh,” he said to his favourite son, “I need you to look after the gescheft for me this afternoon. I’ll be back before sundown.”
But as the sun began to set and his father still had not returned, Abraham looked at the sky and noticed the clouds spiked strangely with deep purple waves and surges of pale green that seemed to promise a strange storm. Almost without knowing what or why he was about to do this mad, inexplicable thing, he took the stone baseball bat that his father kept behind the counter in case of robbers and smashed the store’s entire stock of idols.
“I didn’t do it,” Abraham claimed when his father came home. “It was that big idol. The only one left standing. The one holding the baseball bat.
Terah was furious. “A creature of stone I’ve made with my own hands can’t destroy anything, let alone my entire Autumn range of idols for the harvest season.”
As soon as the words had left his lips, Terah realised he had fallen into the trap so cleverly set by his son
What he did not realise was that the stage had been set. Monotheism, in its earliest power, stood shivering in the doorway of what had once been Terah’s Emporium of Stone for all Occasions.
But I know this story, one way or another, is familiar to many of you. And I know too that the eternal dilemma of how a father — Abraham, son of Terah, destroyer of idols, bringer of God to humanity — could not plead for the life of his son when he had no problem at all pleading for the lives of desperados, rapists and murderers is also a tale that has been told almost too many times to be listened to yet again.
But if I will not try to fathom this story again, what is it that today’s text can offer up? I suspect the Haftorah may well provide if not new answers, then at least new questions.
Today Jeremiah tells us of the grief of Rachel, our youngest matriarch: “A cry is heard in Ramah” — the prophet declares — “Wailing, bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone.” Reading on, we see how God promises her everything: restoration, reward, an end to exile. And there is godly compassion. God begs Rachel: “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears... for there is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their country.”
But Rachel makes no response. She is not Job, ready to forgive and forget. She has lost those most beloved to her and nothing will make her believe or trust that she can have restored to her that which should never have been taken in the first place. Nowhere is it written that Rachel has been comforted for the loss of her children, even by the extravagant blandishments of God. She weeps and we hear and taste her tears millennia after she first wept them.
We know Job forgave God even if we never quite understand why; we don’t know how Abraham would have reacted if God had not stayed his hand or even if, heaven forbid, Abraham’s hand had slipped in the horror of the moment and his son had paid the ultimate price of his father’s angst. All we have is Abraham’s silence; his refusal to stand for his son. But we do learn on this day that Rachel refuses to be comforted. She will not retreat. That is where she stands. Some things, even godly things, her actions tell us, are unforgivable. Perhaps it is her very stubbornness that ultimately makes God take her life in childbirth, for has not God described himself as one filled with vengefulness.
Now I could make this an issue of gender politics. Rachel, the woman cries and ultimately dies in the act of giving birth, while Abraham, the man, doesn’t even say a word in his son’s defence; but how simplistic — though maybe just a little tempting — that would be. Because I honestly believe the truth is, that we need something of both attributes contained in Rachel and in Abraham .
Perhaps, paradoxically, the very strength of Abraham lies in his precise ability to support and uphold the unjustifiable, that which is beyond the Pale, and then — this is even more remarkable — he stops trying when he realises he has gone as far as God will allow in that extraordinary dialogue between man and the Divine.
And perhaps it is just possible that Rachel’s weakness, not her strength, lies in her intransigence, her refusal to be moved, to be comforted.
I do not know. These are questions that have literally been keeping me awake at night.
I do know that to achieve any sort of equilibrium we need both parts to this frustrating equation, but both parts inevitably confront us with scenarios that are filled with profound pain. Because certainly the only viable way of living is about balance. But what if that balance is ultimately about suffering — evaluating its lesser or greater nature?
Take Hesed, for example, loving kindness. If that is all you have in the universe without Din, without judgement which contains harshness, we may end up creating a world where we reward the sinner because we are too full of love to chastise him or we punish the righteous, because we cannot exercise justice. Without balance — without those prepared to stand and die, or conversely, retreat in silence, we will have a universe that must crack on the very axis supposed to keep it stable.
But Rachel and Avraham are archetypes. They are not the stuff of day to day human beings. Rather they are the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; they are prototypes. Cinderella is the archetypical victim turned accidental heroine. Fairytale characters, biblical characters — we don’t expect to meet them at Glicks or Chadstone. They exist to show us how life might be lived — right or wrong..
That said, what are we to make of Rachel and Avraham? How do we position them in our everyday lives so that they can have real meaning and be more than mythical characters? How do two such opposites provide us with the balance we need?
Perhaps a story will help and I begin it by asking you to consider the language of German. As Jews, we have pretty strong views on it, one way or another. Now, ironically, when many of our parents met during or just after the war, German was often the only language they had in common. If a Polish Jew fell in love with a Czechoslovakian or Hungarian Jew — I think they called them mixed marriages — before they could learn one another’s languages, German was all they could speak. It became their language of love. I was witness to many second generation children growing up, hearing, learning and becoming fluent in German because of this. Many still are. They can’t hate it because it was always so redolent of tenderness in households too often filled with torment.
It became a question of balance. To whom did the language belong? Hitler? Goebbels, Eichmann or Heine, Mahler, Mendelssohn?
So hold that thought.
Someone close to me lives in Sydney, but in Sydney there is no Shira; so this friend found she had nowhere and no way to sing the Jewish part of her the way we women here are so fortunate to be able to do. A fluent reader of music with a lovely voice, she found a community choir and all went well until one day the choir master handed around sheets with the music of Wagner.
Now we know that the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra periodically argues the morality of performing Wagner, but my friend was not in Jerusalem and after one session in suburban Sydney she realised she profoundly did not wish to sing Wagner. So what did she do, this child who had grown up with German as a second language? Did she stand and walk away, refusing the blandishments of the choir master who did not want to lose her? Or her voice? Or did she sing and hate herself for doing so? Was she Rachel or was she Abraham? Was she Hesed or was she Din?
I actually believe she achieved Tiferet, that sublime meeting of the extremes of the world of loving kindness and judgement, where balance and beauty take each other’s hands and dance the dance of ages.
She explained to the choir master her feelings about Wagner, informed by her Jewishness, Holocaust background, and yes, her true appreciation of German culture. Then she said she hoped he’d understand that when the choir performed Wagner, she’d leave the room, returning when the next piece of music was about to be staged. And as I thought about her actions I realised that in my friend I had actually found both Abraham’s silence and Rachel’s stubbornness.
We are none of us those brave Australian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan; nor are most of us Israelis putting our lives on the line, not just in the armed forces, but often merely by going to a discotheque or a pizza house. We are not matriarchs and patriarchs communing with God, but circumstances will nevertheless arise that, even though they are not issues of life or death, they still cut to the very heart of what we believe in on a day-to-day basis and therefore how we live our lives.
So let me conclude by saying that there is not one easy answer to the questions of where do you stand? When is it right to be silent? When is it right to cry out in protest? When do you lay down your life? These questions are eternal. It is their answers that are elusive and it is our job on this earth to continue to grapple with them.