Marc KatzComment

A Nuanced Redemption (Parashat Chayei Sarah)

Marc KatzComment
A Nuanced Redemption (Parashat Chayei Sarah)

One of my most profound and meaningful experience yet as a Rabbi happened a number of years ago. I spoke about it on a Friday night a few years back with the full permission of those involved and I am reproducing the sermon here.

Six summers ago, as I was preparing the High Holy Days, I received a call from a hospital chaplain at New York-Presbyterian that a Jewish family in our neighborhood had lost their newborn baby. The couple didn’t have a synagogue they called home and since they lived in Park Slope, the chaplain thought to call us. I had been a Rabbi for all of five minutes.

As I navigated the burial with this couple, I encountered a loving and supportive team. They were there for one another in their pain, taking turns feeling broken and standing steady for the other. I kept in touch with this couple and throughout, I admired their strength and perseverance. Yet, I also admired how they wore their grief on their sleeve, unafraid to acknowledge just how devastating it is to lose a day-old baby.

Then, fifteen months after their tragedy, I stood beside this couple at the bris of their son. Surrounded by close family, there was a feeling of incredible gratitude and love in the room. I’ve never seen so palpably the realization of the adage from Psalms, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”

Yet, it was also a profoundly mature joy, one that wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the bittersweet nature of the day. Within the celebration of this beautiful baby boy, this family took time to acknowledge the tear that still remains open in their hearts. Their new baby brought them comfort but did not change their past.

As I experienced the profundity of this ceremony, I kept reflecting on this week’s Torah portion and the near perfect parallel to their situation, in the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca.

The portion begins with the death of Sarah. Faced with his wife’s death, Abraham mourns and weeps for her, eventually finding a place to bury her. Yet, throughout the account of her death, we never hear about her other mourner, her son Isaac.

It is only a few chapters later, that we first see Isaac wandering alone in the fields. Rabbinic tradition teaches us that it is three years later and he is engaged in prayer and meditation outside of the burial place of his mother. For years, this had been a nightly ritual. Long after others had forgotten his mourning, long after the visits ended, long after others had assumed he had healed, Isaac was still mourning his mother. Each day, Isaac would go out and “la’suah basadei,” he would lose himself in his thought, meditating on the meaning of love, loss, life, and death.

And from the depths of his pain, as dusk approached, the Torah teaches that Isaac looked out toward the horizon and saw Rebecca. Instantly, the two are stuck by the image of the other in the distance, so much in fact that Rebecca falls off her camel. “Who is that man?” She asks.

We know little about their courtship. The Bible’s account of their early relationship is short:

“Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death.” (Gen. 24:67)

What we do know, however, from these few statements is that Rebecca played a significant role in helping Isaac to move toward healing. Nachmanidies and numerous other commentators remark that until Isaac found love in Rebecca he was lost. His love for his mother was an overflowing fountain. Left without Sarah, Isaac had nowhere to direct his heart. Rebecca, who according to Nachmanides, shared Sarah’s righteousness and kindness and her presence allowed Isaac to concentrate his love toward her.

For three years, Isaac’s tears sowed the fields of sorrow. Meeting Rebecca allowed him to once again embrace joy.

Yet, even with the Bible’s description of Isaac’s pain and subsequent comfort, it never states that he no longer grieved for Sarah. Finding comfort is not the same thing as getting over a loss.

Isaac teaches us that when we lose someone there will always be a piece of us that grieves for them. In the words of one of my colleagues, we don’t get over a loss…we get used to it.

For three years, Isaac visited Sarah’s grave daily working to get used to her absence and used to the pain. He hoped that each passing day her death would feel less imminent. He hoped that fewer things would remind him of her so acutely. He prayed not to cry every time he thought of his mother.

And as it does with every death, over time it got easier, because he got used to the pain of her absence. Yet, Isaac never patched up the hole in his heart that was torn open when his mother died.  He just eventually learned to make it beat in a different way.

And then Rebecca came along. And she was no replacement. But his arms that ached for Sarah, found a new person to embrace. His heart, which yearned to share his love found a new direction.

Rebecca was not Isaac’s cure. She was not his antidote to suffering. She was something much more profound. She was his redemption.

Our mystical ancestors defined redemption as moving from a space of narrowness and constriction to one of openness and freedom. Redemption is moving from weakness to strength, from darkness to light. It’s moving from tears to joy.

For Isaac, his redemption came as he passed through the dark narrowness of his grief and in Rebecca, learned that he could love again. She would help him get used to the pain of losing his mother by accepting his love and loving him wholeheartedly in return.

Isaac’s story struck me that Monday at the bris because what happened to him, and what happened to this family, while extreme is actually quite universal.

Over the course of our lives, many of us will face great pain. And for many, that great pain will be permanent. Yet, in the face of these losses, whether they be the loss of a parent or child, the end of a marriage or the loss of a job, redemption is possible.  We can never replace that which we have lost but “Those who sow in tears can reap in joy.”

Our darkness can fade but sometimes it takes a little help, a new love, a new relationship, a light to guide our way. So I leave you with a parable:

A group of students wanted to drive out the darkness of suffering and pain in the world. They went to their Rabbi for advice…

“Take a broom, “ he suggested, “and sweep the darkness from a basement.

It did no good.

“Then take sticks,” advised the Rabbi, “ and beat out the darkness.”

That did no good either.

“Shout and yell at the darkness,” said the Rabbi, “and order it to leave at once.”

That, too, was unsuccessful.

“And now,” he said, “Light a candle.”

And the darkness was swept away.