Rosh Hashana 5773: Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches

“Be the Blessing”

Rosh Hashanah
Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches
It was my first day as a hospital chaplain-in-training. I’d spent the morning with volunteers, preparing and delivering Shabbat gift bags, or “Shabbags” as we call them, to all of the Jewish patients at UCLA Medical Center. Some patients were eager to talk. Others needed rest and alone time. The morning Shabbag delivery went by quickly, and then it was time for afternoon rounds. My first afternoon visit was to the geriatric psych ward, where I met a woman whose husband had committed suicide earlier that week. To protect her family’s identity, I’m going to refer to this woman as Debbie rather than by her real name. Debbie’s husband had been hiding their troubled financial situation from her for many years. Seemingly out of nowhere, she lost her house, her car, and a number of other possessions. And these losses came only a few months after losing her brother in a tragic car accident. A day or so after losing her husband, people came and took Debbie away. At first, she thought she was being arrested. It turns out her son had arranged for her to be picked up and put in the psychiatric ward so that she would not harm herself. Debbie told me her story very matter-of-factly.  First this, then that happened. The list went on. She was also still recovering from knee surgery. I looked down and saw the recent scar on her leg. “For heaven’s sake,” I thought, “If all of these things had happened to me, I could easily be where Debbie is now.”

Debbie had just begun to ask if I thought it was her fault that her husband committed suicide. She told me that she knew I was “supposed to say” that it wasn’t her fault, but she still felt that it probably was somehow her fault. If she had just pretended that everything was fine, and not confronted her husband about their financial losses, “Maybe,” she said, “Maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself.” At that point, Debbie’s daughter-in-law came in, and the conversation shifted to other matters. Sensing that they needed to have a private conversation, I got up to leave. But before I left, Debbie thanked me for listening as she poured out her heart. I could tell by the way she hugged me how much my visit mattered to her at that point in her life.

After a short debrief with my supervisor, I went to the next patient on my list: a three-year-old girl in the intensive care unit. I’m going to refer to her as Bailee, though that’s not her real name. Bailee’s mother and grandmother were in the hospital room when I entered. They explained to me that most children with this condition die by age two, but Bailee was a fighter. She was approaching her fourth birthday—double her life expectancy! I could hardly see Bailee’s face through all of the tubes. I saw her hands, though, with atrophying muscles that enabled her to wave “hello” ever so subtly. I noticed bright pink nail polish on her fingers. Bailee liked bright colors. Her mother told me that she also enjoyed the bright, flickering flame of the electric candles from the Shabbag. I was happy we could bring the light of Shabbat into Bailee’s life. Her grandmother spoke tearfully about how close their family used to be, before Bailee was diagnosed. Bailee’s mother informed me that her sister no longer let Bailee’s cousins visit, because she worried that they might catch the disease. This condition was not contagious, though. It was just the result of an unfortunate combination of genetic factors that afflicted Bailee rather than her cousins. Tension around Bailee’s condition had torn the family apart. They felt so broken. Standing together, we said a special prayer for healing and strength. Then, we embraced. I felt something real and profound in that moment. It was an intense type of connection that can only happen during the most difficult times in life.

When I looked at today’s Torah reading, the Akeidah or “Binding of Isaac” story, my mind wondered back to the stories from my first day at the hospital. Abraham is living a relatively normal life until one day when God decides to test him. This test is not a random medical or psychological challenge, but an equally random and terrifying instruction to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, upon a fiery altar. The story proceeds much like Debbie’s story. First this, then that happened. Abraham wakes up early and goes through the motions. There is no feeling—just doing, doing, doing. Three days of the story pass as a blur. We are simply told that Abraham leaves. And three days later, he sees the mountain on which he is supposed to watch his son die. To paraphrase a bit, Abraham’s son, Isaac, asks, “What’s going on, dad?” Isaac has noticed that something is off, and Abraham gives the most comforting response he can give at the time: “Don’t worry, son. God will take care of things.”

Father and son continue along. The text still does not describe any emotion, even as Abraham has a knife in his hand, ready to make the biggest and most painful sacrifice one could ever make. Only then does an angel appear and call Abraham’s name—not once, but twice. Abraham stops. He snaps out of his zombie-like state and answers, “Hineini.” Hineini—here I am—in the fullest sense of spiritual presence. The angel tells Abraham not to go through with the sacrifice. Abraham has already shown that he would do anything for God. That is plenty. There’s no need to actually sacrifice his son. Abraham then spots a ram and sacrifices it in place of Isaac. That’s where the story seems to end. In a conclusive manner, verse 14 of Genesis 22, recounts, “And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the Lord is seen.’” That’s it. The end. There’s a story of tremendous pain and suffering and no meaning at the end.

But wait! Verse 15 picks up the story again and supplies a second, better ending to this story. In verse 15, an angel calls out again to Abraham. The angel blesses Abraham this time and gives meaning to his struggle. Abraham is now assured that his life is not just random. Everything Abraham did and went through was for a purpose. This second ending tempers Abraham’s pain with the blessing of a great family and other forms of tremendous success. Abraham is promised descendents as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the grains of sand along the seashore. And not only would his descendents be blessed, but all families of the earth would be blessed through them!

This is the second ending of the Akeidah story, the true ending. This ending teaches us that we cannot leave people in pain without any sense of meaning. We have to be like the angel who goes back and delivers a blessing to counteract the pain.

Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam, or the birthday of the world. It is the anniversary of creation. It is an annual reminder that creation is ongoing and that we still play a vital role in creating this world. We are partners with God in creating both the world and each other’s lives. As co-creators, we must ask how we can change the ending of a painful story. We cannot let the story end without meaning. We must find meaning and blessings in life for ourselves and for others who are experiencing the painful chaos of the first ending. We must be the angel who comes back and says, “I see that you have experienced an unspeakable amount of pain. I cannot undo that pain, but I have a blessing for you.” This is the blessing of companionship. This is the blessing of knowing that someone cares about you, that someone wants the best for you, that someone is there for you in the fullest sense, the hineini sense.

How can we be that angel for others? It may seem difficult, but it’s not actually that complicated. Some of us are afraid to interact with those in dark places. We worry that we will catch their disease or be afflicted by their despair. We forget that we are like Shabbat candles and that no amount of darkness can extinguish our light—the light that keeps up going, the passionate blaze that can light the way for us and other people simultaneously. Some of us are also convinced that we are too busy to get involved. We have demanding jobs, schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and many responsibilities at home. But we are never too busy to make a difference in someone else’s life.  Even with the most demanding schedules, we can still shift our plans around a little bit, to make time for the things that matter and the people who matter most to us. We can at least find a few minutes to call a friend who is going through a rough time. We could perhaps even find a bit of time to volunteer at a hospital or a group home or any place where there are people experiencing the frightening chaos of the first story ending. We can be there for them. We can ourselves be the blessings of the second Akeidah ending. We can bring the blessings of presence, care, light, warmth, and compassion to those who are suffering. We would want others to do the same for us in a time of need. As we enter the Jewish year 5774, may we be the blessing for at least one other person, and while doing so, may we also find the blessings of love, happiness, health, and prosperity for ourselves in the New Year. Shanah Tovah!