Rosh Hashana – Life Changes in a Flash

This Rosh Hashana morning, let’s learn from our forefather Isaac, an extraordinary teacher of how to find resilience when life is difficult.


This spring in a routine dental appointment, the dentist got a concerned look.  Apparently the growth on the roof of my mouth that she was monitoring changed locations – never a good sign.  Its color and texture caused further concern. I went to the expert, who explained you never know without a biopsy, but I should prepare that it could be cancerous.

I tried not to go to the worst case scenario, while thinking through how to face this possibility.  The specialist suggested not googling information, but of course I did – and then wished I hadn’t.  I was anxious, and for all that I claimed to be fine – I was agitated.  On the day of the biopsy, she put the numbing agent in my mouth and I sat motionless for a minute, while she prepared for the biopsy.

As she looked in my mouth, preparing to do the procedure, I witnessed another look of shock.  In the three days since I last saw her, the growth disappeared.  She had never seen this in her decades of practice.  She speculated about explanations, but I wasn’t really listening.  I was doing a motionless happy dance in the dentist chair. Joyfully, I called my wife and a few friends with the good news, then went to celebrate at Yummy Yogurt.

Mine is the case that turned out well.  I know how lucky I am.  The experience lifted up the reality that life changes in a split second without rhyme or reason. The only certainty about the future is that we have no idea what it holds.

For all that I was lucky, I know that too often the news we receive shatters us.  I have had those moments in my life as well.  I have lived them together with you as you have experienced them.  Today I would like to explore Judaism’s spiritual framework that helps us face both those moments, as well as those situations that extend over time, when our worlds turn upside down.  Judaism gives us a wealth of stories, wisdom and insights that help us through these moments.

This Rosh Hashana morning, let’s learn from our forefather Isaac, an extraordinary teacher of how to find resilience when life is difficult. I will weave in wisdom of our congregant Sheryl Sandberg, who has given permission to share the insights she has learned in light of the tragic, unexpected death of her beloved husband Dave.

Think about Isaac.  At first glance, his life seems utterly tragic. The unexpected child of his parents’ old age was beloved and celebrated.  But life changed in a moment. First, he witnesses his older half-brother Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hagar, a beloved maternal figure to him, expelled into the desert by his parents Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael almost dies. How could his parents do something so heartless and cruel?  What kind of God sanctions such behavior?

Amidst these questions, suddenly Isaac confronts one of the most haunting, terrifying and bewildering moments in the Torah.  Following God’s directive, Abraham takes Isaac up Mount Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice. How could God ask for such a thing?  How could his father agree? How can you move forward after seeing your father lift that knife over his head?

Isaac’s world crashes down in a second. Yet somehow, he survives.

The last line of the episode is striking and easy to overlook.  The Torah reads: “Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beersheba.”  Where is Isaac?  He isn’t with his father.  Throughout the story we read the phrase describing Abraham and Isaac: Va’yel’chu shnay’hem yach’dav – the two walked together.  Now they are separated.  Abraham descends the mountain by himself, highlighting Isaac left alone.

Without words, the text leaves us with the image of Isaac’s solitude. From that moment on there is silence between father and son – never again do they speak.  Through silence the text pulls us into Isaac’s pain.

It is for us to create midrash – interpretations which fills in the gaps of stories with further stories and interpretations to teach lessons and insights about life.  Midrash gives context and meaning to Isaac’s silence, helping us understand the emotions of painful loss.  Sheryl helps us understand this part.  At this year’s UC Berkeley’s commencement, she shared: “For many months afterward, and at many times since, I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief – what I think of as the void – an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.”  No wonder Isaac isn’t there in the next scene, when his mother Sarah dies and is buried. Nor does he go to find himself a wife, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent.  Isaac can’t – his pain is too fresh – he can’t think or breathe. From Isaac and Sheryl, we learn to allow for pain in all of its intensity.  Rather than denying or minimizing – which is such piece of our culture – we learn that we too experience indescribable emotions – each expressing it in different ways.

The text doesn’t tell us specifics about this period of Isaac’s isolation because grief is not a straight line.  Sometimes you’re awful, then you feel better, then you feel nothing, then you feel sad.  It catches you off guard, and other times little triggers set you off.  And sometimes we blame ourselves for what has happened.

Isaac may have wondered if he did something that caused his father to bind him on that altar.  He may have asked himself why he didn’t protest or run.  Sheryl quotes Alan M. Grant who taught her that a key to resilience is to understand personalization – that part of us which questions whether we could have done something to change what happened.  She learned, as I believe Isaac did, and so many of us need to – that there was nothing that could have been done.  Like Isaac and Sheryl, we find resilience as we learn to say, “It is not my fault”.  In fact, getting past personalization makes you stronger.

Isaac finds the strength to move forward.  In Sheryl’s words: “I learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface and breathe again.  I learned that in the face of the void – or in the face of any challenge- you can choose joy and meaning.” That’s what Isaac does – he kicks against the bottom, breaks the surface and breathes again. He transforms his pain into meaning.  Sheryl’s approach is that when Plan A – which is what we had expected, hoped and imagined would be our reality does not work out, kick the ____________ out of Plan B.

The Isaac who descends the mountain is a different man.  The next time we encounter Isaac is just before he marries Rebecca.  In Genesis 24:62: Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Be’er La’chai Ro’i, for he was settled in the region of the Negev.  And Isaac went out strolling (la’suach) in the field and looking up, he saw camels approaching…. There is a lot in those two sentences.  We learn that he did not live in Beersheva with Abraham, rather he settles in a place called Be’er La’chai Ro’i.  Why there? Then we learn he strolled in the fields. Why? What was he doing? These details provide lessons in resilience.

In past years I have shared an interpretation about the location – Be’er La’chai Ro’i. Why Be’er La’chai Ro’i? Be’er La’chai Ro’i is the place of Hagar.  It appears one other time in the Torah – when Hagar runs away to after Sarai abused her.  It was there that she encountered God and becomes the first person in the Bible to give God a name – El Ro’i – The God who sees me.  Isaac goes to the place of Hagar.  Once again we provide the Midrash.  I believe that Isaac’s goes to reunite and reconnect with Hagar. His encounter with mortality leads him to understand that life defined by competition, strife, striving for inheritance stands in the way of connection and healing.  Life is too short for past pains to create ongoing disconnect.  From his painful past, Isaac learns to and chooses to live with kindness, compassion and presence.

There is one another detail in this sentence. Before Rebecca arrives, the text says that he was la’suach ba’sadeh – “strolling in the field”.  The Hebrew is ambiguous, and does not appear in other places to help us translate it – it could mean conversing/praying, meditating, or strolling. The ambiguity opens the door for more lessons about resilience.  Isaac may have been conversing – talking to God, or to himself, and sharing his deepest truths. Prayer is meant to be a pouring out of heart – and there is healing in speaking our truths – whether God hears or not.  Maybe Isaac was meditating – allowing time to reflect on life, struggling with what happened.  Creating space to reflect and think helps us move forward amidst the pain.  Or maybe Isaac was strolling – just appreciating nature – something all of us should do more often.  La’suach basadeh – learning from Isaac as he prays, meditates, strolls in nature gives us spiritual context to find resilience as we encounter life’s pain.

All of this opens the door to what comes next in the text – Isaac finds love with Rebecca. We read: va’ye’eh’ha’ve’ha Yitzchak – Isaac loved her.  This is the first reference in the Torah to love between husband and wife. Isaac teaches that love deepens our capacity to move forward amidst pain.  Sheryl brings psychologist Martin Seligman who teaches that we often project our current feelings out indefinitely.  In Sheryl’s words: “We feel anxious, and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious.  We feel sad – and then we feel sad that we’re sad.  Instead, we should accept our feelings – but recognize they will not last forever.”  Like Sheryl, Isaac too reminds us that grief remains – but amidst grief, things can change, rays of light can enter life – there can be space for love and connection.

Isaac allows himself to fall in love.  Norman Cohen  (Voices from Genesis, Guiding Us Through the Stages of Life) writes: “He could move beyond his pain and angst over Sarah’s death, realizing that another human being could not only provide the necessary solace but also bring him to a new place in his life.”   Sheryl’s writing about her loss reflects the healing power of love.  In her essay for shloshim, the 30 day anniversary after Dave’s death, she writes about her mother who would hold her each night until she cried herself to sleep, and who fought to hold back her own tears to make room for Sheryl’s.  She wrote about how when she could do nothing, those closest to her took over – they planned, arranged, told her where to sit and reminded her to eat.  Love gets us through the worst moments. And that love it not limited to family and friends. Love can come from community and even from strangers.  The healing balm of love equips us to deal with life’s pain and sadness, and move forward to moments of joy.

Isaac does something else that is a key to resilience.  His encounter with mortality and pain cause him to live with empathy.  When his wife Rebecca cannot conceive, he prays with her.  He’s unlike the other husbands in the Bible, who dismiss their wives’ pain at infertility.  And later in life, when his son Esau discovers that his brother Jacob deceived him to receive the birth-right, Isaac feels Esau’s pain.  Amidst bitter tears, Esau pleads, “Bless me too”.  And while initially Isaac cannot imagine another blessing, he ultimately finds one. From his pain, came a depth of empathy for others in pain.  This quiet man teaches us presence and ability to bless others brings healing and deepens resilience.

After my quiet happy dance in the dentist’s chair and a delicious gustatory experience at Yummy Yogurt, I did one more thing. I thanked God.  I hope I would have created space for gratitude even if there had been a different outcome. I thought about how much I appreciated my family, friends and community. Most who write about moving through tragedy reflect on the power of gratitude.  Sheryl urged the Cal graduates to practice gratitude and shared her habit of writing down three moments of joy before she goes to bed.  I too live with deep gratitude every day. It is a cornerstone of what I teach and how I live.  Judaism gives me a context for gratitude – so many prayers and blessings revolve around appreciating the many blessings of each day.  Even the most difficult of days lend itself to gratitude.  The great teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that gratitude makes the soul great.  It is a key to healing, resilience, meaning and well-being.

Hold onto Isaac and Sheryl, and let them walk with you as you face the pain life can bring.  And it is not just for the moments in life when we suffer – to live each day accepting and voicing our feelings, reaching out to others, living with empathy, reflecting on meaning, appreciating nature and embracing gratitude allows us to choose life every day.  Isaac’s name in Hebrew – Yitz’chak means He shall laugh. His name reminds us that our tears will turn into joy. Laughter will return.  This coming year, let’s embrace being the descendants of Isaac.

Shana Tovah!