Smarter Than Abraham: Don’t Go It Alone


Rosh HaShanah 5778/2017

We’re about to spend some time visiting with Abraham and Sarah, the ancestral couple of the Jewish people.  They have much to teach us.  They were active elders, known for their hospitality to strangers and their willingness to stand up for what they thought was right.  They had some amazing conversations with God.  Sarah laughed and dared to contradict God.  Abraham stood up for justice even when it meant arguing with God.

But many of their stories are about issues that arise within the family, and in those, their behavior can be seen to fall short.   As parents, and again as Older Adults facing the end of life, Abraham and Sarah may be better role models for us of what not to do.

Our tradition recognizes that parenting is hard work.  The rabbis of the Talmud gave a name to the tsuris, the troubles, that are inescapable when you’re a parent:  Tsa’ar gidul banim, “the sorrow of raising children.”

Those same rabbis gave very specific directions to children on how to carry out the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em, honoring your parents.  Much of the detail involves making sure that your parents continue to have their physical, social, and emotional needs met as they age, in a way that allows them to keep their dignity.  The very fact that such a mitzvah exists attests to the fact that it’s not always easy to treat our aging parents with honor and respect.

Jewish tradition also addresses the general challenges inherent in end-of-life communication and decision-making.

We will not all become parents, but we are each someone’s child.  And we will all, God willing, have the opportunity to experience aging.   Let’s see what insight we can gather from our first ancestors about how to travel these life stages with dignity, with compassion, and with grace.

To begin with, Abraham and Sarah did not have it easy as parents.  Before this morning’s story opens, they’ve had years of dealing with infertility, followed by surrogate motherhood and open adoption – a not uncommon scenario among wealthy people who needed an heir.

But the family dynamics didn’t work out well, and after Isaac is born, Abraham and Sarah disagree about how to proceed.  In the end, adopted son Ishma’el and his birth mother Hagar are sent away.  I want you to know, though, that both Judaism and Islam preserve traditions of later cooperation and visits between these two sides of Abraham’s family.

This morning’s story is the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac: The moment when Abraham believes he is required to slaughter Isaac and offer his body up as a burnt offering.

Responding to this awful situation is undoubtedly the biggest parenting challenge of Abraham’s life.  When the Torah reading begins in a few minutes, I want you to notice what he does immediately after he gets the command.

Does he turn to Sarah, waking her if necessary, and talk it out with her?  Does he challenge God?  Does he speak openly with Isaac?


The next thing we hear, he’s getting up bright and early, taking donkey and servants and son, and heading off for the mountain.

He doesn’t ask for help. He doesn’t talk it over.  He makes the decision by himself, sometime in the middle of the night: exhausted from lack of sleep, wild with grief, and feeling undoubtedly betrayed by the God who promised him a child in the first place.

Of course, one can argue that God’s behavior in this story isn’t the best role model, either.  What kind of a God makes a demand like that?  For today, I’m thinking about God as representing “circumstances” — parts of life that you don’t have control over, events that you cannot change; your only choice is how to deal with them.  We all face such circumstances from time to time.

When you come to those moments, how do you go forward?  Like Abraham, are you so used to “going it alone” that it doesn’t even occur to you to talk to anyone else?

We can do better than that.  As the late Pete Seeger said, “Learn from the mistakes of others: You can’t live long enough to make ’em all yourself.”  Having heard his story, we may be able to be Smarter than Abraham.

The end-of-life continuum is even more challenging to navigate, because lurking behind the day-to-day issues lies the inevitability of death.  Few of us like to contemplate that.   So it’s uncomfortable to think about our wishes for the last stage of our lives, and even harder to talk about it and make actual plans.

Abraham and Sarah avoid that conversation almost completely.  Right after the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, Sarah dies, without warning.  Apparently the couple hadn’t made any burial plans, because Abraham has to go to the local Hittites to buy a field and cave as a burial plot.  He does everything by himself.  He weeps and mourns for Sarah alone.  He buys the plot.  He buries Sarah.  If servants or other members of his household help him, we don’t hear about it.   There’s no report of him even contacting Isaac about his mother’s death!

Judaism has a lovely and long-standing tradition of conferring blessings on children in a parent’s old age.  Isaac blesses his sons Jacob and Esau when he is too old to see very well.  During Jacob’s final illness, he formally adopts his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh and blesses them — with words we still use in blessing our sons, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.”  He gives specific instructions to Joseph about where he wants to be buried, back in Canaan in the cave with his parents and grandparents.  Then he calls together the rest of his children and speaks to each son in turn.

When Joseph is a great-grandfather, he calls together his kin, now highly assimilated in Egypt, and requests that they take his bones with them when, in the distant future, they return to the land of their ancestors.  Moses fulfills this request, and the book of Joshua records Joseph’s burial in a family plot.

What a contrast with Abraham’s priorities at the end of his life!  After Sarah dies, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has several more sons.  But Isaac is the designated heir, so before the end of his life, Abraham gives these other sons presents and sends them away.  And that is all that Torah tells us about the end of Abraham’s life, except that he dies old and contented.  There is no deathbed blessing, not even a conversation with Isaac about his wishes.  Only arrangements for the disposition of his property.

Fortunately, Isaac has lived in the area most of his life, so he knows where Dad wants to be buried.  He and Ishma’el, together, bury their father in the cave where Isaac’s mother Sarah is buried.

The dilemmas of being a human being haven’t changed a whole lot in the last few thousand years.  That’s why we keep reading these stories and learning from them.  The life challenges our ancestors faced, and the resources they could bring to bear, are more or less like our own.

But we have one huge resource that Abraham and Sarah did not:  A Jewish community.  They were one family; we have each other.

And we have something else that they didn’t have:  Wisdom from our inherited Jewish tradition, about grappling with life’s difficult moments.

Because we have heard these stories, we can be Smarter than Abraham.  We can share our tsuris, our troubles, instead of feeling like we have to hide them.  We can benefit from the experience of others who have walked a similar road.

And sometimes, just knowing that you’re not alone lightens the load.  One of the most wonderful things one of my uncles ever told me, parenting-wise, was a story about a cousin, who is among the kindest, nicest, most thoughtful men you could ever know … a story about him as a 6-year-old boy, flat out on the dining room floor, having a full-blown temper tantrum.  It made me feel so much better about my children’s behavior!  It gave me hope.

Raising all children requires hard work and commitment.  But some children are more difficult to raise and “launch” than the norm.  Some of our children need far more support, or very different accommodations, than other children their age.  Some will always need support.

Consider Isaac.  One would assume that he was a child in the story of the Akedah, walking up the hill trustingly with his father.  But rabbinic tradition says he’s 37!  And it’s a not unreasonable reading of the storyline, because the next thing we hear about Isaac is that he’s returning home to get married, at age 40.  Torah doesn’t tell us exactly how much time passes before he comes back, but clearly he was old enough to go off on his own, after that ghastly experience on the mountain.

But while it’s happening … he doesn’t act as you’d expect a grown man to act.  And certainly not like your average teenager.  Commentators have noted for generations that he’s not a very forceful character.  He’s an adult child who lives with his parents until he’s … let’s say, 37, at which point something traumatic happens and he leaves for a while.  Torah hints that he goes to stay with his half-brother Ishma’el.  He asks only one simple question during the ordeal (“Where’s the sheep?”), and never talks about it afterwards.  While he’s away, his mother dies and his father arranges his marriage.  He comes home, gets married, falls in love with his wife, and sets up housekeeping in his dead mother’s tent.

Rivka (his wife Rebecca) is an outspoken and decisive woman who makes things happen. Isaac, on the other hand, prefers to avoid conflict.  He generally reacts rather than taking the initiative; he’s socially awkward, and he seems to have difficulty reading body language.  (Look at Genesis chapters 26 and 27.)  He never really lives on his own.

You can almost read him as a person with a developmental disability, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum.  One can only imagine the tsuris his parents had in raising him — because it’s never mentioned aloud.

When a child is different from the norm, parents can feel very isolated, and may also self-isolate.  When you’re parenting a child whose way of being in the world is not the typical one — a child with a serious medical diagnosis, a child with an IEP, a child whose strengths are hidden behind unpredictable or unusual or non-compliant behavior — there are just too many days when you’re so busy and overwhelmed, trying to keep your head (and your child’s) above water, that you just have no time or energy left over to look for personal resources.  Sometimes, like Abraham and Sarah, you may not even feel you can turn to your spouse for support.

And particularly in the Jewish community, where we have a deep-seated respect for the power of education, children who don’t follow the path of “graduate from high school, go to college, maybe get a master’s degree or PhD, enter a career” are not always looked upon with understanding — and sometimes, neither are their parents.  So it’s often not easy to say, “My son dropped out of college” or “My daughter is in rehab.”

I’m proud that there is a great deal of compassion and plenty of room for difference at Berith Sholom.  Yet even so, it is still not easy.  I have felt for a couple of years that we need a support group for parents who find it difficult to speak of their children in public: a safe space, that’s easily accessible; one that’s here, in your Jewish home.

I’m glad to announce that this year, Berith Sholom will be hosting such a group, a place to talk about out-of-the-ordinary tsa’ar gidul banim.  The stress and challenges of raising children whose lives don’t follow conventional paths.  I call it: “Smarter Than Abraham.”  He talked to nobody, but we can talk to each other.

And we don’t have to create this all on our own.  Berith Sholom is one of 3 local congregations chosen by Jewish Family Services to be part of their pilot “JFS Without Walls” program.  It gives us about 7 hours of JFS staff time every week, to be used as creatively as we can come up with; paid for by our local Jewish Federation, without cost to Berith Sholom members.  Support groups?  Drop-in counseling hours?  Individual consultation?  Centering JFS’s work here, at the synagogue, instead of in downtown Albany, will leverage the power of community in supporting individual and family health.  We’re already working with a staff member to facilitate “Smarter than Abraham.”  Let us know if you want to be part of this group.

I have experienced personally the power of such a group in our monthly “Sacred Aging” meetings.  Over the past few years, Sacred Aging has supported Adult Caregivers in fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em, honoring their parents, by helping them be their best selves as they accompany their parents on the end-of-life journey.  Sacred Aging offers Jewish guidance  and gives us a place to share thoughts and feelings about illness, and grief, and death.

Like Abraham and Sarah, Americans talk very little about these issues.  We often encounter them for the first time when we ourselves are ill, or when suddenly we must make decisions after someone has died.  We’re like Joseph’s descendants in Egypt: We probably know more about mummies and pyramids than about plain caskets and simple shrouds, palliative care, and end-of-life conversations.

It would help us to be more like Jacob and Joseph, and begin The Conversation about our wishes long before it is needed.  It would help our children, and others who will care for us, to know ahead of time how we want to live at the end of our lives, what we do and don’t want for ourselves.  Apparently Abraham assumed that his sons knew where he wanted to be buried.  But we need to share our plans; and that means we need to think about them.

A decade ago, Berith Sholom sponsored a series of learning sessions titled “Starting at the End,” offering practical and spiritual guidance in end-of-life issues.  We will begin again this October by joining the national “Conversation Sabbath,” a weekend sponsored by the Boston-based “Conversation Project.”  It’s an organization founded by columnist Ellen Goodman and others, whose mission is to help people have values-centered conversations with loved ones about wishes for end-of-life care. The very conversations that Abraham and Sarah did not have.

Let us learn from their mistakes.  May we prepare for our aging like Jacob and Joseph; may we be Smarter than Abraham about parenting our children.  May we strengthen our community and learn from our tradition in order to make this good and sweet new year, the best year possible.  Keyn y’hi ratzon: May God help us weave this hope into our shared reality.