November 11, 2009
A Holiday for Cheshvan
Parashat Chayye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
“And Abraham expired, and died at a good old age…. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah ... and Isaac settled near Beer-la’chai Roi” (Genesis 25:8-11).
Despite its title, parashat Chayye Sarah, which literally means “life of Sarah,” is actually a story about the deaths and burials of Sarah and Abraham. It is read during the month of Cheshvan, which is the only month of the Jewish calendar that does not contain a special day of observance. It is said that despite the fact that it was the month in which the building of the Temple was completed, it was passed over for the Temple’s dedication ceremony. Legend says that Cheshvan is embarrassed by this and is yearning for its holiday. What might it be? The clue is in the text above and in a modern tragedy that took place during this month.
After his near sacrifice at the hands of his father, described in last week’s parasha, Isaac seeks comfort at Beer-la’chai Roi (Well of the Life-giving Vision). Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden, named this place when, pregnant with Ishmael and suffering because of Sarah’s harsh treatment of her, she fled to the wilderness. Here she discovered this well and had a vision of God.
In the portion, which bears his mother’s name, we find Isaac in this place connected with his half-brother Ishmael, and stepmother, Hagar. This might indicate that after the trauma of Isaac’s near death — when his father lifted a knife to sacrifice him as a demonstration of his obedience to God — he sought consolation from Ishmael and Hagar, two people who had also suffered as a result of Abraham’s actions.
When Abraham died, the brothers came together and buried their father. They then, presumably, returned to Beer-la’chai Roi to live in peace.
Oh that Isaac and Ishmael could have remained there to grieve Abraham as brothers. Together they might have reviewed their lives and come to terms with the pain inflicted by their father. They would have had the opportunity to share their experiences of childhood pain and forgive each other for the obstacles to their intimate brotherly connection, which were not their fault but were the result of Abraham’s actions. How different history might have been.
I often think that war is a perpetual reenactment of incompletely mourned grief. Pain is inflicted and in response more pain follows — it ricochets through the generations and the planet never knows peace.
Our troubled world could learn important lessons from the Jewish mourning rituals. Mourners are held tightly in the embrace of the community following a death. There they recite the Kaddish, a prayer that ends with “oseh shalom” — a plea for peace. The mourners’ activities are restricted during the mourning period. Meanwhile, they are given a place to express the full range of feelings on the wings of the Kaddish. Those surrounding respond “amen” to the formulaic words, no matter the emotion connected to the delivered words.
In the cocoon of community, the passion that follows grief, a passion that is so often acted out in anger and revenge, is soothed. With each recitation, as often as three times a day for up to a year, the mourner repeats the scenario — braiding the emotions of deep grief into the Aramaic words — supported with the strong amens and finishing with the prayer for peace.
The intensity and continuity of this practice creates, over time, the place in which the tears of despair and the fires of rage can be transformed into a yearning for peace. No wonder the name for God in the blessing for mourners is HaMakom, The Place. For it is in the cauldron of the Kaddish that healing happens. The Kaddish is the place which holds the miracle that happens when focused and expressed emotions give way to an experience of shalom.
When I imagine the brothers laying to rest their father, who exposed them to such suffering, I picture a burial that took place in the month of Cheshvan in our time: that of Yitzhak Rabin. I imagine marking his yahrzeit with a ceremony involving descendants of Isaac and Ishmael coming together at Rabin’s grave to put to rest the generations of dissension within the family. I imagine them returning to their neighboring homes to live in peace. I imagine a Yom HaShalom, a Day of Peace, rewarding the month of Cheshvan with its long-sought holiday, marking the sacrifices of so many of the sons of Abraham and sealing the promise of Beer-la’chai Roi — the Life-giving Vision.