There are years that ask questions and years that answer. (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God) You might think that this has been a year that asked questions, and indeed it did ask many questions.
Some were trivial – Where do I buy toilet paper? Can I substitute rapid rise yeast for instant? Do I have to wipe down my groceries? Why is sixth grade math so weird now? Does this mask make my face look fat? How many people are in line at Trader Joe’s?
Many were profound – How can I stay safe? What am I, if I’m not my job? Is this cough just a cough? How do I live alone – never seeing, never touching another person? When will life go back to the way it was? Are my kids falling hopelessly behind in school? Will I ever get to hug my grandchildren?
These questions, and so many more, have been our own personal wilderness, a place of wandering and fear, a place of dangers and extremes. Every single High Holy Day Torah reading, both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning, takes place at least partly in a wilderness – which in biblical parlance is a place where people are tested. Abraham is tested there. Sarah is tested there. Ishamel and Isaac are tested there. Aaron the High Priest is tested there. Each asks and is asked questions.
This morning we read the story of the binding of Isaac, a narrative in which Abraham and Isaac not only walk through a wilderness, but once they reach their destination of Mount Moriah, find another type of wildness, this time a thicket, so full of trees and low brush that every creature both human and animal becomes entangled there. It’s a good story to read this year after months of wandering in the wilderness expecting to imminently emerge, only to find ourselves facing a different thicket. The questions have changed, but they persist.
We all know this story. Abraham raises his arm with the knife high above the body of his beloved son Isaac to sacrifice him to God and at the last moment is stopped by an angel who calls out to him. Imagine that moment when everything that Abraham had been expecting and planning for fell apart, what was he to do? What do any of us do when our reality changes so drastically?
One of the hardest things when a marriage ends, or when a couple can’t have children, or when a loved one dies suddenly, or when a catastrophic accident occurs, when a job is lost – is the loss of an imagined future. That’s the profound loss that we grieve but that the world doesn’t really have a language for. With loss one has to create a new vision for one’s life. One has to reimagine one’s life in an entirely new way. It was true for Abraham as he stood on Mount Moriah with his knife raised expecting to sacrifice his son and it has been true for us as we have all had to reimagine our lives this past year.
Abraham never imagined that his story would end with sacrificing a ram anymore than this summers’ wedding couples imagined that they would get married in their parents’ backyards with 10 people, or spring’s bnei mitzvah imagined they would read Torah in their living rooms, or June’s graduates imagined they would celebrate from their cars, or fall’s new parents imagined they would name their babies online. And yet they all looked up and allowed for new opportunities which in turn led them to finding meaning and hope and a new future.
Abraham’s life changes when he does one thing – he looks up and he sees a ram caught in the thicket. The Torah doesn’t say that the ram arrived or appeared, rather that it took Abraham just opening his eyes to see it. The Rabbis of the Mishnah imagine that the ram had been there all along. In fact, they say that the ram was created years before in the moments before Shabbat on the last day of creation. (Avot 5:5)
We read it today to remind us that there is always a ram in the thicket waiting to be found. I’m not talking about silver linings here. I would not be so crass or simplistic as to suggest that we simply look on the bright side. With 200,000 dead in the United States alone, we’re not making lemonade out of our Yom Kippur lemons. Looking and finding the ram in the thicket is rather about persistence in the constant struggle to make meaning in our lives; one of the primary tasks of religious and spiritual existence.
The ram’s purpose is to present an alternative to sacrificing Isaac. An alternative that was just waiting there when the expected reality did not come to pass.
We have without a doubt been mired in a thicket. With trees and brush and thorns. And it has been overwhelming and frightening and lonely. But since even before we found ourselves here, there has been a ram just waiting to be discovered.
2020 could be the year of the ram, the spirit animal that represents how we respond and react when our plans fail and our future turns out differently than we hoped and imagined. It appears in the midst of our panic, our disappointment, our fear, and it suggests an alternative, a different way around.
What are the rams in our thickets? What ram might you find? Adult children and grandchildren returned home for long periods of time, more opportunity of exercise and care for our earthly bodies, an opportunity to learn with world class teachers in our own homes, reconnection with long lost friends and college roomates, new relationships with our neighbors, a sharpening of priorities, nurturing our own families from our own kitchens and our own homes, finding out who we are separate from the work that we do.
So many of us come to this Rosh Hashanah so filled with gratitude that we are alive, that we are well, or mostly well, and we are here. And for those who might need a little push towards that sense of gratitude, remember Abraham’s advice to look up to the ram.
The poet Yehuda Amichai says that the real hero of the Binding of Isaac was the ram, with his curly wool and his human eyes. (Yehuda Amichai, “The Real Hero”) He was the only one in the story who didn’t get caught up in what could have been. He was the agent for transformational change. He was the answer to so many questions.
There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Even with the thicket of questions in which we were entangled, this was still a year that answered more than it asked. The answers are all around us, even when we feel tangled up. May we remember to look up and find the ram in the thicket.