Who is Wise – Rosh Hashanah Inspiration

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 20, 2017

Shanah Tovah!

It’s a great pleasure and honor to stand before you tonight.  It’s really a different experience being “on the other side” of the bima!  I so fondly remember attending High Holiday services with my father. When it came time for the sermon, my dad would set his watch to 20 minutes…Sure enough, exactly 20 minutes later, just as the rabbi wrapped up and said “Good Yuntuf, Shanah Tovah”….BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP!  Like clockwork…

Don’t worry, I won’t go on for 20 minutes, but as I started to write this sermon, this drash, knowing that I am following in the footsteps of my teachers, I asked myself, “What do I have to offer this community?”  What do I bring to the table?

The rabbi of my home community, the late Rabbi Sidney Akselrad, father of Ner Tamid‘s Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, marched with Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel for civil rights.  Our own rabbi emerita, Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, is a recognized activist.  While I, too, make my voice heard and strive to create a just and righteous society, what I have to offer you is simply me and what I have learned from my life experiences and now can share.

During Rosh Hashanah, in communities that observe two days of the holiday, there are two Torah portions that are read.  The first relates the birth of Isaac, the second is the “the binding of Isaac”.  Tomorrow we will read the 2nd portion, tonight I want to focus on the first.

Who was Isaac?  What does the biblical text tell us about him?  Not much.  What we do know is gleaned through the translations and interpretations of scholars whose ideas have been preserved through the ages.

We know that he was born to Sarah and Avraham when they were older and didn’t expect to have children.  We know his name refers to laughter.  We know that unlike his father Abraham and his son Jacob, he spends his whole life in the Land of Israel, and that he never ventured far away.  He had a gentle nature and was fooled as an old man into giving Jacob rather than Esau his blessing.  Isaac seems like an obedient person and it is also rare to hear his voice.  Was Isaac a leader? Why is he remembered? His descendants become great leaders. He is as important a link in the chain as any other.

When thinking about the kind of person he was, commentators note that Isaac was “different.”  The 2nd century commentator Onkelos surmised that as a child borne late in life to older parents, that perhaps he was borne with a developmental disability.  My mentor, rabbi Dan Goldblatt, surmises that he as an adult he suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after the terrifying episode of near sacrifice with his father.

Unlike his father Abraham, and unlike his son Jacob, he never ventured far from home.  Early in the story, when he is with his older half-brother Ishmael, the son of Abraham and the Hagar the Egyptian, we read

ותראו שרה את בן הגר המצרית אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק

V’tiroo Sarah et ben Hagar hamitzrit asher yalda l’Avraham mitzahek

The Jewish Publication Society translation of this phrase is “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.”  In the next phrase “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

What so incensed Sarah, so infuriated her, that she wanted nothing more to do with them?    If we look at the original verse again, we see that the word מצחק mitzahek can also be translated as laughing.  When kids play, they laugh, but kids can be cruel. And at what was the son of Hagar laughing?  In the Mishnah Rabbah commentary on Gen 21:9, it is suggested that he was laughing at Isaac, the boy who was different, that he was bullying him.  And it was his cruelty which elicited the strong response from Sarah.

Why do these commentators think that Isaac may have been borne with some kind of disability?  We see that at the age 37, at the time of “the sacrifice of Isaac, the text still calls him a “na’ar”, a lad, an odd term for an adult, unless he was simple and childlike.  Another hint is that Isaac is the only patriarch that does not “take a wife”, rather, one is chosen for him.

Perhaps, Isaac learned differently.  If so, then the Torah is giving us an important example of the diversity that has comprised the Jewish people.  It models for us a patriarch that is in some way limited.

Whereas other figures in the Torah had limitations delineated by their ego or their carnal passions (for example, Noah had a problem with alcohol and Judah had questionable sexual liaisons), Isaac may have been born with physical limitations. And yet he is one of the “big three”, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. We remember each of them when we pray.

What do we learn from Isaac?  The Torah models for us that each of us has something to contribute in our own way.  It isn’t only the warriors, or the charismatic leaders that contribute and need to be remembered. Isaac, quiet and stable, is still worthy of memory and part of the connective fiber between the past and the future of the Jewish people. He is a link in the proverbial chain.

It says in Pirkei Avot 4. חכם? הלומד מכל אדם איזהו

Eizeh hu hacham?  Halomed mi kol adam.

“Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.”

I have had the privilege of learning from my son.   Why do I bring him up?   Because my son has never fit within the lines.  I come from a long line of college professors and PhD’s. For me there was never an option not to go to college straight out of high school.  That was how it was.   98% of the kids at my high school went to college.  We were all the children of Stanford professors and that is what we did.  I carried that image of what is an expected path forward when I became a mother.   I began planning my sons’ bar mitzvah’s at birth and their college paths when they entered kindergarten.

I have two sons, each one is my pure joy and each one is different than the other.  The older one had his quirks, but with extremely hard work and effort, everything seemed to come together for him:  high school, college, athletics honors, law school.

For my younger son, nothing ever came easy.  A happy bouncy kid at birth, he was a ray of sunshine until the day he started school.  Soon it was noticed that he wasn’t getting it.  He was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and anxiety.  We tried everything:  private schools, tutors, and eventually special education in public school. Nothing helped.

Initially, he was extremely social and because he looked like captain of the football team, his disability was totally hidden.  But when the cool kids figured out that he couldn’t read, he was bullied into oblivion.   Eventually he tried to self-medicate himself out of his pain, which led to several hospitalizations and real hell for him… and not a walk in the park for his parents or his brother.

Why do I tell you this?  I tell you this because you won’t easily hear if from someone else.  You won’t hear that when my son was hospitalized the first time for not wanting to be on the planet, that I sat in his bedroom and cleaned it for three days, including the carpet, fiber by fiber.  You won’t hear from others that their kid isn’t going to UCLA or UNLV or Harvard.

Maybe it is different here in Las Vegas, but in my experience, we all put forth that our kids are doing great, that they are right on track, that everything is hunky dory.  But you know what, life isn’t always like that, it isn’t always “Leave it to Beaver” or “the Brady Bunch” or whatever the hot family show is on Netflix today.  Parenting a troubled kid is hard and lonely but honestly, most kids have their ups and downs.  If we are willing to open up and to share that not everything is great, we will find allies and helpful friends.

What helped me the most in that dark time was a parent support group that I attended.  All the kids of those in the group were in rehab. There were middle class parents, and Hells Angels, and folks of all colors and socio-economic levels. Each one of us was there for our kid and for ourselves.  We were open, and we supported each other, and we helped each other through the darkest times.  Once I opened up to the other parents, and opened to my friends and my community about my reality, that my son wasn’t heading to UCLA, that he was born with depths of compassion and empathy, but at 19, and 20, and 21 he couldn’t read and comprehend the written word, then the other parents, and my friends, were able to open up about their kid’s challenges.  Then we could support each other. Our relationships deepened, our community grew stronger, and we found that real life, real role models come in all forms.

We found our Isaacs, kids who were born outside of the mold. Our Isaacs had their strengths, their weaknesses were, perhaps, a bit more profound than the norm. But they too had something to teach us and could grow to be people to be remembered, like the biblical Isaac, 2500 years later.

As some of you know, three months ago, my son woke up one day and said he was ready to take control of his life. He was ready, to move on from the demons of his past, to accept his learning disability and to couple it with his incredible gifts of understanding and compassion. He was ready to move forward toward the life that he really wanted.   Since he was 8 years old, he has been talking about designing skateparks and now, at 23, he was ready to fulfill his dream and make it real.  He picked himself up, enrolled in Landmark College, the premier college in the country for kids with learning disabilities, and three weeks ago, I dropped him off in Vermont.

My Isaac appears to have found himself.

איזהו הכם? הלומד מכל אדם

Eizeh hu hacham?  Halomed mi kol adam.

“Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.”

As we enter the new year, 5778, may we learn from one another, may we be honest with each other, may we support each other, so that we may grow from strength to strength, in the footsteps of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Shanah Tovah