The Day After: Recovering Hope in a Time of Trauma

Rosh Hashanah Day Two | Rabbi D'ror Chankin-Gould | September 20, 2020

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How are you going to feel the day after the Coronavirus? When this is all over, when the disease is vanquished, can you imagine how deeply you’ll breathe? That tightness in your chest, the knot that won’t let go… what will it feel like when it’s just… gone? When we can go “back to normal,” take off our masks, gather with as many people as we like, hug and embrace once again, how free will you fly?

I imagine that many of us fantasize, at least now and again, about the day after: the day when the pain is finally gone, and life feels like what it was. I relish those fantasies.

And I recognize that they are fantasies. I know, in my rational head rather than my wishful heart, that crises don’t end overnight. Even when the medicine comes, the trauma will linger. For some of us, loved ones will have died or careers will have ended. For some of us, our sense of trust and hopefulness will have been shaken. For some of us, the loneliness will have hurt hard enough and long enough to leave scars. Life doesn’t instantaneously snap back to normal. But it would be awfully nice if it did, wouldn’t it?

And there’s another problem with our “day after” fantasies: if we are waiting for this all to “be over” in order to be happy again, or hopeful again, or whole again… we could be waiting an awfully long time. If our sense of well-being is dependent on an end to the pandemic, then we have acquiesced to feeling miserable for the foreseeable future.

In these moments of distress, you might be asking yourself “When will I feel hopeful again? How will I feel hopeful again?” As the days stretch from March to April to May to June to July to August to September… we are worn, and hope is hard to grasp.

How can we recover hope? Do we have to wait until the “day after,” or is there something we could shift inside our hearts, now, even in the midst of the crisis?

I believe that today’s Torah reading offers a roadmap towards building life-giving resilience.

Isaac was traumatized. His father tied him up. His father raised a knife to him. His father intended to kill him.

God is called in our tradition the “shield of Abraham, Magen Avraham” but also the “fear of Isaac, Pachad Yitzhak”.

And though an angel saves Isaac’s life, the truth is, the binding of Isaac ends the relationship between father and son.

In fact, there’s a mysterious detail missing at the conclusion of the story:

וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע׃

“Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.”

After the Akeidah, after Isaac is rescued, Abraham comes down the mountain. Abraham returns to his servants. Abraham goes home. But where is Isaac? Why does Isaac not come down the mountain?

As Leon Kass explained, “For Abraham, the test is over; for Isaac, it is just beginning. Isaac is on his own.”

When the Torah opens a door to the imagination, the Midrash, sacred Jewish legends, enter with answers. There are two famous responses to where Isaac went after the escapade atop the mountain. One possibility is that God took Isaac up to Heaven:

Midrash HaGadol asks

ויצחק היכן הוא?

Where was Isaac?

And the Midrash answers:

אלא שהכניסו הקב״ה לגן עדן וישב שם בה שלוש שנים

The Holy One of Blessing brought him into the Garden of Eden and he dwelt there three years.

Perhaps, after his trauma, Isaac needed three years with God. He didn’t heal overnight. He didn’t go back to normal. He took three years in Gan Eden, communing with the Divine. Three years before he was whole enough to embrace life again.

And the Midrash offers a different answer as well. Perhaps Isaac wasn’t whisked away to Heaven, maybe he just went to college.

רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבָּנָן דְּתַמָּן, שְׁלָחוֹ אֵצֶל שֵׁם לִלְמֹד מִמֶּנּוּ תּוֹרָה

Rabbi Berechya in the name of the Rabbis explained that Yitzchak was sent to Shem (one of the sons of Noah) in order to study Torah.

There is an ancient idea that there was a famous Yeshiva, a place of study, called the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever.  Shem was one of the three sons of Noah, and Ever was his great grandson. The midrash suggests that Isaac spent three years in yeshivah learning Torah.

Being immersed in years of study gave Isaac the respite and the strength, to move forward from his painful past, and finally build a loving future.

We know that three years passed between the time Isaac disappears from the story, when he doesn’t come down from the mountain, to the time he falls for Rebecca, his true love. She literally falls off her camel when she first sees him. He comes into her tent, and finds comfort after the death of his mother.

How does he come back from the brink? How does he find hope again? After a time of fear and angst, disappointment and hurt, how does he heal… and how can we?

The Midrash knows what we know; Isaac wasn’t magically returned to being just who he was  before the Akeidah.  Things didn’t instantly go back to normal “the day after.” Life isn’t so simple.

But he did find purpose. He did find meaning. He did find hope.

So how did he do it?

Whether he healed in Gan Eden or whether he studied in Yeshivah, the midrash is telling us something profound: to make our way through the sludge of the present, we have to tie our spirits to something grander than the finite moment in which we stand. In order to pull through to find hope, we need to reconnect to the eternal wisdom and Truth which stretches far beyond our own eyes and ears and which doesn’t depend on being in a place of light, but rather can hold us even in the darkness.

And just maybe we don’t have to wait until after the Akeidah to claim our Gan Eden or our Yeshiva? Maybe, even here, not down the mountain, but on the mountain, not after the pain but in the midst of the pain, we can find a way to restore our hope… if only we can hang our hat on something steady enough and strong enough.

Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the 21st century, teaches this same idea in his book “Dynamics of Faith.”  Tillich explains the difference between what he terms “ultimate faith” vs “idolatrous faith.”. True faith rests upon “ultimate concern”: concern for that which lasts far beyond our own finite moment, and can truly sustain our souls. “Idolatrous faith,” on the other hand, is when we put our stock in things that are ephemeral. Tillich gives the examples of a nation or even success: though they may seem eternal, in truth they can be fleeting. Tillich asserts that “The inescapable consequence of idolatrous faith is “existential disappointment”, a disappointment which penetrates into the very existence of man.”

In our lives, if we rely on government to give us a sense of faith, hope and trust, we might experience “existential disappointment.” If we rely on medicine or the economy to give us a sense of faith, hope and trust, we might experience existential disappointment. Even that core human need, to be touched, to be proximate to those we love, to be in the company of friends, is ultimately ephemeral: the coronavirus has taught us that if that is the only source of hope and trust, we will be existentially disappointed.

Isaac conquered his existential disappointment, not by trusting in the ephemeral and finite, his father, but by turning to something bigger and more inspiring, something that could hold him even in the darkness: his faith in God and in the light of Torah.

This moment in which we live is dark. It is existentially disappointing. So much of what we relied on has failed us or has been stripped from us.

And yet, if we are to heal our wounds, fall in love, or find ourselves like Isaac… not in some “magical” day after, but now, today, to begin claiming hope and joy again, we will have to find that which is more “ultimate” than this finite moment.

For you, what is it that is “ultimate” enough, timeless enough, grand enough, to pull you through?

For some, like Isaac in Gan Eden, it is faith. A trust in God, who has been with our ancestors though pandemics and plagues, through disease and destruction, can pull us through. God is not tied to this finite moment, but stretches long before and far after.

For some, like Isaac in the Yeshivah, it is our tradition. We come from a resilient people with wisdom that can broaden our perspective and remind us of our strength. This is not the first epoch in Jewish history when our people couldn’t gather together to pray. When we couldn’t pray with the doors open, we closed the doors. When we couldn’t read Torah, we read from the Prophets. When we couldn’t celebrate our traditions in the light of day, we did so by candlelight in the dark of night. Those stories and teachings are much bigger than this one moment. They connect us to those who came before us and those who will come after us.

For some of us, it is family of origin or family of choice that is ultimate and lasting. A reminder that those we love will love us unconditionally can continue to steer our ship even through turbulent waters.

For some, it is art and creativity. The capacity of the human spirit to paint and write and dance and sing can fill us with a hope which is so much stronger than this one painful moment.

For some, nature Herself is the “ultimate concern” to pull us through. The vastness of the ocean, the awe of a sunset, the miracle of a daffodil pushing through the frost, reminds us that there is something bigger and more beautiful than our moment of distress.

There isn’t one roadmap, one easy fix, to healing a broken heart. There isn’t one way down the mountain and back to life. But whatever the path, it will require discovering something big and beautiful, something lasting and strong. It can be done. And it doesn’t have to wait.

I long for the day after the coronavirus. I long for my son to go back to school. I long to see my sisters and parents and nieces again. I long to hug my friends. I long to sit in shul, with no mask, and sing out in a full voice, and come into a crowded Kiddush hall of smiling faces once again.

I know you do, too.

And that day will come. It will come.

But we don’t have to wait for the day after to reclaim hope and joy.

Isaac healed, and loved, and built a future. But he didn’t do it by accident or magic. He didn’t do it by ignoring the pain or hiding from it. He did it by working through the wounds, and finding something bold enough and beautiful enough to pull him through.

We can do the same.

This Rosh HaShanah, let us not wait for the day after. Let us find our hope again, today.

May we grieve what we’ve lost honestly, bind our wounds compassionately, and discover paths to tie our happiness to something grander and more lasting than this finite moment.

Not after the pain, but in the midst of the pain, may we embrace hope and joy which are ultimate enough, even when the night is dark, to lift our spirits into the light.

Shanah Tovah.