Earlier this week, together with many of you, together with well over ten thousand other New Yorkers, I attended a vigil marking thirty days since the horrific October 7th Hamas terror attacks on Israel. The language used by the organizers was that of shloshim, the thirty days of mourning prescribed by Jewish law following loss. The language is not perfect, but as we position and reposition ourselves vis-à-vis the attacks of October 7, the laws of Jewish mourning are as helpful a scaffolding as any to make sense of our changed and changing reality.
As anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one knows, there are ritualized phases to Jewish mourning. First, between death and burial, a stage called aninut, when pain is so acute that words themselves fail. One does not recite Kaddish before burial, nor does one formally receive visitors. One does very little other than absorb the blow and make preparations for the burial of a loved one. Shiva counts the seven days of mourning following burial. Here one accepts condolence visits and words of consolation and begins to share memories. We come together for minyan, and community members offer comfort by saying words of empathy or delivering rugelach. Only on the seventh day do we “get up” from shiva to resume any semblance of daily life. The next phase is shloshim, thirty days. We are still mournful. We may go to work, but we don’t attend non-essential social events; it is still too early for discretionary entertainments. And then, the year of aveilut, mourning. For a parent we say Kaddish for eleven months, a somber period often concluding with unveiling a tombstone. And then come the yahrzeit remembrances every subsequent year.
While I readily admit that there are all sorts of things in Jewish law and life that don’t immediately make sense, in the case of mourning, the rabbis of old got it right. Our mourning rituals provide the mourner with tools to journey through the emotional phases of loss, from shock to anger to grief and, eventually, to acceptance and a return to life. The rituals do not take a person’s pain away. In all my years as a rabbi, not one person has ever shared that they have “gotten over” a loss. People just figure out – by moving through the stages of mourning – how to put one foot in front of the other. We remember, but we step forward. The ache remains, but we nevertheless plan for the future. For a model, we need look no further than our founding patriarch Abraham in today’s Torah reading. After his life partner Sarah dies, he purchases a burial plot and he mourns. And then he sets a plan in motion to find a wife for his son Isaac. Loss and life – coping and hoping – turning to the generations to come even as he mourns. The example of Abraham’s mourning becomes the model for all Jewish mourning to this very day – all the more so today, as our people seek to process the loss of 1,400 of our brothers and sisters murdered on October 7.
This morning, it is by way of the laws of mourning that I want to approach the delicate task of looking to the future, even as we, like every mourner, continue in pain. The analogy is not perfect. Unlike the passing of a relative, our loss is not situated on any one day. We are still at war. There are over 240 men, women, and children, elderly and infirm still being held captive by Hamas. There is evolving and growing antisemitism on our campuses, schools, and streets. Our mourning may have begun on October 7, but it is continuing, unfolding, and – in some cases – escalating. Like Abraham, we must consider the day to come, build a vocabulary for the future, and talk about the next stage and the next stage and then the one after that.
Because I am a rabbi and not a political scientist, my reflections come by way of the Torah reading. This Torah reading, in telling the tale of Isaac and Ishmael, the forefathers of the Jewish and Arab people, serves to define our present-day fault lines and perhaps a constructive way to think of the future.
The story of our first family begins simply enough. Abraham and Sarah are plucked from obscurity by God and commanded to give life to a people, to be a blessing to all of humanity, and to settle in a land that we in this room call Israel. But like the Garden of Eden, like so many biblical stories, the plan that appears simple turns out to be anything but simple. Sarah is barren, she can’t bear children. Who will receive the blessing? Who will inherit the land? The promise must be fulfilled, so Sarah finds a concubine for Abraham, Hagar, a woman whose name literally means “the stranger.” It will be by means of Hagar’s womb that the pedigree of the first family will be preserved. Sure enough, Hagar gives birth to a son, Ishmael, and – although everyone entered the arrangement with the best of intentions – the sting, for reasons all too human, is too much for Sarah to bear. Even when Sarah is eventually blessed with her own son, Isaac, the tensions mount. In Ishmael, Sarah sees a threat to her son, physically and also in that Ishmael’s continued existence presents a challenge to Isaac’s claim to the land. As for Hagar, she sees in Isaac the promise once destined for her son Ishmael slipping away. Things come to a head, and at Sarah’s behest, Hagar and Ishmael are banished from Abraham’s home – their lives saved by the intercession of a well-timed angel and the appearance of a life-giving well, in Hebrew, a be’er. There is no record of Abraham and Ishmael ever speaking again; their relationship, understandably, would never be the same.
As for the remaining members of our first family – Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac – even with Hagar and Ishmael out of the way, things go from bad to worse. The same Abraham who last week pleaded on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah; who, two weeks ago put himself on the line to save his nephew Lot, somehow sees fit to heed God’s command to set Isaac on the altar, a near-death experience again averted only by the intercession of a well-timed angel. Sarah was so horrified, the rabbis explain, at her husband’s willingness to sacrifice their only son, that she herself dies of heartache. So traumatized was Isaac by the whole experience, that he never again spoke to his father. That angel may have saved Isaac’s life, but the relationship between father and son was sacrificed at the top of Mt. Moriah. It is not the only way to tell the story of our people’s first family, but, given that Isaac and Ishmael went on to give life to two nations, the Jewish one and Arab one, it is a telling that cuts close to home of late. Two brothers of shared lineage and shared claim to a land. Two brothers estranged from one another, estranged from their parents, and estranged from God’s promise. A tragedy of generations, filled with distrust, violence, heartache, and the hardening of hatreds. A tragedy whose ripple effects play out to this very day.
Bleak as the story is, our Torah reading also offers a sliver of redemption, a hint of possibility, a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark tale. As noted, following the trauma of Mt. Moriah, Abraham and Isaac never speak again. The father and son who went up the mountain together go down separately. Abraham, the text states, returns to Be’er Sheva. But where did Isaac go? The answer comes in the scene where Isaac meets his bride Rebecca: “And Isaac returned from Be’er-lahai-roi, for he had settled in the region of the Negev.” (Genesis 24:62). Where is Be’er-lahai-roi? the rabbis ask, and what was Isaac doing there? It was, according to the Midrash, the home of Hagar – that same well, that be’er that saved Hagar when she almost perished. Why would Isaac – who no doubt suffered the post-traumatic effects of nearly being killed by his father, who was still mourning the death of his mother Sarah – go to see Hagar, the woman who, by a certain telling, he had every right to resent? Because, the rabbis teach, Isaac wanted to reunite his stepmother Hagar with his father Abraham. It is an astonishing turn of events. The very thought that Isaac’s first act of personal agency in the wake of his own trauma was to reunite his father and Hagar. What courage it must have taken for Isaac to approach Hagar. Even more astonishing is to consider Hagar. How brave it must have been for her not only to receive Isaac, but to follow him back. The hatreds she must have had to wrestle, considering that from her perspective, it was Isaac’s birth that prompted her exile. But, according to the rabbis, that is exactly what happened. After all those years, Hagar returns and remarries Abraham. Our broken first family becomes less broken. Despite all the trauma, bitterness, and pain, these people somehow bring it together and find hope in the darkness.
History may not repeat itself, but biblical history does rhyme – at least for rabbis – especially when it comes to the eponymous forefathers of our present-day nations. As a rabbi inclined to seek out nuance and texture, the events of October 7 have brought me, and I hope you, moral clarity. I reject any attempt by anyone to put the atrocities of October 7 in the context of a wider arc of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. I reject any attempt by anyone to suggest Israeli complicity in October 7 by way of a perverse “nobody’s hands are clean” argument. I reject any suggestion that Israel does not have a right to protect its citizens, to respond to being attacked, and to defend its citizens from future attacks. And I reject any argument that Israel is not fully within its rights to do whatever it needs to do to bring the over 240 hostages back to their families. I reject any such arguments. Period. Full stop. Like the characters in our Torah reading, I feel loss, betrayal, anger, resentment, trauma, and a whole lot of other uncomfortable feelings.
And, like anyone going through the stages of grief, I ask – even, and especially with things as recent, raw, and real-time as they are – what exactly is the plan for tomorrow and the day after that? I grieve over the victims of October 7. I also grieve the loss of innocent Palestinian lives, betrayed by the iron grip of Hamas. Not to do so is inhuman. I do not sleep at night for the thought of my nephew and his battalion stationed in Gaza. I also do not sleep for the thought of all Gazans caught in the cross fire of war. I shed tears thinking of the endless and compounding cycles of generational violence. I am pretty sure I know how I feel right now. I am doubly sure that this is not a feeling that I want to last for the rest of my life and into the lives of my children and grandchildren.
All of which is why I think we need to muster within ourselves, individually and as a people, a little bit of our forebearer Isaac. We need to find a way to verbalize a path and strategy forward. A Marshall plan of reconstruction that will help build a future of co-existence, provide political stability, contain extremism, and reward good behavior. Israel has the right to do what it needs to do. Hamas is not a rational actor, and any vision of a shared future has to be with a partner that countenances Israel as a part of the future – which Hamas does not. But Israel must allow and encourage that partner to emerge. As a recent speaker in our community has argued, Israel should consider Great Britain’s strategy vis-à-vis Northern Ireland in the 1990s. On the one hand, Britain made clear, by its military strength, that the path of terrorist violence would fail. On other hand, Britain made clear, with a second track of diplomacy, that there was a path for the IRA to achieve more at the negotiating table than on the battlefield. There are, I am sure, limits to the analogy, but the point is one of both moral and practical significance. Morally, Israel’s response to the attacks of October 7 remains defensible if, and only if, Israel pursues a path to Palestinian self-determination with the same ferocity as it prosecutes its war on Hamas. Practically, Israel must provide a path for Palestinian self-determination because no matter what one does or doesn’t think about the Palestinians, our sanity, humanity, and love for a secure, democratic, and Jewish state demands it. I am under no illusions that the once estranged members of our people’s first family grew to like each other. I don’t know that in their heart of hearts they even forgave each other. I think they just realized that, by some cruel twist of fate, their histories, geographies, and destinies were going to be tied to each other. So they figured out how to make it work and to live side by side. They figured it out, and so must we.
Our Torah reading, as noted, begins with mourning, Abraham caring for Sarah by purchasing a burial plot known as the Cave of Machpelah. Less well known is how our Torah reading ends: a final, touching scene, the death of our patriarch Abraham himself. The text is terse, there is no dialogue. The text notes only Abraham’s ripe old age – 175 – and that his two sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him at the cave of Machpelah. I think of those two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, standing over their father’s grave, standing on that plot of land that he purchased, reflecting on the hurts inflicted on them and the hurts they inflicted upon each other. The hatreds they had to suppress, the bitter pills they had to swallow, the things they knew that they would have to let go. Somehow, they were able to work it out, or at least work it out enough that they could civilly bury their father and acknowledge themselves as brothers, each deserving of blessing, each a claimant to the same land.
Isn’t that, on a certain level, what it means to mourn? To remember the hurt, to hold the pain, to know that try as you may, you will never transcend loss, but you must, nevertheless, find a way to put one foot ahead of the other. It is not everything, it might not even be much of something, but maybe it is a place to start. And God knows, we are all in need of a place to start.