The saddest part of this morning’s Torah portion occurs at the end. After nearly slaughtering Isaac, an unrepairable yet understandable rift occurs between father Abraham and, as beginning of the portion calls him, his beloved son. While Isaac survives, the bond between father and son, patriarch and inheritor, is shattered and never again do the two meet in life. It is only with Abraham’s death do his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, each with his own deep hurt, come together to bury their father.
Abraham ascends Mount Moriah with Isaac but he descends alone. We can only imagine the thoughts and feelings coursing through their hearts. Isaac, obviously feeling betrayed by a father who professed such love for him. We understand and feel his pain. He did not lose his life. He did lose his father.
But what of Abraham? God asked him to do the unthinkable, to kill his son, and then stopping him from performing horrific deed. Abraham knows he has lost Isaac, and I imagine, he feels used and betrayed, by God. Isaac lives but Abraham knows he is lost to him.
What is it they have lost? Isaac lost not just a father but an elder, a mentor. Abraham lost an heir for his life’s experience and wisdom. Would Isaac been able to better navigate through Esau’s and Jacob’s rivalry if he had a respected elder to help guide him. As we age, we seem driven to share our life’s journey and its lessons. Abraham lost that opportunity with Isaac.
Thinking back in my own life there is so much I wish my father and mother had lived long enough to teach me. I know when I was young and then as a teen they told me things and, more importantly, showed me by example. But, I cannot parse out those particular lessons. After my mother died and I was an adolescent I perfected my eye roll for whenever my father would yell his lessons at me. (I can still do it, although it’s more subtle when needed.) But by the time I was old enough and ready to learn, he had died and with him his wisdom.
At each stage of life our skills are different. Younger we are imbued with more energy. Older we have less energy but more experience. Younger we dream big dreams. Older we dream but more realistically. Younger we strive more for fun than meaning. Older we strive more for meaning than fun. Younger stress is more debilitating. Older stress is more motivating. Younger we strive for happiness in the moment. Older we strive for prolonged happiness. Younger we work to build memories. Older we still work to build memories but we worry about how much longer we will have them. Younger we work to acquire. Older we work toward Erik Erikson’s 7th stage of life - generativity, instead of working to acquire, we begin to invest outward.
Barbara Bradley Hegarty in her book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife writes: “If you want a healthy glow and a happy midlife, here’s a secret. Give it away: your time, your money, whatever is at your disposal, give it to someone else. Especially your time. Volunteering prolongs your life. It makes you happier and spares you depression. And heart attacks. It helps you stay sober, and boosts your immune system. It cures burnout. It fires up your dopamine system, giving you chemical rewards. It lowers your stress level and reduces chronic pain. It gives you purpose in life.”
But developing wisdom does not have to wait until we are in midlife. Some people are old souls when they are young. In the mid 1990’s a 12 year old girl came to me with her mother and told me she wanted to convert to Judaism. We talked about the whys and hows. I told her that we would welcome her full participation in the community but that her conversion would have to wait until she was older. She was wise enough to know what she wanted and was willing to wait. She entered our school of Jewish studies, participated in NFTY, began introducing Shabbat and holy days into her family’s life. Three years later her family moved and I never knew whether she followed through or not.
A few years ago she tracked me down and asked me to do her wedding. At 25 she formally converted. She became a pharmacist and joined the army. We made the arrangements and I flew in to do the wedding. A year later, in her early 30’s she left active duty and entered the reserves so she could go to medical school. A few months ago I saw this on her Facebook page:
“Alright. Screw it. Let's do this! Taking a leap of faith and consciously constructing a life I love. Big deep breaths.”
I PM’d her (that’s is Facebook speak for sent her a private message) and asked what that meant. This was her response:
“when I returned to the US I linked up with a primary care doc to shadow. Actually my husband’s doc since he was young. Great doc, great guy. Was shadowing him for awhile when we had a serious talk. The gist of his message was "I absolutely believe you can get into med school, and would make a fantastic physician. However being a physician (and putting medicine first) ruined my first marriage. You have to think about what you and your husband want".
So my husband and I had a really long honest talk. And we both decided we didn't get married to spend the next 10 years apart (between med school and residency). And that we wanted to start having a family soon. I've experienced too many lost family members in life to think work is the end all be all, life is too short for that.”
Here is an example of wisdom passed on in the best way; through conversation and questions, not with thou shalt, or thou shalt not or even thou should.
Isaac, his father no longer available to him and his mother dead needed, like many of us, to find others to mentor us, advise us, and help us continue our growth. Reading the stories about the rest of his life, I doubt he did.
At each stage of life we draw upon the wisdom passed down to us when we were younger and new wisdom we gain from are own life experiences and others’ life experiences. Recently someone asked me if rabbinic school taught me how to be a rabbi. When I finished laughing I replied: “rabbinic school made me a rabbi. My rabbi growing up, my senior rabbi in my first pulpit, my older colleagues, years of experience, and to this day my rabbinic coach are still teaching me how to be a rabbi.”
I could say the same about life. My parents gave me life but they, Michele, and all the other important people in my life plus the wisdom I’ve gained through studying those who came before me and my actual life experiences taught me how to live.
Judaism teaches us how to gain wisdom, how to learn to live well with one seemingly simple phrase - קני לך חבר – acquire for you self a חבר. The Hebrew word חבר has 3 different meanings and in this phrase they are all present. The 3 meanings are:
1) A teacher - find someone or a few teachers who can convey to you the wisdom you need to thrive and to grow.
2) A friend - a true friend whose love is unconditional and who you trust at the deepest level to always tell you the truth, even when the truth hurts. And you know what they tell you comes from a place of kindness and love so that you can both grow. And
3) A magician - people who can help you transform from and into each stage of life. From childhood to adolescence. From adolescence to young adulthood to adulthood to middle age to becoming an elder in your own right. Even with the teacher of wisdom and the true friend we still need a bit of magic to combine it all into a successful life.
May this year be for you a year of wisdom, filled with teachers, friendship and magic.
כן יהי רצין - So may it be God’s will. Shanah Tovah.