Just this week I found myself reflecting on a difficult time in my life, a time when I was facing feelings of suicidality, a time when I felt abandoned by my Jewish community, a time when I questioned my point and purpose in life, a time when I wondered what and where God was. The reflection focused on overcoming those feelings, finding peace again in a different Jewish community, reuniting with God and myself, and feeling a sense of intense liberation at having gone through that and come out the other side.
In her commentary for this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, Avivah Zornberg recalls the same midrash from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer that I wrote about in this year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, and a hand full of others like it. Satan appeared to Sarah, or perhaps Satan in the guise of Isaac appeared to Sarah. Satan told Sarah that Isaac was killed by his own father on Mount Moriah, or perhaps Satan-Isaac told Sarah that Abraham had raised his hand to kill him but the angel stopped him just in time. Maybe Sarah didn’t hear the end of the story, so great was her anguish, and maybe she did but was anguished anyway at the idea that if not for the interference of the angel at just the right moment, her husband would have killed her son. At any rate, in hearing this news, however much of it she heard, she let out wails and cries of varying sounds, corresponding to the sounds of the Shofar, and then she died.
Zornberg’s point of bringing all these midrashim, unlike my point at the High Holy Days of remembering her cries and those of other women and children in distress, is to show us the “impossibility of full joy in this world” (The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Vertigo – the Residue of the Akedah). Isaac and Abraham have just undergone a horrible experience in Parashat Vayera with the Akedah. Their relationship will probably never recover (in fact, in the Torah, we never really see them speak to each other), and they are each undoubtedly deeply damaged psychologically from it, but still they succeed. Abraham proves his worthiness and devotion to God, and Isaac gets to live: a happy ending to that story, only to be undercut by Sarah’s death as a direct result in the opening of this parasha. Zornberg goes on to speak of the nothingness we encounter in life, the way in which we only find true meaning after accepting this meaninglessness of our lives, or the way in which we experience anxiety and vertigo, uncertainty and panic, if we do not accept this. She uses the phrase “the unbearable lightness of being” as the source of Sarah’s death, but I think this same phrase well-captures what I felt as rebirth after the time of my life described above. Tyler Durden says, “It is only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything”; Avivah Zornberg says, “[D]oubt, interrogation, absence, anguish create the possibility of freedom”. It was this unbearable lightness that caused me to feel like I could float above my world, my depression, my negligent Jewish community. It was only after I accepted that maybe there is no meaning to the world, that perhaps God’s generosity is darkly shaded and roughly textured, that I felt liberated to experience my own generosity to myself, to find new meaning in a self-created world that recognizes and embraces one’s own darkness. As Zornberg says, “To know the brokenness, the hollow resonance of the Shofar, is to sharpen one’s hearing for the affirmations of faith.”
After Sarah’s death from her unbearable lightness of being, the parasha goes on to tell the tale of Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca. Rebecca is found by a well, and Abraham’s servant recognizes her as the correct woman for Isaac by her radical kindness. She not only gives him some water, but carries water to his animals as well. Her life and her soul are characterized by this light, this goodness. When she follows the servant back to Abraham’s homestead, she sees a man on in the fields meditating as they approach. She asks, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant answers, “That is my master”. So she covers herself with her veil, suddenly feeling bashful in front of her soon-to-be husband. Midrashim famously attribute this to Isaac’s embarrassingly good looks, her humbling in front of this great man, and their true love. Zornberg draws a different conclusion. She says that Rebecca sees Isaac praying in the field, sees and hears the anguish in his prayers, broken up over his mother’s death, and perhaps holding survivor’s guilt as the indirect cause of her death, and she experiences “confusion, doubt, and suspense.” She has never seen this sort of darkness in her “sunlit world of hesed”. They build a life together, though we are left wondering how well these two people, who essentially live in different worlds, can relate to one another?
Some people don’t ever experience this darkness. Some may but live in denial, in that troubling state of vertigo that Zornberg describes. Some live through it, embrace it, and push past it. We internalize the meaninglessness of life and choose to go forth anyway, and create our own meanings. We are all given birth and death, some of us just want some say in between, even if it ultimately doesn't matter. There is an intense sense of liberation at being able to accept this, that Sarah was unfortunately unable to experience. For any that find themselves on this threshold, forced to face unbearable truths or nothingness, I urge you to push on, to find a comfortable place to sit in that void and wait for light to return.