Forgotten Voices

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
September 12, 2011
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Every year, I avoid the Akedah. In my student High Holiday pulpits, I preferred to give a sermon about anything but the Akedah. My usual self-doubt about having something unique to say about any subject at all would go into overdrive when it came time to writing a sermon for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Was there really anything new left to be said? Wouldn’t people much rather learn something brilliant about themes of redemption, teshuvah, and musaf?

But I did have something to say about the Akedah, I just didn’t know it. I was sitting in a theology class with Professor Neil Gillman, and the topic turned to the Akedah. Professor Gillman said, “Imagine Job and Abraham sitting in a Starbucks, and Abraham says to Job: “What do you mean, God never told you it was a test.” After class, I told Professor Gillman that he had it wrong. “Sarah and Job’s wife (Situs, according to later Jewish writings) are sitting in Starbucks and they realize together that it was a test.” Because for Sarah and Situs, there is no moment of triumph. Sara dies before Isaac returns. And while Job is blessed with new wealth and new children, the implication of the Book of Job is that he also gets a new wife, one whose faith is stronger than that of the wife who told him to simply curse God and die.

Professor Gillman challenged me to write it down, and the result was “Sarah and Sitis,” (eventually published in Conservative Judaism), a modern midrash that detailed the journey of two bereft women across the desert to confront God. Rejecting every possible explanation for the existence of evil that God can offer them, the women end their encounter with God by laughing at the absurdity of life and God’s seeming indifference to the death of innocent children. God’s response is to cry and say, “My children have defeated me.”

But in truth, we are the defeated generation. My midrash reflects the confusion of a post-Holocaust world where it is still too early to truly have made theological sense of what happened more than seventy years ago. We still have access to the Isaacs who survived their experiences on the altar. Maybe, when their experiences confine themselves to written testimonies, we’ll really begin to process this. I know members of my generation (I’m somewhere between Gen X and millennial) are a paradox when it comes to the Shoah—overwhelmed with Holocaust education and tourism that seems to have had only a minimal impact our religious lives. I know for me, reacting to the Shoah has left me alternating between cheerful agnosticism (where I spend most time) and deep seeded hurt and anger at God.

My generation—we’re not Isaac or Abraham or Sarah or the ram, or even the bystanders, Ishmael and Eliezer watching from afar. We’re Jacob. It’s Jacob’s voice that it is missing from all of our imagining about the Akedah. What does it mean to be the generation after trauma? What does it mean to follow a God who ripped a family apart? When Jacob encountered God at Bethel and heard God recount how God was the God of Abraham and Isaac, why didn’t he run away at the sight of the God who either asks the faithful to kill their children or inspires their followers to such a degree that they think they are supposed to kill their children?

What did Jacob say at Bethel? “God was in this place, and I did not know.” On his own for the first time as an adult, he encounters a different kind of God. Though the trauma remains, the relationship is re-written. That’s the real end of the Akedah story. That’s the message we need to hear on the High Holidays: not that we can re-write the past but that we can build new relationships despite the past. If Jacob had not discovered God’s presence in Bethel, the story of the Jewish people would have ended. Our challenge, the challenge of re-written relationships, is to keep writing sequels.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on CNN.com, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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