Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
December 29, 2011
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The Torah is replete with hero narratives, stories of brave men who set out into the unknown and return changed men, rewarded by God for their daring to set out into the wilderness. Abram goes to the place God will show him in return for countless blessings. Jacob flees his brother, discovers that “God was in this place and I did not know,” wrestles with God, and returns as Israel, the father of a tribe. Moses flees his adopted palace to encounter God at the Burning Bush. Journeys become a means of acquiring authenticity. If you haven’t struggled, if you haven’t questioned, if your path hasn’t curved and made you find God in an unknown place, then you are somehow suspect.

Think, after all, of the demotion that the patriarch Isaac gets in many people’s eyes. A mere placeholder between Abraham and Jacob! Isaac never leaves the land of Canaan (even his wife is secured for him by his dad’s servant), his stories often feel like repetitions of his fathers, and he’s taken advantage of in his old age by his conniving wife and son. About the most exciting thing Isaac ever does of his own volition is to negotiate a treaty about water rights with the local indigenous tribes.

But I don’t think we should rule Isaac out.

During rabbinical school, I had too many opportunities to answer the question, “Tell us about your spiritual journey.” As the 24 year old daughter of a Conservative rabbi, happily ensconced in a Conservative rabbinical school with very few detours on the way, I viewed the question with suspicion. Wasn’t the Establishment grooming many of us, through camps, schools, youth groups, and college programs, to be the next generation of leadership? Why suddenly did we feel like we’d be viewed as more authentic if we’d spent time as Buddhists before returning to the fold? While being an insider had its advantages—my classmates joked that probably the only thing I could do to get kicked out of school involved a human sacrifice in the JTS courtyard—I envied the attention received by my classmates with more interesting, more circuitous paths to the rabbinate.

I eventually learned to see my spiritual journey in smaller, quieter moments—moments of doubt, moments of pain or anger with God—and to see how that led me to the rabbinate. But I also challenged myself to reframe the question to be “where is your spiritual destination?” I had spent so much of my life aspiring to rabbinical school that I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to once I got there. What did my Promised Land look like? And more importantly, what kind of legacy did I want to build in that land? I was done with maps, I needed to start writing blueprints.

Isaac, too, is a blue print kind of guy. He takes the plans for the great nation promised to Abraham and tries to figure out how to make it live in Promised Land for those whose faith has always been there. He teaches us that sometimes we find God not by journeying outside our comfort zone but by delving deeply into the place that is familiar. This, too, can be deeply challenging: God demands that Isaac stay in Canaan even when it is beset by a famine. Rather than traveling to Egypt, as his father did to find food, he must forge new relationships with the local community to survive, and they view this outsider with suspicion. Blessed by God by his willingness to confront hardship, Isaac’s rootedness to place is no longer a sign of meekness when compared to Abraham and Jacob’s wilderness journeys. Instead, it is a sign of maturity (especially when compared to Jacob), that sometimes we must confront the difficulties of where we really are rather than escape to the allure of something new.

Many of us are Isaac, not Abraham or Moses or Jacob. We’re revisers, not rebels. We take the work of the innovative wilderness journeyers and root them for the long haul. I’ve come to understand that for the Jewish community to thrive, we need all of us, the seekers and the planters, the architects and the map-makers. After all, God promised blessings to both kinds of heroes.

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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, 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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