Hara Person
Hara Person

The pandemic and the binding of Isaac: Finding healing from brokenness

The last 18 months have been a deeply painful, trying experience for our communities and the world at large. This has been a year and half of interruption and brokenness. A year and half of being apart from the people we love and ways of life that we love, of plans upended, of ongoing disequilibrium. A year and a half of fear, anxiety, grief, losses big and small, challenges to our mental health.

We have just lived through a significant break in our expected narrative, and in truth, it’s not over yet. But even as we grapple with the ongoing difficulty and pain of our current situation, the upcoming Jewish High Holidays show us how we can grow from this suffering in ways that will ultimately produce healing and love.

On Rosh HaShanah, we read the Torah’s telling of the binding of Isaac, which is also a story of brokenness. In response to God’s command, Abraham takes Isaac up to Mt. Moriah to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice. God intervenes at the last moment and Isaac is saved, but the damage is already done. The biblical text does not show Abraham and Isaac ever interacting again, and Isaac doesn’t see his mother Sarah before she dies.

But this story, despite being filled with such brokenness and trauma, eventually becomes an opportunity for healing and new beginnings. After Abraham mourns Sarah and ensures a bride for Isaac, he goes on to have another wife and a whole additional clan of children. His life goes on. And Isaac, our passive protagonist, falls in love with Rebekah. Love is something rarely noted in the Torah, and so it is all the more remarkable that one of the few people the Torah tells us is capable of love is Isaac. Though there is no happily-ever-after in the twists and turns of his family narrative, it is important to remember that Isaac too goes on to have further chapters in his story. After trauma and brokenness, his story continues.

The idea that brokenness is part of life rather than an aberration, and that we have to hold within us that tension between struggle and contentment, is at the heart of much of Jewish tradition. Think of the Passover tradition of breaking the middle matzah. During the seder, as we give thanks for our liberation and celebrate our freedom, we break the middle matzah. Doing so reminds us that we live in a broken world; that we ourselves contain brokenness. During Jewish weddings, in the midst of joy and celebration, we break a glass to remind us that even in the midst of joy, we have an obligation to help repair a broken world.

The strength and healing that can emerge from suffering has a name: “posttraumatic growth,” a term created by researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun to speak about the way that difficult experiences can actually create fertile ground for positive psychological growth and change. They identify seven areas of growth that can come out of experiences of trauma and brokenness, including: a greater appreciation of life, greater for appreciation and the strengthening of close relationships, increased compassion and altruism, the identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life, greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths, enhanced spiritual development, and creative growth.

With Rosh HaShanah on the horizon, we now face a moment of turning and returning. As we think about the year ahead and how we want to be our best selves in this new year, as we think about the ways we want to more actively pursue justice or strive to strengthen our community, how can we move out of brokenness and into joy? One way might be to reframe our experience of the last year and half so that we can see these seven points of post-traumatic growth as a kind of calling. How do we challenge ourselves to make this a time of growth and positivity? What might be our role in healing ourselves? In healing each other? In healing this fractured world? We owe it to ourselves to actively search for and find those new opportunities.

There’s a verse in Psalms that beautifully sums up the path from pain and trauma toward healing and love: “We may weep throughout the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalms 30:5). It is easy to get stuck in the brokenness, in the bad and painful. It is easy to lose sight of the positive possibilities that lie ahead, to ignore the signs of joy on the horizon.

But we must hold on to the idea that after brokenness and despair comes growth and repair. Despite what transpired on Mount Moriah, and despite the separate trajectories they took after those traumatic events, both Abraham and Isaac both went on to have additional chapters to their lives. Their stories continued. They connected with new people and with God and had new experiences. They found hope, resilience, and reasons to keep living. And so must we.

About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.
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