Rosh HaShana Morning 5781 / 2020 – Sacrificing Our Children

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Brettton-Granatoor

For the past forty years, I have read this same Torah portion on the first day of Rosh HaShana (in most traditional shuls, it is read on the 2nd day, but the Reform movement a century ago moved it to the first day – that’s another story).  Every year, this disturbing tale eats at me, and I try to find a way to divine a positive message from a horrifying text.  Some years, I was able to do so; some years I could find some element of warning or instruction.  But this year is different:  because the event that took place on Mt Moriah is being replicated all around us by millions, not just in our country, but around the world, including the land of our heritage, the place where the first tragic event almost came to fruition.

Abraham, blinded by the need to prove himself to his God, did not pay attention to the details of the challenge — as I read the text today — so consumed with his own needs and desires, he ignores the threat to his child.  Even when God demands that Abraham focus on the boy, through the series of four descriptors: Take your son, your precious one, the one that you love, Isaac; Abraham still cannot focus on what he is being asked to do.  He selfishly follows commands to meet whatever challenge he understands that God wants of him.  Only at the very last minute, his hand is stayed by the Voice from on High. He may have passed the test, but we do not see him stop to consider what almost happened, instead turning his attention back to a way to fulfill the sacrifice and discovering the ram, to replace his son on the altar.

This pandemic has challenged all of us, especially those with children still living at home.  As the weeks wore on into April and beyond, for many, their homes became suffocating.  Those of means often had some space to spread out, and when children needed more technology to continue their schooling on-line, it happened. I recognize that our children are grown and no longer under our roof, but it wasn’t hard to imagine what life would be like when all three were younger, and our presently spacious feeling house would seem way too small. We have encountered many working parents who still found the experience claustrophobic as they tried to meet work deadlines, while children struggled understanding math problems.  Many of Marianne’s younger legal colleagues took to having work meetings only after they were able to put children to bed.  We have seen television newscasters have their reporting interrupted by demanding children, pets, and spouses. And thus far, my focus has been on families that are economically comfortable – yet, their discomforts grew at an alarming rate.

But pause for a moment and let us turn our attention to the single-parent families, or the underemployed, or the unemployed with children.  Buying a computer or tablet so that one’s child could take on-line classes was often impossible – some schools were able to find donated technology, but not all.  High speed internet access is not available in many places, or affordable in most cases.  One study found that almost 17 million American children live in homes without high-speed internet, and more than seven million do not have a computer at home. (From Nicholas Kristoff “’Remote Learning’ is Often an Oxymoron” NYT 9-3-20)  In NYC, where there is free wifi at kiosks on many street corners, it was not unusual to see a parent with a child trying to attend an on-line class through a smart phone sitting on the sidewalk. And imagine the parent with more than one child, trying to decide who gets to zoom into their class, or should they use the limited bandwidth to pursue their own work. Living in already cramped quarters, imagine the level of tension each day – almost suffocating – trying to feed children who often got free breakfast and lunch – their only balanced meals — through school.  Many schools made accommodations to provide food, but not everyone was able to avail themselves of these programs. With over 30 million Americans food-insecure, recourse to food banks was only possible for those who had child-care or brought their children with them.  Which leads to a personal plea, to support Nantucket’s local food pantry – which is supported by our congregation.

Somehow, we barely managed to make it through the summer, and we are poised at the start of a new school year.  Schools with ample resources and space have made plans for the return of their students.  The overly endowed private NYC high school that I was privileged to attend in the 60’s and 70’s has now contracted with a private health organization to do regular daily testing on-site.  But that is one in millions of schools.  Most schools are ill-prepared to ensure the health and safety of their students and their staff. It was only after a threatened teachers’ strike that the NYC Mayor delayed the opening of NYC public schools for an additional two-weeks – and still there is doubt that the schools really know how to handle the crisis and few have adequate supplies of PPEs.  Our daughter is a social worker and teacher at a high school for children with learning disabilities.  They will be going back to school with a split schedule, but how does one cope with children who do not have the executive function to know that they cannot touch other people, or when they are in emotional extremis, how does one comfort and calm a child without physical touch? 

Yet, millions of parents are ready to send their children forth to school – to let someone else care for them, because after 7 months, they cannot take another second of the suffocation they feel.  It is not that they love their children any less, but the current situation has become so dire that they need a break — a break offered by the absence of children even for a few hours a day.  And they are consumed with their own anxiety and mania, they want the ability to concentrate on their job or search for one, they want the quiet to attend to their own needs.  At the same time, societal pressure to send one’s children to school is great, and children are demanding the opportunity to reconnect with their classmates. Like Abraham, focused only on his need to prove himself to his God and community, too many parents are incapable of seeing the risks of sending children off to schools without adequate plans, accommodations, and equipment.  And the vacuity of leadership, the absence of a coherent national plan with appropriate support is a clear and present danger to the next generation.

In Talmud Berachot 64a we read: “    Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Hanina said: Torah scholars (read STUDENTS) increase peace in the world, as it is said: ‘And all your children [banayich] shall be taught of Adonai, and great shall be the peace of your children.’ (Isa. 54:13) Do not read your children [banayich], but your builders [bonayich].” While we may stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, our world rests on the shoulders of those who build the future – our children.  The stark question is: are we much different from Abraham of old so focused on his own needs that he was ignorant of the possibility of destroying his future; and we, so numbed and addle-brained by this pandemic, that we have lost the critical judgement necessary to ensure the real safety of our children. We pray and hope that soon clear-thinkers will prevail and do the difficult things that are required to protect the health and safety of our children and grandchildren.  As schools and universities that have already opened are witnessing the error of their plans, we know that the coming days will reveal the impact of reckless decisions to accommodate politics, convenience, and a desire for normalcy.  These are not normal times, and the moment demands extraordinary measures to protect those most precious to us, who rely on adults to act on their behalf. 

The tragic story of Abraham’s test and near-sacrifice of his son ends in a very strange way – often ignored – the text tells us that Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva, but there is no mention of Isaac.  We don’t know the aftermath for Isaac, nor do we know the impact that this event had on his psyche.  We are at a sacred moment when the decisions we make will have a life-long impact on the next generation.  This is our test.  Will we pass it?  

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