Catching the Tears Of Angels


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:25 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1-31
Havdalah: 5:25 p.m.

In the aftermath of the storm, despite an experience that feels almost biblical —- darkness where there should be light, water where there should be land, void where there should be teeming life — despite it all, life must go on.

Continuity in the face of a cataclysmic biblical event just happens to be the theme of parashat Chayei Sarah. In the aftermath of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, an event that would reverberate throughout Jewish history and liturgy, testing Abraham's mettle, forging the character of Isaac, and perhaps costing the life of Sarah–life must go on. Wives must be found, weddings celebrated and generations continued. Those who had a brush with death must recommit to life.

For the rest of his life, Isaac would be discovering the time-release effects that Mount Moriah had on him. When he loses his sight in later life, one Midrashic opinion attributes it to the tears of angels that touched his eyes during his binding. What did Isaac fail to see as a result of the spiritual heights of Moriah? Was he unable to see the cynicism of Esau or the deception of Jacob because of the event seared upon his soul? Did he retreat into a world where he could live the absolutes of self-sacrifice, unable to bear the compromises of daily life? His isolation is one natural response.

If anything, most of us will have an opposite reaction.  Eager to put the storm and its implications of our powerlessness behind us, will we welcome the drudgery of physical cleanup and shirk considering what it means to have survived?  Will we retreat into the routine of catching up on e-mails and recouping lost wages — or will we first reflect on the capacity of savage nature, once at bay, to reclaim the civilized areas of our lives? Could it be that mixed into the rains of Hurricane Sandy were tears of angels, but we are doing our best to dodge them?

These two diametrically opposed responses to confronting our own mortality can be discerned in the polar opposite reactions of Holocaust survivors to their ordeals. Some emerged with their faith strengthened and piety increased. Others found the routine of one day at a time to be the only way of dealing with crushing doubt and shattered beliefs. Both models are true to parts of human nature. Both enable their practitioners to survive, but both exact a price. Those who, like Isaac, internalize the tears of angels, retreat from the gray uncertainties of history and human nature, becoming spectators to the spectacle of life, watching a polychromatic drama in black and white. But those who dodge the tears live a shadow life, scurrying back and forth like an ant between sidewalk cracks, oblivious to the larger meanings of events that befall them, watching large screen events on the smallest of monitors.

Could it be that there is a third approach between the extremes? God is portrayed by the Rabbis as collecting the tears of the Jewish people, counting them, saving them, but acting on them only at the propitious moment. Perhaps, in the ultimate act of imitatio Dei, we are bid to gather the tears of angels, who, from their heights, cannot fathom the grays of our lives. But then we must decide when to let those tears suffuse our lives and when to resist them, when to practice the distant piety of the angels and when the all-too familiar frailty of the human being.

One day a year every Jew is an angel. That day is Yom Kippur, when we dress in white, and eschew the physical pleasures that make us human. Jewish tradition knows that for the other 364 days we will revert to our human status. A year of Yom Kippur is unlivable.

But a year without Yom Kippur is inconceivable. 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg is Rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and teaches at the SAR Academy. He is the author of “Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter.”