An old man had two sons, from two different women. Both boys were much wanted, even longed-for children. But the old man was a hard man, intoxicated with his God and with great dreams for the future and his story is not a happy one.
First he loses the older boy. As he grew to the edge of manhood, the boy’s stepmother grew jealous and cold. She begged her husband to put him out from their house, to place the family’s destiny fully in the hands of her own infant son. And the father complies – sending his son away, onto the streets, into the wilderness. The old man turns his back on his own flesh and blood, his heart turns to iron. They will never speak again.
Then he loses the younger. This time it is not the voice of his wife that the old man heeds, but the terrible voice of God, who comes to him in a vision, in a dream, demanding the blood of his second-born. So they sneak away, father and son, early in the morning to elude detection and they hike off together to a distant mountaintop. And there the old man put a knife to the boy’s throat, and while both survive the near-death experience, they will never speak again.
Over the two days of Rosh Ha-Shanah, we tell the story of how Abraham loses both of his sons. Neither dies -- in fact, both grow to be the fathers of nations. But, with their own father, it is all over. Well, almost all over.
If I could add to the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, to this new year’s day, I would skip ahead a few chapters in Genesis add just one more verse, one more verse that makes the story complete. Va’yik’b’ru otoh yitzhak v’yishmael banav, el ma’arat hamachpelah. And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah. Neither Isaac nor Ishmael ever speak to their father again after their respective aborted sacrifices. Beyond coming together for the burial, we have no evidence that the brothers ever rebuild their relationship. And, in fact, it seems that all three men cannot co-exist even in the same verse. And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah. No name for the father whom they wordlessly bury together.
This burial scene does not immediately look like a moment of redemption. It is not Jacob and Esau crying into one another’s necks, or Joseph breaking down and revealing his true identity before his brothers, or any similar scene of painful reconciliation achieved and familial harmony restored. It is a somber moment. There are no emotions, no tears or embracing, no forgiving nor forgetting. There are just two brothers, estranged from one another and from their father, coming together in a lonely place to put the past in the ground, before going their separate ways.
And yet, for me, this verse is one of the Torah’s most poignantly honest moments. Because, as appealing as it may be, I don’t believe we can ever have a truly new beginning, a fresh start with a purely clean slate. We are the product of all the life that we have lived up to and including this moment, and when a wound is truly deep it leaves an indelible scar. What was taken from the those two young men — love, innocence, a sense of security – can never be fully restored to them. Nothing can ever make such things completely okay. And yet, this is a moment of saying that whatever was, was, and it is now out of our hands and in the earth. And then the healing can begin.
When one begins to study Talmud, the great and ponderous compendium of Jewish thought and wisdom, there is a traditional starting place. The first Talmudic discussion that most people encounter comes from the second chapter of the tractate, Bava Metzia, which begins with the words: Elu metzi’ot. This discussion, whose twists and turns occupied my brain through much of the first semester of rabbinical school, deals with questions of finding and losing. It asks, “To what length must we go to restore lost property to its original owners?” or, in the most concise of terms: “When are finders, keepers?”
One of the most important concepts that takes shape through this discussion is the idea of ye’ush. Ye’ush means “letting go.” Here’s the basic rule: An object that is lost needs to be returned to its owner, so long as the owner has not yet done ye’ush, giving up on its ever coming back. As long as the owner has a reasonable hope of finding her lost property, the finder has the obligation to try to seek her out. However, the moment that the owner, mentally or in words, acknowledges that what they lost is irrevocably gone, it ceases to be their property at all. It becomes ownerless, it becomes free.
Ye’ush means acknowledging that something is gone and that it’s not ever coming back. It means choosing to do one of the hardest of human acts, it means choosing to let go. Ye’ush is, in some ways, an sad moment, because it contains within it an element of despair, of relinquishing hope of a different story. But, it is equally a moment of profound liberation. It is a time to stop looking, to stop worrying, to stop “what-if-ing” – it’s a time to honor loss and then take the next step.
It is telling to note that in the laws of mourning, we do not begin saying Kaddish for a loved one until after they have been buried. Kaddish, which is ultimately a prayer of redemptive, resilient faith in the face of grief cannot begin until the body is underground and the loss has become something irrevocably real. Our Tradition acknowledges that only when we start the long process of letting go can we begin to even contemplate returning to and even affirming ongoing life.
And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah is a moment of ye’ush, of release of the horrific past so that each son can chart his own future. That’s why I need that additional verse to complete the Torah reading of these two days. Without the letting go, how can the story continue? Without the burying the past, how can a new future be written?
I read a book this year with an unexpectedly profound message about the power of letting go. Probably many of you read it too. It’s called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by the Japanese cleaning guru Marie Kondo. I am a chronic keeper of things, my desk is piled with papers and books, mementos and all sorts of things that “might be useful someday.” Kondo teaches that actual tidying up is not just a matter of putting things in their proper place. Instead, she insists that people who genuinely want to order their chaos need to begin by letting go. She suggests taking all of your possessions and putting them in a tremendous pile in your living room, and then going through, object by object, asking always the same question: “Does this bring me joy?” The result of her method is that everything that does not actively bring joy is to be eliminated from our lives, and that our homes are full only of what we genuinely desire, not the things we are holding onto because of the stubborn inertia of our grasp.
I wonder what it would look like to apply this method to our inner life as well as our closets and bookshelves. I wonder what it would look like to sort through our relationships, our fears, our dreams, and our core convictions and ask the question: “Does holding onto this bring me joy? Does it make me a better human being, a better partner, child, parent, or friend? And, if not, why am I still holding on?” It takes one measure of courage to discard a worn old coat, what kind of courage would it take to release an old resentment, an old fear, a pattern that has kept us stuck for half of our adult lives?
I invite us to pause now for a moment, to each think for ourselves what are the things that we are ready to let go of this year. I venture that each and every one of us have things that we have been carrying too long -- a relationship that will not be fixed, a resentment born of many years, twenty unwelcome pounds around our middle, a wish for things to have turned out differently. As we cross the threshold into a new year, what is it that you want to set down?
Ultimately, and in our own time, there must come for each of us a moment of ye'ush — of recognizing that some things are not worth holding forever. That is the invitation of the incredible spiritual technology of this season, the annual house cleaning process applied to the soul. In that way, this is a redemptive moment for us, an echo of Isaac and Ishmael leaning on their shovels in the darkness of Machpelah. It is not about forgetting our pain, it's about releasing it. It's about recognizing what can be mended, and what cannot, and being prepared to let go in order that new possibility has the space to enter in.
I believe the work of the High Holy Days is not just the work of cleaning up the inner chambers of the heart, as with all things Jewish the internal must be reflected in the external, and our commitment to tikkun nefesh, the healing of soul, must also be made manifest in our work toward tikkun olam, the healing of the broader world.
To this end and with that in mind, I do not know how to stand in front of a group of Jews on the Days of Awe, and talk of Isaac and Ishmael, without a prayer for peace in Israel in my heart and on my lips, and I believe that if we are ever to make that dream a reality, one of the most important keys will be our capacity to embrace ye’ush.
This past year that I had the pleasure of leading a nine-day Israel trip, sponsored through the incredible new Honeymoon Israel Project. About halfway through the trip, we took a morning to visit a Palestinian village, to spend time in a school and learn about the lives of its students and teachers. What began as an exercise in respectful dialogue, quickly fell apart as an old teacher stood up, took the microphone, and launched into a never-ending monologue chronicling every wrong that Israel’s leadership had committed against the Palestinians going back over decade after decade after decade. I felt a familiar weary sadness creeping into my bones, the same sense I must confess I get when I hear Jews recount every crime and failure of the Palestinian leadership, going back over decade after decade after decade. What good comes from endless recounting and the reliving of the horrors of history, the school yard competition for who has been the more aggrieved, to what end and for whose sake?
Please do not mistake me, ye’ush is neither about forgiving or forgetting, but it is about acknowledging that the past is unchangeable and our commitment must be toward our children and their children’s future. Our histories— the personal and the political— inform us, it guide us, root us— but they must not be allowed to enslave us. I recalled, sitting in that school, the words of my friend, the poet Andrew Lustig, who wrote in the midst of last Summer’s war in Gaza:
One day I will shake the hand of the man whose father tried to kill mine. And my father his. And we will not embrace. We will want to hit each other. But out of respect for our children, who have found a ball and have made up a new game where they throw the ball to each other and try to catch it, we will grit our teeth and pinch our lips and grip as tightly as we can and nod.
I do not imagine that Isaac nor Ishmael ever forgot the wrongs done to him, nor do I think they ever came to a place where they saw it all for the best. But, they were able to join together to enact the reality that what is done is done and from here something new can grow. That is where hope begins and peace becomes a possibility.
A final story: Our Tradition tells of a king who possessed a perfect diamond, that he loved with all of his heart and treasured above all of his possessions. One day, while holding it to the light and admiring its shine, he dropped it, dropped it on the cool hard stone of his castle floor. When he picked it up, he was devastated to see a long, spindly crack running through its heart. He consulted jeweler after jeweler, but each pronounced it unfixable, and the king sank into a deep depression.
Then, at long last, he found an old jeweler willing to give it a try. He took the diamond away to his shop and kept it there for many long weeks. Finally, he returned to the king and presented it. The king seized his precious gem and held it up to the light, and immediately he could see that the crack remained. Furious, he accused the jeweler of cheating him and summoned his guards to seize the old man. But then he looked closer. On one of the faces of the diamond, just where the crack met the edge of the stone, the jeweler had carved a perfect, crystalline rose. As the king continued to examine it, he realized that by the jeweler’s skill, the crack had become the roses’s long stem, embedded forever inside. The diamond, which once had been perfect, but also ordinary, was now imperfect, but quite extraordinary. And the king prized his diamond with a rose in it, above all his other treasures and jewels.
Ye’ush means acknowledging that there is no way to undo the past, to eliminate completely the ways that our histories break our individual and collective hearts. The jeweler could no more remove the crack from the diamond, then we could erase our past. And yet, we find wisdom in the words of that craggy voiced poet, Leonard Cohen, who reminds us that it is precisely the cracks that have the possibility to let the light in. The challenge is to turn our struggles and our heartbreaks and our scars into something that is uniquely, radiantly ours. To acknowledge that what is, is, to recognize that we are so much more powerfully shaped by where we are going than by where we have come from, and, in that spirit, to rededicate ourselves to a new, and potentially even more beautiful future.
At the start of this new year, I invite us all to the courage of Isaac and Ishmael, who believed that it was possible to lay the past to rest, to do the awesomely difficult work of letting go, and to walk into a new world whose course we set for ourselves.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald