Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Embracing Anger

We arose early in the morning.  My father in front riding his donkey and I was right behind him, next to the servants who were carrying the wood for the offering. We hadn’t made it even a few hours when my father instructed us to stop.  From here, the servants would stay back with the donkey, my father carrying the knife, and me, carrying the wood and stonefire, and the two of us ascended together.   It was heavy and it was hot outside.  I don’t usually carry the wood.  I was tired, confused, concerned.  We didn’t even tell mother we were leaving.  Something was not right.  I turned to my father, saying, “father, here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”  “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.”  God will see to the offering??  My son?  What is going on here…. Is it me?  Panic set in.  I froze… unable to think or speak… I have no memory of what happened next… did we continue to talk, or did we proceed in silence?  Did he force me to lie down on the altar, tying me down… or did I willingly comply?  I’ll never know.  The next memory I have is of my father standing above me, his knife above my face, but his gaze off to the side.  God provided for the sacrifice and it was not me.  And now, all these years later, I still wake up every night in a sweaty panic… with the image of my father and his knife hovering above me… we haven’t spoken since it happened.  How could we.  He may have proven his loyalty to God but he did so at the cost of his relationship with me, his son, his favorite son, the son he loved. Every time I think about him my blood boils over in anger.  How could he do this to me!  And how could he do this to my mother! oh, mother…. I’ll never forgive him.

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I awoke in a haste… everything was off, it was too bright, the walls around me were spinning… and all the sudden, out of nowhere, someone, something, appeared… was I having a vision… or a dream, more like a nightmare..  “Did you hear what happened in the world, Sarah? Abraham took Isaac, his son, and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.”  (shofar sounds) He what? Did I hear that right?  I’m shaking. This can’t be real.  My son, our son… the son we waited for, prayed for, my son, my only son, the son I loved. (shofar sounds again)  What was he thinking – did you put him up to this?  Playing games with my husband in your wars with our God.  Leave us alone!  You know he’ll do anything God says.  He probably didn’t even hesitate… eager to show his devotion.  How could you do this, how could God allow it…  and don’t give me that grin – yes, I’m mad, I’m more than mad, I’m furious.  I’ll never forgive him until the day I…  (shofar sounds) 

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This story, the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, is the story our rabbis have chosen as our Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading for tomorrow morning..  On this birthday of the world, this celebration of creation, we will read one of the most shocking, horrifying, and infuriating stories in the entire Torah.  Though often presented as a story of unwavering faith, it is in fact a story of intimidation and abuse at best, attempted child murder at worst.  A story that lauds the abuser, and silences the victims.

Abraham and Isaac never speak again after this incident. And we learn that Sarah, who is not even referenced in the story,  dies in the very next Torah portion without ever hearing her voice.   And though numerous commentators address the impact the story might have had on Isaac and Sarah, they focus primarily on fear, pain, and loss.  This story, a story that by all rational accounts, should have elicited the emotion of rage in those who were the victims of  Abraham’s actions, only shares their silence, fear, submission, and death.

So why do we read this story on Rosh Hashanah?  Some say that we read it to consider the ways in which God tests our own faith today, and how we might, in our own way, emulate the faith that Abraham exhibited.

I couldn’t disagree more and still, I wouldn’t trade this reading for any other.   And the reason is because on this most sacred day, when we are turning inward and considering our place in the world… it is on this day that we are encouraged to take stock… to consider what is going well, what is not, and what could be different. In order to do this we must allow ourselves to feel anger, and not only feel it, but lean into it in order to reimagine a different reality..  And there is perhaps no better story to elicit the emotion of anger than the story of the binding of Isaac.

In her book, Good and Mad, Rebecca Traister explores the fact that over and again, we find ourselves in situations where the most appropriate response to what is happening around us is anger, and yet, no anger is visibly expressed. Since the time of the biblical period, we have been taught to have a pleasant countenance, to withhold, suppress, or repurpose our anger. We quickly learn that acting or appearing angry can be detrimental toward the way others see and accept us. It can cost us promotions, set us as outcasts in social circles, and strain our family relationships.  This is particularly true for girls and women who are socialized from an early age to smile and laugh when someone says or does something sexist.  We are socialized to be subservient to boys and men, to be peacekeepers, and caregivers. These techniques are often employed to protect ourselves from the very real threat of harm and retaliation. 

As Soraya Chemaly explains in her book Rage Becomes Her, research shows that when women express anger, men are most likely to respond with even greater anger but when men express anger, women are most likely to respond with fear.   Fear of being ridiculed, fired, or outcast… but also the fear of being physically attacked, sexually assaulted, raped, or murdered.

Men, and more specifically white men, are regularly celebrated and rewarded for expressions of righteous anger in the face of injustice, while women, and especially women of color, are demonized and dismissed as shrill, crazy, or hysterical for an even slight change in tone or expression. This truth plays out every day in the classroom, the workplace, and the political stage.  I am acutely aware that my ability to even name this injustice without fear of being dismissed as hysterical myself  is itself a product of the privilege I hold as a white woman in a position of power.  And it is in part the knowledge of this privilege that inspires me to speak out with, and step aside for, those who are in more vulnerable positions than I am, and who have a lot more to be personally angry about than I do.

Anger, on its own, is not an unhealthy emotion that needs to be suppressed.  It is quite the opposite. As both Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly explain, anger is a forward looking and optimistic emotion.

It is a feeling we have when we know something we are experiencing should and can be different.  Anger, when understood and expressed effectively, leads toward positive change…  it is the impetitus that encourages us to speak out and act in the face of injustice. 

Conversely, for both men and women, the suppression of anger can be personally harmful to our emotional and physical state.  It can also be harmful to our society and our world as the suppression of anger means that we are accepting defeat, admitting that nothing can be done to make things better for us, our neighbors, and our earth.  Soraya Chemaly notes that the inability to articulate anger is recognized as a significant component of anxiety and depression. She says that while “obviously anger will not eliminate pain, illness, discrimination, or death, research has shown that people who articulate their emotions and in a way that makes meaning out of strong negative feelings of anger and resentment are better able to adjust to pain.”

This does not mean that we should lash out in physical and verbal attacks… for those expressions often create even more harm and destruction. Instead of lashing out, what we can do, is explore what a healthy expression of anger might look like.

To notice and accept the emotions we are feeling, consider how things might be different, and then use that burning fire inside us to work toward creating the change we want to see in the world.

This past year of 5779 has been one of deep pain, carelessness, neglect, targeted harassment, and acts of hatred.  It has been a year where I have regularly woken up feeling very angry about something going on in the world.  The list of egregious and painful acts occurring all around us, against us, against our loved ones, and strangers in our midst, is too long to recount. And just because we have been here before, just because history has certainly seen worse, is not an excuse for ignoring inappropriate behavior. Instead, the gross volume of injustice in the world can serve as a wake up call… a paralyzing blast of the shofar to shake us out of complacency and fear and toward restoration and transformative action.

We have so many choices for how to respond to the anger we feel inside. In Torah, we learn that when God felt angry, God’s nostrils flared.  Today, we sometimes do the same.  We certainly experience anger physically, whether it be with flared nostrils, a flaming red face, racing heart, tense muscles, or pit in our stomach.  We also respond to anger through suppression, we lash out, we laugh it off, we pretend we didn’t hear or didn’t see, we get sad and scared, we cry, and sometimes we even die. But there are also other things we can do. We can talk about our anger, we can write, sing, hug, exercise, help others, dream, and create.  Embracing anger doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, experience joy, and find inner peace.  It means we want to have more of those things for ourselves and for others and we will work to overcome stumbling blocks that stand in our way.

So as we prepare ourselves to read one of the most infuriating stories in our Torah tomorrow morning, we must consider what we will do with that anger.  In the case of our Torah reading, I hope we will allow ourselves to be angry at Abraham or God.  We must continue to add our voices as the next link in a sacred chain of tradition that dates all the way back to our biblical ancestors. To reclaim the stories of those who have been silenced and to retell their stories, in all their pain and all their beauty.  And as we do so, I hope we will also open ourselves up to that which makes us angry in our own lives, and in the world around us, and commit to noticing and expressing that anger in a way that makes the world a better place.….  Y’hiyu l’ratzon…  May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be acceptable to you, oh God and may we all, one day, be inspired to achieve that which we know can be different in order in order to join together with You in the pursuit of peace, for us, for all Israel, and all humanity.  Amen.