Monday, September 17, 2007

Grandpa, Sara and Hannah

Around Rosh Hashanah when I was twenty-nine, my grandfather passed away. Of my grandfather’s accomplishments and life experiences, his eight children were the most important of them all. In fathering them, he was most alive. Never was it more apparent than in those last weeks, because someone was with him every minute.

Since my grandfather’s death, each Rosh Hashanah and the lead-up to it, I’ve always felt such an intense longing for children. It starts with the Haftora Ki Seitzei, one of the haftorahs of consolation, from Isaiah: “Sing out, O barren one…” and ends with the story of Hannah, the woman who couldn't conceive, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

I used to feel such an ache in the place my daughter now occupies. You hear about ghost limbs that bother amputees--this was like a ghost ache for what hadn't yet come, but was missing anyway.

I used to focus on the part that implies the children were given to Sarah and Hannah as rewards for faith and chesed. But, now I understand that this was only the beginning of the story, not the end. Even more faith was required of them once the child was born.

This year during holiday services it hit me for the first time that each parsha calls for parents to be willing to surrender their children to G-d. And not metaphorically, either. When Hannah got Samson, she weaned him and gave him away to G-d’s service. She didn’t just teach him to be righteous; she potty trained him and gave him away. On loan to Hashem.

The comment I like best about the Binding of Isaac is that G-d was establishing the idea that Israel does not engage in human sacrifice, a common ritual in that time and place. By sparing Isaac, G-d was teaching us the sanctity of human life, and that life was sacred because it was dedicated to G-d. It’s of a piece with Parsha Nitzavim: we “choose life” by loving Hashem and observing the commandments.

But I shouldn’t let myself be drawn away from the pile of wood and the child tied down with a knife raised above his throat so quickly. There are lots of ways to “love Hashem.” Why this awful one? The only thing I can think of is that it is a reminder that I shouldn’t sacrifice the welfare of other children in enjoying my own.

I used to volunteer in an after school program in an area in which eleven-year-old public school children couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t read their mimeographed (remember those? hand cranked, purple ink? Well we’re talking mimeograph in the year 2000) sheets either. These capable, loving, good-humored kids didn’t have books or xerox machine; they didn’t even have chairs. Of course they couldn’t read.

My mother suggested that if each baby were placed in a pool at birth, and you were given one at random to raise, then you’d clean up inner city public schools in a heartbeat. You’d also work toward ending the practices of child labor and child soldiers, hunger, AIDS, and all the other threats to children. Because you wouldn’t know where your child was, and you’d want the world to be okay for all children.

All that is overwhelming. There’s a huge world and there’s only one me. But maybe I could act as if I had another child somewhere out there.

One of my talented and generous friends and her husband have a TERRIFIC micro-loan/educational initiative in Madagascar for the poorest of the poor, if anyone is interested in giving. 90% of every dollar goes directly to the people it aims to help Here's the link:

I like the idea of volunteering on an ongoing project, though it seems difficult with such a young child. I am especially interested in micro-loans like the one above, because I like the idea of empowering parents, who, after all, know their world and their talents far better than I. I also like the idea that self-sufficient parents are more likely to raise self-sufficient children.

1 comment:

Maya said...

Hey everyone, please check out this award-worthy initiative by a talented husband-wife team in Madagascar. It provices micro-loans, education, prison care, and much more. Plus 90 cents of each dollar goes directly to the recipeints (not to administration costs).