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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 5774 (2013)

 

ME:

          So nu - why the big party, Abraham?  And why now?  And by the way, who ever heard of a whole ritual around a child's weaning?   Where else is in the entire Tanach is there ever again mentioned a party to celebrate a child's weaning!?  Nowhere!  In fact, the whole subject of weaning is barely mentioned in the Tanach!?  Besides this story, and the story in our haftarah, it almost never appears.

          I'm just asking because it doesn't seem like that weaning celebration was a great idea, in retrospect.  Yeah, I know hindsight is 20-20, but could you really have been surprised that Sarah would lose her cool over a weaning feast? Basically, Abraham, you were celebrating the separation of mother and child.  And not just any mother and child, but a mother's only child, the child she had waited forever to bear, the child she had long ago given up hope for, the child she had at her breast for just a year or two, before you just snatched it away, and tried to hold a big party to cover up the hurt.  You thought you'd make Isaac a big boy - you thought you knew the best time for that, never mind the mother's feelings, never mind the child's feelings.

          And I haven't even mentioned Ishmael's feelings.  Did Ishmael have a big party celebrating his weaning.   Noooo!  Your extravagant celebration for Isaac must surely have made Ishmael, who was by then a teenager, feel like a second-class son.  Which makes me wonder just how nicely Ishmael was playing with little Isaac at the party. I'm guessing Ishmael got a little rough with his pampered little half-brother.  Abraham, how could you be surprised then, when Sarah saw her toddler playing with the big boys, and Sarah noticed the roughness, that she lost it, and forced the big brother and his mother out into the wilderness, into exile.

          By the way, Abraham - why didn't you notice that brotherly interaction?  Why didn't you put a stop to the roughhousing?  Why didn't you protect Isaac as he found his sea legs among the other boys in the encampment?  It would have just taken a few moments of your time to investigate what was going on, to make it clear to the older boys that you had your eye on them, and that you were Isaac's protector.  That would have been enough - all the boys in the camp were afraid of you and they would have stopped bullying him then and there.  That would have been the end of it.  But you couldn't be bothered, because you had guests to entertain.  It was a big party - you were distracted.

          I know, Rashi says that the Hebrew here, mishteh gadol, doesn't mean that it was a huge party, rather that it was a party for a few important people - a few g'dolim. Big-shots like Avimelech, the chieftain you had a run in with just a few years before. And Hebrew grammar lets you get away with that kind of interpretation.  Gadol can be an adjective, or gadol can be a noun.  So Rashi thinks the word gadol isn't describing the party, it's describing the people who came to the party.  It's a very fanciful interpretation.  The plain meaning is clear: it was a big party with lots of people - what could be more simple Hebrew than mishteh gadol??

          But we know why Rashi felt the need to mess with this simple phrase, don't we Abraham.  He was trying to protect you.  Because we both know there is only one other mishteh gadol in the entire Tanach, and that was really not a nice party.  That was King Ahashuerosh's little shindig - the party that lasted 180 days, the half-year long pub crawl at the beginning of the book of Esther that nearly destroyed his kingdom, not to mention the Jewish people.  Rashi is trying to deflect our attention - oh no, this party of Abraham was not like Ahashverosh's mishteh gadol - Abraham's wasn't a huge party at all.  In fact it just had a few guests.  Important guests, yes, but just a few.

          Whatever.  We all know what a mishteh really is.  It comes from the Hebrew root shatah, meaning "to drink".  Abraham, Achashverosh - you are both the same - you're both old time geezers, a little past your prime, trying to impress as many people as you can with an unlimited supply of top-shelf liquor.  And in the process, you, Abraham, ignored your family, the very people God charged you to protect. 

          But you were never one to protect Isaac - oh no...

 

ABRAHAM:

          Rabbi Seidel, how dare you?  You think you know enough about my life and my world to criticize me?  And to criticize me so uncharitably.       You should know, during the Torah reading, I was glancing at one of those articles in your packet.  Did you actually read those articles, or were they provided to you sight unseen from some Rabbinic service?  I'm thinking of the one from The New Yorker, about The National Geographic, and those who criticize The National Geographic for its depiction of other cultures.  As I recall, the main thrust of that article was a warning not to be so condescending to those who came before you.  Not to be so smugly judgmental towards other cultures of whom you are entirely ignorant. Maybe that's a lesson you could apply to your own self-aggrandizing dramatic Midrash.

          But to get to the particulars.  I think maybe you are just a little rusty on your Book of Esther.  It wasn't that initial party that Achashuerosh threw that was called a mishteh gadol.  Yes, that initial party was a shanda, and it did almost wreck his kingdom.  But interestingly, that party was never called a mishteh gadol.  No, in fact it was a later party, in chapter 2, the party King Achashuerosh threw for Esther, when she was picked as queen - that's the party that is called mishteh gadol.  And it is precisely that party, celebrating Esther's queenship, that mishteh gadol, which helps save the Jews.  With that huge party the King is telling the world - this is my new queen - give her the proper respect.  And it is precisely that power given to Esther, by the King, in front of as many people as possible - it is precisely the mishteh gadol - that is in fact what saves the Jews by the end of the book.

          Which is precisely what I was trying to do for my little Isaac. I was an old man.  I worried that I wouldn't live as long into Isaac's life as I needed to protect him from the vultures who lived in Canaan.  A little party for close friends wasn't going to project the image of power that Isaac was going to need, later on in his life.  It had to be a mishteh gadol, or it wouldn't be making the necessary statement.  The whole fate of our people depended on the impressiveness of my party, just as in King Ahashuerosh's time, Esther needed her King to pull out all the stops for her.

 

ME:

          Fine, fine - you are right about which of the parties in the book of Esther was the "big party".  So I got a little carried away with my drash there - it's a bad habit.  But my basic point remains.  There was something about your party that drove Sarah around the bend.  That big party was clearly not a good idea.

          But I grant you that I was wrong about the Esther story - it was the party for Esther that is called mishteh gadol.  And I get that it was necessary for Esther to have enough power later in the story.  But the big difference between those two stories is that King Ahashuerosh didn't even know that Esther was Jewish.  Mordechai had told her to keep it all quiet.  The King wasn't worried about the fate of the Jews - he threw a big party to install his queen properly - that's it.

          Whereas you, my friend, knew exactly what was at stake.  And you thought a big party was the ticket.  But it backfired, and let me tell you why.  You stopped paying attention to your child.  He was getting pushed around right under your very nose.  You thought you could guarantee his future by pulling a few strings, slapping a few backs, networking with the people whose children Isaac would someday have to deal with. But that's not what your kid needed.  He needed some attention.  He needed to feel that he wasn't some tool of the Jewish people, some mere genetic repository that would guarantee "Jewish continuity".

          And did that party work out for you as a show of power?  I don't think so.  Isaac was to be bedeviled with fights with his neighbors about who owned which well, just as you were bedeviled with fights with your neighbors about who owned which well.  It turns out, all that networking didn't help a whit.  What Isaac needed was you - your attention.  Your influence in the broader geo-political stage, not so much.

 

ABRAHAM:

          Ok, ok, I admit it - maybe I shouldn't have held that celebration.  I have actually thought of this myself.  Things did seem to fall apart right after the party...

          I've even given some thought as to why I held that party.  It does seem, in hindsight,  like an odd thing for me to have done.   I've come to wonder if I was somehow replaying my own childhood.  You may not realize this fact, because the Torah only gives the barest hint about it, but my own father, Terach, was absolutely useless.  In fact, I left him behind in Haran, when I came to Cana'an.  So I grew up fast; I had to.  I wonder if, given my own childhood, I worried too much about Isaac being such a Mama's boy.  He was almost three, and still nursing.  Frankly, I had had enough of it.  The Mishnah already rules (Gittin ch. 7) that the standard length of time to nurse is 2 years.  And Isaac was almost 3.  Somehow, it felt to me like this was a disaster in the making.  So I just out and said to the both of them - "No more!  It's time for Isaac to be a man."

          Well ... you should have heard the wailing -Isaac's wailing and Sarah's wailing.  As God lives, you'd think I had threatened to kill the boy!?  OK, it wasn't my finest moment.  But I ... I... I couldn't budge from my position.

          I was fixated on my own childhood, how I'd had to be a man at an early age. I was determined to make Isaac the same kind of public figure I had become.  But there he was, still at his mother's breast.  I guess I thought being a man was all about toughing it out, just as I did it.  I couldn't let Isaac be his own kind of man.  Though I didn't realize all that until many years later.

          So anyway, everyone was mad at me, and even at the time, I did feel bad I'd caused so much grief.  I loved Sarah, I felt bad for all the travel and the danger I'd put her through in our lives together.  And I was trying to love the boy - it would take a heart of stone not to feel for the kid.  So I tried to make it up to them; I thought maybe a big feast would paper over the hurt, I'd invite everyone for miles.  And of course I had the other agenda as well, just as with old King Ahashuerosh, to show some strength, to solidify Isaac's power in the future.

          Yes, you're right, it didn't work out.  Isaac may not have been suckling at his mother's breast - that I put a stop to - but in another way, he wasn't really weaned at all; he just wasn't an independent kid.  He tried to play with the bigger boys at the party, but he got roughed up - I don't think he ever understood how big boys play - he was taken advantage of his entire life.  By me, as much as anyone.

          And do you think Sarah was happy at the feast?  Oh no, she was furious.  She was so sure that everyone would laugh at her, having a child in her old age.  She was sure that people would snigger behind her back that it couldn't have been her child at all, that it must be some foundling we'd brought in, and adopted, pretending it was our own.   Which in fact was what people thought, but that's another story.  It's funny - both Sarah and I, so damned worried about what others would think, we couldn't really pay attention to Isaac and what he needed from us.

          You know, Rabbi, they do it right in the Haftarah.  Elkanah gives his wife as much time as she needs before the child is weaned - it even says it explicitly in the haftarah: "'asi hatov b'einayich - sh'vi ad gomleich oto" - take as much time as you need to wean the child!

 

ME:

          Hey, Abraham, don't be too hard on yourself.  Sure, Elkanah gives Hannah as much time as she needs to wean their child, but then they give the child away forever to be a priest.  So that's not exactly being attentive to a child's needs either.  I mean, a parent has to be able to let go, but that was a little extreme - giving a child up to be raised as a priest from the time he was a toddler?!  Compared to them, I don't think you were such a bad parent.

 

Abraham:

          Now that's a more charitable way to look at it.  Thank you, Rabbi.

          And you know, the party wasn't a complete failure.  I reconnected with some old friends I hadn't seen in years.  Malkitzedek was there, as inscrutable as ever.  He did his whole shtick again about how he was a priest of El Elyon, and how we should be giving him a tithe - just exactly as I remembered it all those years ago, when he came to me after the battle to rescue Lot.  You know, I hadn't seen him since I rescued Lot all those years before.  And as a matter of fact, after the party I never saw him again before I died. What a character - there were some who came to the party who thought that I had hired Malkitzedek as entertainment for the celebration.

          And Lot showed up, nebech.  What a mess he was.  I had heard of course about what had happened to Sodom, and that he was homeless.  But apparently there was something else bad that happened to him - something about his daughters - he was positively raving like a lunatic - I was so busy with the g'dolim I'd invited, that I didn't really get to talk to him - which was too bad.  But I had more important folks to talk to.  I heard that Lot died shortly afterwards; it was too bad that I didn't get a real chance to talk to him.

          Avimelech was there, of course, but, come to think of it, I didn't really get to talk to him at all either.  He looked angry - I think he may even have been avoiding me, which wasn't hard, given how big a party it was. Maybe he was still sore about the whole dust-up we had a few years before.  After he took Sarah from me for his harem, and then God appeared to him in a dream and gave him a real dressing down, and he had to return Sarah.  That whole incident sure made him look impotent.

          It was really too bad we didn't connect, Avimelech and me. We had some important treaty business to talk about.  I had heard from my men that some of his men had laid claim to a well - a well that my men had dug.  I knew it was not going to be easy to fix that dispute - how do you prove who dug a well?  And if he was still sore about the other thing, and given that he had a lot more men in his camp than I had in my camp... Well, I couldn't see how that conversation was going to end well for me.  I knew that we had to have the conversation eventually, and I knew that the longer we waited to talk, the more difficult that conversation was going to be. You know, I may have been avoiding him as much as he was avoiding me.

          Which was stupid of me, because when he made the first move some years later, when out of the blue he came to visit me, he had the upper hand.  I did bring up the issue of his men stealing our well, but then he said, rightly, that I had never complained to him before about the well.  And so by waiting all that time, I lost that well, and all I could get out of that whole situation was a promise from him that he would deal honestly with me in the future.  Whatever that was worth.  Yeah, it's too bad we didn't connect at the warning party.

          It was such a big event, I didn't really have time to talk to anyone in depth.  No - check that - there was one person I did have a great conversation with - would you believe it - Pharaoh sent a representative!  To my party!!  That sure made me look like an important player in the Middle East.  I don't even know how he found out about the party.  Well, I guess I did advertise the party pretty widely so everyone who was anyone knew about it.  Anyway, Pharaoh's rep was a rock star - one of Pharaoh's top State department PR guys.  It was so gratifying to be in the presence of a bold-face name like that I spent half the party talking to him.  I got the latest on all the gossip in Pharaoh's court: who was in line for the throne, who was sleeping with whom, who had gotten so fat that he had to have a new sarcophagus made for himself...  That guy was a riot ... it's too bad I can't remember his name anymore.

          I knew his name then, though, and you know, I think the guy eventually became Pharaoh himself sometime later, but I'm not sure of that because those Pharaohs all change their names - like the Popes - when they take office, so who can tell who he was before  - it's not like we had Facebook back then and I could have friended him and seen his picture. 

          Oh, and I did get to meet some satrap from Assyria, and another one from my home town Ur - it was like everyone sent a representative.  I couldn't tell you any of their names, but it was flattering, all the people who took the trouble to come.  Of course it could have just been that they heard I was going to serve alcohol - that always attracts a lot of people.  Whatever, it was a successful party in some ways.

 

ME (interrupting):

          Wait wait wait wait.  Abraham!  The way it sounds to me, your party was an even worse failure than I had thought - none of the people you really needed to talk to - Avimelech, Isaac, Lot - none did you get to speak to at any length.  And you spent all your time talking to people you can't even remember anymore, celebrities whom you never saw again, and who ultimately didn't really matter at all to your life or to Isaac's life!?

 

ABRAHAM:

          I take your point, Rabbi.  But it doesn't seem so different than what I hear about life in your time.  Rabbi, don't pretend that your children have never suffered because of your work.  Of course it's not just you.  Your whole culture now is about people wasting time keeping in contact with old high school friends they really don't care about.  People reading the gossip and so knowing more about famous people than they know about their closest relatives.  People feeling too busy with all their social obligations to spend the time with their kids that those kids need.  People avoiding the difficult issues of their lives, avoiding all types of conflict by focusing on distractions.  And it sounds like you have even more distractions than we did.

 

ME:   Maybe you're right.  Maybe it's never been easy, dealing with the difficult stuff, having the difficult conversations that only get more difficult when you put them off.  Maybe each generation has its own distractions, its own way of avoiding the important problems of life.

          You know, Abraham, all this reminds me a little of the whole Jason Marquis story.

 

ABRAHAM:  Jason Marquis?  Jason Marquis??  He doesn't appear anywhere in Tanach, I don't believe.  Is he in the Talmud - gemara I don't know so well ... Oh, you mean Jason Marquis the Major Leaguer - isn't he pitching for the Padres now?  I heard he's having a great year!  And didn't he pitch for the Nationals for awhile?

 

ME:  Hey, you're sure up on your baseball, Abraham.

 

ABRAHAM:  Well, as father of our nation, I feel obligated to keep abreast of the Jewish players.  Sarah won't do it - she doesn't follow sports at all.  If memory serves, didn't this fellow pitch on Yom Kippur when he was playing for the Nats a few years ago?

 

ME:  Oh Yeah.  That was back in 2010.  And he did not pitch well on that day - just lasted 1/3 of an inning.  But that's beside the point.  It's his business whether he pitches on Yom Kippur or not.  As a pulpit Rabbi, I'm hardly one to complain about people working on Yom Kippur.

          My concern is what he said to the press about it all. Despite the Jewish baseball greats who avoided playing on Yom Kippur, here's what Marquis said: "Your team expects you to do your job and not let your teammates down, and that's the approach I take".  Well maybe, but I wonder if he just avoided having the difficult conversation with his teammates.  He avoided the conflict, like we all tend to do.  Took the easy way out.

 

Abraham:

          Don't be too hard on him, Rabbi - you don't know what he was thinking.  Making midrash on biblical characters is one thing - a good thing, actually - it's what we Biblical characters were created for.  But making midrash on living people - well isn't that just l'shon harah?   Dare I say it, you seem to have fallen into the very trap about which you have berating me - concerning yourself with the famous people, with people you know about only second hand, instead of worrying about your own flock.  I say, why not wish them a l'shanah tovah, and call it a drash.

 

ME: Good point.   L'SHANA TOVA!