Harvesting the Story

Parashat Vayera, 5775

Haven't we talked about this story enough? About Abraham and Isaac and the mountain and the knife and the stories before and after? We rehearse it year after year. It's a scarring story, situated amidst a series of scarring stories.

But the reason we talk about it every year is because this is the harvest. Every year we harvest the same crops in the same order, arranged according to the seasons. As the days get short and a whiff of winter night penetrates the longing-filled warm days, we go out into the fields of our stories and we harvest Vayera. We pluck Abraham at his tent, welcoming visiting angels, right off the vine. We harvest a bargain with God. Fire, brimstone and a pillar of salt. The miraculous birth of a child named for laughter is now perfectly ripe for us. The exile of a handmaiden and her son to near-certain doom, and their surprise salvation. On the ground, heavy, unwieldy and tangled as a pumpkin is a test of the obedient Abraham proctored by a trickster God; a test with no clear rules and no clear winner, bringing in its wake the death of a mother, the lifelong guilt of a father, and the shattered innocence of a child.

Every year, under this harvest moon, we haul in the same crop. And every year we try to figure out what to do with our mixed bounty. Do we boil till soft or stew till chewy? Do we carve it like a jack-o-lantern, yanking out its innards and leaving just a hollow smile? Do we simmer it on the stove with many, many cups of sugar until it gels? Or this time do we let it sit and rot, thinking to be done with it already, only to see that it nonetheless becomes food for something or other and, tended or not, in-tended or not, its seeds live on to sprout again for the next cycle around.

This year I honored the harvest by making my first marmalade ever. While America imagines its autumn as epitomized by squash and acorns and other earth-tone yield, in my garden the Meyer lemons are bursting into their third or fourth ripeness of the year, the color of a canary and bearing a scent sweet as springtime. I skinned and boiled 10 of them, alongside our synagogue's etrog, to see what it would be like to have jam made of four ingredients: fruit, water, sugar and symbolism. This particular wizened etrog is a tough messenger, a shaliach, from Israel, arriving at our doorstep like the emissary of a false Messiah, announcing to the remnant of Israel the dawn of a new age. It is a symbol of hope, of the longing of our hearts, and it also has an edge of bitterness, like all who dare to experience hope at some point in their lives. It is a bitterness that is the price of the very practice of hope, but not an argument against it. Because maybe even if today's redemptive idea fails, tomorrow's might prevail.

So I took spring and fall, hope and bitterness, sweetness and causticity, and let them bubble together in the pot, browning and caramelizing and softening till I had a candied symphony of flavors and intentions. Our world's complexity, spread on toast. Vayera is also a harvest with some toughness and bitterness. There is some sweetness, but also a taste of sulfur and salt in the middle. This portion is in some ways an anti-acquired taste. Stories we swallowed whole as children become increasingly unpalatable as we get older. The exile of Hagar, the destruction of Sodom, the binding of Isaac. Our forebears and our God don't come off well. Even the seemingly empowering moments - Abraham getting the better of God in a bargain over the lives of Sodom: if there are but ten righteous people the city will be saved - urns to a feeling of cheat when we realize that God the omniscient certainly knows that ten just people cannot be found.

Still, every year we haul in this crop and we peel and slice and chop and stew and stir. Sometimes we look for ways to make it okay. But drawing meaning is not the same as making something "okay." Our texts are challenging and we can be grateful to the rabbis of antiquity and to our long and uncompromising oral history that these texts were not cleaned up, but instead arrived in our scroll with all their beauty and ugliness. They challenge us; they might embarrass us; they could trigger us - and it is hard for a story of a father with a knife not to be triggering. They might resonate with our personal or familial traumas or our political struggles. But we can be grateful these are not the feel-good stories of Disney. And while we can turn to midrash - or create our own - to make the moments of violence or unfairness in the stories seem somehow fairer, maybe that is not always our job. Maybe our task is not to sweeten but to integrate these stories, just like we are required by this life to integrate all of the bad and the beautiful things that happens to us and around us in this world, and to use those experiences as the soil from which the next thing can grow.

Maybe this year the key is not what we collect in our baskets but who we collect them with! After all, you can make marmalade alone, but you can't do the whole harvest by yourself. You need bodies. People walking side by side through the rows, each person carrying and sharing their own experience and their own stories. Maybe this year we want to be listening to each other's stories. After all, I hear the Abraham story every year. But have I heard your story?

What if we were to hold Vayera in our consciousness while discussing each other's experiences of violence or of trial? If we were to think of Abraham while hearing each other's stories of being tested? If we were to feel Hagar in our bones while hearing each other's stories of exile and estrangement? If we were to hold Sarah in our hearts while we talk about trying to parent in a world that is unlike the world we grew up in, not knowing when to create a safe space by being soft and when to clear it by being savage? If we were to imagine the destruction of Sodom while learning about people's desperate and creative work to avert environmental disaster? If were to hold Isaac before our eyes while we listen to people's stories of personal survival. If we were to do these things, if we were to hear each other's Torah this year, how might the Torah we've received on parchment come alive in a different way and spur us on to new connections and insights and energy?

We don't hear enough of each other's stories. We are used to hearing "stories" that are obviously rhetorical devices, told by every politician running for office. We are used to seeing "stories" on TV or film that are inventions, that make the challenges ahead of us seem more benign, more amusing or more hopeless than they need to be. Visionary activist Caroline Casey would call these toxic mimics of story.

But real stories. Stories told by people who are not like you. When was the last time you heard those? Stories that are hard to hear? Stories that feel shameful to tell? How might we grow beyond our expectations if our roots can reach out that far?

So this year, how about we harvest each other's stories as well. And let's cook 'em all up together: the bitter and the salty and the sweet too, and let's see if they can sustain us. Let's see if they can fuel us to a better future than the one we're careening toward right now, than the one we're experiencing now.

It seems we are not just heading toward disaster; we are in active disaster - for our species, for the rest of the species on earth, for the earth that birthed us. But as Caroline Casey reminds us, "some seeds only sprout after cataclysm, flood, fire, ordeal." Just because there is hard stuff ahead doesn't mean there isn't something better coming.

I'm tired of feeling frightened of the future. I'm tired of hopelessness. The game isn't over yet.  There's a new generation already arriving, ready to get down to work. So let's start talking.

And who knows? Next year's harvest might be different for us all. And it might be delicious.

Shabbat shalom.


I am grateful to Michael Lerner, Oren Slozberg and the gorgeously dedicated and creative people at the Commonweal Fall Gathering for trying to make me think bigger this week. It's a start.