*Fair warning: this may be delivered as the d’var torah tomorrow (11/26/2022) at Temple Israel Center.
The piece on the wall was a simple laundry peg and next to it was the following poem titled “LINK”
I secure the billowing clothes to the line pegs between my lips.
Through the window I watched you expertly filling a line, shuffling, and pulling against you pegs clamped in your mouth.
It was a habit I thought, old fashioned, unnecessary, a housekeeper’s way. Now those whitened worn pegs are as precious as a touch of your fingertips.
My lips impress upon those anchoring hinges that knew your lips too.
Link to our last kiss, when, in my house, I helplessly gave you mouth to mouth, frantic lips on still ones.
This poem was written by an Irish Woman who lost her mother to a sudden heart attack. Amidst the peg exhibit, there were dolls, blankets, and even a box of rice pilaf all marking the ending of various relationships.
A few summers back I had the privilege of traveling to Croatia. There is much about that country that makes me want to go back: the food was extraordinary, the historical sites and the beaches were so enjoyable, and the people were quite lovely to boot. But nothing was quite as fascinating and eye opening as the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.
In the words of the museum, it grew from a traveling exhibition revolving around failed relationships and their ruins. Unlike destructive self-help instructions for recovery from grief and loss, the museum offers the chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation. There were a myriad of different offerings given by people: some therapeutic, some exhibitionist, or just some out of simple curiosity.
People embraced the idea of exhibiting their emotional legacy as a sort of ritual. Our societies acknowledge marriages, funerals, and even graduations, but we don’t have much of a formal space to recognize the demise of a relationship despite its powerful toll.
Unlike any other museum that I have been too, there was a palpable emotion in there that changed with each exhibit. Sometimes you could feel the love, other times the seething anger. Then it would shift rapidly from the disappointment of a jilted lover to the mournfulness of a severed parent-child relationship. Each room was its own tapestry of human emotion.
The museum was intended that way. We, as human beings, don’t do a great job of processing our lost relationships, be there amorous, platonic, or familial. Part of it I think is natural. The pain of a lost love is much easier to bury than confront.
But we also explicitly do this. We shove the box of old love letters in a closet. We hide the pictures of the sibling from whom you are estranged. We undertake all sorts of symbolic acts that mark an intentional, emotional obfuscation.
The beauty of this museum is that it allows people a safe space to air out some of those wounds. In a similar way, this week’s Torah portion shows us the same thing, albeit through a character who doesn’t do a great job of processing a severed relationship.
In Toldot, many of us know in great detail the sordid tale of the beginnings of Jacob and Esav’s relationship. From utero, we are already told of their distinct personalities, encapsulated perfectly by the Midrash’s read that Jacob’s fetus would kick whenever Rebecca walked by a House of Study whereas Esav’s would clamor to get out when passing by a house of idol worship. Our tradition wants us to know that their relationship is almost doomed to fail from the get go.
And this idea, I believe, begs the question of why was Isaac so insistent on blessing Esav? If he was as bad as they come and this was apparent from his birth, what would drive Isaac to strongly believe in giving him a blessing? The answer, I think, requires us to go back a few chapters to an event that, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, broke Isaac.
If we remember the binding of Isaac from a few weeks ago, you will recognize that we don’t hear much from Isaac after his near death experience. He doesn’t reappear in the story until his encounter with his wife-to-be while he is out gallivanting in the fields. It seems fairly clear that Isaac doesn’t fully process what happened to him.
Now, one could respond by saying that it’s a bit anachronistic to have expected that. It’s kind of new-agey to think that the Torah would sit Isaac down in a therapy session for his father’s attempted sacrifice of him to God. However, in plenty of emotionally vulnerable situations, the Torah allows for certain characters to process through their emotions: think Joseph with his brothers at their reunion, remember Moses in his continual back and forths with God over his various missteps. In any event, Isaac doesn’t get any of it.
The Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah draws a direct link from this inability to see what’s really around him to the binding of Isaac. In commenting on the line of the portion that discusses Isaac’s eyes being dim from seeing it says
“from that experience”...For when Abraham sacrificed his son on the altar, the ministering angels wept and the tears dropped from their eyes into his eyes and were impressed into his eyes. As soon as he became old, his eyes therefore became dim.
The Midrash paints a vivid picture of the emotional background to the binding of Isaac. The angels, were watching from heaven and the difficulty of the moment was such that they began shedding tears that fell right into Isaac’s eyes. If the angels are having difficulty with this moment, one wonders how the heck must Isaac have been dealing with it.
Those tears become symbols for this Midrashic teaching. They were a sort of cover that Isaac had all his life. That trauma was never unpacked. It simply lived within him, searing those images into his brain...the sticks for kindling, his father’s crazed eyes, the knife soaring in an arc above his father’s head. Can you imagine if each time you closed your eyes and saw that, what it would do to you? What it would do to your family?
When Isaac realized what he did with Esav and Yaakov, we are told he was paralyzed with fear and trembling. What was it exactly that he saw? He saw Gehennom, Rashi tells us, the abode of the damned opened up before him. He knows what’s like when a parent harms a child. And now he’s realized, he’s had a similar effect.
It’s easier then to understand how Isaac didn’t recognize Esav for who he was and thought he could just operate as usual. As noted Biblical scholar, Dr. Aviva Zorenberg details:
The Akeidah leaves in him an after-image, a kind of inverted residue, which only in an old age assumes its original blinding quality.
What’s even more powerful about this trauma is that Isaac lived a very successful life. He becomes wealthy, is the only one of the patriarchs to be called great three times, is an object of jealousy of the Philistines, and reopens his father’s wells. But after a lifetime of achievement, the deep imprint of the Akedah spreads within and the whole world falls into darkness.
This feeling might be a new one to the Torah but it’s now one we’ve seen played out in history. After the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia, many women who made it to the United States began to complain of eyesight problems. No organic disorder was diagnosed, no PTSD or hysterical blindness. It was later found that what the women had seen years earlier had made it necessary to suppress vision.
This is an extreme example of what happened to Isaac. His every step comes in the footsteps of his broken relationship with his father, never having fully addressed it. A different Midrash in Tanchuma elucidates further.
“You find that one who is blinded is like the dead.”
It goes on to describe how God waits to associate with righteous people until they’re dead because God is worried about the evil impulse misleading them. At the end, the Midrash wonders how could this be as we know Isaac was righteous and we know God was with him?! One of the answers from Rabbi Berakhya is that
“since he was blinded, he was, as it were, dead because he was secluded in his house, and the evil impulse ceased troubling him.”
This Midrash teaches, as Zorenberg states, that to be alive in the world, interactive with others, with the full use of one’s senses is to be volatile, conflicted, and exposed to radical transformation. Isaac was living but not really alive it seems. His interactions were sparse, which dulled his senses.
Although the Torah’s narrative moves on with Jacob taking the mantle, I believe that we can understand this part of the story as a cautionary tale for what happens when human beings sever relationships without doing any processing and working at it.
In the latest research from Psychology on closure and breakups, they discuss how inherently, humans understand the world through stories: We create a past, present, and future, and navigate our world through this cognitive structuring. Most healthy intimate relationships generally have a good sense of where they've been, where they stand, and where they are heading.
Similarly, within the story structure, we have a good sense of who we are and how we feel within each part of the story, although this can change depending on our current mood when reflecting. When a one-sided break-up occurs, however, it traumatically interrupts the story for the person on the receiving end, particularly if the break-up was unexpected. The person being broken up with is thrust from being in safe psychological territory into an abyss, particularly if the relationship was seemingly safe, secure, and serious.
Framed here within a romantic relationship, the message I think applies to Isaac in the same way it applies to us in any relationship. Some of us might have literal closets full of stuff that tell the stories we are sometimes afraid to hear. I get it. I have e-mails from past relationships that I deliberately let my eyes gloss over when I am searching for the e-mail just below it.
However I think the power of the message of the Torah and the power of an idea like the Museum of Broken relationships tells us that we can only do that for so long. If we want to nurture and hold on to our current relationships, we have to do the dirty work of not “having our eyes dimmed” because of past traumas.
We may not have a museum to exhibit but we too can start to unearth our own laundry pegs, boxes of rice pilaf, or old letters that can help us uncover that trauma to move forward.
As the start to an actionable plan, I offer the following piece of advice that Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “In Blackwater Woods” that was featured at the end of the museum
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend