Teachings on Vulnerability

The following is a guest post from Miriam Stewart. These remarks were originally given on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, this past October 2016.

Shana Tova.

I am so honored to be speaking to you today on the theme of vulnerability.

This summer, my family went on our first real vacation in many years, the kind where you leave town and rent a house and spend long hours at the beach. My daughter Eliana had only been to the beach once before, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but she was in a state of ecstasy from the first moment her toes hit the sand. Every time the surf lapped up over her ankles, she shrieked with delight. At moments, the delight was so great that she seemed unable to contain it. At one point, she suddenly broke into a run along the edge of the shoreline out of the pure sensation of being alive, until she was so far from me that I had to call her back.

The waves on our first day at the beach were steep and hard and the undercurrent was strong enough to unfoot me several times. There was scarcely any territory on the shoreline where it was safe for a four-year-old to wade -- only a foot or two separated the edge of the surf from the violent crash of the waves. Eliana was like a sandpiper, running toward the receding surf and then scampering back up the beach as the next wave approached. And I was right there beside her, ready to hoist her up when a wave proved faster or taller than she anticipated. Each wave promised the sweet reward of her giggles and also the possibility of her being tumbled into the brine and carried away, a possibility which felt so close – too close – like a layer of weight added to each of my breaths. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, I kept thinking. The ultimate wave.

Do all parents feel this way? I wondered to myself. Is this normal? I surveyed the other families on the beach around me for signs that they too were greeting each incoming wave with a combined sense of delight and the understanding that life is incredibly fragile. But these are not things you can know from looking at a person.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a pediatrician and I work in the neonatal intensive care unit. It’s hard to talk about this aspect of my job, but I have watched the waves carry many beloved children away and this experience has changed how I love. I love with a constant awareness of the nearness of death. At the sweetest core of parenting – and what, in this life, is sweeter than your child’s delighted laughter? – the possibility of loss vibrates. Which is not to say that I plucked Eliana out of the waves and ran for higher ground. On the contrary, I feel called to live and to help my child live as fully as possible

Today we read the Torah portion about the sacrifice of Isaac. God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his own son and Abraham complies, going so far as to raise the knife to slaughter Isaac. At the last moment, God tells Abraham to stop and sends a ram as an alternative sacrifice. Isaac is spared and God rewards Abraham’s faith by promising that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore.

This story used to stand out to me as the most cruel and incomprehensible part of the Bible. It was a vision of God that I could not get behind. What kind of God would ask a person to sacrifice their own child? What kind of God would consider this an acceptable test of faith?

Now that I am a parent, now that I have sat with grieving parents, I read this story as an allegory of nature’s indifference. We take a loved one into the hospital for surgery. We give the car keys to our sixteen year old. We turn our head for one minute. For many of us, in many moments, the ram appears and the child is spared. For others it does not appear and the child is lost. It is our natural instinct to want to attribute this difference to something: a punishment for past transgressions or a sign of a person’s true value or, as in the Torah portion, a reward for faith. But I can tell you from sharing tears with some of the strongest, most loving parents I have ever met, that there is no reason or algorithm that explains the illness of a child or the death of a child or the sparing of a child. For some, a ram appears, for others is does not. And the challenge is to move towards and not away from people who are suffering, to listen and be quiet and not try to fix things, to love, to love, to love fiercely, to love with everything you have, not in spite of but because of all that might be lost and therefore all that must be held sacred and never taken for granted. The challenge is to dance in those uncertain waves.