Modern Mishpocha: Rosh Hashanah and the new school year

By Jenny T. Burns

The new year is upon on. The leaves on our trees will begin to turn red and gold, the air is crisp, and we are starting to crave crunchy apples and hearty soups. It’s time for Rosh Hashanah, for sweet treats, round challah and the sound of the shofar.

Yet, it is also time to confront an emotionally challenging narrative, the Akedah or ‘Binding of Isaac.’ In honour of fresh beginnings and the approach of Yom Kippur, we explore a Torah portion where a parent is asked to sacrifice the life of a child in the name of something intangible, and while this narrative is ancient, something about its theme rings all too true during our current health crisis.

The other new year we face right now is the back-to-school new year. In years past, this was a time for new shoes and clothes, backpacks full of fresh school supplies, maybe some moderate but manageable anxiety from kids about a new grade, or new peers or a new teacher. Our own Isaacs that we willingly offer up to the greater good of getting an education.

Yet, why is this year different from all other years (the wrong holiday, but you get the idea)? This year, as we read the story of a parent torn between love for God or love for a child, some of us are in uniquely similar situations. I will get personal. My oldest kid is supposed to begin kindergarten this fall. However, there are immune-compromised people in my bubble, and sending my kid to a (possibly maskless) class of 20-plus people during pandemic-circumstances seems ludicrous. Except the alternatives seem equally problematic. Can my kid handle remote learning or homeschooling? Can I? Am I sacrificing my child’s intellectual and social growth in the name of safety? Am I wrong to do so?

Let’s bring it back to the ‘Binding of Isaac’ for a moment, though, and I’ll get even more honest and admit I don’t find Abraham to be a particularly sympathetic figure in the Rosh Hashanah narrative. When we begin this parashah, Abraham has recently sent away his older son (Ishmael), and now our patriarch is asked to sacrifice the son that remains. There’s no Torah-hint that Abraham discusses this decision with his partner Sarah either! So, I’m often left with the image of a man who hears supernatural voices and then drags his son to a mountaintop to kill him! I’m sorry. I know that this is not a reverent assessment of Abraham.

This year though, I am seeing our forefather in a whole new light. What consequences awaited Abraham if he refused to sacrifice Isaac? His inner struggle seems richer and more complex to me, and maybe to you. As I emotionally toil over what to do about school, COVID-19 and a certain four-year-old, I realize that (like Abraham) I don’t have many safe or sound choices here. Like our patriarch, it doesn’t feel like there are many options before us, and all paths are fraught with their own consequences, seen and unforeseen. So, what do we do? Like Abraham, do we offer up our children to the ‘best’ option and hope for a miracle – our own ram in the bushes?

Sorry, but I don’t have a helpful answer. Like you, I am struggling and unsure. Like you, I am human and doing my best. In the end, all I can do is assure you that no decision you or I make is being made lightly, and we are all good parents. It is easy to zoom in on this one daunting choice and feel that somehow this choice weighs more than any others we have made as parents, but that isn’t true.

Do you hear me? Do you believe me? Start reviewing some other meaningful parenting decisions you’ve made. Many of us have already debated co-sleeping, bottle feeding or breastfeeding. We’ve decided when to potty train, to-soother or not-to-soother, home school vs. public school vs. private school! Some of you have already weighed in on Jewish education, Jewish holidays, ethical decision-making, giving an iPod or cell phone and at what age, screen time, outside time – and on and on our struggles go. We are used to making choices. Sometimes we feel secure and sure, and other times we are apprehensive and queasy, feeling that we are somehow setting our kids(s) up to fail. Regardless, we did the hard part. We made a choice.

Now, let’s jump back to our patriarch for a moment, the Rosh Hashanah man of the hour. If we only judge Abraham by the ‘Binding of Isaac,’ we only consider a limited sliver of his narrative. Abraham is also the Torah-hero who welcomed strangers with the utmost kindness and jubilation days after adult-circumcision. He defended the town of Sodom from destruction. What’s more, he took a leap of faith, abandoned his hometown and journeyed into the unknown.

Similarly, we are more complex than this one choice of how to manage education in a pandemic. As we just reviewed together, we have already made several, hard parenting choices, and we will make many more in the next year and in the years to come.

So, my beautiful family of readers, as we round the corner from 5780 into 5781, as we begin to cast off our sins and atone, let us also take stock of the positive and challenging decisions we’ve already made for our kids. Please know that there is no parent like you, no child like yours, no family like yours. Please remember that you are succeeding and that somehow, though it may be hard to fathom, we will make it through this school year one way or another.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka. May the new year be a sweet year. May you have compassion for yourself and others as we all do the best we can manage.