Rosh Hashanah Special
Wean: A Reflection for the New Jew Year
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
I saw M. this week and she looked really well rested. What happened? I asked. My 3 year old son finally weaned, she said. Now I can get a full night sleep again!
This is a good week to be thinking about weaning as a metaphor. What am I ready to let go of in order to start the New Year right? What’s the mythic meaning of weaning?
Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year kicks in this Saturday. It is also called Yom Harat Olam –The Day on Which the World Was Conceived - a day of new beginnings, recalling the birth of the universe. But in some ways it also is a day that celebrates what often happens way after birth - the mystery of weaning and its significance to our adult lives. Here’s why: Like all holidays, this High Holy Day is also accompanied by a biblical narrative, chosen by the early sages for the appropriate themes of conception, birth, human growth and divine intervention. On the first of the two holy days we are introduced to the Torah tale of the miraculous (not immaculate) conception of ninety year old Sarah, at last assuming her role of Matriarch. The story in Genesis goes on to describe the happy birth of Isaac, the feast held in honor of his weaning into adulthood, and the family drama involving his step brother Ishmael. Weaning is central to this primal myth, although it is often just overlooked trivia:
"… And Abraham made a big feast on the day that Isaac was weaned…" (Genesis 21:8)
This is the first and only weaning celebration ever recorded in the Bible. The Oral Traditions of the Midrash explain the necessity for the feast: people were gossiping that the baby was not really born to Abraham and Sarah – two senior citizens past their prime. To dispel the rumors, Abraham invited the world for a party - and asked Sarah to publicly breastfeed their son, for the last time.
The real drama happens in the middle of the party. Just as Sarah is done with her speech, marking the letting go of Isaac, off her breast and into the world, she sees her son ‘playing with’, or ‘fooling around with’ or ‘abused’ by his older half brother Ishmael, Hagar’s son. The Hebrew term, ‘metzachek’ is obscure. Whatever happened - Sarah’s rage is relentless and, backed by God, she convinces the reluctant Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the compound, making sure Isaac is the one and only heir to Abraham's fortunes and spiritual legacy. Thus begins the Arab-Jewish conflict.
How old was Isaac when he weaned off Sarah’s breast? Why is this the only weaning feast we ever meet in the Bible and where has this tradition vanished to? And – what DID happen between Isaac and Ishmael that provoked such wrath? The annual re-reading of this tale calls for these and other compelling, ethical questions. Now that we are aware of the painful political repercussions of Sarah’s decision to deport another mother and her child – how do we respond? What is the lesson we are learning from this story and passing on to, say, any modern day Isaac, sitting in the synagogue on his mother’s lap, this Rosh Hashanah?
One key to this perplexing tale and its meaning to our lives is the secret of weaning.
Weaning is a complex business. The departure from mother’s milk onto ‘independent’ nutrition is a big deal in therapy and research. The perfect, seldom achieved weaning is fully mutual - both mother and child are ready to let go and move on. The less perfect and more common cases are those in which one of the two parties involved is eager for change, and the other is not… and that’s when weaning becomes more complicated, even if seldom discussed.
For me, this time of year, thinking about weaning becomes an opportunity to think about change.
Rosh Hashanah is a first page in a new book, full of promise, of change, of opportunity. But it is also a farewell from the familiar past. Can I wean oneself from what was yesterday’s nourishment – like mothers’ milk – but is no longer a staple of the present or future? Can we constantly evolve; wean ourselves into more mature and responsible beings? It is possible that this is one of the themes that accompany us, in a subtle way, as we repent and prepare for the New Year upon us. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for including this biblical narrative in our liturgy.
And perhaps there is one more important lesson that can be learned from this biblical story – despite itself. What if the weaning that we are required to go through is also the weaning away from myths, beliefs, and doctrines that once served us, but now no longer do? Can we wean ourselves away from Sarah’s anger, from her maternal zeal, from the alienating of others, the deportation of brother, and mark a new page in our storybook of hope and family co-existence? Can this Day of the Conception of the World help us celebrate the joy of all those who live in this world – and not just those who are of our kin and tribe? This year on Rosh Hashanah, can we retell the Weaning Feast and transcend its tragic aspects?
As the New Year approaches, apples and honey and all, I hear the words of Jalaluddin Rumi, the Sufi poet, son of Ishmael, gently reminding me: “Wean yourself, little by little wean yourself, this is the gist of what I have to say.”