A Mother Grieves
The day of my birth was a happy day for my parents. But seven weeks later, my four-year-old brother Freddie died during surgery, in an incident of medical malpractice.
Mom was terribly broken by Freddie’s death for a long time. As she once put it, “I don’t have any problems. I mean, I have some problems so big that they are the foundation of my entire life, but I don’t have any problems.” And this was true. Mom was full of love, but also full of stress.
A Mother’s Heart Heals
When my younger brother Dave and I were about ten years old, we started lobbying for a dog. Mom didn’t want a dog, because she didn’t want to love and lose again. But Dad couldn’t stand our whining. So, one day, he secretly took us to a pet store. We came home with a dog. Mom was very angry — for about two seconds. Then, she fell totally in love with the dog.
For the next forty years, Mom was never without a dog – actually, never without four or five of them. She ran an informal animal shelter for lost dogs in our backyard. She became a strong supporter of animal organizations. And she, who had been afraid of grief, cared for every dog herself at home until its last breath.
Mom passed her love of animals on to her children. So, when I care for my cats, bird, frogs, or whoever else lives with me this year, I fall in love again with my mother. And I forgive her again for the stress she unloaded on me.
Prophets Isaiah and Malachi on Family Healing
Intergenerational reconciliation is really important in Jewish thought. It might even be the main theme of our Biblical prophets. In Bible’s first prophetic oracle, Isaiah says: Hear O heavens and listen land, as God speaks: I raised children, and they rebelled against me (Isaiah 1:2).
In the Bible’s final prophetic oracle, Malachi says: I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the arrival of God’s great and awesome day. Elijah will turn the hearts of the parents towards the children and the hearts of the children towards the parents (Malachi 3:24).
Thus, our prophets teach: God understands the pain of our family conflicts. And God promises: I will heal that pain, and bring you into my loving presence. All the rest is commentary — as our great sage Hillel might say.
But commentary is important. We need to know details. What will the reconciled world look like? Can we help create it?
Isaiah: The Lion Will Lie Down With the Lamb
Eventually, Isaiah tells us what the reconciled world will look like. The wolf will visit with the lamb. The leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The cow, the bear, the lion, and the ox will graze together (Isaiah 11:6-7).
What do these animal metaphors mean?
We could interpret them inter-textually, that is, by connecting pieces of the Torah’s text. Maybe: after reconciliation, we will return to the original harmony of creation in Genesis. We will be vegetarian — no one will devour anyone else, literally or metaphorically.
Or, we could read the metaphors historically. So that the animals represent nations active in Isaiah’s time. The predatory empires of Assyria and Babylonia will stop devouring little kingdoms like Israel and Judah. Instead, they’ll seek peace and share resources. And people won’t die in senseless wars.
Or, we could read the animals psycho-spiritually, as a Kabbalist might. Thus, the animals represent conflicted parts of our inner selves. Finally, our reactivity and our patience, our desires for revenge and restoration, will come into balance. And we won’t act out violently.
Finally, we could read with a literary ear. Maybe, because Isaiah was a great poet, the animal metaphors mean all of these things.
Artist Edward Hicks Interprets Isaiah
American folk artist Edward Hicks (1770-1849) was one of the great interpreters of Isaiah’s oracle. Hicks, a Quaker minister, lived in Pennsylvania just as the American colonies became the United States of America. Hicks’s life was filled with conflict – psychological, familial, church, and political. He worked through his conflicts by painting Isaiah’s animal oracle.
Hicks painted at least 62 versions of his signature painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. For him, the animals could represent a soul, a family, a community, or two nations. Hicks would paint the animals more…or less…at peace. It all depended on how the particular conflict was resolving.
One early version of the Peaceable Kingdom hangs in my office, in the Indigenous and Inter-Religious Studies program at the Vancouver School of Theology. The animals in this painting are relaxing very peaceably on a hill. In the valley below, the Quaker colonial leader William Penn and Chief Tamanend of the Lenape Nation are making a treaty. This actual historical treaty, made in 1683, kept the peace for 72 years.
Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom paintings teach that we can create Isaiah’s reconciled world. We do it by resolving one conflict at a time. One broken heart heals through love. A daughter turns towards her mother with compassion. A synagogue compromises. Two local communities make a treaty.
Every bit of healing is precious. Each reconciliation repairs the past and improves the future. Because, in peaceful places, people learn ways of peace.
Healing Our Own Grief
During the Yizkor memorial service, we remember relatives and friends. Some taught us how to reconcile. Others left us yearning for it. In honour of all of them, we pledge tzedakah, good deeds and donations. Then, we recite the Kaddish prayer, which expresses our hope. May God’s peaceable kingdom be established soon and in our day.
Offered as a dvar Torah sermon at Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver, April 7 2018. On the occasion of my birthday, and the last Shabbat of Passover, when we read Isaiah’s oracle of the lion and the lamb, and recited the Yizkor memorial prayer.