Surprise is a Holy Emotion
Spoiler Alert: At the end of the Akedah, Isaac will survive. the Akedah, or the story of the binding of Isaac, is one of the most dramatically told narratives in our Torah and it is one of the central stories read on Rosh Hashanah, which we heard aloud yesterday. The story begins when Abraham answers God’s call without question, and agrees to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice. With suspicion, Abraham wakes up early in the morning, informing neither his wife, son, nor servants, of his plan. He and Isaac hike silently for three days as dubious clues are dropped. And when Isaac notices the wood for the altar but no animal to slaughter, we empathize with his naïve innocence. Yet finally, when Abraham is about to lower his knife, at the very last moment between Isaac’s life and death, a voice calls out from the heavens to STOP! Abraham notices a calf caught in the thicket, and Isaac survives.
Is anything not a spoiler these days? With more than ever behind-the-scenes information floating around in gossip columns, online discussion boards and mainstream publications, it has now become entirely possible to find out what happens in our favorite stories, books, and movies, months in advance. In response, these publications put big disclaimers on their articles: "spoiler alert" indicating that surprising information will be revealed. And when we hear that warning, we typically stop in our tracks, close our magazines, or mute the television. We don’t want to continue on if we know crucial information, a key plot point, or a game outcome, will be revealed before we have had a chance to experience it for our self.
Why do we resist the spoiler? Perhaps it is because the way we experience a story, even one with as much anxious anticipation as the Akedah, can become rote and repetitive if we know the outcome in advance. Or maybe it is because with spoilers in hand, we experience a story with more distance, analyzing it like a critic instead of allowing ourselves to become fully immersed. The whole reason stories are pleasurable to us in the first place are precisely because they arrive to us in tantalizing parshioyot, (Torah portions), chapters, and episodes, slowly doling out twists and turns. Stories are surprises, allowing us to experience the chaos we crave, in safe and controlled ways. If we spoil a story, we deny ourselves the surprise.
This kind of leakage is fundamentally altering the nature of storytelling. But it poses a question for our lives as well: what does it mean to experience a surprise?
Director, Joss Whedon, whose TV shows and movies have fallen victim to spoilers, considers surprise to be a holy emotion. Surprise, he argues, ''makes you humble. It makes you small in the world, and takes you out of your own perspective. It shows you that you're wrong, that the world is bigger and more complicated than you'd imagined.'' He continues, ''The more we dilute those surprises with insider knowledge, with previews that show too much, with spoilers, with behind the scenes specials, the more we're robbing ourselves of something we essentially need.''i So, when we know too much in advance, we are closing ourselves off to the element of surprise that we crave in the same way we crave other sacred experiences.
Thankfully, our Torah may be an exception to the spoilers. Psychologists discovered, as part of a UC San Diego study that knowing a plot in advance cannot actually ruin great stories.ii They split students into two groups and had them read The Lottery a famous short story by Shirley Jackson with an infamous twist ending (Which I will not reveal here). Afterwards they were interviewed about their reading experience. The spoiled readers still enjoyed the surprise ending even when knowing the surprise beforehand. Instead, they claimed the advance knowledge, simply shifted their expectations of the story. Instead of being shocked by the ending, they paid more attention to the characters, to their feelings, to the imagery, and to larger themes. Some might even argue, they liked the story more.
Try to think about a time when you were truly surprised.
On Rosh Hashanah one year ago, my husband and I had no idea what was in store for us. About to start my last year of rabbinical school in New York, we knew big changes were coming but we had no real way to prepare for them. The placement process for newly ordained rabbis meant we could be moving anywhere. We tried to manage the unknown by making lists, weighing our priorities of finding the right congregation versus being close to family. But when we came to visit PTBE we suddenly understood what it meant to take a risk and begin a new chapter in our lives. Surprise is allowing one’s life to turn an unexpected corner. For our family, it was to move across the country to begin our new careers. And we couldn’t be more thankful for the chance. Surprise is holy when the unknown becomes known.
After a high school student, Gavin, was experiencing unusual stomach pains and sensitivity during his wresting practices, he decided to seek out a professional medical opinion. Through testing, it was discovered that he had a form of cancer that needed immediate surgical attention. The surprising information allowed Gavin and his family to take control of the situation, face the real challenges that were in store for him, and come up with a course of treatment that would allow him to continue with school and his teenage life with as little interference as possible. We know what it is like to receive unexpected bad news, but the surprise is holy when it shakes us from our routines and helps us to overcome what we never thought possible.
My best friend, Brooke, was supposed to give birth in May, only a few days before my wedding. But in February, she went into labor, delivering a premature baby boy of only three pounds. She hadn’t prepared for maternity leave at work, her husband was out of town, she hadn’t even bought a crib for the baby’s room, but this scary surprise left Brooke with a newly awakened gratefulness for life, the support of family and friends, and the value of prayer. After spending months in the NICU, Brooke finally brought her healthy son home. Surprise is holy when it helps us to recognize miracles.
Being truly surprised, experiencing something new and unique can make us feel connected to each other and to an experience, but when things take a bad turn, we also want to be prepared. This odd wish, for control of the story, for the chance to minimize our risk of disappointment is exactly why surprise often brings about more fear and anxiety than feelings or happiness or holiness. We can easily think of two kinds of people - those who love a good surprise party, and those for whom it is a nightmare. We are constantly trying to balance our desire for excitement with our need for organization.
We Jews often use the expression, we make plans and God laughs. But perhaps even that pithy wisdom offers us some insight into the idea that surprise can be holy. We try and try to organize our life, to put things on our calendar, to save for the future, and map out a plan for where we want our lives to go. But surprises shake us back into reality, reminding us that we can indeed handle whatever life throws our way, both bad and good. Human beings are resilient and strong, able to unexpectedly cope with what we may have previously thought was unimaginable.
Under the guidance of Dr. Larry Hoffman, a liturgy professor at the Hebrew Union College, a group of rabbinical students had the opportunity to visit an evangelical church in Lexington, MA called Grace’s Chapel.iii In a meeting with their Senior Pastor, Bryan Wilkerson, he taught us their mission statement, “Transforming Lives through the Surprising Message of God’s Grace.” The idea is to help church members remain open to the holy experiences of life and the mysterious ways in which God works. According to their theology, such surprises confound our hearts that crave order and routine. Whether it is hearing unexpected and upsetting news of a poor diagnosis, or learning of an exciting new opportunity- getting a new job, connecting with an old friend, if we think of surprises as part of the world God so thoughtfully designed, we too can affirm that surprise is a holy emotion.
In the dramatic account between our forefathers, Abraham and Isaac, it is not the plot that matters as much as the emotion. We know how the story will end before it began. Not only is Isaac alive, but he will continue on to take his place in the line of our patriarchs. His life will have many more surprises. He will marry, bear twins, and be fooled into offering a blessing to his son Jacob; have a grandson. He will take his place in the journey that is the story of the Jewish people, with blunders and lessons learned. The stories of the Jewish people are turned and turned over again, always offering surprises.
Our stories have no spoilers, they are lived moment to moment, each one a new surprise offered to us. In this new year, let us recognize those surprising moments, not as spoiled, but as holy.
iNussbaum, Emily. “Television: The End of the Surprise Ending.” The New York Times 09 May 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/09/arts/television-the-end-of-the-surprise-ending.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
iiUlaby, Neda. “Spoiler Alert: Spoilers May Not Be That Bad.” NPR: All Things Considered. 02 August 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/08/02/208167256/spoiler-alert-spoilers-may-not-be-that-bad