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|Rosh HaShannah drasha 5760, by Ron Zucker|
When Daniel asked me to speak, I, in the fullness of my ego, said, "Of course! I'd love to speak on Rosh Hashana! What an honor!"
Then the enormity of it hit me. What could I speak about? It could not be a spiritual speech, for what could I offer in the way of spirituality that Daniel didn't already cover? Tell stories? Not with Daniel here. And then, in a fit of procrastination, I decided what I would speak about on Thursday night. I decided that the only thing I have to offer, the only thing I bring to the table, is my education. I went to Yeshiva until college, and, if the orthodox religion I was taught didn't take, well, the approach to study did. I decided I would look at the Torah reading and ask you, as my grandfather used to ask me, to "kim lairnin".
That is a magnificent expression, Kim Lairnin. One never teaches in Judaism. Instead, one learns with others. Learning, in judaism, is not a thing to be acquired, but a process to be shared. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches, "Mikol melamdai hiscalti - From all of my students, I have learned." So I invite you to share the process I went to. If you want to follow along in the text to make sure that I'm not lying, it's found on page ___ of your machzor, but I promise I won't lie if you just want to listen.
The first thing I looked at in the Torah portion was its subject matter as a whole. Why do we read this today? What does it have to do with Rosh hashanah. After all, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Hayom Charat Olam, we read. Today, the world was created. It would seem obvious to me, then, to read about the creation of the world. To read the legend of Genesis. Instead, we've got this story. Why?
And what a story it is. It's like a play with three acts. A son is born to a barren mother in her old age. She says, "everyone is going to laugh at me." So the son is named Yitzchak, he will laugh. The only pun I can readily think of in the whole bible.
As the boy grows, his mother sees his half brother playing with him. This displeases her, so she tells the father to expel the half brother and his mother, her handservant. The father, taken aback, protests, but, under G-d's advice gives in. The woman and her son are sent away into the desert. End of Act one.
In the desert, they run out of water. Unable to listen to the cries of her dying child, the former handservant puts the child down and walks far enough away to not hear the cries. She starts crying herself. At this point in the story, we've got an absentee father, a dying child, a crying mother. Heck, throw in a truck and a dog, and we could make this into a country and western song.
But then, G-d opens up the woman's eyes. He doesn't create a well of water. He doesn't perform a miracle. He simply opens her eyes, and tells her to look. For there, right in front of her, is a well of water. Mother and child are saved. End of act two.
The story continues back at the ranch, where a local king comes to visit Abraham. Abraham doesn't completely trust this king, so he gives him a gift to act as a witness that this particular well, this particular hunk of land, belongs to Abraham. End of play, curtain comes down, and there is, at least for me, absolutely NO applause. It was time for me to investigate further.
I started at the beginning, with a possible answer to my question. Why do we read this on Rosh Hashanah? Because the first line says that G-d remembered Sarah, and one of the great themes of this holy period is God's memory. We hope that we will be remembered by G-d, and by ourselves, for our good deeds, so we emphasize memory today. A number of commentators suggest this as a reason for the reading. So, I thought, well there's an answer.
And I looked at it, and I thought to myself, "Ron, it STINKS!" I mean, it's not that it's not true and all. It's just, well, boring. And besides, this is a story with all kinds of moral and ethical dilemmas. I decided to investigate more.
So I looked at the first section. What is Ishmael's sin to be cast out into the desert. He was "playing". He's a young teenager, and he was playing, and that got him cast out? So I looked to the commentators for why that would be.
The first commentator I usually look at is a guy named Rashi. He was an amazing guy. He lived in France in the early middle ages, and, in his life, he managed to write down commentary on ALL the books of the Torah, ALL the books of the prophets, and ALL of the talmud. Each of these commentaries is a book in and of itself. That's over 100 books worth of scholarly commentary. This guy was prodigious enough to make Stephen King look like a one shot!
Rashi does an interesting thing with this passage. Obviously, this punishment of playing bothers him, too. He decides to examine the actual wording of the phrase to try to figure out what implications the word "mitzachek", to play, has; to use what in modern scholastics they call Exegesis. He finds three instances of it being used. One is in Exodus, where the call to come worship the golden calf is to come out to play. The second is later in Genesis, where it's a code word for rape, as Potiphar's wife accuses Joseph of doing. The third is in the book of Samuel, where it denotes murder. Obviously, according to Rashi, they weren't just playing hoops to 11, win by 2!
And further study led me to another approach, a historical approach. The Reform commentator Gershon Plaut references some of the traditions of the area. 150 years before the Code of Hammurabi, there was the code of Lipit-Ishtar. According to this code, a slave woman and her child could go free, but then could not inherit anything. This is exactly what Sarah asks for. Rather than some cruel thing, she is simply freeing her slave and her slave's child, and the implication is that there is then no inheritance.
So, I thought to myself, maybe this portion isn't so bad. Maybe that's what I'm finding out. And I looked it over, and I said to myself, and say it with me here, "Ron, it STINKS."
I mean, here we have Abraham, a man so concerned for others that he argued with God for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. A man who smashed the idols in his own father's house. And he's willing to send these people into the dessert? I mean, I know G-d told him to do it, but shouldn't he at least argue with G-d again? I was unsatisfied. So I went back to the bible to study a bit more. I looked at what I called Act two.
If Abraham's actions in Act 1 were cowardly, what would we think of a mother who can't bear her own pain in her son's illness, so she leaves him and walks away? We read in the newspapers of children dumped into dumpsters by women so distraught that they can't face it, and we are outraged. The bible, too, feels this. The bible says that G-d heard the cries of the boy. Not the cries of the someone who hears the boy's crying but does nothing to alleviate the suffering. But G-d, the bible tells us, is willing to save them both to save the suffering boy.
And this is what is noticed by the great 19th century commentator Samson Rafael Hirsch. He points out that saving an innocent frequently requires us to save everyone. It is a new spin on the Talmudic statement that one who saves one person, it is as if he had saved the whole world. And the way that G-d saves them is by showing Hagar that, if she looked inside herself, she would have the strength to save them both.
And maybe, I thought, that's why we read this on Rosh Hashanah. Maybe we read this to force ourselves to make this same transformation that Hagar is forced to make. To stop worrying about ego and to go out there and change ourselves and the world around us.
And I went out to the garage, and I grabbed a cigarette, and I came back in and I realized something. No, wait, you tell me. "Ron, it STINKS!"
I mean, that part is all true. But how dare I blame a woman who has been cast out of her home, sent off into the desert with a young son, seemingly about to die with that son in the desert, who just can't go on? I just couldn't believe that the lesson of Rosh Hashanah that the ancient rabbis who established what would be read in the Torah were trying to teach us was that cold. I refused to believe that.
But by now, I was beginning to panic. What if I don't come up with anything? It's Thursday night, and I have no speech! My sisters were calling to wish me a happy new year, and I'm flying blind! That was when the calm of the true procrastinator came over me. I know, I thought, I'll finish tomorrow.
So Friday, yesterday, I went back to study some more. And I came to this throwaway piece at the end. Abraham meets a king, gives him a guilt trip about some wells that were stolen, and they make a pact. Big deal. Abraham pays him to make a contract, and we've got the first known paid notary public. What am I supposed to learn from that?
And then, it hit me. And I realized what I had missed in all my study. I had made the classic Jewish mistake. I had studied today's Torah portion. But I forgot that the Torah is a BOOK! That I need to follow this from the beginning, and maybe see what I could learn.
So I went back to Abraham, and why he didn't fight about the banishment of his son. And one line struck me. The bible says that G-d told Abraham to listen to Sarah, "for in Yitzchak shall seed be called for you." You have two sons, but one of them will follow you. Not all of your descendants are going to follow you in your path to spirituality. And this was natural to Abraham, who, himself, had to leave the path of his forefathers in Ur, and strike out alone with his own vision of what the world should be. And some of your children, Abraham was told, will not follow you in the way that you intended. I am reminded of the first time I brought my Father, an Orthodox rabbi, to a synagogue where I was comfortable in Columbia, Maryland. "So, Dad, what did you think?" I asked.
"Nice church," he replied.
But Abraham, conditioned as he was by his own life, could accept that sometimes, we have to let others take their own path. And while I may be harsh on him, Abraham packed them up with food and water "until it reached their shoulders". He would think that enough for any trip they chose. He could see that his spirituality was not destined to be Ishmael's. And he did something that may or may not have been right.
We frequently see these characters as shining examples of life, and in many ways they are. But Abraham might have simply been making a mistake. Could he have argued with G-d, as he did with Sodom and Gomorrah, and won? We'll never know. But he had to try this, because, frankly, it seemed like a good idea at the time. He was willing to take the chance, and to trust that it would come out OK. And suddenly the first act of this play made sense to me.
The story of Hagar teaches us about trying. About opening our own eyes and finding our path. And this woman scorned, this slavewoman set free at the possible cost of her son's life, must have taught Abraham something as well. The Rabbis may judge her harshly, but in the end, she finds the strength to stand up, and to find a way to for her son to survive.
And in the third part of the story, the part about the king, I was forgetting about context again. This was NOT the first time Abraham had dealt with a king. He had gone to Egypt, and, afraid that Pharaoh would want Sarah and have him killed, had lied to Pharaoh, telling Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. He pulled this same stunt with Avimelech earlier in Genesis. Both times, the Kings, thinking they were doing nothing wrong, pursued romantic relationships with Sarah. Both times, G-d had to step in and save Abraham from his folly. This time, Abraham has learned. He has developed. He deals honestly with this king, and they make a treaty.
And that is what, I think, the Rabbis were trying to teach us in choosing this portion for Rosh Hashanah. That learning from past mistakes, as Abraham does with the king, and that developing and finding strength within ourselves, as Hagar does in the desert, and that embracing change, as Abraham does in the first part of the portion, that all of these are what Rosh Hashanah are about. And we won't always be right, and sometimes we will treat those around us in ways that we regret, but that we can't use that as an excuse not to grow.
I wish you a year in which you are able to change the things you don't like in yourself, and are able to do the things you need to do for success, and are able to grow. And I hope that I will have the same.
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