Holy Days & Sukkot Edition

Drash for Rosh Hashanah 5780 By Alex Golub

Photos by Arnie Warshawsky

A table with two loaves of challah on a partially covered board, next to a covered Torah scroll.

Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of new beginnings, and nothing says ‘new beginnings’ like children. This year – which means every year – we have three of them. Today we have just heard the story of Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and the story of Samuel and his mother Hannah. Tomorrow we will read the Akedah, the story of Isaac and his father Abraham. These stories remind us of how central the relationship between parents and children are in Judaism.

Children are our future generations. They are what keep our community going and keep our heritage moving forward. But even though Rosh Hashanah is a joyous occasion, the stories we read during this holiday are dramatic and intense. They remind us not only of the joy of parenting, but its challenges. They remind us of the pain that children can brings us: We learn from Hagar the agony that every parent feels when a child needs more help than the parent can give. Abraham shows us the dilemma that parents face when they must do the right thing, even at the expense of a child’s well-being. And finally, Hannah reveals the despair of childless-ness. These stories teach us that children are not only sources of joy, but also sources of profound worry and anxiety.

Most of us, thank goodness, will never have to go through the trials of a Hagar or Abraham. And many of us here have decided not to have children, which is not only a legitimate choice but probably a smart one, especially if you’d like to travel more and get a lot of sleep. Why do we read these terrible stories on Rosh Hashanah? Perhaps because they tug so hard on our heart strings… and thus help keep us awake during our long services! But they also have something else in common: These stories teach us that g-d provides for us even when we cannot. G-d opens Hannah’s womb, stays Abraham’s hand, and rescues Hagar’s son.

Now at first glance, it looks like these stories teach Jews about hope. And yet, I would say that hope is not a Jewish virtue. Hope is, famously, a Christian virtue. It is placing your trust in god and relying on him to fix things when you cannot. That would be a nice option but it is not what we see in these stories today. The haftorah tells us that g-d is the person who shut Hannah’s womb in the first place, not someone who she is supposed to just sit back and wait for him to reopen it. The Shalom Hartman institute has an extremely detailed curriculum on the relationship between Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar and they point out that Abraham never doubts that g-d has the power to ensure that Abraham has children. What Abraham doubts is whether or not g-d will keep his promise.

For Jews g-d is someone you can bargain with, as Abraham does in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. G-d is someone who can be legally out-maneuvered, as Rabbi Joshua does in the famous Talmudic tale of the oven of Aknai. G-d is someone whom you can shake your fist at and scream “he had a hat!” as the mother does in the famous Jewish joke. Our Jewish conception of g-d is much less influenced by Plato and other Greek thinkers than the Christian versions of g-d. For them, g-d is perfect and unchanging. This creates a philosophical problem for them: If g-d is all powerful and perfect why does bad stuff happen? This is less a problem for Jews because we know the world is an uncertain place where bad and random stuff happens all the time. We believe g-d is the sort of being who decides it is too busy to read our emails. As a result of this, the Jewish parents in our stories do not wait, hoping that g-d will somehow save them. Sarah does not hope that g-d will somehow put the fix in on Ishmael. She doesn’t even believe that g-d will allow her to conceive — when she does, she laughs in disbelief. And, tragically, when Hagar has done everything she can for her child she does not pray to g-d or hope for rescue. She just cries.

So I don’t think our Jewish parents hope. I think our Jewish parents strive. They do every-thing they can to achieve their goal. Even, in Abraham’s case, to the point of doing something terrible. They keep going even when the situation seems hopeless. Their struggles remind me of a quote from Shimon Peres’s autobiography, which I think I’ve mentioned in a Drash before. The autobiography is not a great book unless you want to read the nicest things ever said about Shi-mon Peres. But it has a wonderful quote from his mentor, David Ben-Gurion: “In Israel, to be a realist, you must believe in miracles”. Ben-Gurion, like Hannah, was a striver. He didn’t sit back and hope that g-d would hand him a Jewish state. The creation of Israel required three or four incredibly unlikely things to happen. To make them happen, founders like Ben-Gurion and others had to make extraordinary things happen. In order to do that they had to be ruthlessly honest with themselves about their chances, and concoct the most likely plan to succeed, even if that plan had a very, very, very small chance of succeeding. And then, they went for broke.

In his wonderful short biography of Hillel, Telushkin points out that optimism is a Jewish virtue, along with patience, moral imagination, a nonjudgmental nature, and intense curiosity. I wouldn’t call the striving that we see in our readings ‘hope’. I’d call it optimism. This is not sitting on your hands and letting someone else solve the problem for you. It is getting out there and doing something. And I think the Torah is very realistic in showing just how hard, dark, and messy this striving can be. To return to our Israel example, the Irgun did not just sit there and wait for g-d in 1946. They did it themselves. I think we will need optimism more than ever in 5780. We were just a month or so into 5779 before 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of our country. Afterwards, our community held a memorial service at Temple Emanu-El. There, my two boys joined all the other children in lighting a memorial candle for the victims. What are you supposed to tell your children when that happens? That, given all the other places we’ve lived in our history, ten is actually a pretty low number?

5780 does not exactly look like it will be a return to normalcy. Here in the islands, the county will install new “portable [lifeguard] towers [at our beaches], which can easily be moved back as the ocean encroaches” due to climate change, which is probably the most pressing challenge our islands and the world faces — and one both we and our children will have to live with. Of course, compared to the challenges of the 20th century — two world wars, an influenza pandemic, a possible nuclear holocaust and a real Jewish one — portable lifeguard towers are not that big a deal. And regardless of how big the challenges we face are in objective terms, we should not be demoralized by them. The Torah teaches us today that resignation will get you just as far as hope: nowhere. Instead, it offers us Jewish parents, striving and optimistic. They are the rule, not the exception, of Jewish history. Many of us have parents and grandparents who were strivers as well — men and women who grabbed fortune by the hand and pried prosperity out of its grip one finger at a time.

I think the Torah encourages us to keep moving forward with optimism, to be a realist and to believe in miracles. You can never tell when a well might erupt in the middle of the desert. So if you have been feeling depressed by the news, by the heat, by the ugliness of life in general, just look at it this way: Abraham thought he was going to have to kill his kid, but then that just got downgraded to just having to circumcise him. Ladies and gentlemen: Judaism! Let us remember that we have it in our power to make this year a good year and a sweet year. The book of life is open. It’s up to us to decide what gets written in it. Let’s keep striving. Shanah tovah!

Several people on a lanai standing and sitting around a table with a torah scroll on it.