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Opening Our Eyes on Rosh Hashanah

October 15, 2019


Rabbi Nathan Martin

This is Rabbi Nathan's Rosh Hashanah sermon (day 1).  May you appreciate it as much as our congregation did. 
-Webmaster, Congregation Beth Israel of Media

Shanah Tovah,

In the center of the unsettling Torah reading we read today we find the character of Hagar. Subject to Sarah’s capriciousness she is unceremoniously cast out in the desert. Hagar - whose name literally means “migrant” Hebrew - is only able to survive when a divine angel opens her eyes and enables her to see a living well before her.

This year, this story resonates with me in a new way. Like Hagar we have encountered so many who have been forced by violence, storm, or economic need to leave their homes. We have encountered the stories of children separated from parents at our border and forced for long stays in crowded and unsafe holding facilities in prison-like conditions. We have heard the stories of countless Syrian refugees trying to find new homes as they fled their war-torn country.

The struggle for survival that Hagar faced in the desert - unprotected and vulnerable - seems eerily familiar in the pages of our newspaper. And, perhaps, like Hagar, we also feel helpless and overwhelmed by the forces that seem to be tearing at our stability as a country and world. Or perhaps we feel agitated and angry that humans are treated with such disrespect in today’s world?

Yet all is not lost in our story. In a moment of turning, God is able to hear the voice of Hagar’s child whose wails reach the heavens -Vayishma’ Elohim at Kol Hana’ar - God heard the child’s cry. Like the shofar, whose sound pierces our own shells of insensitivity and resistance, Hagar’s son’s screams shake God’s impassivity.

Reflecting on this moment the midrash quotes the Psalmist: “Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my cry; do not disregard my tears; for like all my forebears I am an alien, resident with You.” (Ps. 39:13 quoted in Gen Rab 53:14). In the midrashic imagination God can hear Hagar’s cries because they are the cries of the stranger and the outcast. It is that vulnerability that stirs God into action.

What makes us act? What enables us to respond, especially when the need in the world today is so overwhelming? And how do we connect to sources of nourishment to stay engaged without giving up?

Our Torah narrative offers us some direction. In the story God’s first actions of response are A) encouragement - “fear not,” B) connection - “take hold of the boy,” and C) new perspective - “God opened her eyes.”

We can learn from this response. We can integrate this teaching, particularly God’s instruction about connection. Just like Hagar is instructed to “take hold of the boy” we too can remember that facing discouragement and loss, whether it is national or personal, requires connection. It requires us to “take hold” of each other. Over the past year I have continually been surprised by the way so many in our community have stepped up to do just that - to reach out to one another. Sometimes this has happened through organized means: showing up a shiva, making food, offering rides. But more often than not this seems to happen more informally. A need arises and so does a response. 

And the response is not limited to within these walls. Time and time again I have been moved by the way in which many in our community have carried this outreach beyond our community, who have taken the time to attend a rally or demonstration, connecting to those who from the broader Philadelphia area lending their voice for change. 

The other action that God takes with Hagar in this moment is opening her eyes. [Vayifkach et Eyneyha]. I don’t believe this was a literal opening but more something akin to what Maimonedes suggests (Guide 1,2) that the opening was a change in consciousness and awareness. It was a change that allowed Hagar to notice and see the wellsprings of nourishment within and around her.

This is not an easy or simple task. The overwhelm we experience as humans can make the landscape of our lives seem bleak, like Hagar’s desert. When Parker Palmer, a Quaker elder and educator, wrote about his own bouts with depression in his mid-30’s he reminds us that sometimes the inner darkness can’t just be “fixed.” In his words: “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.” He said that the most powerful form of healing was when his friend Bill came to visit him every day, sat Parker down in his easy chair, and massaged his feet, often hardly saying a word. But it was Bill’s consistent loving presence that allowed Parker to emerge from the darkness and see life again in front of him. I like to think that when God “opened” Hagar’s eyes, God did this in a way like Parker’s friend Bill, simply showing up and being with Hagar to create space for her trauma to heal.

In her teaching on the call of the Shofar, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, echoes this work of compassion and presence. She writes, “We begin our Jewish year on Rosh Hashanah by listening attentively to hear shofar sounds. We conclude the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year, with a shofar blast. Jewish tradition equates the sound of the shofar with the cries of the mothers...Mothers’ tears, filled with love, filled with grief, contain every conflicting emotion in the human soul. Their pain knows no borders. It is the pain of the mother of us all, this Earth, as the glaciers melt into her tears. It is a feeling of compassion for the mother knows no divisions and no judgments and no politics. We are not asked to resolve anything. We are asked to open to hear the pain, whether it is the pain of our own lives or the pain of the other; the pain of our enemy or friend; the pain of our tribe or the pain of the world. No matter. It is all pain; it is as wordless as the shofar and as raw...It is our practice. Being with the pain, the sound--only this sound--as it reverberates in our own skin and the skin of the world. This is the healing work that engages us. It takes everything from us, and what does it ask? Most of all it asks us just to be near, to be quiet, to stand, to sit, to walk, to eat, to sleep--in kindness, faithfulness and peace.

This year we continue to be called to support others in pain - mothers, fathers, children, neighbors, fellow citizens, refugees from abroad. We are called to be present just as God’s angel was for Hagar, to offer our witness, love, and compassion as well as our actions. 

May we be strengthened, at this season and this moment of renewal, to renew our ability to stand up for the other. And may we also be strengthened in the inner work of opening our eyes, of connecting to divine wellsprings that allow us to be with the pain of our world while not losing hope.

Shanah Tovah

Fri, July 19 2024 13 Tammuz 5784