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Rosh Hashanah

by Dave Gorin | Published on September 1, 2006

It is typical to start a d’var Torah with a reading of the Torah, which then broadens outward to a story from one’s own expe­ri­ence that relates to the text and makes the Torah’s lesson real, vivid in its appli­ca­tion to our lives. But, because I’ve never been able to read Torah or any text without the filter of my own expe­ri­ence, I’m going to do things back­wards, by starting with a story from my personal expe­ri­ence that haunts every thought I’ve had about the Torah portion we read on Rosh Hashana.

About one year ago, at 6:00 in the morning, 50 American Jews living and studying near Jerusalem, myself among them, boarded a bus to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, about fifteen minutes away. These Jews were of almost every stripe: from the secular human­ists attending Hebrew University to the modern orthodox yeshiva boys studying in settle­ments in the West Bank, wearing Red Sox caps to conceal their kippot. The purpose of our visit was to see what life was like on the other side of Israel’s sepa­ra­tion wall—the side that none of us ever visit when we visit Israel. The mission while there was simply to hear Palestinians tell their stories face to face with us: not to engage in debate or dialogue so much as hear the Palestinian perspec­tive with an inti­macy we had never known.

We spent our first day at a hotel in down­town Bethlehem listening to speakers. One of them was a lawyer and femi­nist activist who worked in Ramallah; another was a professor of Islamic theology at the University of Hebron; a third was the deputy mayor of Bethlehem, who lost a daughter and took eight bullets into his side when the Israeli army opened fire on his car by acci­dent, mistaking it for the car behind it, which contained the mili­tants who were the target of the strike. From the hotel, in between speakers, we could stand on the balcony and look out over a valley at a fortress-like array of symmet­rical build­ings on the oppo­site hill­side. These build­ings were part of the settle­ment built on the bottom edge of Jerusalem, not at all far from where I lived.

What struck me most happened the following night, when we met with a group of Palestinian teenagers and played drama games with them that encour­aged us to reveal things about ourselves. For one of these games, 30 Americans and 15 Palestinians stood in a circle and listened to a state­ment read out by a moder­ator. If we agreed with the state­ment, we would take a step forward to be part of a second smaller circle within the first. The first few state­ments were inno­cent and “parve,” like “I have a sister” and “I like Brittney Spears—which made every Palestinian male step forward in assent. Gradually, the state­ments got more serious: “I have lost an imme­diate family member” and “I am against the sepa­ra­tion wall.” If you were playing this game in this setting, would you agree with the state­ment “I am against the sepa­ra­tion wall?” Would you join the inner circle in agreement?

My feel­ings about the wall are compli­cated, and it stung me that I had to choose mutely between only two options. I hesi­tated for a moment, trying to be honest with myself, and decided, as a “bene­fi­ciary” of what­ever safety the wall affords, to remain in the outside circle. One of the Palestinian boys—he must have been 15 or so, with his short gel-glossed black hair and tight blue-jeans—glanced back at me over his shoulder. His eyes looked so tired, at once unhappy and unsur­prised. I think a lot us do our best to avoid looking into a face like that.

This Rosh Hashana d’var Torah is going to be about Ishmael, who in many ways is like this boy whose face I saw that evening. It is also going to be about hearing, about paying atten­tion to those who too easily escape our attention—and so if you have the power of mind to pay close atten­tion to what I’m about to say, you’ve already inter­nal­ized the small lesson I have in mind.

Genesis is a book about brothers fighting, killing each other or trying to, and some­times making up. (In other words: acces­sible mate­rial.) Lets recap: Cain kills Abel because God prefers Abel’s offering to his. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright; Esau tries to kill Jacob, fails, and later makes up with him. Almost all of Joseph’s brothers try to kill him, but end up only selling him into slavery. What is the common cause of all these quar­rels? Jealousy—“the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Specifically, jeal­ousy over being chosen. In every case, it is the younger brother (or second youngest) who is singled out by God and/or Dad, embit­tering the older brother who thought he had the birthright in the bag. The parsha for the first day of Rosh Hashana, Genesis 21, tells us about another pair of brothers, the younger Isaac and the elder Ishmael, who have the same problem: one of them is chosen, one of them isn’t.

Here’s what happens right after the feast that Abraham held on the day that Isaac was weaned:

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing (mitzachek). She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inher­i­tance with my son Isaac.” 

If you have kids, or parents, this story should make you uncom­fort­able. Aren’t parents supposed to love their chil­dren equally? Isn’t Sarah being a little jealous here? The Torah mentions that Sarah’s request distressed Abraham greatly, “for it concerned a son of his.” And it’s not as though Ishmael had done anything wrong. Or had he?

There is a midrashic tradi­tion that tries to make Sarah’s request easier to under­stand. The midrash describes Isaac and Ishmael playing what a kind of William Tell game, in which Isaac would stand an apple on his head and Ishmael—who, as the Torah says, grows up to be an archer—would shoot at the apple. Ishmael, the story suggests, is jealous of Isaac’s posi­tion as favored son, and tries to shoot him with an arrow, making it look like a game so that he could sneak it by his parents and spin it off after­wards as an accident.

I confess, I can relate to the Ishmael of this account. I remember my enthu­siasm for beating up my younger brother Andrew when we were both chil­dren. We would some­times build two forts out of felt blan­kets and wooden chairs in our base­ment, hide one of us behind each, and play a game that involved hurling at one another a mélange of Nerf foot­balls, card­board blocks, foam bats, and just about anything else you can find in a base­ment. I would play easy for a while—to make Andrew think he had a chance—and then would raid his fort and clobber him. The goal, as I remember, was to make it hurt as much as possible without attracting the atten­tion of the author­i­ties. When my mother did come down, to find Andrew in tears and me with my hands in the air, a portrait of inno­cence, what did I tell her? “Ani rak mitzachek.” “I was only playing!”

Why did I want to beat up my brother? Every first­born Jewish kid knows the answer to this ques­tion, from Cain and Esau to yours truly. Imagine living for four whole years of your life as the sole recip­ient of all the love your parents had on tap—which, since they’re Jewish parents, is a lot—then suddenly, a new bundle of giggling, drooling joy comes along with your parents’ name on it, and the atten­tion you receive on a daily basis is cut in half at least! If once you felt special, chosen, the sole inher­itor of the priv­i­lege and respon­si­bility to continue your parents’ line by carrying out the first and most impor­tant command­ment in the Torah—that is, to procreate, and often—suddenly you feel that all of that has been taken away from you. You feel aban­doned, exiled, and you want to take those feel­ings out on your younger brother.

Several commen­ta­tors believe that this covert attempt at violence is precisely what happened between Ishmael and Isaac, and that Sarah, by sending Ishmael and his mother away, was simply trying to keep Isaac from ending up like Able. And indeed, if we believe Genesis 16’s account of Ishmael as a Cain-like “wild ass of a man,” we might think Sarah wholly justi­fied in sending Ishmael away, as by doing so she preempts the murder of her son (Gen 16:12). But I think the Ishmael of Genesis 21 is more like Esau than like Cain, and that Sarah sent him and Hagar away not because he was threat­ening anyone’s life, but simply out of a desire for her own son to inherit.

What is it that Ishmael does that rubs Sarah the wrong way? She sees him “playing.” The Hebrew word here is “mitzhachek”—to laugh, to play, to mock. “Mitzachek” is the same verb that consti­tutes Isaac’s name, “Yitzhak.” We might trans­late the Torah like this: “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham Isaac-ing”—mocking Isaac, pretending to be him, doing as Isaac does, taking his place. It’s not that Ishmael has done anything wrong, it’s not that he’s evil or shooting any arrows yet; it’s that he’s going to inherit, as Esau would have instead of Jacob if Rebecca hadn’t intervened.

So what happens to those who are not chosen? And why do we hear their story on Rosh Hashana?

To address these ques­tions, I want to tell you a midrash about what happens between Hagar and Ishmael in their exile. This midrash happens to be a poem—most poems are drashes on something—written by a soldier, now dead, in the twen­tieth century. To under­stand it we must remember how, at Sarah’s bidding and with God’s approval, Abraham sent Ishmael and Hagar off into the desert with some bread and a skin water. Here is the Torah’s account:

When the water was gone from the skin, she [Hagar] left the child [Ishmael] under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “let me not see it when the child dies.” [Gen 21:15–16]

Let me not see it when the child dies.” Here is the poem:

To My Mother

She places me
Like Hagar places Ishmael
Under one of the shrubs

So she would not be present in my death, in the war
Under one of the shrubs
During one of the wars.

Let us forget for the moment that the soldier who wrote these lines, Yehuda Amichai, prob­ably did so during or in between one of Israel’s wars, and think of the poem as some­thing that is rele­vant to anyone who ever had a mother and lived during a time of war. We do not know for certain that the speaker of this poem is a soldier, and certainly it is not only soldiers who die in war; we don’t even know if the speaker died. We know only that he or she is an indi­vidual who has been placed under a shrub not for protec­tion, but so the mother “would not be present in” the speaker’s death. The poem suggests that this happens a lot: there are many shrubs, the poem implies with irony, and there are many wars, what’s so special about this shrub and this war and this indi­vidual?

One odd thing about this poem is its title. Traditionally, poems titled with an apostrophe—that is, an address, like “To Autumn, To My Twenties, To Jewishness,” to name a few of my favorites—such poems are in the tradi­tion of the Ode. In a tradi­tional Ode, the speaker of the poem addresses the listening subject in the second person, as a “you.” But this poem addresses the figure of the mother in the third person, as a “she.” Why? What is the effect of this depar­ture from tradi­tion? This use of the third person shat­ters the inti­macy of the ode, and under­scores the distance between the speaker and the mother. This mother is not the inti­mate you, but a “she”; she has removed herself “so she would not be present in” the death of her son, protecting herself from the pain of bearing witness to his death. The mother is not listening to this poem—and that’s why the poet, ampu­tated from his mother like a doomed limb, must use the third person.

Rosh Hashana is a day when we remind ourselves to listen, to hear. Of the shofar, Maimonides has said: “There’s an allu­sion in it, as if the shofar were saying ‘Awake, sleepers, from your sleep! Arise, slum­berers, from your slumber! Scrutinize your deeds! Repent with contri­tion! Remember your creator! Peer into your souls, improve your ways and deeds.” If we listen to the shofar in the right way, we can hear in it also the cry of Ishmael, the suffering exile, which Hagar tried not to hear, but God heard well. Ishmael’s very name, “Yismael,” means “God will hear.” Amichai’s poem works the same way that the shofar does: as a sound that asks us to hear the voice of one put out on the margins, far from where we are in space, time, and emotion. The poem and the shofar say, feel what I felt—I, who might have been chosen, but was neglected.

What does Hagar do to Ishmael that is so wrong? She places him under a bush, then walks a bowshot away. It may be she wanted to give him shade from the sun, as the wicker basked might have shaded the infant Moses when his mother placed him in the water among the reeds. But Moses was aban­doned because his mother knew he would have a better chance to live in the water than in the house; Hagar has already given up on Ishmael. And why does Hagar go “a bowshot away”? What a curious, sinister distance. Rashi says that the distance was about two bowshots. We might read the distance like this: The cries of the child, and the sight of the child, are like arrows aimed at Hagar’s heart; the sting they cause is the pain of guilt, the pain that says, you were supposed to take care of me. By aban­doning Ishmael and leaving him “a bowshot away,” Hagar is trying to atten­uate and outdis­tance her sense of respon­si­bility for the child, to make his death more anony­mous, like that of Amichai’s speaker, and thus easier to bear.

It is not Hagar’s fault, of course, that she and Ishmael should be in exile; it is not the mother’s fault that there are wars. Really, the one who bears the most respon­si­bility for the situ­a­tion is God, who told Abraham to heed Sarah’s command to send the two into the desert. We might under­stand Hagar’s failure to stay with her son as a lack of trust in God, whom Hagar should have known would not forget her. But I think it is not so much a lack of trust in God as a lack of trust in herself. It is Hagar’s fear of her own inad­e­quacy, her own inability to care for the child, that makes her give up on him too soon. She is guilty not of creating the bad situ­a­tion, but of handling it poorly, of saying: the situ­a­tion over­whelms me, I don’t have faith in my own ability to make things right, I give up.

So Hagar gives up, and bursts into tears at a distance from her son. And, though it is painful to acknowl­edge, God does not hear these tears. But God does hear the cries of Ishmael:

And an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What trou­bles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” [Gen 21:17]

Open your eyes, God says, the well is already there. The well is always already there. If we hear the cries of those who suffer, if we hear the problem at hand, we will see the well, the solu­tion. When we give up, God ceases to hear us, just as he does not hear the weeping of Hagar; but when we are listening, when we pay atten­tion to those around us, when we believe that our actions can make a difference—God will provide. In Hebrew, the idiom for “paying atten­tion” is telling: tsam lev, which means, to give or put your heart to some­thing.

The most inter­esting part of the Ishmael story, which serves I think as a comment on all that we’ve heard so far, is what happens at the very end, after God rescues the boy:

God was with Ishmael, and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilder­ness and became as master archer.”

I want to end with some last thoughts regarding Ishmael’s calling as an archer. It is horribly tempting, in light of recent events to imagine this detail in the text to gesture forwards to the arrow-like qassam rockets that Palestinian and Lebanese mili­tants have used in recent years to terrorize Ashkelon, Haifa, and other Israeli civilian areas along her northern and western borders. But all the archers I know—Esau, Odysseus, Robin Hood, Legolas—all turn out to be decent fellows in the end in spite of, and perhaps because of, their respec­tive states of exile; and I don’t think that Genesis 21 means us to read Ishmael as a proto-terrorist. Rather, I hear in Ishmael’s occu­pa­tion a sugges­tion that he has learned some­thing valu­able from the story of his salva­tion in exile, the way a poor child in a rough neigh­bor­hood might learn some­thing from the way he is lifted up by those who hear his cries.

In our tradi­tion, there are three kinds of sin. The worst one, pesha, is an inten­tional sin against God; slightly less bad is avon, which is a sin done in a fit of passion. The last kind of sin, more excus­able than the other two, is cheit—which means, liter­ally, to err from the mark, and refers to all those sins we don’t really mean to commit, but do so because we’re care­less, lazy, unaware, or not seeing things prop­erly. It is no acci­dent that this last sin is described in the language of archery.

What does it mean, then, to be an archer? Perhaps it means to have the vision and atten­tion you need to hit the mark, and to do it straight and strong.

It may be that the most dangerous mistakes we make are the small ones—those moments every day when we are not listening to our friends, our lovers, or ourselves. These moments accrue without our noticing and bring a heav­i­ness to our lives, the cause of which is hard to pinpoint after. It may be that the most dangerous mistakes are those we make unin­ten­tion­ally, through some­thing or someone we fail to see or hear, through some­thing or someone we ignore. These sins are dangerous because they are small, and so hard for us to see. It is hard for us to see the damage we do by leaving the lights on when we leave our house. It is hard for us to see the full meaning of the statis­tics we read about in The Boston Globe on the soldiers and civil­ians dead in wars across the ocean. It is hard for us to see the hurt we cause when we let our work keep us from sitting down for a moment to listen and speak with a spouse or lover, father or mother. It is too often hard to see what stake we have in the lives of our neigh­bors. It takes an archer to get it right. It takes a keen sense of hearing.

May we hear in the sound of the shofar this year not only a call of atten­tion to those in a kind of exile—in Ashkelon as well as Bethlehem, in Darfur as well as Massachusetts—may we hear not only the cry of those who might become right­eous archers if we lift them up and hold them by the hand, however figu­ra­tively; may we hear in it also the sound of our common cause—as Americans, as humans, and as Jews.

May your days this year be like so many apples, crisp and sweet. May all the mistakes we have made this year yield wisdom for the next; may all of our obsta­cles become our teachers. May we bring joy and peace to our fami­lies and neigh­bors, and comfort even to those who are invis­ible to us. May those who are invis­ible to us be only as invis­ible as God. And may we hear what it is we need to hear. Shema, Yisrael.

Thank you for hearing me. L’shana tova.

David Gorin is a PhD student in English Literature at Yale University and a second-year in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in Jacket, The Believer, and Teen People. He lives in Iowa City.

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