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Rosh Hashanah

by Rabbi Michael T. Cohen | Published on September 1, 2007

1. In the Torah portion tomorrow we read about Abraham, Sarah and the other “wife” Sarah had presented to Abraham; Hagar, and her son Ishmael. Our sages of the Middle Ages iden­tify Ishmael with the Muslim people of the Middle East. Sarah becomes jealous and hateful towards Hagar, who has borne a son to Abraham before she, Sarah, has done so. She tells Abraham “Send the ‘hand­maiden’ and her son away”.

2. Abraham is distressed. The Torah tells us this explic­itly. And this points to a seed of common­ality we have with the descen­dants of Ishmael, the Arabs. There is no doubt that Ishmael, as well as Isaac, is the beloved son of our Patriarch, Abraham. As Rashi, our Sage of the 11th century explains in his famous commen­tary; Isaac is the one and only beloved son of Abraham by his mother, Sarah. And Ishmael is the one and only beloved son of Abraham by his mother, Hagar. But God tells Abraham, ‘Listen to Sarah, and all that she says to you. And Abraham, don’t worry about Hagar and the boy. For I will make of him a great nation as well.’ Yet, there is a moment of despair for Hagar, after Abraham has sent her into the wilder­ness with Ishmael. She finally sits down and waits to die. But an Angel appears, and says: ‘Hagar. There’s a well right over here! God is also with you, and the boy.’ It is a sacred moment; a moment God, through an Angel, is present with a human being in her suffering.

3. I have just come from living and studying in Israel for the past 12 months. It was a year filled with amazing and sacred moments. During a visit in the Negev desert to a town called Yeruham, I saw this well. Our host took us on a walk into a little grove of trees. We met some Bedouin chil­dren and their father who were driving their goat from the grove. Our host learned the father had come there to hoist their goat from a well it had fallen down into. The well was a big cylin­drical hole, perhaps 30 feet across, 12 feet deep, lined on the sides with cement, over­grown with shrub­bery. He explained that this is THE Well, commonly believed by Arabs to be the well which the Angel showed Hagar in her moment of despair. Wow! The very place the Angel appears in this Torah portion.

4. Standing at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, you feel the history of that spot where the center of Ancient Israel stood, the house built for God to dwell. It is awesome, if one allows oneself to enter into contem­pla­tion. As it sits now amidst the rubble of the ancient Temple Mount, you can see the huge stones from the Mount thrown down by the Romans on the day we mark as Tisha B’Av. So many places are thought of as sacred in the Land. They are places in time, where events touched the lives of our fore­bearers in ways that make us conscious of their hearts, their pain, their joy.

5. There were scary moments, such as when I had to leave Haifa with my fellow students and seek refuge in Jerusalem because of the Hezbollah rockets when the war began. Jerusalem was swollen with people from the North living temporarily with friends or rela­tives. And there were anxious moments, because we didn’t know if the suicide bomb­ings would start, which fortu­nately did not happen. It took months before I began to ride city buses, knowing that they are the targets of these bomb­ings but faced with the reality of needing to get around. These were moments I had to accept the lot of a human being who lives in a zone of danger and conflict, and trust that somehow God has a plan.

6. There were exciting moments such as when a guest speaker, Rabbi Michael Melchior, spoke to a class in which I was a student. He is an orthodox rabbi and member of the Knesset. Rabbi Melchior’s party is plural­istic, believing everyone; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Secular, Muslim or Christian should have equal rights. Each succes­sive govern­ment of Israel has wanted Rabbi Melchior in its coali­tion because orthodox voices that accept other Jews in Israel, never mind Israeli Arabs, are few in number. He is now Chair of the Committee on Culture and Education. Even Israelis who hate politi­cians say Rabbi Melchior is 1 of the good people in their government.

7. I cared about the things that Rabbi Melchior was doing in the Knesset so much that I felt compelled to offer to help. I gath­ered up my courage, ran after him and asked if he needed a volun­teer in his office. That’s how I began to spend one after­noon a week working at the Knesset. I answered letters, edited his website and trans­lated his legisla­tive proposals. He brought me to a summit meeting of Interfaith leaders, a group he helped start in 2002. This includes a Sheikh who Heads the Islamic Movement in Israel, another who was medi­ating between Palestinian groups in Gaza, Muslim and Christian leaders, Orthodox Rabbis and an Anglican Peacemaker. To sit with these coura­geous leaders who agree on peaceful co-existence and work to promote trust and coop­er­a­tion was a sacred moment. Every person in that gath­ering under­stood the suffering of losing loved ones. Their response has been to forge a common purpose. That response, working from their hearts, over­coming their own feel­ings of rage and hatred, is sacred.

9. Let me try to put these moments of my Israel expe­ri­ence in the context of these High Holidays. The Talmud says part of our tradi­tion at this season is that the sound of the shofar is meant to evoke the wailing of the mother of Sisera. Sisera was the enemy general whom Deborah the Judge defeated. Why on earth does our tradi­tion give us the image of the mother of the enemy, worried and grieving over the unknown fate of her son, our enemy?! But the Sages go on and also asso­ciate the sound of the shofar with the wailing of our mother, Sarah, upon her learning that Abraham has just taken their son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacri­fice him.

10. The juxta­po­si­tion of the wailing of these women over their possible loss makes it clear that we are looking at human pain, at the humanity of both Israel and those with whom Israel strug­gles. We do that in the context of looking within and accounting for ourselves in the days of awe before the Gates of Repentance. Are these elements of our tradi­tion telling us to look at the pain of our enemies , as pain just like our own? What is the lesson about the sacred nature of this pain that is given to us here at Rosh Hashana?

11. To approach this I will also share some of the painful moments I expe­ri­enced in Israel. Some of these moments have to do with the man who taught me Hebrew when I was a boy. Zion, my teacher was born in Israel, the child of immi­grants from Kurdistan in what is now Iraq. His family came to Israel in 1930. Zion came to the US in the 1970’s to study. My Father hired him to teach me and my brothers Hebrew. He would give us 3 hour lessons on Friday and Sunday after­noons. He was very patient, and shared his love of Israel with us. We weren’t always such dutiful students. We used to hope for snow, or anything to prevent a lesson from taking place. During our break when Zion would drink coffee with our mother and leave his watch on the table, we used to change the time on the watch so later after the coffee break he’d think the lesson was almost over!

12. I hadn’t seen Zion in 25 years. I was aware he had become very reli­gious, and had moved to a settle­ment in the West Bank. I had written to him when we discov­ered that his 20 year old daughter was killed by a Palestinian sniper 6 years ago. Once I was living in Jerusalem I found him in the phone book. It was wonderful to reunite with him and his wife Ruth and their son. But he told me that he had aged all at once when his daughter was killed. At 75 he’d greyed, with­drawn from much of the world and stopped corre­sponding. This is the vigorous cham­pion who carried my brother up Masada on his shoul­ders in 1971. But a light went out in his life. His daughter Esther had been a beau­tiful, bril­liant, young woman. When I visited their home in Efrat at Sukkoth, I asked if I could look at the book on the mantle that Esther’s friends had compiled about her life. Ruth insisted I look, but I couldn’t bear to see that Zion retreated to a far corner of the living room and sat virtu­ally twitching in his deep pain over this loss. There was no wailing of the shofar in that moment. But to be a visitor in my friend and teacher’s parlor, and sit with this pain, and with their sorrow, was to be a witness to some­thing sacred. Not that the pain is sacred. But the human heart is sacred. And the human being sitting with a broken heart is sacred. As Hagar, thinking that her son was about to die and she couldn’t do anything about it. As Sarah, thinking that Abraham would have taken the life of their only child. By the end of the year Zion was begin­ning to change. He could not help but smile often when we were together. These healing moments were sacred as well.

13. Efrat, where Zion and Ruth live 5 miles from Jerusalem, is built on a biblical site where Jewish Settlers purchased land in the 1920’s and were wiped out in the War of Independence in 1948. Unfortunately it is also built abut­ting and cutting off parts of Bethlehem, sepa­rating Palestinian resi­dents from each other, from the city amidst their surrounding villages, and cutting off farmers from their land. It is part of the complexity of the conflict between our people in Israel and their Palestinian neighbors.

14. Another series of painful moments came when I visited a Palestinian friend in Bethlehem next to Efrat, on the other side of the secu­rity fence. I met Sami 5 years ago at a confer­ence for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which has been teaching non-violence as a way of polit­ical expres­sion for 100 years. I visited Sami and others he works with in Bethlehem, just 5 miles from Jerusalem, but virtu­ally in another world. These Palestinians work for change and against violence. That takes bravery, and heart, espe­cially when so many others they know have lost their lives. They welcomed Rabbinical students to meet with leaders of their commu­nity. They showed us that the secu­rity fence around Israel becomes a 30 foot wall that runs right through their city, through their farms. They go out every week and protest against the commu­nity of my friend Zion in Efrat. The Israeli Army opposes them and stops their demon­stra­tions. I saw that the same people protecting the human rights of the Gay and Lesbian demon­stra­tors and their supporters in Jerusalem, had to stop the Palestinian demon­stra­tors who sought to demon­strate by planting small olive trees on their own land that is cut off by Efrat.

16. I saw pain on both sides, among my friends in Efrat and Bethlehem. I recog­nized that the human being in pain, is a call to courage, to bear witness. I real­ized that each time I was in the pres­ence of someone acting from their heart, that took courage. But I also real­ized that only when people act with aware­ness of the humanity of others is the act of one’s heart sacred. I talked to an Israeli officer at Sami’s non-violent demon­stra­tion. As I stood there, holding an olive tree, I said that I wanted to tell him that I was grateful to the Police and to the State of Israel for the protec­tion they provided to the Gay and Lesbian demon­stra­tors the day before. But that I was sad to see the army stop­ping my friends from planting olive trees on their own land in Bethlehem.

17. I guess nobody at such demon­stra­tions typi­cally thanks the soldiers. This officer listened to me respect­fully, even though there was tension and pushing between some of the soldiers and some of the demon­stra­tors. He seemed to appre­ciate that I was offering the soldiers respect as human beings. Perhaps later it was the same officer who stepped forward after the demon­stra­tors were all leaving, and offered one of their shovels that they had left behind. I think his gesture was an offer of respect to the fact that these Palestinians were human beings who had tried to demon­strate peace­fully for their rights. In this soldier’s gesture was some­thing sacred.

18. A verse from Psalm 27 which we say each day during this season envi­sions always having sacred moments: “This I ask from God, for this one thing I yearn. That I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the pleas­ant­ness of the Lord and medi­tate within His sanc­tuary.” What are sacred moments? How can we live in their pres­ence each day? Act from your heart, aware of your neighbor’s heart. The rest, as Hillel says, is commentary.

Rabbi Michael Cohen was ordained with the first class to grad­uate from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA in June 2008. Michael is now a Chaplain and Supervisor in Training with HealthCare Chaplaincy, working out of St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan. 

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