Photo by Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Now I Have Seen, I Am Responsible

Michael Simon
D'var Torah / Sermon

These remarks are dedicated to the memory of Shimon Peres, who died last week.  Peres was a realist who was also a dreamer, known for his vision of a Middle East filled with peace.  When he died, he left behind a part of him that fits very well with who he was:  He donated organs that are still useful, even from a 93-year-old:  his corneas.


Rosh Hashanah 5777 Remarks

Among the wonderful speakers Hillel brought to campus last year, we were particularly thrilled to host one of the giants of the Jewish world, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

In his commentary on the High Holiday Machzor (prayerbook) and other writings, Rabbi Sacks wonders about the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah.  Given that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of the world, he says, “We would surely have expected the Torah reading to be from the opening of Genesis, ‘In the beginning, God created.’  Logical but wrong.   Instead, “On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the “anniversary of creation,” we read in the Torah and haftarah not about the birth of the universe but about the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Samuel to Hannah as if to say, one life is like a universe. One child is enough to show how vulnerable life is – a miracle to be protected and cherished.”

Indeed, the Torah portion begins, “And God remembered Sarah”.  God remembers and Sarah conceives and gives birth to a child in her and Abraham’s old age.  The child, of course, is Isaac, and he is circumcised and weaned, and Abraham makes a great feast to celebrate his weaning.

That could have been the end of the story, or at least the end of what we read on Rosh Hashanah.  The miracle to be protected and cherished and celebrated.  But it’s not the end of the Torah portion, not by a longshot.

Right after the celebration, Sarah sees Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, “making sport” with Isaac.  She says to Abraham, “Send away that slave and her son”, but this distresses Abraham, since it is not just Hagar’s but also his son.  Yet God tells Abraham, “Listen to Sarah, to whatever she says, for it is Isaac who will keep your name alive, and I shall build a nation from the maid’s son also, because he too is your descendant.”  And Abraham does as he is told:  early the next morning, he gives bread and a flask of water to Hagar and sends her and her child away, into the desert.  Effectively, he banishes them from his home.

Hagar strays in the desert, and the food and water run out, and then she casts Ishmael into bushes and sits far off from him because she does not want to watch him die.  She then lifts up her voice and cries out in anguish.  And then God hears the cry of…Ishmael, and an angel of God tells Hagar to arise and lift up the lad, for God will make him a great nation.  And then God opens her eyes and she sees a well of water and she fills the flask and gives it to Ishmael to drink.  And we are told that God was with Ishmael and he grew, became an archer, and dwelled in the desert.

I used to read this story as being about the birth of Isaac, the long-sought-after “true heir” of Abraham and Sarah.  I understood that it presented a harsh punishment – maybe justified and maybe not – of Ishmael for “making sport” with Isaac.  And a harsh punishment of Hagar possibly for an incident that happened earlier in Genesis, when she acted superior to Sarah when Sarah was barren and she, Hagar, was able to deliver a son to Abraham.

But I have come to see that what we can see in this story is, well, a way of seeing.  Maybe even radical seeing. That when we see something that challenges us we can’t really un-see it, and in a sense seeing the thing makes us responsible for it.

This summer, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel, something I often do – in fact, last year I spoke during the High Holidays about a wonderful Birthright trip I had just taken with Northwestern students.  My connection to Israel, as many of you know, is strong and intense.  I traveled there for the first time in 2000, then lived in Jerusalem from 2001 – 2003, during the height of the second Intifada.  During that time, I fell in love with Israel, with Jewish learning, and with a young American woman, Marla Bennett, who was killed in the terrorist attack at Hebrew University in July 2002.  I began working at Harvard Hillel shortly after I returned to the U.S. in 2003, and then at Northwestern Hillel in 2010, and during these years I have brought hundreds of students to Israel in the hope that they would connect with the beautiful and complicated land and people I love so deeply.

But my trip in July was a bit different.  I traveled with two dozen Jewish communal leaders on an intensive four-day journey in the Palestinian territories organized by Encounter.  For four days, we visited with Palestinian activists, educators, high school and college students, and political officials in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem.  Throughout the journey, we practiced resilient listening, bringing our full selves to each encounter with a willingness both to challenge the perspectives we were hearing but also to try to fully hear what was being said and presented.

We saw what many of us have only read about:  the fairly vibrant large cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, but right next to each crowded refugee camps.  And just outside of Bethlehem impoverished Palestinian villages right across the road from relatively gleaming Jewish communities surrounded by fences and guarded by soldiers. And we saw checkpoints, walls, and army outposts.

On the last day of the trip, we left Ramallah and returned to Jerusalem, and along the way we passed the Khalandiya checkpoint.  At that junction, the Israeli security barrier, or separation fence, or wall – whatever you choose to call it – is very much a wall, well over 20 feet tall.  Near the checkpoint the wall has become a magnet for political graffiti, with images reminiscent of what one might have seen on the Berlin Wall.  Amid large portraits of Yassir Arafat and Marwan Barghouti and pictures of the Palestinian flag and clenched fists was one sentence, in large, bold black print, that caught my eye and has resonated with me since:



Nothing that I saw during my brief visit to the Palestinian territories really surprised me; as I said, I have read about it, heard it, discussed it.  But there is something different about seeing for oneself.  What you’ve seen you can’t really un-see.

And I don’t know exactly what “I am responsible” means.  I’m going to spend the next months and years unpacking that, but I also know that I don’t have the luxury of just “unpacking” it as an intellectual or rhetorical exercise.  So while I’m not sure exactly what “I am responsible” means, I can at least recognize that I am personally implicated in the conditions that Palestinians are experiencing, just as I am personally implicated in those that Israelis are experiencing.  And being implicated makes me obligated to talk about what I’ve learned, to learn more, to go deeper, and to act.

Which brings me back to the Torah portion.  The key difference for me, as I read it this year, is “seeing”.  The people in the story see what they are able to see, what they want to see, but they also are unable to see so much because they are not willing or able to open their eyes.  Sarah sees Ishmael as a threat, and demands that he and Hagar be sent away.  But she doesn’t see Ishmael as a beloved son of her husband – it’s too complicated, or too painful.  Hagar sees herself as a victim and her situation as hopeless, but she doesn’t expand her viewpoint to notice a well right in front of her eyes that can save her son and herself.   Abraham sees what God wants him to see, but, at least in this instance, he doesn’t see his own potential for agency, he doesn’t see that he can say, clearly, “no, this is wrong.”

For me, what’s most powerful is that we’re reading this at all.  For Rabbi Sacks, the surprise is that we are directed away from the Creation of the World to the creation of one life.  For me, the surprise is that, on the day when we are celebrating the Creation of the World and given a Torah portion that celebrates the formation of the Jewish people, in that very same moment we are presented with this jarring story of Hagar – a name that resonates with the word “ger”, stranger.  We are confronted with The Other and forced to see their plight in human terms, to see Abraham’s responsibility, Sarah’s, Hagar’s, and, yes, God’s responsibility.  This story cries out to me, “Now I have seen.  I am responsible.”

So how does this translate into our own lives, here in the beginning of October 2016 on the campus of Northwestern University.  We’re on a campus that has experienced its share, at least, of challenges in the past couple of years as voices that have been marginalized have become louder and more strident.  We are on a campus where students have an amazing array of activities available to them, but also so much stress.  Are we seeing each other, and are we taking responsibility for ourselves and one another?

And on a larger scale, we are an American nation that feels, a bit, like we are coming apart at the seams.  As we become ensconced in the comfortable and beautiful grounds of Northwestern’s campus, are we seeing that just 20 miles away there are thousands of people, mostly young and male and Black and Latino, being shot in the streets of south Chicago in the past year?  Are we seeing that our wonderful town of Evanston, of which I am a proud citizen, has its own divisions by race and place and economic background?

Now I have seen.  I am responsible.

As we enter into 5777, my wish for each of us, and for our campus, is that we see more broadly, more clearly, more honestly than we have before.    This doesn’t mean that if you care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you need to travel halfway around the world to see and hear from Israelis and Palestinians (but if you can, you should).  But it does mean approaching our interactions with others, our encounters with the other, with petichat lev, an openness of the heart, and the compassion to extend the most expansive possible view of each other grounded in empathy.

Let’s listen to and learn one another’s stories,  Let us see and let us take responsibility in ways that better ourselves and our community…and maybe even help to repair the world.

L’shana tova u’metuka — a happy and sweet New Year — to each and every one of you.

PLEASE NOTE: The views expressed in this section of the website are not neces­sarily those of Encounter as an organization. We support the chorus of voices of the Jewish commu­nity in engage­ment with the complex­i­ties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so long as they are consis­tent with our core values.