High Holy Rosh Day 1 2018 Rabbi Norbert Weinberg
What do you see?
If any of you checked our Facebook page or gotten one of our emails, you would have seen an interesting line, “Call in 5779 with History-and Her story.” I will be humble. The credit goes to our Cantor, Stacey Morse, who decided, correctly, that our mothers were players in the big game of Judaism, not just the fathers.
What may seem as an attempt to show that we are hip and relevant, or flip and irreverent, is actually germane to this season. It is not some attempt to force gender-equality on us from some contemporary ideology de jour. Not man-splaining it. It is integral to this very holiday season.
We speak in terms of “Yom HaDin”, Day of Judgement, and the image of God as judge, as king, as father, all male, harsh, and cold images. We think of an Abraham, taking his son, unemotionally, up on the altar, the abstract ideologue, so wrapped in his vision, that all else fades away.
But this is only one half of the story.
Every element in this season is associated with Atonement, Kippurim, achieving forgiveness, Slichah, and even more so, with a plea for Rachamim. Rachamim, Mercy, or compassionate love, comes from the word, “Rechem”- the womb, the uterus, that part of the woman, as mother, as giver of life, as nurturer.
Hence, our Torah reading of the first day deals, first, with God remembering Sarah, as he promised. It follows with the tension between two mothers, Sarah and Hagar, as to which son, Isaac or Ishmael, is to be the heir to the message of Abraham. The Haftarah focus on the anguish of Hannah, who is the love object of her husband, yet feels unfulfilled as she is barren, childless. Tomorrow, our Haftarah reading depicts a despondent mother, Rachel, moaning as she sees her children led off to slavery in a distant land. It is the Holy One who now breaks down at Rachel’s tears and declare that the Israel is his own ben yakir li”, my dear son,’yeled sha’shuim”, the child whom he has indulged and spoiled. In the Torah reading of the second Day, too, Sarah is present by her absence. The classical Jewish mother. The Midrash says that as she hears of Abraham hauling Isaac up the mountain, she dies of heartbreak. How do we know? Because in the very next paragraph, Sarah is dead. Father is abstract; mother is all too much there.
So, this is very much a herstory, not a history.
At this point, I am going to pivot my focus on to one mother, the one who seems to be neglected, passed over by history, in our version, a least, Hagar. Truth be told, she is central to today’s reading. She is central because in her character, we learn about seeing and sight. We understand that she is blinded by her misery and pain. In story number two, Sarah dies; in this story, Hagar is immobilized and can not see her son’s salvation.
Sight and its counterpart, blindness, are as much a matter of our insight and outlook as it is a matter of photons striking the rods and cones in our retina.
Blind people who can see, while sighted people are visionless, is a popular theme for many a writer.
Many years back, there was a play and a movie; called Butterflies are Free, the story of a young man, blind from birth.
His mother reminds him of the children's tales she composed of "Little Donny Dark" with his slogan" There are none as blind as those who will not see". While the line may sound trite and commonplace, it rings too true for us all--there are those who have no eyesight, yet know very well where they are going, and others, with 20/20 vision, who are constantly walking in to walls.
For Rosh Hashanah, for a time in which we are to look inside ourselves, it is appropriate that our Torah reading of both days deals with being able and ready to see.
The first days reading deals with mother Hagar, abandoned in the desert, outcast, with her son Ishmael, who is dying of thirst. She has given up all hope, steps back at the distance of a bow’s shot because, “I cannot look at the death of my child.” God hears the child’s cry, an angel asks, typical Jewish fashion, a question, “Mah Lach Hagar?” Literally, “What’s it for you”, a kind ironic surprise, to say,” What are you worried about, what’s the matter.”Then”Al tiri”-Don’t be afraid!
Just then, our reading says:
Vayifkah eyeneha-God opened her eyes and “hiney”-behold there is a well.
Where did this well come from so mysteriously? Our Rabbis never liked the idea of miraculously appearing wells. “Hiney”-It’s here. !
Our commentaries suggest that the well had been there all along. In her anguish, Hagar had been blind to the solution, to the well of water next to her. By putting fear aside, she was able to see what was there, all along. Water, life, and a future for her child and his progeny.
On the second day, we read of Abraham and Isaac. This is a parallel with the Ishmael account, only here, Isaac is in danger. We know nothing of Abraham’s emotions. That is common in Biblical story-telling, and he is, unlike the mother, the macho, the stoic—doesn’t show anything. But here, too, we realize that he is blind, for we are told, with the same word as used in the story of the well, " vayar vehiney ayil aher"-Abraham sees and ,”hinei,behold there is another ram, "a ram to offer instead of his son. Did the ram just mysteriously appear? Rather, it was there because Abraham was no longer blinded by his zeal, ready to recognize that his loyalty to God did not require the sacrifice of his beloved Isaac. Appropriately, the site is then called: Adonay Yireh"-God sees."
So, we learn form our mothers, and from our fathers.
Sight, ordinary eyesight, as we sense it, depends as much on what our mind creates as what our eyes see. This is one of the classic givens of psychology.
Sight itself is just a mass of information- light in its different frequencies strikes the retina, hits the rods and cones, and provides stimulation to the optic nerve. It is the mind which comprehends these as light and dark, colors, shapes-- it is our mind which then coordinates and interprets to produce vision. This is true for physical vision. it also holds true for emotional and spiritual vision.
In truth, people who are physically blind can often be aware of sights that most, with good eyesight, are blind to.
"Better blind of eye than blind of heart (Midrash Ahikar 2.48) is how the Midrash phrased it, or" Not the eye but the heart is blind,” in the words of the poet, ibn Gabirol (Mivhar Hapninim).
Helen Keller, deaf and blind from the age of two, who established so much of the principals used today in making the blind self-sufficient, once claimed:
"I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in woods, sea or sky, nothing in the city street, nothing in books. What a witless masquerade is this seeing:
It were better far to sail forever/
In the night of blindness/
With sense and feeling and mind
Than to be thus content with the mere act of seeing.
They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with nothing but a barren stare."
Hagar, lost in the wilderness, was blind to a simple well; with words of hope, she could see what was there all along. Abraham, a man of vision, could see that his ultimate sacrifice did not include his own beloved son.
We too, like them, need to open our eyes constantly both to our physical world and to our immediate personal world. We can find a paradise or we can be blinded and find a hell--or worse--- a boredom.
Being able to see the spiritual, the healing, the noble and the sacred is a special gift in itself. Our very religion is based on the readiness to see what others have missed. It is Moses who goes into the desert to discover the burning bush, and this is how the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning described the experience:
Earth's crammed with heaven
/ And every common bush afire with God/
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes/
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries."
This thought was echoed by the quintessential American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who put it this way," If we meet no gods, it is because we harbor none. If there is grandeur in you, you will find grandeur in porters and sweeps."
Two centuries ago, the English mystic and poet, William Blake warned against a world taken over by the cold force of reason and the wheels of industry--He presaged a world of guillotine, gas chamber and gulag. He called for a return to vision, in his words:
To see a world in a grain of sand/
And a heaven in a wild flower/
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/
And eternity in an hour.
The very essence of the Jewish people, our ability to exist for so many centuries, is precisely because we, as a people, as a sacred community, followed in this pattern of being willing to open our eyes to visions of the sacred.
An ancient Midrash describes Abraham our ancestor having a vision of a castle glowing with shimmering lights. A voice comes from heaven and tells him," Can there be such a glowing, shining castle without the Lord of the castle." Thus, it is said, he saw the sanctity and holiness in the world, and recognized the existence of a divine source of this sanctity.
There are those of us who go through life seeing the flames of divinity in every wall and corner. There rest of us see and hear nothing, only pitch black.
On this Rosh Hashanah day, we need to learn, both from our mothers and our fathers, may we open our eyes like Hagar and see the wells of sustenance, may we open our eyes like Abraham and find our offerings of thanksgiving, may we see infinity and eternity, may we find cheyn vahesed- Grace and favor-- in the eyes of God and our fellow man and woman. Amen.