Rosh haShanah (5776) — Sarah’s Gate: A Gate of One’s Own

18/09/2015 at 09:28 Leave a comment

“Sarah’s Gate”


Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

14 September 2015

So, how are you? How was your year? What’s changed since we last spoke, or saw each other? If you’re visiting, or here for the first time – welcome – I hope that we too have a chance to say hello and exchange greetings in these opening days of the New Year – and it was delightful to see so many of you last evening and again here today, and have the opportunity to share time together.


A few things have happened, as we begin 5776. I’ve just had the privilege to start my 18th year in service to this community – our oldest, a sophomore in university, declared a double vocal performance and philosophy major in the Macaulay Honors Program at Brooklyn College – as he has been for the past few years, he is now in Nyack, New York , celebrating and helping to lead services with my dear friend, Cantor Michael Kasper — our daughter is a sophomore at McCallum High School where she has a choir concentration, and enjoys working with power tools and fabricating designs on set and crew in the various theatrical productions in the Fine Arts Academy – and our youngest – well, in these 18 years of living in Austin, he has allowed me to explore a new identity, beyond what I thought I would experience – and I feel the rush of all things Texas, when I tell you that he is a starting lineman on the A team of his middle school football team. The rabbi’s son. America.



Last night, I spoke about each of us transforming ourselves into angels of action – not angels who sing in the praise chorus, but rather angels who are not afraid to get their hands dirty – seizing injustice, abuse, neglect, and wrongdoing, and wrestling each of them to the ground – compelling them to change their adverse names into blessings, as the unnamed angel did with unripe Jacob, who became known after that encounter, as a more mature Israel.


And I am guided to the dilemmas offered by our tradition on this day of regeneration – as Avram became a more God-soaked Avraham, and his wife Sarai, became skeptical, devitalized, and more mercenary as Sarah – how she withered too, in his overwhelming shade — possessing little light of her own, reflecting and negotiating rather, Abraham’s powerful intensity. As the writer, Virginia Woolf penned in 1929 – women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.


What message is in front of us this day, as we peer more closely at Sarah – a woman also far from her ancestral home, not going from there because she was inspired by the word of God – rather she went, because she was taken by her husband to a land that would be shown to him. At such an advanced age, at last, Sarah finds joy in the birth of her son – she exclaims – kol hashomei’a yitzchak li – everyone who hears about this birth will laugh with me, and indeed, as this miraculous birth is said to have occurred on Rosh haShanah – there are special gates open specifically today that admit our fervent prayers for those who are barren, infertile, exploited, threatened, and suffering from the trauma of rape and abuse. There is a special Gate of Sarah that rejects objectification of women – that repudiates the indignities that women regularly suffer – and that beckons into its entrance all those who are survivors of such violence and antipathy.


And yet, after waiting so long, the joy of having a child is not enough. Sarah moves to exile Hagar and Ishmael from her household, and our contemporary view of her austere decision casts her in an unfavorable light. Rather than demonstrating courage, she is seen as mean-spirited and unable to share – she is depicted as jealous of Hagar, and suspicious of Abraham’s devotion to his oldest son.


Indeed, our tradition is critical of measuring our success by another’s advancement – as our Talmud teaches — v’amar Rav Natan bar Aba amar Rav – kol ham’tsapeh al shulchan acheirim, olam chasheich ba’ado – she’ne’emar, nodaid hu la’lechem ayeih – yada ki nachon b’yado yom choshech – Rav Chisda amar – af chayav einan chayim —

Rav Natan bar Abba said in the name of Rav – anyone who has to look to another’s table for food, is considered as if the world facing that person is dark, as the Book of Job states — he wanders for bread, asking “where is it?” – it is this person who knows that the day of darkness is close by. Rav Chisda maintains that this life – a life of looking to another’s table — is not a life.


And yet, as we experience life, we realize that not much is at it seems, and appearances can be deceiving. In our concealed hearts, what resentments do we constantly harbor, and how can Sarah be justified in her directed action to break up her husband’s family? What leads Sarah to make absolute decisions about the lives of others that on the surface appear cruel and hard-hearted – and further, how can God condone such action, muting Abraham’s bothered response by stating – kol asher tomar eilecha Sarah sh’ma v’kol’ah – whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says?


What are the various factors that we must take into account when we make difficult and complicated decisions? When we viscerally experience Sarah’s disappointment — perhaps her profound regrets involving her moldering, long-term relationship with Abraham – the ways that their lives took different turns over the years, can we not only have some sympathy for her, but can we see her choices as meritorious – decisions that can be praised, under our scrutiny? It sure does feel good to say that helping anyone in need is a moral imperative. It is seductive to compare anyone at risk to Hagar and Ishmael, cast out of their home, to wander in the wilderness – yet beyond sloganeering or trafficking in clichés, in what practical ways can one be helpful, without setting up a deleterious or pernicious environment and putting our lives in peril?


How are we moved – does it take a picture of a drowned three-year old boy to awaken the latent guilt and the amazing compassion that routinely courses within us – is it enough for us to make our best effort for a particular period and then proclaim, “Mission Accomplished? Are these refugees different from those who have been trapped in Sudan and many other places for so many years – all confronted with a bleak future? When we extend our hand, for whose benefit do we act – to do the right thing, at least right now? To receive the short-lived sympathy of fickle world opinion? To assuage our culpability? As things go — to improve these lives, but because of extenuating circumstances, not others?


In aspects of our lives, do we not set up boundaries to protect what we consider to be sacred? Our Torah teaches us to tithe 10% and not overwhelm ourselves in altruistic acts – to not destroy our home in pursuit of the good. Can we not be honest in acknowledging our own fears in upsetting an already uneasy balance as we see the tens of thousands of desperate people fleeing from their homes, in search of places that are safe — offering even the possibility of a viable future? The lessons of our tradition sparkle here, when we see the determination of Sarah to have a room of her own, on one hand, and in the reassurance that the angel gives Hagar, that all will turn out well, on the other.


The Torah locates the angel as speaking from heaven – from a place of remove, and not intimately involved in the particular, urgent suffering of Hagar and her child. Sometimes help is better utilized when it emanates from a distant place – that separation aids in cultivating good feelings and minimizes resentment and animosity – as the poet Robert Frost writes – and on a day we meet to walk the line/and set the wall between us as we go. Can providing help from a secure distance not be more helpful than dropping down unprepared, amid the conflict?


Can it not be that Sarah could be both protective and helpful at the same time? There is a compelling midrash that teaches that the angel encouraging Hagar is Sarah herself – providing for the vulnerable, considerate from a distance, opening up hopeful possibilities and elevating her spirit only after her future with Isaac is more assured and secure. When we first secure our interests, are we not then in a position to offer help and assistance from a place of generosity, rather than from bitter coerciveness?


Can we not rightfully say that this place is not your place – and that your place does exist, which we will help you find? Can our active work as angels come from a place of distance – and that normalization, a sharing of life, hearts, and home, must be deliberate and well considered?


We can never expect the world to do the right thing. Looking for some inspiration, some precedent, of how to make sense of our troubled current world, I have researched and read a bit about the peace negotiations that occurred in Paris in 1919, after World War I. This precedent, while revealing, is not so optimistic – for any idealism about a better world was, as is so often the case, engulfed in the realpolitik of self-interest — as Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France wrote to US President Woodrow Wilson about their clash of aspiration and realism, just after the war – he writes – please do not misunderstand me. We too came into the world with the noble instincts and the lofty aspirations, which you express so often and so eloquently. We have become what we are because we have been shaped by the rough hand of the world in which we have to live, and we have survived only because we are a tough bunch.


In hindsight, the negotiations and the agreements at Versailles are considered largely to be a failure – the contents not possessing the courage to tackle the real issues that were plaguing the world, and that were criticized as a knee-jerk document, speaking at once in flowery, obfuscating grandiloquence, and on the other, used for revenge – however, with many of its provisions ultimately not enforced. It is undeniable that after the treaty was ratified twenty years later, another world war and another genocide occurred with murder on an unprecedented, horrific scale, in plain sight of many of the survivors of the Great War and supporters of the treaty. When we say never again, are we willing to do the hard work to actually give teeth to that phrase – or do we mean, never again, in my backyard?


Before trying to reflexively solve seemingly insurmountable problems, do we have the will to move past lingering guilt, to shed our suspicions, to beat back oppressors, and to address the root issues that cause so much pain and suffering? Do we have the moral courage to recover our character in a sustainable way – not making important yet impulsive decisions about people’s lives, before our attention is turned elsewhere – before another arresting picture surfaces – and others are left to deal with the crucial details of what we have initiated?


Here is a partial list of what was taken off of the agenda of the Supreme Council at the Paris Peace conference in 1919: the League of Nations, Polish affairs, Russian affairs, Baltic nationalities, states formed from the late Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Balkans, the Far East and the Pacific, Jewish affairs, legislation to guarantee people’s self-determination, protection for ethnic and religious minorities, and penalties for crimes committed during the war – the loss of will and commitment to discuss these important issues at such a seismic shift in civilization led directly to the exhibitions of everyday horror that was the 20th century, and that remains our inheritance.


As we notice Abraham’s wide-ranging wanderings – as we see him zoom from cause to cause, losing sight of priorities as he protractedly argues for the citizens of Sodom, but gives up his son without a murmur – can we not appreciate Sarah’s caution in living not just for today, but for the day after today – can we appreciate her discernment and her wisdom?


When I speak to couples who are looking to get married, we speak about many of the details and the beautiful teachings and ideas that surround and uplift gathering in a huppah – generally when we steer the conversation to the day after the wedding and the relationship that will emerge after sanctifying two people before God – and we begin to focus on the responsibilities of marriage, there is a little lull.


I gently explain how relationships can change – how circumstances can shift – how the arrival of children, or the lack of children can vex even the best of emotional health. How bodies can fail – how sickness can intrude, or interests diverge — how dreams can be deferred or detoured, and how good behavior can give way to a sense of routinization and everyday, simmering acrimony as people drift apart. As Leonard Cohen writes – we asked for signs/the signs were sent/the birth betrayed/the marriage spent.


As we step determinedly into this New Year, let us not turn away from the ragged, desolate relationship that existed between Sarah and Abraham – it may help us discover something about ourselves and about our relationship in this world. How do we compensate for our unhappiness – to what lengths will we go to protect that which has meaning for us, as we pave over the rest? What are the cognitive, emotional, and psychological firewalls that we construct within us in order to cope with our disappointments, and what are the consequences for our distance – what becomes damaged because of our incapacity to act and take care of ourselves?


And yet, our eyes still shine in anticipation – we still have a burning, wondrous hope for what yet can be – we try again, we dare to love again, as the angel, Sarah, is prepared to help on her own terms from a protected space – from a place that allows her to live fully in the confined space of her relationship – to move out from victimhood on her own terms.


May each of us not be tasked to repeat the history that we barely know – for the broad brushstrokes of history belie the agonizing details of the unfolding of time – may we take Virginia Woolf’s words to heart as we decide where to lay bare our efforts – may we consider when we are to jump into the fray as angels of action, and when we give our help as from heaven – as she writes – we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods, but by finding new words and creating new methods.


As Sarah, let us identify what is home to us, first – what is sacrosanct and not to be compromised or imperfectly arbitrated in a larger conversation with competing interests. Let us fiercely protect that – and then, let us be angels to those outside of our shelter, and take Clemenceau’s words as a renewed challenge for our generation, as we must find new solutions to creeping and catastrophic problems that threaten to seize us and carry us away in a calamitous whirlwind, as he writes – yes we have won the war and not without difficulty; but now we are going to have to win the peace, and that will perhaps be even more difficult.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah



Entry filed under: Judaism, Talmud, Torah, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Erev Rosh haShanah (5776) — Queen for a Day Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre (5776) — Paradise Now

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