Rosh Hashanah 5779: Morning Drash

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The song writer Hugh Prestwood1 wrote a song in the late 1970s that Judy Collins recorded. Entitled Dorothy, it is about Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I’m not going to sing it, but just know it has a very haunting, melancholy melody.

This song isn’t played for laughs.
Here are the lyrics:

Livin in Kansas/ A life alone
She never married/She’s hardly known
She stares out the window/Far away
Looking for another/ Windy day
Chorus
Dorothy was a fool to leave/ She could have stayed
She had it right in her hands/She had it made
She could have had it all for keeps/ She was afraid
She could have stayed
It seems like only/ Yesterday
But 40 years have all but/ Slipped away
Since a lonely/ Black haired girl
Was taken for her one/ And only whirl
Repeat Chorus
Same old bluebirds/ Flyin high
Over rainbows/ In that Kansas sky
Why oh why/ Oh…. why
I guess it only serves her right
For trading all that color/For black and white
All her sorrow/ All because
There ain’t no way to stand Kansas/ When you’ve been to Oz

If you didn’t happen to be with us here last night, you may be wondering why I am talking about Dorothy and Oz on Rosh Hashanah—on the other hand, you may still be wondering that from last night if you were here!

This songwriter poses a different view of Dorothy’s story than the romantic one most of us hold. And he got me thinking …
What happens when home is overrated? After all, in the movie anyway, Dorothy didn’t run away from home just for the heck of it—there was real danger there—Toto was going to be separated from his family by government order, and Dorothy’s guardians felt helpless to change it. (By the way, did I miss something in the movie—isn’t it true that there is NO resolution to the Toto problem at the end of the movie?)

Is it strange that we all take Dorothy’s line,
“There’s no place like home,” as praise of home?
That the moral of the story is that being home should be everyone’s goal?
That the treasure is in our own backyards?
What happens when home isn’t all it’s meant to be?

What happens when expectations are built up and not met?

I wonder what it is that so many gay boys and gay men and queer friends of all sorts love about the OZ stories? I mean besides the ruby slippers and the sissy lion—is it Oz itself? How many of us, if given the option, and even knowing the film’s ending, would have stayed in Oz? Would have made a home in Oz?

And how many who love Oz share Dorothy’s longing for a home they can’t get back to? OR aren’t welcome to go back to?

If you were to describe your current home, would you describe something more Kansas or more Oz?

The Torah portion we are about to read—the one chosen for us centuries ago by our sages for this day on the calendar —includes the birth of Isaac – beloved son of our patriarch Abraham and matriarch Sarah, as well as the banishment of Isaac’s half brother Ishmael born to father Abraham and mother Hagar, maidservant of Sarah.

In this story that we read every year on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, not everything is “home sweet home.” This is not a story of domestic tranquility and family love. It’s a story of the pain and strain of infertility on a couple, of good intentions gone awry, of families torn apart not by government fiat but by Abraham, following—as he understood it—God’s instructions to him. And the conflict resolution at the story’s end wouldn’t be any of our versions of a happy ending, even though no one dies.

“Toto” is still in danger here.

And neither “Kansas” nor “Oz” is our happy place.
Every year, I ask myself (and I know I’m not alone)—Why did our ancestors – centuries ago – choose this particular story for us for us this particular morning?

The ostensible reason is clear—it’s even in the Talmud—midrash (Jewish legend) tells us that Rosh Hashanah is in part a celebration of the birthday of the world (hence my strange attire—that globe costume—earlier this morning) or according to some versions, the birthday of humankind on the sixth day of creation.

And that is why, also according to midrash, all the “best” people conceived or gave birth on Rosh Hashanah—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and Hannah—our foremothers, um (count on fingers) make that FIVE mothers!

So it makes sense that we read some of their stories on Rosh Hashanah. And it makes sense that we read of Isaac’s conception and birth on Rosh Hashanah (as well as Rebekah’s, though hers is almost a footnote), especially given Isaac & Rebekah’s role in the continuation of this people—our people—that began just a few chapters before when God calls Abraham and Sarah to go to a land “I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”

But why this unsettling story of a family breaking apart, including the actual and permanent banishment (and near death from thirst) of family members? Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, who, at Sarah’s request had stepped in to be a surrogate when Sarah had trouble getting pregnant; and Ishmael, the son Hagar bore to Abraham—again, at Sarah’s request—why are those two—Hagar and Ishmael– banished?

The reason seems vague: “Sarah saw the Egyptian Hagar’s son—the one she bore to Abraham – laughing.” Actually, we’re not sure what Ishmael was doing, the Hebrew reads m’tza-khek the same root (shoresh) as the name Isaac, Yitzkhak which means “he will laugh.” Maybe Ishmael was laughing at Isaac, or with Isaac, maybe there was something sexual going on between the two brothers, maybe Ishmael was laughing at a time Sarah wanted him to be serious, or maybe Sarah was unhappy to see Abraham’s other son, the one she DIDN’T give birth too, being happy. We’ll never know for sure. The text is too ambiguous. But we do know for sure that many explanations are possible.

Neither will we ever know for sure what God meant in telling Abraham Shma b’koli, listen to her voice, meaning Sarah. The next thing we know Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness of Beersheva with only a little bread and a skin full of water.

Perhaps, as I’ve spoken of before over the years, perhaps God meant to say to Abraham, listen to the pain in Sarah’s voice sh’ma B’kolah, talk with her, find its cause, soothe her. Perhaps this banishment, that led after all to the start of a whole separate nation and eventually religion—for Muslims see themselves as the descendants of Ishmael, just as Jews count Isaac in our line of descent—perhaps this banishment could have been avoided, perhaps this family could have stayed together.

That’s not what happened of course, although we do learn later that Isaac and Ishmael come together 75 years later to bury their father Abraham [Genesis 25:9-11] and may have had some connection outside of that as well.

It has long seemed odd to me that the rabbis of old use the story of Abraham and Sarah, and a little bit this story of Hagar and Sarah too, to talk about the Jewish “virtue” of shalom bayit—there’s that word bayit again that i made so much of last night—shalom bayit means “peace in the home.” The value of keeping a peaceful home, where family members seem at least to get along with and care about each other (whether they do or not is another story). Some contemporary critics (me among them) worry that the concept or the term Shalom Bayit becomes a mask hiding what’s going on behind closed doors, that shalom bayit becomes a code word, an excuse for ignoring or hiding or allowing domestic violence or emotional abuse or incest or marital rape or substance abuse or disowning queer children or pregnant teenagers or—[take a breath] I’ll stop— it’s Rosh Hashanah…[or any of a whole host of family problems to be swept under the rug (there’s a great idiom, isn’t it?)

It’s not a coincidence that there are Jewish domestic violence prevention and response organizations called Shalom Bayit2.

It’s one of those slippery slopes: under the category of shalom bayit a famous passage in Talmud uses Sarah and Abraham to give permission for telling a so-called innocent or harmless lie in order to prevent hurt feelings or “trouble at home.”

The Talmud references the Torah story, just a few chapters before our story today, when God tells Sarah she will conceive a child with Abraham though she’s 89 and Abraham is 99 years old. When God says this, Sarah expresses disbelief (ya think?!), saying: “Now that I am dried up shall I have pleasure, my husband being old [also]?” But when God relays the story to Abraham, God leaves out an important part, saying only: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?” (Genesis: 18:12-13). The rabbis comment that God omitted Sarah’s mention of Abraham’s old age out of concern for their shalom bayit, lest Abraham’s feelings be hurt knowing Sarah thinks of him as an alta cocker. He was nearing a hundred after all (then again he did live to be 175, so…)3

A story taught me by my friend Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer:

A guru and some of her students pass within earshot of two people vehemently arguing in loud voices.

She stops a little way past them and asks, “If those two are so physically close to each other, why are they shouting?”

Her students offer a couple of thoughts, but realize that they do not know.

The guru says, “They’re shouting so they can be heard from far away.”

“But they’re in each other’s face,” says a student, “what’s far away about that?”

Replied the Guru in a quiet voice, “I mean the distance between their hearts.”

What happens when we get all dewy-eyed and romantic about what a wonderful place “home” is, how warm and welcoming, and then someone has a different experience from what’s been described, promised even?

What happens when we get all dewy-eyed and romantic about what a wonderful place a congregational home is, how warm and welcoming, and then someone has a different experience from what’s been described, promised even?

What happens when we don’t provide the home for each other we intend to provide; we want to provide? What happens when we get on each other’s nerves, or push each other’s buttons, or hurt each other’s feelings, intentionally or not?

I hope it doesn’t happen often, but it happens, and when it does (or before it does), what should we be doing to narrow the distance between our hearts?

My colleague and friend Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Senior Rabbi of our sibling congregation CBST in NYC, described a phenomenon a bunch of people at queer leaning synagogues could identify with4. She said that people come to our congregations with heightened expectations, thinking: “Here’s where I’ll be understood at last, or welcomed at last, here’s where they’ll want my input, my opinion, my ideas, my efforts.” Previously pushed out of other places for being “different,” “weird,” or worse, we finally arrive at the “safe space” (that Jessie talked about last night). Here’s the place where at long last I’ll be welcome to be myself. But then, with hopes raised, with stakes so high, the slightest misunderstanding or critique or passing comment or innocent lack of acknowledgment–perceived or real (does it matter?)—takes on huge meaning, the feelings of disappointment for things that in other places might not even be noticed, here become weighted with significance. It doesn’t happen all the time or to everyone, but when it does happen, it’s painful to more than the one initially offended.

As a group and individually, what can we do to develop better capacity to respond to one another, to figure out what it means to really welcome everyone, to reach out when hurts happen, to apologize and make amends, to commit to talking through things when misunderstandings occur? “Shana tova means both a good year and a good change,” Rabbi Laura Geller reminds us (p.6 of this mahzor).

How would the story of the Jewish people be different if Abraham and Sarah had talked that day she was upset with Ishmael, or if Sarah had talked with Hagar, or if Isaac and Ishmael would have been permitted to be friends, or if Abraham hadn’t banished them to wilderness with only a few supplies? If they had measured and reduced the distance between their hearts?

I don’t think the rabbis of old chose this story or tomorrow’s to say to us: “Permission granted to mistreat or miscommunicate, even our founding ancestors did that.” But rather to say: “Want to know how hard it is to communicate well, to be understood, to understand others (even loved ones, sometimes especially loved ones), to admit mistakes when we make them, to ask for forgiveness, to correct our way in the world, to forgive others their mistakes even if they don’t ask for forgiveness?—IT IS SO HARD that even our ancestors—even our founding parents—the ones God chose from among all others—even THEY had trouble doing it, even God Godself has trouble doing it.

“See? Look at this story and at this one…IT”S HARD to be a good and righteous person, it’s hard to treat others with dignity, to not favor some over others, to do what you think is the next right thing—to even come up with any idea about what the next right thing might be.”

And, while I’m speaking for the rabbis of old, I might as well continue:
“That it’s hard to do, doesn’t mean don’t try. It doesn’t mean give up. It means: i know it’s hard AND being Jewish means trying to do it anyway, even when it’s hard, and trying to make amends when we fail, and trying to take action so that we don’t make the same mistakes again—new ones, okay, but not that same mistake AGAIN.
[Look up:]
I’m for new regrets next year, not the same old, same old!!!
Anybody in?

There’s one other reason i think—I hope—actually i’m a little bit skeptical—that our sages chose this story above all others for this day of new beginnings. And I hope it’s part of why our Reform mahzor editors chose to return this story to its rightful place in our new prayerbooks. And that’s because of the moment in the story of Hagar and Ishmael—we’ll read it all in a few minutes—watch for it in context—it’s splendid—the moment when Hagar and Ishmael, banished by Abraham to the wilderness, run out of water and think they will soon die, and Hagar pushes Ishmael away so she doesn’t have to see him suffer and die. She gives up.

And an angel of God appears to Hagar and says: Mah-lakh, Hagar? What’s is it, Hagar? What troubles you, Hagar? reads our translation. “Do not be afraid…stand up. Lift the boy and grasp his hand in yours …And God (not the angel) opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.” [Gen. 21:17-19]

The part I love? The angel reminds her to hold on tight to her son, to Ishmael. “And God opens her eyes, and she saw a well of water.” This may not be so much a literal opening of eyes (though it might be, she’d been crying and we all know it’s hard to see through tears). Maybe the well of water is her tears—the healing power of tears.

I read it as an invitation to envision a different scenario than the one that caused her to break into loud cries in the first place. “va-tei-reh b’eir mayim and she saw a well of water,” says the text.

And all was well, say I.
Blinded by tears, by fears, by anger, regrets, hurts, puzzlements, self-righteousness, pride…whatever it is that blinds us, we can’t see the life giving waters—the mayim chayim—the well that has been there all along.

Maybe even in our own backyard.

Or the hand . . . waiting to be strongly grasped instead of pushed aside.

May this year and especially next year with an interim rabbi in place, may these years allow us the time and the space not to get caught up in the whirlwind (the cyclone?) of demands and checklists, the pressures of change and growth, but rather to stroll more leisurely—it’s a luxury, let’s take advantage—to really explore our wants, our desires, our expectations and needs, to really talk with one another and to listen not only to what we say, but how we say it, what’s behind the words and the silence, the tears and the laughter, the angry presence or the sudden absence.

Let’s notice each other (as God took note of Sarah at the beginning of our story). We’re facing huge gaps between hearts in the larger world, let’s narrow them wherever we can.

Let’s really take the gift we’re being offered—to describe our congregation to new people (and to each other), to talk to experts about what’s next, to reflect on our past, explore our present, and design our future as a congregation, as a community, as a house of new life, a house where God would come to dwell among us, where we can all feel happy to be home.

Shana tova—

 

 

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[1] https://www.allmusic.com/artist/hugh-prestwood-mn0000280519/biography

[2] Shalom Bayit: Home

Home


Shalom Bayit is the Bay Area’s center for domestic violence prevention and response within the Jewish community. We promote peaceful homes and families, teach skills for healthy relationships, and work to build a safe, vibrant Jewish community that is free from violence and abuse.

[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalom_bayit

[4] In conversation in the 1990s

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