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Open the Tent Flaps – Rabbi Saks’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon

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Open the Tent Flaps

Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 3, 2016 – 1 Tishrei 5777

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

 

 

For a moment, take in this space, this sanctuary filled with our community on this Rosh Hashanah morning. Often, I am complimented on the beauty of our synagogue building, and while I work hard to create community within these walls, I can take none of the credit for the inspiring design of our sanctuary space. Days like this, when the wall is removed and our congregation spreads out from north to south in this space, are among my favorite times to be in this room. Visitors and new members to our congregation often ask me about the symbolism of this space. There are many interpretations. While I will leave the official answer to those who designed it, I want to call your attention to the imagery that most powerfully speaks to me.

Rabbinic tradition describes Abraham and Sarah’s tent open on all sides with its occupants eager to welcome guests coming from all directions. When the three messengers come to tell Abraham and Sarah that they will conceive a son, Abraham sees them on the horizon and runs to greet them while Sarah prepares for their arrival. This is the story that comes to mind when I consider the space in which we worship this morning. The glass at north and south give us a view of the world outside our sanctuary, affording us the opportunity to see those outside these walls who may be in search of community. The swooping ceiling reminds me of fabric draped over the tent posts that line the east and west walls. Every time I enter this space, but especially on the High Holy Days, I try to perpetuate Abraham and Sarah’s legacy of welcome that I see represented in our sacred space.

This, however, is not the Abraham and Sarah we encountered in this morning’s Torah reading. Perhaps you noticed that our Torah reading on this Rosh Hashanah was different than last year’s, different than all of the years that have preceded this one in our community. In previous years, we have read the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, Genesis 22. But this morning, we are engaging with the text of Genesis 21, which tells of the weaning of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness by Abraham at Sarah’s request.

Sarah’s casting out of Hagar is the traditional reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The Reform rabbis, upon instituting a one-day Rosh Hashanah for our community, had a choice to make: the traditional first day text that we read this morning or the traditional second day text, the Binding of Isaac, that we have traditionally read before this year. They chose the latter, which is not without its complications, but I imagine that the strained human interactions in the text we read this morning raised more concerns for them and certainly challenged the universalistic theology with which they viewed Judaism’s relationship with the world.

Sarah’s expulsion of Hagar and her son, Ishmael, is a profoundly uncomfortable text. In it, Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar’s son with Abraham, ‘playing’ with Isaac, her son, shortly after his weaning. Isaac would have been weaned around the age of 3 and Ishmael would have been a young teenager. Sarah becomes uncomfortable with their interaction and demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, in part because she fears that Ishmael will stake a claim on her son’s inheritance. Abraham is hesitant, but God tells him, sh’ma b’kolah, listen to her voice; do what Sarah tells you to do.

What is it that happened between Isaac and Ishmael that makes Sarah so uncomfortable? Why would God insist that this mother and her child be sent into the wilderness with little to aid in their survival? The word the text uses to describe Ishmael’s actions is m’tzachek. This word shares its root with Isaac’s name, Yitzchak, which means ‘laughter.’ The straightforward meaning is that the boys were playing, but the commentators read into the word m’tzachek and presume that Ishmael must have been up to no good. Perhaps he intended to usurp Isaac’s role or perhaps he was interacting with him inappropriately. The similarity between Isaac’s name and Ishmael’s actions is not a coincidence, but the plain meaning of the text should imply that the boys were merely having fun.

No matter what was happening, Sarah perceived a threat and demanded action. Why would Sarah feel threatened by Hagar? Let’s consider Hagar for a moment. Who is she? Hagar was Sarah’s handmaiden, an Egyptian princess, whom Pharaoh gave Sarah as a gift. The Midrash says that she converted to Judaism and that eventually, Abraham saw her as a wife, not as a servant. This was not Sarah’s relationship with Hagar, though. Throughout their interactions, Sarah treated Hagar harshly, even earlier causing the latter to flee into the wilderness where an angel encouraged her return. Hagar’s name is related to the Hebrew word ger, stranger, which was how Sarah treated her.

In this instance, when Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be banished, Abraham, after consulting with God regarding his reservations about Sarah’s request, sent the two into the wilderness with only bread and water. In the wilderness, the two ran out of water and Hagar, sure that Ishmael would die, placed him under a bush and distanced herself from him so as not to see him suffer. God heard Ishmael’s cry, provided water for the two, and promised to make Ishmael a great nation like his half-brother, Isaac.

In the Midrash[1] the ministering angels condemn God for saving Ishmael, knowing that his descendants will oppress the Jewish people in the future. God rebukes them, asking, “Is he, right now, righteous or wicked?” They admit that at least at this moment in the wilderness, Ishmael is righteous, so God insists that he must be saved. Later in Jewish history, the Talmud says that when the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple, the Ishmaelites refused to provide water for the Jews who were dying of thirst. God demonstrates, in the retort to the ministering angels, that we are judged not by what we might do in the future, but by who we are right now.

This is precisely, though, the mistake that Sarah makes. She sees the boys playing and fears what Ishmael might do in the future, that he will perhaps try to steal Isaac’s inheritance. This is not Sarah’s finest hour. “Jewish commentators work hard to find some other explanation for Sarah’s actions, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure it’s appropriate [for] us to justify the ways in which a woman with geographic and ethnic privilege and a higher class status disenfranchises a woman who is, literally, a stranger without resources because the woman with power doesn’t want to share her son’s inheritance with the son she had, earlier, encouraged her husband to sire.”[2]

In other places in Torah, God commands kindness toward strangers, but here we see Sarah’s disregard for the vulnerable woman and child before her. How do we deal with this conflict in Torah? Earlier in the text, we have the second of two episodes where Abraham passes off Sarah not as his wife, but as his sister, in order to protect himself. Isaac does this to Rebekah later, too. The men see themselves as ‘other’ in a strange land and use their wives as a buffer to protect themselves. It should not surprise us, then, that Sarah perpetuates this view of the other in her interactions with Hagar. Sometimes, we make unkind choices when we are suffering. Torah gives us a glimpse into the human experience; the oppressed turn to oppression to alleviate their own suffering.

“In Sarah’s banishment of Hagar, can we see the horizontal violence that oppressed people visit on each other as they jockey for what seems to them limited resources, rather than making common cause against the forces that suppress them?”[3] “On first reading, this would seem to be an ‘us vs. them’ story. [Tikva] Frymer-Kensky [in Reading the Women of the Bible] points out, however, that this is really ‘us vs. another us.’ Despite Hagar’s humble origins and her marginalization, she is here to carry out a very important part of the story.”[4] Sarah is seeking to perpetuate Abraham’s line through Isaac and Hagar is doing the same through Ishmael. “From this understanding, we take away another important concept, that both the line descended from Isaac and the line descended from Ishmael are considered ‘us’; neither is considered ‘them.’”[5]

This text “makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and human society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves and the world we have created, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them.”[6] “As [Rabbi] Zalman [Schachter-Shalomi] also taught, once humanity became able to see our planet from space, our eyes were opened to our interconnectedness. What hurts ‘them’ hurts ‘us’ also.”[7]

Though we are not all the same and God made us each unique, God also made each of us in the Divine image. Each person reflects God’s image and light in the world. Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, is pregnant with possibility. The angel that consults with Hagar in her earlier visit to the wilderness advises her not to be afraid and we need to hear that voice, too.

“Rather than casting a human drama in simplistic terms, the story of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham poignantly illustrates the dilemma of multiple commitments. Among other things, this passage may seek to sensitize [us] to the plight of the outsider.”[8] The injustice that we see in Sarah’s actions are meant not to distance us from her, but rather to connect us with her. “It is not meant to be a comfortable identification… This story reminds us to scrutinize our actions, to think of the ways in which we have been blind to the power we have abused, unthinking in the ways in which our privilege has caused us to bring suffering to others, to people we don’t fully see.”[9] Too often, our symbolic tent flaps are drawn closed and we do not see the other who is actually connected to us. We fail to see the ways in which we perpetrate oppression out of fear.

At this time when we take an accounting of our souls by looking harshly at our mistakes and seeking forgiveness and atonement, we read a story about “being so attached to our own needs and wants that we forget who else we might hurt along the way.”[10] The text of this morning’s Torah reading, Sarah’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, should bother us, but not because of Sarah’s request, God’s encouragement, or Abraham’s compliance. It should bother us because it reflects our own behavior all too often.

As we enter the New Year and pledge to live our lives better, we have to consider whom we’ve cast into the wilderness with barely enough to survive. Some are literally cast off, like those fleeing persecution in their homelands who only find more persecution or apathy on our shores. Others are symbolically cast off, like our friends and family living with chronic illness to whose needs we’ve stopped attending because we’ve allowed it to feel like too much ‘extra’ for us to do. As much as there are differences that set us apart, there is far more that connects us. This morning’s Torah reading seeks to open our eyes to the fact that Sarah and Hagar are not so different from each other. In the text, enmity between two peoples – Jews and Muslims – is placed on the shoulders of two women who, in all likelihood, had far more in common with each other than either had in common with their husband, given the society in which they were living.

We, too, are not so different from each other. “There’s more that connects us than divides us. Imagine if we all woke up in the morning with the intention of strengthening what connects us, instead of digging in behind what divides us.”[11] Imagine we opened our symbolic tent flaps, gazed out at those beyond our real and figurative walls, and worked to bring them closer. Then, real t’shuvah would begin. L’shanah tovah tikateivu, May you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.

 

Bibliography

Barenblat, Rachel. Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775). September 25, 2014, <http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blogs/2014/09/children-of-sarah-and-hagar-a-sermon-for-rosh-hashanah-morning-1-5775.html>.

Eskanazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York: Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, 2008, pp. 98-99.

Kadari, Tamar. “Hagar: Midrash and Aggadah.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. March 20, 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hagar-midrash-and-aggadah>.

Katz, Michael and Gershon Schwartz. “All are presumed to be blind.” Searching for Meaning in Midrash. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002, pp. 60-62.

Matlow, Jaron. Parashat Vayera. Academy for Jewish Religion, 2006. <http://ajrsem.org/2006/10/vayera5767/>.

Plaskow, Judith. Contemporary Reflection [on Parashat Vayeira]. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York: Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, 2008, pp. 107-108.

Ruttenberg, Dayna. Why We Read Sarah and Hagar at Rosh Hashana: On the Abuse of Power. Huffington Post, September 4, 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-dayna-ruttenberg/why-we-read-sara-and-hag_b_3855819.html>.

[1] Genesis Rabbah 53:14.

[2] Dayna Ruttenberg. Why We Read Sarah and Hagar at Rosh Hashana: On the Abuse of Power. September 4, 2013, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-dayna-ruttenberg/why-we-read-sarah-and-hag_b_3855819.html>.

[3] Judith Plaskow. Contemporary Reflection [on Parashat Vayeira]. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York: Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, 2008, p. 108.

[4] Jaron Matlow, Parashat Vayera. Academy for Jewish Religion, 2006. <http://ajrsem.org/2006/10/vayera5767/>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Plaskow, p. 107.

[7] Rachel Barenblat. Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775). September 25, 2014, <http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blogs/2014/09/children-of-sarah-and-hagar-a-sermon-for-rosh-hashanah-morning-1-5775.html>.

[8] Tamara Cohn Eskanazi and Andrea L. Weiss. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York: Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, 2008, p. 89.

[9] Ruttenberg.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Barenblat.

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