Rosh Hashanah D’var Torah 21 September 2017

Shanah tovah and welcome to all.

Last night we spoke a bit about sense and awareness. Today I want to talk about seeing: How we perceive the world around us. More importantly, what the means for what we do and the kind of people we are.

For example, in his book “The Upside of Irrationality?” written by Dr. Dan Ariely, a Israeli born, psychologist and behavioral economist, he establishes through experimentation that we value our own ideas and creations more than those of other people. We are willing to pay more for them and value them far above their “objective” value. One example he gives is that of cake mixes. When they were first sold all one had to do was add water. How much more convenient could it get? And yet people did not buy them. It turns out consumers did not want to serve someone else’s cake and call it their own. The companies adapted. Now a cake mix requires us to add not just water, but also eggs and oil. That little additional effort on our part, enables most of us to see the cake that comes from the mix as something we made and be comfortable serving it as the work of our hands. How we perceive something makes all the difference to us.


This theme of seeing runs through the torah portions for Rosh Hashanah. The story we reading this morning deals with Avraham and Sarah’s son, Yitzchak. I won’t recap the story since we just read it. You can find it in your Machzor on pages 122-125.

In our community, we celebrate one day of Rosh Hashanah, given that we know when the new moon is, both in Belgium and in Israel. Many communities, they celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah. We just read the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Yitzchak, Isaac. For those who observe two days of Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Torah reading on the first day is also a challenging problematic text. You can find it in your Machzor on pages 126-128. It tells the story of a jealous or outraged Sarah demanding Avraham to send away his son Ishmael so that he not inherit with Yitzchak, the son that was just born to her. Avraham is distressed by this. God tells him to so as Sarah asks and promises that while his line will continue through Yitzchak, Ishmael will also become the founder of a nation. Hearing this, Avraham gives his concubine and slave Hagar bread and water and sends her and her son Ismael into the wilderness. The water runs out and she puts her son under a bush for shade and moves away so she won’t see her son die. Suddenly an angel calls to her, tells her that God has heard the cries of her son and encourages her to hold her child. She does. God opens her eyes and she sees a well from which they drink and survive.

In each of the stories there are obvious moments where an angel or God opens the eyes of Hagar and Avraham. They see something crucial they had missed before and it changes the course of what is about to happen. Hagar sees a well which saves them from dying of thirst. Avraham sees a ram caught by its horns in the bushes and offers it as a sacrifice, not Yitzchak. If a friend did that for you, it would be called an intervention. Someone who cares about you steps in and points out something you were not seeing before. A different way to look at your situation, gives you a warning about where you are heading. If you are in a place where you can hear it, where your eyes open, it can save you from making a mistake or going to a place where you will get very hurt. Hopefully, when you become aware of a friend or anyone in need, you will step up and be their angel. Say what is needed to help them open their eyes and see a way out.


Why is it that Hagar did not see the well, even when her child was dying? There are people who see suffering as a corroboration of their poor self-opinion, a sense that they are bad and should be punished or deserve for bad things to happen to them. Locked in this dark vicious cycle they lose sight of not only what is good around them, but worse, what is good in themselves. While their cry for help may not be as obvious to our ears as Hagar’s was, if we are open to hearing it, to seeing the problem and understanding the pain our fellow human being is enduring, we can be their angels. Even if we cannot help ourselves, the support and reaffirmation we can offer, the referral to professional care, can literally be life saving relief to someone who sees no way out or cannot see themselves as deserving of one. We all carry the baggage of our childhood and our life experiences. They shape us and how we react to people and situations, often in ways of which we are not aware. Maybe your baggage is not as dark. Do you know what it is? Do you know what behavior patterns you fall into over and again when you find yourself in certain situations? This is a moment to explore yourself and how the experiences, the gifts and scars that you carry shape who you are and how you interact with the people around you.

Let’s look for a moment at Avraham and what he sees in this story. A friend suggested to me that whereas our tradition often says Avraham passed this test, he in fact failed. What disturbs Avraham about Sarah’s request is his son. Basically, one could say he is worried more about himself and his future- his progeny. The text does not indicate any concern or disquiet about his wife or his concubine Hagar. Avraham was 100 when Yitzchak was born and Sarah was 90 years old when she gave birth. So one could understand his preoccupation with his progeny. At the same time, Sarah had been on this journey with Avraham for at least 25 years and was his life partner for longer. Yet he did not see her. He did not hear her fear for her son, that Yitzchak would be corrupted by the immoral behavior of Yishmael. Her fear and jealousy of Hagar who was able to become pregnant so quickly and give Avraham the son he yearned for when she could not escaped his notice. Her fear for her own future and her offspring, her concern about her place as the mother of Avraham’s heir and her desire to secure Yitzchak’s position was something he seems to have overlooked. Nor did Avraham even speak to Hagar about her concerns and feelings. Avraham speaks to God who tells him to listen to Sarah. So he does. He follows exactly what she said. Not perhaps what she meant. What might our world be like if Avraham had stopped a moment and really looked at his life partner, held her hand and said “This is what I hear you saying... Is that correct? What can we do together to address your concerns?” Maybe Yitzchak and Yishmael could have grown up together as brothers instead of being estranged. Perhaps that would have made Yitzchak a better father when he was faced with his own twin sons who hated each other, where he and his partner each had a favorite. We are heirs to that hatred and look at how it effects the world we live in where siblings and cousins kill in the name of truth and God and their vision of what is right for all of us. What would the world be like for us if when we hear words of fear and concern we see it and acknowledge those feeling and their source? Recognize that the person expressing the concern has a reason for doing so and find a way to address the underlying issues in a positive constructive way.

At the end of the Akedah story, Avraham names the mountain God Will See. Avraham has proved himself to God he was pious, willing to sacrifice his love, his future, his child. God saw and was no longer willing to speak to Avraham but sent an angel instead. The text screams with the question of what did Avraham see. In pursuit of what he saw of is divine mission, following his burning inner command, Avraham was blind to everything around him. He gets up early and goes- doing all the work himself so no one else knows. His son says to him, I see the elements of the sacrifice, but where is the sheep? Avraham replies God will see to it. There are zealots who are willing to sacrifice their own lives and/or the lives of others for what they see as the TRUTH. Fortunately, that is not us. There are however ways we are blind to others and their needs in pursuit of what we think is right. There are moments when we set aside other truths, or competing visions and brush aside objections to reach our goal. The story of the Akedah is a challenge to us to remain open even when we are convinced of our rightness. Particularly at the moment of knowing that we are 100% correct, that is precisely the moment to check in with someone else and make sure we are not being overzealous or blinded to things we should not overlook.

Both story are ultimately an invitation to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh, a bit of soul searching. What are we willing to sacrifice and at what cost? What will we lay aside or let die because of the baggage we carry with us. Emotional and behavioral Baggage that shapes who we are and how we react to people and situations. On this Rosh Hashanah, as indeed we do every day, we have the opportunity to look closely at ourselves and our values. We can review what we think is at our core to make sure that we still believe in them and they inspire us to be our best. Let us interrogate our goals and dreams to be sure they reflect who we are at our best and that they will help us become the person we deep down aspire to be.


This Rosh Hashanah may we be blessed with open eyes. Eyes that see what is hidden, that lead us to help where we are needed and to ask the right questions of ourselves and others. Eyes informed by compassionate hearts and open hands, by generosity of spirit and love for ourselves and the other.


Shanah tovah u’mevorach- a year good, sweet year of blessing.