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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah I

Today, in this d’var Torah, Genesis, Chapter 21, I would like to share a personal interpretation of the evolution and dynamics of Sarah’s character and personality with a particular focus on the growth of her inner world and her ability to control some life experiences and not others; and, finally, to talk about why her story is such an appropriate one at Rosh Hashanah.

The passage begins with God delivering his promise to Sarah in her very old age to enable her to conceive and have a son with Abraham. In looking back briefly at several earlier passages, we see Sarah develop from a sweet, selfless woman to a much more assertive woman who becomes familiar with her own wants and desires and learns to act on them.

Sarah was previously unable to conceive and she appears quite selfless when she tells Abraham to go and sleep with Hagar to have a child. She tells Abraham that God has restrained her from bearing children and hopes that if Hagar conceives, maybe as a reward for bringing a rival into her house, she might be able to have a child too.

Yet, after Hagar conceives, Hagar begins to despise Sarah and believe that Sarah is a hypocrite. Hagar thinks that Sarah cannot be a righteous woman since God has not blessed Sarah with a child.

Sarah tells Abraham about Hagar’s attitude and he tells her that she must do what she thinks is best with Hagar. Sarah begins to grow more assertive and acts in her own interests by making conscious decisions to protect herself and her own feeling and deals with Hagar harshly. Hagar flees into the desert. God’s angel finds Hagar and sends her back to Sarah saying that Hagar should be submissive to Sarah.

At another juncture, God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a son with him and that God will establish his covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seen after him. Sarah overhears the conversation and laughs within herself saying, “After I am waxed old, shall I have pleasure?”

God is concerned that Sarah laughs at his plan but Sarah denies that she laughed because she is afraid. She lacks confidence and is uncomfortable about acknowledging her internal feelings to anyone but herself and anyway, how could she challenge God? But how could God be right? She is way past menopause, she has never conceived before and she is elderly. She is ninety years old.

In today’s passage, God finally fulfills his promise to Sarah. Again, she laughs. She says, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

After she gives birth to Isaac, weans him and sees Hagar’s son Ishmael and her own son, Isaac, playing, she continues to be assertive and protects her interests. She makes a conscious decision to tell Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael for she does not want him to share the inheritance with Isaac.

Through this series of events, we see that over many years, Sarah grows from a completely selfless woman to a woman who begins to take charge of her own life and make conscious decisions for her own interests and those of her son. As she matures she also finds happiness in her old age through giving birth. Her laughter is a sign of a release of anxiety and true pleasure at the thought of fulfilling a dream in her lifetime. She has a feeling of being complete and whole as she is finally able to do what she has wanted to do.

Sarah is a heroine. We all have our heroes or heroines some of whom we know, others whom we read about. I wish to share a few thoughts about one of my heroines, an aunt of mine with whom I was very close. Originally from Yugoslavia, she was a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz. She died a little less than a year ago. For many years, she taught immigrants in Israel how to cook efficiently and economically, an outgrowth of her experience in Auschwitz. When she was in her fifties, she went back to school and earned two degrees in art history. Finally, during the last ten years of her life, she began to do what she wanted to do, which was to work in ceramics. She made beautiful plates with raised flower designs with an oriental effect. She made lacquered fruits and vegetables which almost had a humorous quality about them as if she were teasing God that she could make more beautiful produce than he could.

When I last visited her in Israel two summers ago, she was already dying with cancer after a long bitter battle for several years and her bones were very fragile. I told her that she should let her family arrange an exhibit of her pottery. As I said this, her mood grew more somber. She was pleased that I liked her work but could only accept my comment because she knew how much I loved her. She said, “You’re very kind to me. I know many of my works were very pretty but it is only in my last two works and particularly my very last one that I have begun to express myself and you know I will never make any more creations again.”

Then she showed me her last works. The earlier piece was of a small bird resting on a swing surrounded by many concentric circles of confinement. The bird had no way to fly, no way to get out and nowhere to go. It could only sit on the swing. The colors of the circles closest to the bird were dark blue and grew progressively lighter the larger they became and the further away they were. The bird was caught within layers of time, like my aunt, who was trapped by space and time, nowhere to go, no way to get out, only the impending future of her death which would eventually consume her.

Her final work was dramatically different from any of her other works. It was not pretty or lovely to look at but one she felt the most proud of. It was filled with meaning and symbolism. It looked like a thick black wax candle, yet out of one of its sides at the bottom was a small, inquisitive, timid face with delicate features willing to peer out and come out from hiding. The character is using a hand to push open the blackness and had just begun to risk exploring the world. It was as if the thick waxy cylinder was giving birth to an adult whose youth had been destroyed. It was as if the candle’s wick had barely been lit. The candle has just smouldered with a thick black smoke.

To me, this sculpture represented the blackest horrors of the earth, when humanity did not exist, when humanity allowed the death camps. Yet, somehow, despite all, the character peering out was willing to give the world a second chance—like Noah, when he sent the dove out to look for land after forty days and forty nights of pouring rain.

I share this sketch because she was a individual, like Sarah, who was looking for and finding fulfillment, however late in life, in her sixties, despite all odds that she had to contend with in her lifetime. Would she have ever thought during the darkest moments of her life in Auschwitz and then later with a five-year long, very painful battle with cancer that she would even begin to find some spiritual, and creative fulfillment in her life? Did Sarah ever expect to find the fulfillment she craved in her lifetime? How many, many, times was Sarah discouraged at her doomed fate not to have a child?

Sarah’s story is an optimistic one which tells us of a woman with tremendous perseverance, who like all of us, can only control some elements in our lives and remind us of the importance of having faith in the future to get us through the present.

Sarah and Abraham had tremendous perseverance when they maintained their relationship well into their old age. They did not give up on each other, despite their deep unhappiness at not being able to have a child together.

Since we never know when we will bloom, this is why it is so important to have faith. We do not always have all the information we need, nor do we know all the circumstances of our lives because we are not alone and we do not live in isolation. Just as Sarah and Abraham did not completely understand how their actions fit into a larger scheme of events, that’s why, in part, it was so amazing that their wishes were granted at each stage.

Sarah’s story is also one of reassurance. At each juncture in time, God reassures Sarah, Abraham and Hagar that everything will be all right. He carries through his promise to Sarah. He reassures Abraham that Sarah’s wish is okay and reassures Hagar that she and her son will be okay. No matter how much anxiety any of the main characters experiences, God reassured them that everything would be okay for them. Not only would their decisions and choices be okay, but great events would come from their wishes for security and comfort.

The elements in this story of perseverence and the importance of having faith, the question of how much control we have over the destiny of our lives, reminds me of a story an older friend of mine recently told me. She grew up with my mother in Bulgaria and is currently a chemistry professor in California. I hadn’t seen her since I was in my teens but felt the need to be in touch with her after all these years as she had made a profound influence on me as a child in terms of helping me to become aware of my Jewish identity so I asked her to come and visit.

Now, as an adult, I felt comfortable asking her about how she came to America. She told me that unlike my parents who had left before the war, she stayed on in Bulgaria until 1942, a while after the Germans had entered the country. She was a college student at the time and was desperately trying to leave the country. Finally, she was able to make arrangements to go to Switzerland. She was to leave on a Saturday night train but then her mother asked her to stay on as she wanted to have a good-bye party that Saturday night. My friend agreed and took the train on Monday. Later, she learned that the train she had originally planned to take was bombed by the Germans when it went through Yugoslavia and the train she actually took was the last one to leave Bulgaria until after the war.

For years now, she scuba dives and takes underwater photography all over the world. She told me that each time she goes underwater, as much as she loves it, she is afraid as she still feels she is working out her struggles with her fate over forty years ago, still marveling at the fact that the Germans did not get her. My friend had courage but not the control over her fate which, in this case, was in her favor.

Part of the search in our lives is to find spiritual freedom that we do not know when the pieces will all fit together. Often when we find what we are looking for, it is not in the way in which we conceived or imagined it to me and often out of the most unlikely of circumstances. Did Sarah honestly believe she would have a baby?

As Rabbi Hirsch wrote, “The entire beginning of the Jewish people is laughable, its history, its expectations, its hopes. God realized his promise only after all human hopes had come to an end.”

That’s why it is important never to give up when we undertake an endeavor. We can meet all kinds of obstacles and hurdles but we must find ways to overcome them to move forward in our search.

I look at Sarah’s story and her ability finally to give birth in a symbolic way. She is finally fulfilling a lifelong dream. Every human being has a dream or hope in life. The rejoicing of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah originates in the awareness that life holds out the promise of better things. Some people find what they are looking for earlier, while others find it later on in life. Some people may never find what they are looking for. With the birth of Isaac and of the Jewish people, we are also at the beginning of a new year. A critical factor is when we recognize that feeling of finding our calling, finding spiritual satisfaction or enlightenment or coming in touch with the muse within each of us.

Now, at Rosh Hashanah, we have the opportunity to table our anxieties no matter what has transpired during the course of the previous year. It is a time to contemplate the past year and to look forward to the coming year. It is a time to continue to persevere and to gain strength from our ability to make sound decisions but also to have faith in that which we do not know.

—Martha Aladjem Climo
September 24, 1987

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