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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1


This past summer, on our first two nights at a daddy-daughter cabin in Vermont, Lili and I watched two DVDs. The first was a beloved old classic, the quintessential Jewish musical if I don’t count the KI Purimspiel: Fiddler on the Roof. As you most likely know, this is a story of a stable indigenous society trying to hold on to its traditions as it encounters modern civilization and a conquering people bent on destroying it. We then jumped ahead forty years or so to the recent blockbuster Avatar. As you most likely know, this is a story of a stable indigenous society trying to hold on to its traditions as it encounters modern civilization and a conquering people bent on destroying it.

Like our Torah reading today, these two films feature stories of tragedy and hope: the tragedy of displacement and the hope of building anew.

In each of the three narratives, the tragedy of displacement occurs because of an inability to coexist. In the Torah, Sarah was so desperate to provide a child for Abraham that she arranged for him to impregnate her maidservant Hagar. Sarah’s plan succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, but then it became clear that after a lifetime of barrenness, she herself would bear the promised child. She felt that Hagar and her son Ishmael would pose a threat to her status and that of her own son Isaac. Rather than seek compromise with Hagar, Sarah wielded her power and influence to banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.

Similar tragedies occurred in the two film stories. Despite cordial relations between Tevye and the local Russian constable, it was impossible to resist the harsh edicts from St. Petersburg that led to the expulsion of the entire Jewish population of Anatevka. And on Pandora, the remote moon where Avatar takes place, Dr. Grace Augustine’s scientific team did all they could to protect the territory of the local population, the Na’vi. Team member Jake Sully even embraced the Na’vi way of life. Nonetheless human greed, bolstered by paramilitary power and faith in the superiority of our species, led to the aggressive seizure and destruction of the Na’vi homeland.

In all three stories hope emerged like a phoenix in the face of destruction. Rather than perish in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael encountered God and God’s angel, providing water for the emaciated infant and the promise that God shall make of him a great nation. At the close of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye invites the eponymous violinist to join his family on their long journey to the Goldene Medina, the golden land of America, while other Anatevkans end their wanderings in the promised land of Eretz Yisrael. And in the wake of massive death and destruction, the Na’vi drive hostile earthlings off Pandora and rebuild their devastated homeland under Jake’s leadership. In each case, the underdogs fully mobilize their own resources; but they also draw upon the power, support, and beneficence of those around them: Jake Sully, the American people across the sea, and, of course, God.

God’s role in Hagar’s story is complicated. On the one hand, God tells Abraham to obey his wife’s order to banish Hagar; on the other hand, this same God bestows great blessings on her and on her child. I find God’s blessing of Hagar and Ishmael to be one of the most remarkable and transforming moments in the Torah. It is clear from the outset that Isaac’s descendants and Ishmael’s were destined to endure a long and bitter struggle, one that tragically is far from resolved even in the present day. And still, our Torah acknowledges the blessing of Ishmael.

For me there is a crucial lesson here. In our daily lives, and certainly our Jewish community, there is often conflict and struggle. In these situations it is tempting to see oneself as benevolent and well-intentioned, and anyone who opposes us as the bad guy. Yet in most situations in daily life, and in virtually every situation within a congregation, we’re all good guys; we’re all trying our best to do what we believe, to stand behind our own values, to take care of our needs and those of others. The challenge, then, is to remember that the other person, too, is blessed by God. In that frame of mind, we can resolve our differences in a less painful and more respectful way.

To illustrate the point, let’s imagine that the wanderings of Tevye and family have led them to Pandora, or that a band of Na’vi, fleeing in desperation and confusion from the destruction of their sacred tree, somehow find their way to Anatevka. What is sure to result is a culture clash of the first order, a challenge no less formidable than the one Tevye faced repeatedly as each of his daughters pushed the boundaries of tradition through her courtship patterns and choice of husband. This is the sort of culture clash that has provoked a cycle of resistance, reconciliation, compromise, creative adaptation, and renewal throughout Jewish history. It is a struggle we face in our time. Those who have devoted their lives to traditional practice, as this was understood in the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements in America for most of the twentieth century, have encountered within their communities a new generation that is less tied to traditional beliefs and practices, more strongly influenced by the spiritual observances of indigenous peoples and other traditions, and likely to focus more on global concerns than on specifically Jewish agenda. As I see it, these two groups of Jews can be likened to the Anatevkans and the Na’vi.

The Anatevkans are the bearers of the tradition that Tevye eloquently extolled in song, a tradition ground in abiding faith in a God who receives our prayers, hears our cries, lets us kvetch and kibbitz all we want, and asks only that we adhere to an all-encompassing code of behavior, study conscientiously, and accept that we have to suffer in a hostile world. Tevye represents vital concerns long held by the Jewish people: faith, adherence to prescribed practice and customs, maintaining identity and autonomy in an alien world, coping with anti-Semitism, Jewish survival and continuity. Without vigilant attention to these concerns, it is unlikely that Judaism as we know it could survive more than a few generations.

Like the Anatevkans, the Na’vi on Pandora are vitally concerned about continuity and survival. However they see this survival as tied to the well-being of the planet, the balance of nature in the environment, the network that unifies all life. Their traditions are built around a spiritual path of respect for the natural world and cultivation of one’s full potential to flourish within it. They find God in the forest rather than in the sanctuary, and they may challenge established practices and beliefs when the cosmos sends a more pressing truth into their hearts. They demand a Judaism that is authentic, passionate, ecstatic, and able to provide genuinely effective resources for dealing with the overwhelming challenges facing the world today and in the years to come.

Only time will tell whether it is the Anatevkans or the Pandorans who hold the key to the Jewish future. When navigating conflicts between the two groups, we can look back to Abraham as he struggled to choose one son over the other. He loved Ishmael, his first-born, with all his heart, and felt no less love for Isaac. He made the painful choice to banish Ishmael and his mother at the behest of God, the same God who would subsequently order him to sacrifice Isaac. But maybe neither choice was really a choice at all. Maybe they were tests, ruses, misdirections masking the hidden plan before it is finally revealed. Isaac was never intended to be slaughtered, and Ishmael was never intended to be cursed. Both sons were the blessed one.

In Israel they have a wonderful expression for this: Gam v’gam—“This one; and this other one” as well.

From one perspective, it should be obvious that the choice between the Anatevkans and the Na’vi is also “gam v’gam.” Bringing the two groups together could give rise to a generation of pious Jews who were also spiritual adepts and ardent environmentalists. But from where we stand, identifying with one group or the other, the gap may seem insurmountable. Imagine how Tevye would react if his fourth daughter married a ten-foot-tall blue-skinned naked savage with webbed feet and a tail! Or if, instead of a tough-as-nails ex-Marine, the avatar confronting Neytiri defenseless in the Pandoran night, turned out to be Motl the tailor!

When conflicts arise in daily life, we may be tempted to see our adversaries as aliens from another planet, bent on our destruction. Chances are whatever hurtful words or deeds you are reflecting on in this season of teshuvah and atonement harken back to moments when you saw another person in this way. Jewish texts provide a variety of techniques for dealing with this dangerous mental state, but at the core of all of them is the recognition that the other person, no less than ourselves, is blessed by God.

We all sometimes stumble and fall, and end up doing or saying things we later regret, as the rabbis in the Talmud sometimes lapsed into cruel and painful rejection of their adversaries. Still, I believe that a Jewish community that fosters diversity and shows generosity in listening and speaking is most effective at creating trust and cultivating appreciation in its members.

Kehillat Israel has long exemplified this spirit of “gam v’gam.” The congregation has always embraced passionately religious and no-less passionately secular members. Interfaith couples have always been just as welcome as all-Jewish couples; and the children of interfaith parents typically had a positive enough experience in our religious school to eventually become passionate Jews and champions of Jewish continuity. And KI was well ahead of the curve in assuring women an equal role in the ritual and organizational life of the congregation. Thus the famous story of a KI member at a Jewish movement convention in the early ‘70s, attending a workshop in which it was revealed that in the near future a congregation might even have a woman president. The KI-er told the presenter, “That’s great news. I’m sure when I tell our president she’ll be very excited to hear it.”

Today we face other challenges as we strive to meet the ideal of “gam v’gam.” When this congregation was younger and tinier, everyone knew each other; everyone attended the same potlucks and study groups. Now we are larger and multi-generational, and we run the risk of limiting our contact to a small cohort of friends and like-minded souls. This may be inevitable, but it can have the unintended effect of diminishing us. The more we can stretch ourselves to include the other, the richer our experience of community will be.

I’d like to conclude with insights from one of my favorite teachers, the Hebrew dictionary. From that source I have discovered new layers of meaning for the words in our sacred texts, and what has been especially revealing has been the literal meanings of the names of places and people. When I looked at the names of Sarah and Hagar, I found that each could have two very different meanings. On the one hand, Sarah can mean “princess” while Hagar can mean “to limp” or “be lame.” This suggests a clear difference in power and status between the two women. The lady of the house has no place in her palace for a limping beggar and her offspring. I can’t imagine a less Jewish understanding of how we deal with the vulnerable members of our community. So I opt instead for the second pair of definitions, in which Sarah means “persist” or “persevere” and Hagar means “gird oneself.” In the Hebrew Bible one is typically told to gird one’s loins in order to stand tall and fearless in an encounter with God. Now we have leveled the playing field between two powerful adversaries: Sarah, who never gave up in her determination to carry on the family line of Abraham, and Hagar, who stood before God, spoke directly to God, and even affixed a name to God. In the Torah story it wasn’t possible to keep these two powerhouses under the same roof. Hagar broke off to form her own shul, her own people, her own religion. In today’s dwindling Jewish community, however, I would hope that we could harness the talents and energy of both Sarah and Hagar as part of the same diverse and vital congregation.

Let’s jump ahead now in our dictionary research from Abraham’s tent to a more recent past, and to a possible future. The name “Tevye” comes from the Hebrew “tov” meaning “good.” Anatevkans are good people; they volunteer for every committee and donate generously. They are the backbone of a strong community, a blessed generation whose many contributions deserve to be celebrated. As for the Na’vi, their name is the Hebrew word for “prophet.” These strange newcomers on the local scene are looking ahead without preconception, prophesying a different Jewish community, with different values and priorities: spirituality, physicality, harmony with nature, raw courage. These Navi’im, like their biblical counterparts such as Amos and Isaiah, confront us with the uncomfortable message that we have to change our ways.

I hope that in the sequel the Anatevkans and the Navi’im do forge an alliance. Their synagogue would have roots into the tradition as deep as the roots of the home tree. Their ritual would have extraordinary transforming power. Jewish learning would flourish, with innovative programming that draws the kids to the edge of their seats. The whole community would continue to be there for one another in times of joy and of tragedy, combining traditional forms of observances with effective processes for healing inner wounds and moving fully from strength to strength. I am inspired by this vision of gam v’gam and urge that it guide our direction in the year to come.

According to the commentary in our Machzor, the story of the birth of Isaac is appropriate for Rosh Hashanah because on the birthday of the world it is fitting to celebrate the wonder of a long-barren woman giving birth to a child. As I look out on this sanctuary filled to near capacity with members and friends, I hope that together we give birth to a year in which we strengthen the bonds of community and mutual support. I pray that together we enjoy a year of health and happiness, and that we are all here to reconvene in this place one year from now, in a world blessed with peace.

L'shanah tovah.

September 2010





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