September 12, 2012
High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words
(Page 4 - Previous Page)
Moving beyond “why?”
by Rabbi Jocee Hudson
In the Torah portion we read this morning, we will hear the story of Hagar. Hagar, we can say, lived a difficult life. Hagar was Sarah’s handmaid. And, when Sarah was unable to conceive, she convinced Abraham to take Hagar as his wife so that she could bear him a son. When Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah was racked with jealousy. And she convinced Abraham to banish Ishmael and Hagar.
Looking at the world from Hagar’s vantage point, it would be all too easy simply to ask “Why?” Why did Sarah do this — do any of this— to her? Why would Abraham have let it happen? Why would God?
And let’s assume those were the questions running through Hagar’s mind as she stumbled through the wilderness, without food and without water. And maybe this wilderness wasn’t just a wilderness, and the lack of food wasn’t just a lack of food, and the lack of water wasn’t just a lack water, but all of this represented the landscape of Hagar’s soul and the overwhelming lack of emotional and spiritual fortitude she had to move forward.
Let us assume it was a bone crushing cry of “Why me?” that caused Hagar to leave her child under one of the bushes, to sit down at a distance, and think “Let me not look on as the child dies.”
And then a miracle of a sort we rarely think of occurred. Torah tells us, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Listen carefully to these words, for their meaning is clear — the well of water was there all the time. God didn’t put a well in front of Hagar — all God did was open her eyes so she could see it. And of course, the well wasn’t just a well. It was the first ray of possibility.
The well represents a radical shift in Hagar’s thinking — from despair to hope, from doomed past to viable future, from everything to nothing and back to something again.
Here is the strength I draw from Hagar’s story — despair is a part of our lives, but so is moving past it. Anger and hurt are a part of our lives, but so is moving past them. Wrongs inflicted are a part of our lives, and so is moving past them. In the end, Hagar’s movement forward had nothing to do with Sarah or Abraham. It had to do with her, and her son, and God, and the well she grew to see.
When she saw the well, that was the moment Hagar’s life stopped being defined by what Abraham and Sarah had done to her and started being about what she would claim for herself.
And we can learn something about forgiveness from this story. The act of forgiving is ultimately for and about us, not about the person we are forgiving. When we cling to past hurts and pain, we are living in the “Why?” We are living with our eyes shut to the well.
When we fail to forgive ourselves, and, therefore, make it impossible to ask forgiveness of others, we remain locked in the space of asking “Why?”
Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation. This is excerpted from a sermon she gave at High Holy Days services in 2011.
Heaven and Earth
by Rabbi Haim Ovadia
The human being, formed from the dust of the earth but blessed with the Divine breath of life blown into his nostrils, is torn between heaven and earth. When Elton John sings, “And it seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind,” he is echoing the words of our sages, following the Bible, which describes the human soul as God’s candle. Just as a candle is physically connected to the physical, palpable world, so are we rooted here, fighting for survival, winning our daily bread, trying to secure peace and harmony for our little corner of the world for completely selfish reasons. And just as the flame keeps reaching upward to heaven — abstract and beautiful, caressing and threatening, multicolored and never the same — our soul, our spiritual essence, seeks the good in the world and in us, searching for greater causes and the meaning of life, settling sometimes for reality, and eventually flickers and disappears, leaving only a memory and the smiles of those who benefited from it while still here.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills, a Sephardic Orthodox congregation. This is excerpted from a 2009 Jewish Journal Torah Portion column.
by Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Do you know how the Torah ends? Week after week we follow this man Moses in his struggle to lead his people to freedom. Week after week we join in his victories and we cry at the anguish of his defeats, and then at the very end ... he doesn’t make it. Just as he’s about to lead his people to the Promised Land, his life ends. He never reaches the goal, he never sets foot in the land of his dreams. Why that story? Why do we put ourselves through the ordeal of reading it again and again, year after year? A man, so close to the fulfillment of his dreams, denied, a failure, a tragedy.
We never expect to fail. We never expect to find ourselves on the other side of the Jordan, just outside the Promised Land. We don’t expect to fail, and when we do, we lose faith in ourselves. We sit paralyzed, unable to do the good that’s within our power, because failure has convinced us that nothing we do is worth anything. And that’s why the Torah ends as it does. Everyone faces failure, even Moses. And the greater you are, the greater your failures. But the question is: What do you do next? You roll the Torah back to Bereshit, back to Genesis, and you begin again.
What is the most powerful message of this holiday season?
Salachti Kidvarecha — God forgives. God in His divine perfection and completeness, forgives us. And if God can forgive you — can you forgive? If God can find it in His heart to forgive you, can you find it in your heart to forgive yourself? Forgive yourself for your mistakes, your limitations, your failures? Can you forgive, and begin again?
Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah sermon he gave in 1994.