Why, on Rosh Hashanah, do we tell the stories of our mothers - Sarah, Hannah, even Hagar?
The Talmud teaches that on this day, God heard the cries of our Matriarchs, gave them life. And just as God remembered our Mothers favorably on Rosh Hashanah, so we pray that God will hear our cries, remember us favorably, and sustain us for the coming year.
So, as you can see, I'm nearly due to give birth, and so I thought, what a unique opportunity - for a very pregnant rabbi - to explore with you the meaning of these biblical birth stories. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, HaYom Harat Olam, Today is the Birthday of Creation.
How are these stories relevant to all of us here - of all generations, women and men, some of us living alone, others in various family configurations…. I know there are friends, those in this room, for whom the inability to have a child, or the loss of a child, is a reality. So how can we relate to these stories as a different kind of conception, an inspiration to teshuvah… How can they open us up to the sanctity of life, to our connection with God and with others?
I'd like to begin with the story of Hannah, mostly because my mother's name is actually Hannah. Thinking of her, I think of chicken soup, tzimmes, and all the ways that we want to come home on this holiday.
So let us turn to the Hannah of our Haftorah portion. When we first encounter her, she is bitter. She sits outside the Sanctuary, she cannot enter a place of Refuge. Hannah is disparaged even by her own clergy. The High Priest judges Hannah to be muttering like a drunken woman, like how we might sometimes harshly judge a homeless person on the streets of Berkeley. The priest speaks to her without compassion, without really seeing her distress. He asks: "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!"
Hannah answers, and she describes her own unhappiness using an unusual Hebrew phrase… (1 Samuel 1:15). She says, "K'shat Ruach Anochi" which literally means "Hard of spirit I am." Her spirit is a shell, impermeable.
I would like to invite us to enter into this story, to ask ourselves: Kshat Ruch anochi??
What are your own moments of hardened spirit? When we reflect on our lives, what are the places of disconnection, of numbness, of judgment, of despair?
Kshat Ruach anochi. On Rosh Hashanah, the process of Teshuvah - of repentance - begins with acknowledging our own suffering, the deep pain that we pray will be transformed.
Hannah cries out to God in her bitterness, and she is given life.
This Rosh Hashanah, we all pray for hope, after the bitterness of this past year: The shock of September 11, the tragic matzav, the situation in Israel. An erosion of faith in our corporate economy, loss of jobs, the shriveling of investments, and with it, some of our dreams. We feel the rising tide of anti-semitism around the world, and even at our own door. We hear the beating of the drums of war, and many of us hear the more intimate beating of our own hearts, as we struggle with infertility, illness or loss - that our loved ones, or we ourselves, face.
Struggles like these can leave us with hardened spirits, but like Hannah, we come together to pray on this new year for transformation.
K'shat Ruach Anochi, I would like to make a little midrashic play on this phrase - because you know that the Torah doesn't have vowels or vocalizations: and so we can read the same word for hard - k'shat - as keshet. --Keshet which as many of you know, means bow - as in archer's bow, a military bow, and it also means rainbow.
This word keshet is a word of transformation. It reverberates throughout the biblical birth stories.
For example, what is the most common biblical association you have with keshet - rain bow?
In the Noah story, the rainbow. After the flood, God promises that God will never again destroy the world, and the sign of this promise is the keshet, the rainbow.
In this reading, as a birth story, the flood is a mikveh. The flood is an amniotic sac around the earth, the water breaking for God's rebirthing of the world. (Genesis 9:12-17). The rainbow - the keshet - represents a different kind of covenant than God's covenant through brit milah - a circumcision covenant that excludes all but male Jews; rather, the keshet covenant includes all the earth and its inhabitants. It is a sign of universal hope - a transformation of destruction to renewal - for ourselves and all generations.
Do you know where we find this same sign of the covenant in the story of Hagar? When we first encounter Hagar, she, like Hannah is also a figure of despair. She was cast out of the house by Abraham and Sarah, and we see her wandering lost in the desert with her son, Ishma'el. Hagar's skin of water has gone dry, she can no longer nurture or sustain her son - she is figuratively, an empty breast, even though Ishmael is fourteen years old at the time. And just as she herself was cast out, she abandons her son, leaving him alone in the wilderness.
What could be more desperate? She is at the moment of watching her child die. Genesis chapter 21: verse 16 tells us:
v'tayleck vatayshev la mineged harchaiq kim'ta-cha'vai keshet…
Literally, this means that - She places her son away from her the length of a bow shot, so that she would not seem him die.
Like in Hannah's story, the keshet shoots an arrow of distancing - a seemingly unbridgeable span.
Immediately, a malach Adonai, a messenger of God called out to Hagar - "hachaziki et yedeich bo." "Take hold of your son's hand. The words mean literally "strengthen your hand through him." The messenger of God was telling Hagar, if you reach out to him, you will become stronger. Hagar did it - she reached out her hand. The moment her fingers touched those of Ishmael, she lifted up her eyes and saw a well of water there in the desert - life giving waters - mayim chayim - for her and her son.
Hagar reached from a place of despair, beyond her hardened spirit, and she found a loving encounter, with God's redemptive power. God, in this story, as a nursing God - God who sustains us with mayim chayim - life giving water, which is also a metaphor for Torah.
I think these Torah stories come to open us to a different vision of God; a birthing God, a breast feeding God, a mothering God - from the stories of our mothers.
On the High Holy Days, we often imagine God as a Distant Judge and Sovereign, who rules our fate from on High, on the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. This vision of God is powerful when we seek justice, when we seek vengeance on those who have done us wrong. This vision of God is helpful when we seek to find order among the uncertainities of the world. But this theology is frightening, confusing, incomplete, when we need comfort in tragedy and despair.
There is another vision of God we can discover: We reach deep inside ourselves to find wellsprings of faith and empathy. El Rachum - we chant over and over again. El Rachum: God as the source of Mercy. This word Rachum means mercy, related to the word Rachamim - compassion. Many of you know that the root of the word is related to Rechem - the word for Womb.
In this moment, can you experience yourself in the presence of El Rachum - completely embraced in a loving source of compassion?
In this moment, can you retreat fully into faith in the Divine Mystery -
This theology is powerful - not because this image or that image of God is TRUE… but only when it serves as a model of inspiration for how we might live our lives b'tzelem elohim - in the image of God:
B'tzelem Elohim: IN God's image, we too are creators: This Rosh Hashanah is a time to envision the greatest potential of our lives; to discover in the mundane drama the work of joyful creation.
B'tzelem Elohim: In God's image, We are vessels of compassion: When we stretch beyond our fears and self-concern, when we reach out to another, when we lift up our eyes, when we truly see another's face, we ourselves are enriched. We discover meaning and connection. We are inspired to act in a covenant of community: Our lives become vessels for God's abundance, overflowing with acts of loving kindness.
I would like to close with a personal story, about the last time I was due to give birth a few years ago, and I came to Shabbat services at Netivot Shalom. At a certain point in the service, I began to feel faint. I was overcome by some deep power, inside, or maybe the power of everyone here when we daven, when we pray together. So I went to sit outside, next to a woman, it was actually Alison Jordan, and she asked me,
"When are you due?" I said, "Today."
Then she revealed this vision of Torah:
During the Torah service, when the ark is opened, the curtains are parted, and then the scroll lifted out, How it reminds her of childbirth.
This Rosh Hashanah is an ark, a sacred holding place, to embrace us wherever we are in our lives. This very moment is a petach, a threshold, an opening:
I pray that in the coming year, may we all be blessed with the safe delivery of our dreams.