Erev Rosh Hashanah
In the Torah portion for the first day of RH, we begin with “And God remembered Sarah.”
As part of the haftarah as well, we read that after Hannah goes to pray, God remembered her.
For this first day of our holiday, both of the narratives that we read deal with women being given children, and being remembered by God.
It is curious that we find that the main story of Rosh Hashanah deals with women, and with God thinking of women, for so many of our central stories are about men – men and their sons, even, but on this day of great awe, of repentance and the beginning of the season of repentance, our new year begins with women, and their much desired child.
Why is this? The Torah says about Sarah that God pakad her, and for Hannah it says zechrah, but both mean that God took notice of them. We too, are beginning our year with hopes that God will remember us. And it is fitting that the model we hope that remembrance will be based upon is one of God remembering a woman- - for giving her a child- both of these women had been barren, and are given new hope for the future, that their houses will be built up. But we hope that God’s remembrance of the women will also reflect that the relationship between ourselves and God will be one of mercy, echoing the connection between rechem – womb, and rachamim – compassion, that God will look upon us as a mother does her child, especially a child long hoped for, and finally, after long desire, granted.
But there is another mother in our Torah portion, and we should not forget her, either. Hagar, who is turned out, with her son, into the wilderness, where she believes her son will die. The story here is structured somewhat oddly: it says that Hagar cried out (she lifted up her voice and wept). Then it says that God heard the voice of the youth – and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What’s with you, Hagar, (Mah lach, Hagar?) -don’t fear because God has heard the voice of the youth where he is.”
How strange: Hagar cries out, and God’s messenger says that God has heard the youth’s voice. Could it be that here also is a message for RH? Like the call of the shofar, when Hagar cries, it is not only her own voice that God hears, but the voice of someone who cannot cry out for themself. On RH, we repent not only for ourselves, which, after all, we can do any time, but as a community. We take upon ourselves the task of crying out to God to save the community, not just to repent of our own deeds.
There are two lessons to be learned from these women: the first is that there are three models of longing and remembrance: there is Hannah’s model – the ideal. Hannah’s belief in God is strong, and when she is denied what she wants most, she goes and pours her heart out before God, so much so that the priest accuses her of being drunk. Perhaps, in a sense she is: drunk with God, like the Chasidim, whose relationships with God were very personal and intimate in a way we long for but far too seldom achieve today. In this mode, one Chasidic commentator, Reb Nachman, tells us that our relationship with God should be like that of a father and child - that like a child, we should simply demand –simply- what we want. But Hannah’s relationship isn’t a child tugging at your pantsleg saying “I’m hungry, feed me,” but rather like that of the child who comes crying to her mother because she has lost her doll and wants it found. The model of Hannah’s longing and God’s response is simple, direct and intimate –ask and receive.
Then there is Sarah: Sarah who is fiercely independent and yet has buried her desires so deeply that when messengers from God tell Abraham that she will get her desire, she laughs – perhaps there is a bit of bitterness about it – look at all that she has had to live through, and bury within her because of that desire, and then she laughs again when Isaac is born, because God has recognized her deepest desire without her ever being able to ask for it. Sarah’s nature is expressed in the name of her son Yitzchak – he will laugh- , whose laughter is at times simple, and at others, bitter. Sarah’s model of longing is bitterness and suppression – a longing no longer spoken, but answered anyway, through God’s grace, a face turned away from God.
And then there is Hagar: Hagar who before her is only pain. She sees before her only the possibility of death, and cries out – perhaps not even to God, perhaps only involuntarily, like someone who is physically hurt, as they experience that pain, and God answers her by addressing the source of her pain, without her knowing that she has asked for it. –So God couches Her answer in terms of answering Hagar’s son – even though it is really Hagar, and Hagar’s cry that is addressed. Hagar’s model is pure pain-in-the-moment, to the extent that she doesn’t even recognize that it is she who is in pain, and so God answers indirectly, but in a way that satisfies Hagar’s needs without putting her in the spotlight, so to speak.
The second lesson is to remind us of that of who asks God for mercy, God answers us all: Hannah is the model Jew. She goes to the Temple and prays before God –she is emotional, she is expressive, and she uses language which falls within the linguistic paradigms of prayer, the same kind of language that we find in psalms. Then there is Sarah – she has turned her back away – not that she refuses God, but she no longer counts on God to answer her deepest prayer, and finally there is Hagar, who is not a Jew at all, but a stranger. Not only that, but a stranger who has wronged Sarah, to the extent that Sarah cannot bear to have her around, nor her child, and has tried to expel her from her presence. Her prayer, too, is answered.
On Rosh Hashanah, we too, stand before God, crying out our longing and revealing our deepest desires. Some of us are that model Jew, Hannah, who can weep before God in the same ecstasy that the Chasidim had, knowing that our prayers will be answered, and our desires fulfilled. More of us are Sarah, who feel that our prayers have gone unanswered so long that there’s no chance that anyone will ever answer them. But most of us are
Hagar, we can’t even express ourselves well; inarticulate, we’ve wandered in, full of involuntary responses to the pains of our lives, with only the instinctive response to cry out. And so on the High Holidays every year, we wonder what on earth we’re doing here in these big packed shuls, and what everyone else is doing here in these big packed shuls. We no longer even can name the impulse that drives us here – is it guilt? sentiment? Or is it something else; perhaps it is our desire buried deep within us to call out in the hope that there will be a response.
And so we come here, to hear the sobbing voice of the shofar, crying out for us, crying like Hannah, like Sarah, like Hagar, as we rejoin for a moment of the year, the community, so that we can raise up our voice in a roar of sorrow and pain for the things that were not right this year, that we hope will change in the future, a great sobbing cry that lifts the hairs on our necks and rises up to God, so that our one voice can rouse the rachamim, the mercy of God, that God’s rechem, womb, will open for us, and will give birth to something new, a year of forgiveness, and hope and reconciliation. A year in which we can learn to cry out to God, and hear God cry out to us, as well. Perhaps this year, when God remembers us, we, too, will remember God.