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Drash First Day of Rosh Hashanah Havurah Service

Drash, By Bob Rovinsky September 2007


This talk is dedicated to the memory of Madeline Nesse

[A person cannot find redemption until he sees the flaws in his soul…nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul….  But whether it be a person or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of one’s flaws is shutting out redemption.  We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.  Martin Buber.]

[I will betroth myself to you in justice and in righteousness, in steadfast love and in mercy, saith the Lord.    Hosea.]


When I was preparing to speak to the Alternative Service at Tifereth Israel, at the kind invitation of Janet Nesse, I started to wonder about the contrast between who the people in my congregation were and the tasks they were supposed to accomplish in these ten days of awe, and the texts they were to be using and the rituals they were to be following.  On the one hand, we expect these incredibly bright, verbal, accomplished and sophisticated  individuals who live and work in the richest and most powerful city in the world to exorcise their sins in these next 10 days.  We then hit them with a long series of medieval prayers, accompanied by texts about animal and child sacrifice, primogeniture, kings and priestly rituals, martyrs, the obsessions about fertility and the desire of one woman to dominate through fertility over another or kill her.  We also re-enact rituals going back to Temple and Pre-Temple times.   And now I am being asked to speak on a short chapter about some of these things, whose events and messages appear to have no relationship to the people I am addressing or the tasks they have to perform.  

So my goal in this talk is to reconcile the text, rituals, and the tasks, and to say something important and helpful to the people in the congregation, that will help them right now to do what they came here to do.  I will do this in three “jumps” – the first a discussion of Genesis [Bereshit] chapter 21 that we just read – actually the chapter plus some chapters before and after it, all in Parsha Vayera – the second jump to tell a story from the Hindu tradition that I learned in a yoga class several years ago – and then a brief synthesis and exhortation.

Let’s start with the parsha and I want to make several observations:   First, we are reading about 7 strong individuals and 2 divine ones.  Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Abimelech share the distinction that G-d or G-d’s angel talks to them, and each has power through that relationship and through their own strength and origin.  Pichol as the general and Ismael and Isaac, as the future founders of large peoples and the holder of the covenant with G-d, also are among the strongest men in the Torah.   They all are bound up with each other, and this chapter stands square in the center of that involvement.  Before this chapter, Sarah had given her handmaid Hagar as a concubine to Abraham and then tormented her after Hagar had grown haughty when she conceived a son.  Sarah had also been taken into Abimelech’s tent, after Abraham has passed her off as his sister, with almost disastrous results to Abimelech and his tribe, who had lost the ability to conceive. In this chapter, Ismael’s taunting of his new half brother leads Sarah to demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, and G-d sides with Sarah, then saves Ishmael from death and makes a covenant with Hagar.  Then Abraham and Abilmelech make a treaty, and Abraham lives in that land for many years while Isaac grows up.

After this chapter, Abraham, Isaac and Sarah will be put to the test when G-d asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his “only son” [apparently G-d doesn’t inform Abraham that Ishmael survived]  and Sarah dies, after which Abraham marries again, the midrash says to Hagar, and Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury Abraham, while Isaac makes another treaty with Abimelech.

My first observation is that the seven individuals’ strengths, desires, and what we would call today their primitive drives for power and relationship and children, are at the heart of their “sins” and weaknesses, and which could have easily led them to calamity, had not G-d or their cooler selves intervened.  It’s the heart of the story.

 And what of G-d?  Interestingly, G-d’s name of Adonai [Lord] is mentioned only twice in the chapter we just read, at the beginning when G-d keeps the promise made to Sarah and opens her womb, and at the very end, when Abraham, with Ishmael and Hagar gone and a new son to raise, once again starts to call upon the name of the Lord in the land of the Philistines.  In all the times between when G-d’s name is mentioned the word Elohim is used.  Now from the Talmud and the Kabala, we know that the use of Adonai usually refers to G-d’s characteristic as the G-d of mercy and love, while the use of Elohim refers to G-d as the G-d of Justice and Righteousness.  The other strange part of this chapter is how much G-d is involved in the drives of the seven individuals, almost coaching them and directing them as to how to play out their primitive desires, as well as G-d’s own regarding the Akedah [Sacrifice of Isaac] and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  G-d is really “sticking his face” into the business of these people, in a way that doesn’t happen until Job.

Now for the second jump – to a story from the Hindu tradition,  Hinduism being one of the few world religions as old or older than Judaism, and one that also values and perpetuates its primitive rituals, prayers, and stories. 

Once there was a pregnant tiger, advanced in her pregnancy and dying from starvation.  She comes upon a herd of wild sheep and with her last gasp of energy she leaps upon them.  But the effort kills her, and she lands lifeless in their midst.  When the sheep come back to investigate, they find that she has given birth and her baby son is crying for milk.  The sheep suckle the baby tiger and raise him as one of their herd.  One day an old tiger attacks the herd, and when he lands in their midst he comes face to face with a young tiger.  When he roars at the young tiger the only response is “baa, baa.”   The old tiger, realizing what must have happened, grabs the young tiger by the scruff of his neck and drags him to the spot where a freshly killed carcass lays rotting and covered with maggots.   He thrusts the young tiger’s face into the carcass, and when the young tiger smells the meats and tastes the blood, he pulls back and for the first time in his life he roars.  And in many Hindu temples there is a statue of this rotting carcass, with the caption underneath it reading “The Face of G-d.”

What this story and this chapter say to me is that our relationship to G-d and ourselves, and the tasks of this week, cannot be done without an honest look at the primitive part of ourselves.  I would even say that what our task is over these ten days is this honest look, which is an essential part of the “circumcision of the heart” that the Torah calls us to do.  The newspapers are filled [especially now] with the stories of people who use their powers to estrange themselves from their primitive side, and as a result do great damage to themselves, those they purport to love, and the world in which they live.  And even this congregation, which prides itself rightfully on its good deeds and its support of each member in trouble, so often uses its large brains and sharp tongues to keep a distance from those who expose their feelings or souls in public speech or private conversations.  While our “skits” are wonderfully funny, our sense of humor and our ironic, detached forms of speech often serve to trivialize problems and to hide our faces from the other.  And we are the worse for it, with services and interactions that oftentimes are dry and lacking the juice that true interaction and engagement with each person’s Torah can bring.  While I enjoy the Rabbi’s wonderful performances on the bima, I suspect sometimes that he is doing it “for us”, much as the Disney movies and imagination of their writers substitutes for the child’s own imagination.  And when a speaker at services tries to say something important to the congregation, often the first responses to what the speaker has said is to raise a factoid, or distract the conversation away from the emotional content into the intellectual. So I see us losing our chance each week for what Buber calls “I-Thou” interactions.  

I think if we connect with the primitive part of ourselves – and if I dare say it – the primitive part of G-d – we can truly do the work we need to do now.  And these text and these rituals call us to remember and to re-enact this work even as they remind us now and at Yom Kippur that G-d is judging all of us and that our best responses are the most primitive of all – fear and trembling.

And connecting with ourselves – truly seeing ourselves with all our primitive drives and urges – which we share so clearly with Abraham and Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Abimelech – will allow us to make some changes.   I do not think, by the way, that G-d is asking us to cast out our sins – but rather that we recognize them, make them concrete by saying them and thinking about them and apologizing for them.  Putting them into breadcrumbs and throwing them away into a river will not make them go away.   But looking at them honestly and “facing” who we are – in the image of G-d - will allow us more control over them.  In this interpretation G-d is in the carcass that connects us to ourselves.

Let me end with a personal story.  I married late, and spent many years as a single man, presenting, in the words of TS Eliot, “a face to meet the faces that I meet”.  That face I presented was of the nicest and most attractive and most helpful man I could concoct.  About half the time, I met another face – another persona - prepared by the woman I met to meet the faces she would meet.  And about half the time – because I was a lucky man – I met real faces trying to find my real face.  But I rarely made true contact and never considered marrying – until I met Renana.  With her I found myself showing my true face, definitely not the face of a nice person, and I looked into her face, not made up for me.  And I moved to not only marriage but to a true connection that has survived all that G-d and the world has thrown at us.

May each of you, and this congregation, find and face, with truth, the path of repentance and self knowledge, and may this lead to greater connection, compassion and commitment to each other, to G-d, and to the world.  Shana Tova.