Sunday, October 2, 2016: Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Seeing Ourselves in Others

Judaism is a love-based religion. In three different ways, we are commanded to love. Famously, in Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Throughout the Torah, “you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Finally, in Deuteronomy, “you shall love Adonai your God.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev said: “A person’s love for God can be determined by the love she bears toward others.”

It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many ways your neighbor is like yourself. He belongs to the same nation, the same social class, or the same political persuasion. What is difficult is loving the person who is different. That’s why the Torah reiterates the commandment to love the stranger 36 times (but “love your neighbor” only once).

Unfortunately, we’re apt to greet outsiders with more suspicion than generosity. The ones marginalized from the mainstream to begin with are routinely denigrated these days: Muslim Americans, Mexican immigrants, transgender people, Syrian refugees, and others. The practice of reducing entire classes of people to a single stereotype pervades public discourse. We objectify them. They are no longer living, breathing souls who feel and suffer as we do but flat projections of our own fears and anxieties.

In his recent book Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks chronicles the process that leads inexorably to genocide. Mass atrocity does not erupt spontaneously. It is the product of a gradual breakdown in moral sensibility that begins, innocuously enough, with a division in the mind between “us” and “them.” Once we mentally and emotionally detach from others, the next step is to blame them for our problems. Our prevailing preoccupation becomes to remove them from society. Their hardship and misfortune are of no concern to us. From here it’s a short leap to stripping them of their humanity altogether.

The recent upsurge in antisemitism worldwide, as well as increasing hostility against foreigners in our own country, are both gravely worrisome. Why now? Massive immigration, the globalization of the economy, the rise in terrorism, and increasing ethnic and cultural diversity within populations—these are some of the potent forces currently fraying the fabric of Western civilization. When people feel threatened that their standard of living and way of life are under siege, they tend to look for a scapegoat.

Social and economic instability has always constituted a breeding ground for xenophobia. Such was the condition of Weimar Germany in 1920’s and 30s, and such are the circumstances in 2016 in the United States. Lest you think it alarmist to suggest a comparison between today’s political climate and the environment that gave rise to Nazism, consider the following observation from a Holocaust survivor who attended one of this year’s political rallies. “It’s not so much what the speaker said at the podium, it was its effect on the crowd, working them up into a frenzy,” she said. “History is repeating itself, and again it’s our inattention to real cues that is so frightening.” In light of this grim warning, we can appreciate all the more Judaism’s insistence on loving the stranger. Not only during periods of prosperity, but especially when under stress, we as a society must guard against the impulse to demonize any members of the human family.

More than any other occasion, Rosh Hashanah proclaims the common bond of humanity among all peoples on Earth. Other festivals celebrate important episodes in Jewish history (the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, etc.). Rosh Hashanah alone commemorates an event of universal import: the creation of the world and the concomitant emergence of the first human being. On Rosh Hashanah, all humanity—indeed, all living creatures—stand together in judgment before their Maker. Rosh Hashanah anticipates the day when the entire world will unite under the glorious sovereignty of the Almighty.

In addition to upholding universal fellowship, Rosh Hashanah specifically focuses on the plight of the foreigner. Many commentators wonder at the selection for the traditional Torah portion. Surely, on this exalted occasion, we would expect a suitably lofty scriptural reading. Why not the obvious choice: Genesis 1, the magnificent account of Creation? What we get instead is Genesis 21. Abraham, at the behest of his wife, Sarah, expels Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, leaving Ishmael to die of thirst. (Hagar is the Egyptian handmaiden, and Ishmael is the son Hagar bore Abraham.) Why did the Rabbis deem this sordid tale of domestic strife and rejection worthy for recitation at the very outset of the year?

It’s instructive to compare the readings on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah, two consecutive chapters in the Torah. In both, Abraham is bidden to sacrifice his son to death (explicitly, with Isaac, indirectly, in the case of Ishmael); the child himself is passive, likely unaware of his fate, and helpless to change it; his life is saved only through the intervention of God’s angel. The plots may be similar, but the tone of the narrative is completely different. Genesis 22 reports the drama matter-of-factly, almost callously. We have no idea what Isaac feels as he’s led to the altar to be slaughtered, and we can only guess at Abraham’s state of mind while he lifts the knife. By contrast, Genesis 21 drips with pathos. “When the water was gone from the jug, Hagar left the child under one of the bushes, went off and sat down at a distance, for she said: let me not look on as [my son] dies, and… she burst into tears.” There is no question toward whom the Torah intends to arouse our sympathies. Rabbi Sacks observes: “we are awed by Abraham and Isaac, but we identify with Hagar and Ishmael.” When Hagar weeps, we are meant to weep alongside her.

God, too, weeps for the outcast. The name Ishmael literally means “the one whom God hears.” Although Ishmael is not destined to inherit the Covenant, the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize God’s special concern for Ishmael. The angel comforts Hagar in her distress by saying: “Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy… and [God] will make him a great nation.” Let’s not forget the significant detail that Hagar comes from Egypt, the very nation that subsequently assails Israel. More relevant to our own age, Ishmael is universally recognized as the forefather of the Arabs. Given these associations, the first day Rosh Hashanah Torah reading delivers an extraordinarily forceful message: God sends blessing upon all people, not only those whose destiny diverges from ours, but even our enemies.

One of Torah’s remarkable features is that, far from idealizing its heroes, it exhibits their flaws along with their virtues. One cannot remain indifferent to Sarah’s harsh conduct toward Hagar. The wording is deliberately crafted to elicit our disapproval. For example, the text describes Sarah’s actions as abusive: “and Sarah tormented Hagar,” using the same verb (anah) elsewhere reserved for describing Egypt’s oppression of Israel: “and the Egyptians tormented the children of Israel ruthlessly.” Indeed, Midrash relates the two cases: because Sarah enslaved the Egyptian, Hagar, Egypt eventually retaliated by enslaving Israel.

During the High Holiday season, we are supposed to look inward. Introspection is the crucial first step of teshuvah. The Torah invites us to examine the crosscurrents of our own motives by identifying with the psychic struggles of its protagonists. Sarah’s hatred toward Hagar, the foreigner, seems to be instigated by feelings of jealousy and competition. (cf. Genesis 16:5) Underneath her jealousy is fear, fear that Ishmael threatens the legitimacy of her beloved son Isaac as heir to the Covenant. These all-too-human emotional reactions—animosity, jealousy, competition, and, above all, fear—are the same impulses driving the backlash against foreigners today. Like our foremother Sarah, we Americans fear for our own status and security, as well as our children’s.

Abraham’s motives are more entangled than Sarah’s. He clearly loves his son Ishmael. When Sarah insists upon Ishmael’s banishment, the text states that “Abraham was greatly aggrieved,” but he gives into her demand anyway. Similarly, pressures from family members, peers and leaders can sometimes compel us to act against our better judgment, especially when they tap into pre-existing inner conflicts of our own.

Each of us comprises a multitude of inconsistencies. Some of our traits are admirable, others contemptible, and many fall in between. We are all xenophobic to some degree. It is basic human nature to feel threatened by outsiders. At this time of year devoted to moral scrutiny, our tradition challenges us to root out our own prejudices. Tikkun olam begins with tikkun ha-nefesh. To change the world, we start by changing ourselves.

Throughout Jewish literature, Abraham and Sarah are singled out as exemplars of chesed, lovingkindness, for their generosity toward the stranger. They open their tent on four sides, to welcome desert wanderers from every direction the compass. That’s why, in the designated reading for Rosh Hashanah, their cruel treatment of their own resident alien is so extraordinary and ironic. It goes to show that there is a streak of distrust and fear in the best of us.

“Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah,” declaims the Talmud. “One for the thoroughly righteous, one for the thoroughly wicked, and one for the beinoni, those in between. The fate of the first two groups is written and sealed immediately, but the fate of third remains suspended until Yom Kippur.” We are, all of us, beinoni. Just as Abraham and Sarah once fell short of the virtue of chesed with which they are identified, we too will sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. But Rosh Hashanah calls to our highest selves. Throughout this day, in the liturgical themes and the scriptural passages, Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our affinity with all people on Earth and our special obligation to “love the stranger.” May we rise to the summons of this season. May compassion in our hearts dissolve all our inner anxieties and fears. May an abundance of chesed overcome hatred and bigotry in our society and throughout the world.