Monday, September 21, 2009

L'shanah Tovah

Ben and I composed this "drash" and I shared it in Rosh Hashonah services at Beyt Tikkun on Saturday. What a milestone for us a family and an honor to be asked to speak. Last year at this time, the congregation danced and sang their way around us, to welcome and bless our then weeks old Asher. I could barely form a sentence then, the smile inside me radiating out. Feeling so deeply with hardly a word to match.

What a difference a year makes. This year, we reckon with the possibility and challenge of parenting and of being whole and generous in the bigger world. This is the work of a lifetime, to be sure.

May all of us know love and peace in this new year. L'shanah tovah!


It is one of those lines we all know from old Westerns – “There ain’t room in this town for both of us….” Swinging bar doors, barren dusty towns, rolling cottonwood , cowboy boots and silver pistols. But, more than these icons of the pioneering Western spirit, this line reflected the attitude of an era – We can’t both succeed here. There isn’t enough. One of us has got to go. And that one is not me. Its you. Its not us. Its them.

Why does Sarah order Hagar and Ismael be banished? It was Sarah who had encouraged Abraham to impregnate Hagar, to father Ishmael, when she thought she couldn’t have a child of her own. At that moment, Hagar and Ishmael were included in Sarah’s us.

No more. Sarah orders Abraham to send Hagar off into the wilderness with only a parcel of water and her son on her back, and, G-d permits it, tells Abraham to honor her will.

Why would the miraculous conception of Isaac, a joyful reminder of the fertility and generosity of the universe, become a catalyst for Sarah’s stinginess. Sarah looked around, and like the dueling cowboy, saw the town had shrunk. Hagar was a threat, a threat to Isaac’s place in line to lead and therefore, a threat to the Jewish people. Hagar was now the “other,” less than the people in Us, and her destiny was her concern.

Why is this story told on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year? Why is this joyful day marred by a parsha of such stinginess, contraction and ill will? Why couldn’t the birth of Isaac have been a happy story, inspiring generosity in Sarah the way the universe was generous with her?

We don’t do banishment anymore, but how often, in a moment of recognition, or in the glow of achieving a long sought goal, why do we so easily believe there isn’t enough to go around anymore? Why does expansiveness inspire us to relegate other people to simply other, even to a kind of non-human status? It is Banishment 2.0 – our modern shared ,open-source version of an ancient practice.

On this Rosh Hashonah, as we reflect on who we are, individually and as a people, it isn’t hard to find examples of people rendered “other.” Banished. In Israel, of course. In torture chambers. Within the reach of a vest packed with explosives. In bad business deals. In stony and silent marriages. Plans broken. Commitments unfulfilled. When we shake our heads in wonder at how Sarah could do these things to Hagar and Ishmael, and ask why she didn’t feel their pain, we also know we don’t have to look very far for an answer. All of those examples out there, while the urge to estrange originates inside of us. Here.

There was a miracle in our lives this year – this past year, Ben and I gave birth to our first son, Asher . Many of you who were here last year danced and sang his blessing and welcome. Thank you. He was just weeks old then. He has now celebrated his first birthday and, as his name would suggest, he is a blessing to us every day. Asher. So, we got our miracle, right? I wasn’t quite nearing 100, but 40 isn’t exactly 20. I’m sure every parent feels their own child’s birth is a miracle. Sarah’s story challenged me: who have I banished?

Where have I let my own desire to protect this little boy become a suspicion that there just isn’t enough for us, so you, you’ll have to go without. Where have I put a wall up around this new capacity to feel, to love so deeply? Where have I lost faith that there will be enough for my family, if I am generous with all those children out in the wilderness? Where have you, like Sarah, outstretched your arm, pointing Hagar’s way out of town

I am also reflecting on this G-d – this G-d I choose to believe in and how she could allow Hagar and Ismael to be exiled, swiftly sent to what appeared to be their deaths. And, yet, they didn’t die. They WERE provided for. G-d heard the boy’s cry and a well appeared. The failure of generosity and of empathy was Sarah’s. It is not the way things are.

It isn’t always true. Plenty of people die in deserts every year. In times like ours, who isn’t worried about an economy in turmoil, war, deep uncertainty? I’m not na├»ve. But the lesson of this parsha, for me, today, is that the world is generous when we act generously. When we live simply and passionately, and have the faith to cry out -as Ismael did-when we need help, then we are not leaving it to G-d, we hold G-d as our partner.

I have begun to pray more this year, to seek to control less and to listen more. Boy, do I have a long way to go. And, still I aspire , on this Shabbat and through this new year, that we may count faith as our ally when we despair and generosity as our practice when we are most convinced there is not enough.

Because, like our G-d and her reflection in Sarah, I am flawed. I do not and will not always have faith that things are going to work out, I will stray from my commitments, from my deepest beliefs. I will not always be generous with my neighbor or even my husband when I feel like I am not getting something I need. There are certainly a LOT of examples of this behavior. But, as we do each year at this time, I can cast off fears and habits of mind and spirit I no longer need, and I can embrace, as if for the first time, a new way. I can walk into town and say “Welcome. May we all be successful and peaceful and happy here. Welcome. This place is for ALL of US.”

L’shana tovah Umetukah

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