Rosh Hashanah commentary 5776

Shana tova! Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are upon us once again. Of what are we in awe? Of our own capacity for teshuvah, or turning. We look back to see who we have been so we can look ahead to who we wish to be. We are in awe of our communities that make us stronger, that lend compassion and empathy, humour and happiness. We are in awe of our world which continues to be both beautiful and heart-wrenching every day.

This year at Rosh Hashanah services, we read from I Samuel, a traditional reading that describes Hannah’s struggle to conceive a child. She silently prays to have a child, and promises to dedicate his life to Temple service just after weaning. This is what happens. It’s a difficult part of Tanakh (Hebrew bible) to connect with. Here is how I tried to make some sense of it for us as we embark on the gratifying journey of self-exploration this year, 5776.
Hannah is a figure who elicits much compassion. She is earnest, she is kind, she is self-sacrificing. Religious communities include this reading from First Samuel in order to highlight the efficacy of prayer. Hannah committing her first son, Samuel, to live and serve the Priests at the Temple, provides a perfect role model that religious leadership, from Priests during the Temple period, to rabbis afterwards, would wish to uphold. One’s personal goals and dreams can be fulfilled with prayer and service to one’s religion. However, religion may also demand of you that you sacrifice your dreams and goals. It cuts both ways.

In case this is beginning to sound like the kind of sermon many of us may have dreaded in shule growing up, fear not. At Oraynu, we do not demand of you total sacrifice; we are not interested in raising your first born children (although we’d be happy to educate them at our children’s school!). For us, Judaism is actually the exact opposite of how it is portrayed here. It is a structure, culture, set of traditions and practices, by which our personal dreams and goals may be fulfilled, not compromised.

The tension in this passage between dreams realized and then sacrificed, for Hannah gets to have a child but then must give him up just after weaning, is a tension we all live with, we all can learn from. It is no accident that this is one of the Haftorah readings that are included in Rosh Hashanah, given that the holiday’s Torah readings centre around the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Isaac was also born to an infertile woman, Sarah. In fact many of the foremothers in Jewish lore are infertile. Why? What does it signify? 

For many of these women, infertility was the test of their faith, and their faith was affirmed when their prayer of having a child was answered. In the story of Sarah, when she is told at the age of 90 that she is indeed pregnant, she bursts into laughter — she simply can’t believe it! Her child, Isaac, is named for that laughter. Just as Isaac is nearly sacrificed to prove Abraham’s faith, Samuel’s life must be sacrificed or at least devoted to the temple to prove Hannah’s. To be sure, the idea of faith is central. But the repeated metaphor of having children to make that theme come alive in the texts, is also crucial. What better metaphor to choose to illustrate total longing, total sacrifice, total devotion than children? Not everyone is a parent and not everyone wishes to be. But for those who are, for many of us we would have done anything to become parents. We relate to Hannah who will promise whatever she needs to. And once we become parents, we, too, are tested. Indeed, children represent the fulfillment of our greatest wishes and hopes, and simultaneously our greatest test, the demand for our greatest self-sacrificing. Not all of us are parents, but all were children. We know of the sacrifices our caregivers made for us. These relationships aren’t always perfect, but we know that we are all the products of the giving of others. 

What is the lesson in all of this? Surely not the efficacy of prayer. Surely at least not just that. I think the text demands us to consider that whatever it is we wish and hope for, will only be worthwhile if we are willing to work and even sacrifice for it. This is a very Jewish idea! For example, to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Oraynu and across the Jewish world, one must engage in serious study, in community service, in thoughtful contemplation about our tradition and what it means to us today. One must get up in front of a crowd (not easy for any of us, particularly at that age), and prove our earnest wish to become the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This adolescent must give up time spent on other commitments, from social outings, to sports, to school clubs, in order to make this a priority. It is the sacrifice that makes all that learning and doing meaningful. These youngsters say to our community: we choose this. This matters. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. And it is worth it, because all of that learning, contributing to society, engaging with one’s culture, surely gives more than any of those single other events. I often tell parents that I understand that hockey, music lessons, chess club, they are all important. But, to me, nothing is as important as Jewish education because when our children are adults, it is unlikely they will all be world-class hockey players, or violinists (although, let’s hope some will!), but they will hopefully all still care about being Jewish.

As the Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes the brave step of standing in front of their community, they realize that they are loved, respected, and included in this group. They are someone who matters to all of these people. We come to watch the individual, to support them. But we get much out of it too. We get to see the future of our culture in blossom. We get to see ourselves reflected in our youth, just as they get to see themselves reflected in us. 

This is the story of Hannah and Samuel. She trusts her God, we could read that as her tradition, culture, community, to provide for her. And in response, she gives all that she has back. Again, fear not, this is not a clever plea for donations! But it is a suggestion that we all benefit from a community to which we contribute. We hear all the time from Oraynu’s most active members that the more they volunteer, serve, and participate, the more they get out of it. 

This is also the story of building a meaningful life through hard work. For parents, we know that children need us, of course, for their care and survival. But emotionally, we need them so much more! We provide for them, but the joy and fulfillment hey provide is so much more! This is not limited to having children. Any career, any relationship, any project that is deeply meaningful to us, must also be deeply demanding of us. 

We sit here today, at this most deeply meaningful time of year, in community. Like Hannah, we sacrifice for this privilege – it is our time, it is the cost of our membership or the tickets, it is the choice to be here and nowhere else. Like Hannah, we hope that what we provide in return is deeply significant, and in some way, helps everyone here meet their own goals. We are a group of very diverse individuals. Our individual selves and dreams matter. We are here to examine what we wish to accomplish, change, or experience this year. We are here to wonder about who we have been and who we wish to become. And our community matters. We are here, like the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to be seen and to truly see others. By being here, every one of you matters. We could not be a community without you. And we hope this community matters to you as well. 

Rosh Hashanah is about renewal. Metaphors of children speak so naturally to this idea. Birth and rebirth, fecundity, hope for the future, and, yes, sacrifice to make our deepest desires come to fruition, all of this is symbolized by the birth of a child. There is also the child-like, not childish but child-like, being within each of us, yearning to see the world with the kind of wonder we all did at our beginnings. Let the metaphor speak to us about our own renewal. How can we, this year, focus on our own rebirth or re-creation? How can we look to our future with the same hopefulness and wonder as we see in children and they see in us and the world?

There is one more aspect of Hannah’s story that I find insightful. Hannah prays silently, she says, with her heart. It is not the words that matter, but her deepest intention. We are caught up in a world that is filled with signs, images, words, language. We are bombarded. And we participate. We text, we write, we talk. We live loud lives. In Humanistic Judaism, we do believe words matter. We pride ourselves on saying what we believe and believing what we say. But there is also something to the idea that something in us, something special and even sacred, is beyond language. Today is an opportunity to connect to the community beyond ourselves, and also to connect to that deepest part of ourselves. What is our deepest hope, desire, dream? What is it that I truly want to do, to achieve, to have, to experience? And, like Hannah, we can ask what is demanded of me to realize that dream? What must I sacrifice? And what, immeasurable, but much much greater than that sacrifice, is there to be gained? 

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