At our 5784 Rosh Hashanah service, Rabbi Lizzi delivered a sermon about how about how acting out of fear has led to seemingly endless cycle of violence in Israel. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on the Mishkan YouTube channel.
On Rosh HaShannah, the birthday of the universe in the Jewish collective imagination, a day of hope and possibility, and a day of assessment and judgment — a day on which we say, hayom harat olam, today the world is being gestated and birthed… Why, on this day and tomorrow, is the story our sages chose for us to read the dumpster fire of Abraham and Sarah’s parenting choices? Truly — on a day whose themes are these transcendent themes of God’s creation and evaluation of all creatures on earth — which you would THINK would correspond much more to the first chapters of Genesis — why do we read the story we read today of Abraham kicking Hagar and Ishmael out of their family home and sending them on a death march into the wilderness, and then in the reading tomorrow, even worse or at least equally disturbing, why do we read the tale of Abraham taking his remaining son Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him?
This is a time when our calendar feels very intense. These Ten Days of Teshuvah, Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, are days that our tradition tells us will set the course for our entire year as our fate hangs in the balance. Who will live and who will die, who will be raised up and who will be brought low, and so forth. This time is consequential for us as individuals, and this time is consequential for us as a Jewish people.
That’s true any year, and specifically this year, as the Israeli Supreme Court deliberates on whether to accept or reject a proposed new law to strike down its own power to rein in unreasonable laws proposed by the Israeli government. This “reasonableness clause” being the first of many laws proposed to dismantle some of Israel’s democratic safeguards, by a newish government composed of leaders who, to put it succinctly, have shown themselves to care more about power than democracy. So truly, it feels like much hangs in the balance in the unfolding story of the Jewish people, and the modern Jewish experiment in sovereignty that is the State of Israel.
Which I do want to talk about today — but first want to ground us in Torah. Because I do think our sages gave us a particular reading for this, the most high visibility high traffic day of the calendar, when, at least in theory, we’re collectively thinking about the patterns we want to set for the year to come, inside ourselves and in our communities, to create a more perfect world. So with everything swirling chaotically around us like some dystopian novel about the future, except it’s happening now, and it’s us and our people– I want to devote time today to studying the stories our sages gave us to read on this day. Shall we learn some Torah?
I want to turn our attention for a minute to Sarah — she kind of comes off as a villain in today’s reading because it’s her idea to kick out Hagar and Ishmael, so I want to provide some backstory, which doesn’t excuse her actions, but gives them context. This woman has been through a lot in her life: she’s married to an itinerant preacher, she has to cook for all his guests all the time, the Torah describes situations she finds herself in that one can only imagine were uncomfortable at best and traumatic at worst. And finally, of course, she discovers she can’t do the one thing biblical women are supposed to do, have babies. And so trying to be resourceful, she suggests her husband sire a child with the maid, Hagar the Egyptian, and then from the second Hagar gets pregnant Sarah feels like she is being mocked for what she can’t achieve, and she becomes oppressive and mean. She is so insecure that even when she does miraculously get pregnant and have a child, she jokes that her son Yitzhak, whose name means to laugh, is named so because, “Everyone who hears about this will laugh at me.” Her story is one of extreme pathos and pain. And so, when she finally has the child she has been praying for, which God promised her, she cannot shake the feeling of self-protection and scarcity she’s had all this time in the presence of Hagar and Ishmael, and so Sarah requests that they be banished.
This distresses Avraham, the idea of driving out Hagar and Ishmael. So he goes to God for advice, who says, “In everything Sarah says, listen to her voice. Shema b’kolah.”
Listen to her voice. So dutifully Avraham puts a canteen on Hagar’s shoulder, gives her and Ishmael food, and sends them away. There’s an intimacy to this scene, and a sadness, because the reader knows that Avraham cares very much for Hagar and Ishmael, and we sense that there was probably another way, a better way, to “listen to Sarah’s voice.”
And the heart of Rosh HaShannah and maybe the entire Jewish project is to do what Avraham fails to do in this moment, which is to practice empathy, for all parties involved– Sarah, Hagar, the boys… “Listen to her voice,” means not just to blindly follow orders, but trying to get down to the bedrock of Sarah’s insecurity and pain, and let’s be honest she’s a new mom, hormones, and fear and persistent sense of scarcity, that she’s been carrying around causing her to behave in a way that seems unreasonable and hurtful, and turning someone else into the enemy– seeing who’s been a critical part of their family for decades as a threat. Abraham could have “listened to her voice,” by validating Sarah’s feelings, supporting her, making her feel loved and celebrated, and my guess is this would have gone a long way toward making it possible to preserve the relationship with Hagar, and slowly, with sensitivity to everyone’s experience, allow the brothers, Isaac and Ishmael to grow up together. What a different world that would have been.
But instead we see a calculus: me versus her. Us versus Them. Us, the people whose needs matter, Them, the ones who’s needs don’t. Sarah believes, and Avraham acquiesces, that Hagar and Ishmael are the Them, and are a threat to Us, and have to go.
This is the backdrop for tomorrow’s reading — these readings designed by the rabbis to come back-to-back. Abraham gets another call from God, a test, this time telling him to sacrifice his one remaining child, Isaac. He takes his son and all the items he needs to strap him down on a pile of logs, slaughter him and burn him as an offering– that was something done back then, though it’s hard for me to imagine humans loved their children any less. And just as he’s holding out the knife, an angel of God calls out, Avraham, and a second time AVRAHAM.” And he snaps out of it. Like a dream. When we blow the shofar tomorrow, we’re reminded of how close Abraham was to doing this devastating thing, and how, thankfully, he looked up, and saw a ram caught in the thicket, which he sacrificed instead.
Isaac survives, but does not return with Abraham. The next place Isaac turns up is one of Hagar and Ishmael’s special places. Perhaps, the midrash suggests, Isaac went to go find Hagar and Ishmae the only — other people in the world who he knew would understand what had happened because it happened to them too — being treated as suddenly expendable despite a lifetime of relationship and family history. And of course that’s not how Avraham would frame it, but that’s probably what it felt like to Yitzhak. And he never got over it. Meanwhile, we never heard another word from Sarah, leading the midrash to suggest that when Sarah heard about what her husband had taken her precious only son to do, the shock killed her. The midrash says she cried out six times before she died, corresponding to each tekiyah we blow on Rosh HaShannah. The family Abraham was trying so desperately to protect, he destroyed.
Why do we read these painful stories of our founding family, on this day of self-reflection, possibility and renewal? And I hope, by the way, that you’ll discuss this question at your Rosh HaShannah meals today, like at a seder, with questions and pushback over good food. I’ll tell you what I think: It’s a cautionary tale. I believe our rabbis wanted us to see that when we mistreat Hagar which literally means, the stranger in Hebrew– the person we have identified as the “other,” tho they may be proximate enough to us that we can see them, they may even share our home, our land, or our DNA — when we mistreat them, it is only a matter of time before we will be treating our family the same way.
When we make moral compromises that hurt people outside our home to protect the people inside our home, eventually those same moral compromises will hurt people inside of our home as well. What we do to others or allow to be done to others in the name of our self-protection, will come back around to us, eventually.
And tragically, there is no better demonstration of this timeless Jewish lesson than what is happening right now in Israel.
And I wish I could be talking about anything else today, but it seems to me that what’s happening in the world’s only Jewish country in front of the eyes of the world right now, requires our attention, too. It would be negligent of me not to talk about this, when so many of my Israeli colleagues, Jewish leaders and longtime defenders of Israel, are begging Americans and American Jews, and anyone who says they care about Israel, to do or say something, anything, tear our clothes, post on social, protest, wield our influence and raise our voice against the anti-democratic turn the country is taking at this moment. I’m sure those of us who choose to do so, like me, right now, will upset some people and for that, I am sorry. My email inbox remains open to anyone who wants to write a respectful letter to the editor after services. Honestly, I’m grateful because Mishkan is a space where I feel I can share my observations and thoughts, and not worry that this community will be unreasonable or God forbid, un-Midwestern, which is to say, I hope you’ll politely stay and listen, and then we can have a well reasoned Jewish debate later.
Now let’s be real: I’m a progressive female non-Orthodox rabbi in Chicago– it’s not like what I have to say matters to those in power over there. This isn’t for them. This is as much a spiritual issue for us as it is a political issue for Israelis, and we are no less afflicted by the spiritual dynamics here that have led to this moment in Israel’s history there. So while the Torah is the cautionary tale, and Israel is our case study today, this sermon is for us here too. And for those in the pro-democracy movement to know that they are not alone, that we are in awe of their tenacity and persistence and the way they have come together across the spectrum of political ideology to form one voice refusing to accept the unacceptable, and for them to know that there’s one more Jewish community in America that stands with them.
Israel’s not that old of a country — it was founded 75 years ago, with the ashes of the Holocaust still smoldering and the world reeling in disbelief that people could be so inhumane and cruel to other human beings. But Jews know what it’s like to be Ger, the stranger, having encountered antisemitism throughout our history where ever we’ve traveled, including here in America, recently, where we are seen by white supremacists or white nationalists as outsiders that may share their country, but are nonetheless a threat to their country and must be contained, controlled or destroyed. Hence the bag check on your way in. During the Second World War, literally no country in the world would take in the number of Jews seeking to leave a Europe on fire, including the US, and consequently 2/3rds of European Jewry was murdered, along with a million Roma people, disabled and gay and trans people, and other threats to Aryan thriving. It’s still staggering to think about.
And truly astonishing is that with that profound trauma as the backdrop, Israel’s founders could write, in its declaration of Independence signed only three years after the liberation of Auscwitz, that Israel would be a home not only for all the world’s Jews who sought safe haven, yet be of “benefit to all its inhabitants.” This nation, they wrote, “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; this nation will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex; and will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture.” This was a vision of a new liberal democracy being born whose purpose was to care both for the quintessential Ger, the Jew, because no one else ever did… and also to care for every minority in its midst, because we know what it feels like to be treated as the outsider.
And from where we sit now, 75 years in, there are ways in which Israel has fulfilled its founding mission beyond the wildest dreams of its founders– has taken in Jewish refugees from every country in the world, certainly wherever Jews are in danger, whether Ethiopia, or Ukraine, Yemen or Iraq or Russia or France or Iran, and list goes on and on. All while building a thriving economy in what seems like the only middle eastern plot of land not swimming in oil, creating a socialized healthcare system that actually works (and I would know, my daughter broke her arm there this summer and it was the nicest, most efficient and least expensive hospital visit I’ve ever had)…
But there’s a reason why millions of Israelis have been protesting in the streets for the past 39 weeks. This government has made its agenda clear and they are moving fast and breaking things to pursue it — they want to weaken the secular courts and strengthen religious courts, restrict the rights of women, LGBTQ people and their families, further weaken the status of non-Orthodox Jews, non-Israeli Jews, converts, Israeli Palestinians, Arabs in general, immigrants. Israelis are scared because they already see the strained relationships with democratic allies, and they see their country becoming more vulnerable to outside threats as their Generals, Pilots, and Reservists– people who can only be described as patriots– are unwilling to fight in the army of a government if it is no longer a democracy. They signed up to fight in the army of the Israel whose Declaration of Independence you just heard. Israelis are scared because they’re already seeing economic decline — Israeli tech companies themselves have moved hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars outside of Israel, along with employees, to avoid the concerns of instability, and frankly discussions of civil war that are now overheard there.
I was there this past summer as many of you know, and will be for the next three years twice a year doing the Shalom Hartman’s Rabbinic Leadership Institute, an opportunity for high-level learning with the leading minds of Jewish and Israeli culture and academia, which includes Palestinian scholars as well. So buckle in everyone, I’m gonna have a lot to talk about in the next few years… You need to know that the language all of them are using to describe this moment is one of existential threat. And what they mean by that is the threat of theocracy, authoritarianism, annexation and permanently enshrining separate laws for Jews and Palestinian in the same land, the definition of apartheid — those are the stakes right now. The existential threat they’re worried about is not coming from Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Iran: the threat is coming from inside the house.
And if you are a Jew, or love a Jew, or are considering becoming Jewish, or just love this place and care about what happens there– you know that all of this is being done in our name, and in the name of the Torah we share and love. The guys in charge right now, some of them were barred from serving in the army because of the danger of their extremist, Jewish supremacist views– what they are peddling is a distortion of Judaism and Torah. There have always been people like them at the fringes, of course, but they’re now leading the government of the Jewish state, and people from Left to Right are coming together with one voice to try to prevent from destroying the very thing they say they are trying to protect.
And we can be alarmed. But we cannot claim to be surprised. This anti-democratic Jewish supremacist government didn’t come out of nowhere. Palestinians, who form 20% of Israel’s citizenry, have been sounding the alarm bells for decades about the ways in which Israeli democracy hasn’t been living up to its founding aspirations of equality and freedom for everyone, whether that’s been Palestinians in Israel living under military law for the first 20 years of the State’s existence, or Israel providing less funding for Arab neighborhoods and schools, OR less policing and security services for Arab towns, let alone the delta between the rights of Jews and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.. The Nation State Law passed a few years ago officially demoted Arabic as a language and affirmed the exclusivity of Jewish national rights. Palestinians make less money, can’t serve in the army and are generally treated with suspicion by Israeli Jews — despite the fact that over 60% of the Israel’s health care system relies on Arab labor (I can tell you every single person from the person who checked us in at the Urgent Care to the X-ray tech, to the Doctor at Urgent Care to the doctor at Shaare Tzedek who tenderly and lovingly set Adira’s arm, were all Arab — it was Shabbat so Jews were mostly not working, but I can tell you we felt very well cared for). There has been a high tolerance for a long time in Israel for differences in how people who live in the same land are treated. And so we cannot claim to be surprised that the very thing the Torah we read today warned us about, has finally happened: Jews denying Arab and Palestinians full rights and dignities, has spread into Jews denying other Jews full rights and dignities. What we do to others or allow to be done to others in the name of our self-protection, will come back around to us, eventually.
But history doesn’t have to determine the future. After Abraham dies, his sons Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury him. It seems Isaac suddenly understands, that he was robbed of a meaningful relationship with his brother because of his parents’ sense of scarcity and fear, isolating him, telling him it was for his own safety. But he comes to realize that Hagar and Ishmael were never a threat to him — on the contrary, his parents’ sense of insecurity and scarcity was. So much so that Isaac’s defining quality according to Jewish tradition, is his fear. And we know that they went through a lot, but ultimately, they let fear define their family. We read this story today because we don’t have to make the same mistake.
So part of our spiritual work is to treat the inherited sense of insecurity and scarcity and fear that comes with being a child of Abraham, a Jew, a Ger. Because we’ve played both roles in this story– certainly the one who has been made the stranger, and the one with the power to exclude. Part of our work today is realizing the ways in which we live with incredible, unprecedented, abundance, of resources, of influence, of joy, of love, of time, of power and, despite what it might feel like sometimes, of safety. In the scope of Jewish history we have never had it so good, been so integrated into the fabric of the cultures we inhabit, and have so much support from the government and authorities to protect us. The US has a special envoy, and ambassador to monitor and combat antisemitism. And we can put all of this in service of trying to do something for people who need us, right now, who have less abundance and more reason to fear for the present and future. We can raise our voice for them, certainly here in our city and country, and to support democracy and coexistence in Israel.
But the thing is for me — I’m not, hoping to restore democracy to what it was — it was deeply flawed. Just as democracy in this country can still use some work, to put it mildly. We want to support the democracy that could be, which will involve listening to the voices of all its minorities, helping the Jewish state live up to its founding ideals of equality and freedom for all its inhabitants. I want to see a democracy that doesn’t require permanent moral compromises for anyone’s security — meaning a democracy that doesn’t involve occupation of millions of people, and that protects all the lives in its care, in particular, non-Jews. Because caring for the Ger has always been part of what it means to be a Jew.
There are things we can do, are being asked to do by Israelis from left to right to help them do this. We can support the hundreds of thousands of Israelis, who are protesting week after week by showing up to UnXceptable protests here, or donating money so they can be held in other cities including all over Israel. Miriam Klevan, a leader in the local movement here in Chicago, will be teaching an afternoon class about it on Yom Kippur next week, btw, check it out if you’re interested. We can support the organizations that have been working day in and day out for decades toward the vision of Israel described in its declaration of Independence, one of complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.
Even if you’ve been disengaged from Israel or never really thought about it– so much the more so if you have — this is not the time for divesting, but rather for investing in the people who are trying to create the future there. As long as there are people on the ground picking up the mantle of Isaac and Ishmael, unwilling to accept the fear inherited from their parents, and more interested in working together to build the home they share, I want to support them and I’d love for all of us to consider ourselves part of that project.
Tomorrow we’ll blow the shofar– an instrument designed to be narrow at one end, and expansive at the other. And as you already heard, it contains the sounds of our most painful memories. But we begin with the line “Min haMetsar Karati Yah anani b’merhav Yah,” from the narrow place I called out and You answered me with great expansiveness. We don’t need to have all the answers figured out for all these big questions, like how, for example, is it possible to create a true Jewish democracy in which no one is made to be a stranger? In which we don’t compromise anyone’s safety to preserve our own? We haven’t seen that yet. But I have to believe it’s possible. We begin with the narrow view, and expand outward, the sound begins at the narrow end but it travels, moves, grows, and expands to fill a whole new space.
I hope our collective imagination for what’s possible in this coming year can do the same.