Rosh Hashanah 2016 - Sermon on Day 1

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 2016
The Tears of Hagar: A Response to Terror

            Fifteen years ago I stood before you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and read a letter I had written to Darin Pontell. Darin was in the Navy, a graduate of the Naval Academy, and he was based in the office of naval intelligence in the Pentagon. I had met Darin the year before as we were planning his marriage to Devora Wolk. Darin was a young man full of life and good humor. He had the brightest smile you would ever see. He was always respectful and he loved his parents and Devora very much. Their wedding – in March 2001 – was a blessed and joyous event.
            I shared that letter to Darin on Rosh Hashanah September 18, 2001 one week after 9/11 because after the plane crashed into the Pentagon that day, he had gone missing. In that letter I told Darin how much his family and community loved him and were praying for him. In the midst of the chaos and anger and fear that we were all feeling at that time, I expressed our hope that our prayers would be answered – that Darin would be alive and would be able to reunite with his family.
            Tragically his body was found later that day and his funeral was conducted a couple of days later. Darin’s family’s world as well as all the families of all 3,000 of those who were killed that day, was turned upside down and by extension so was ours. So much that we took for granted – American global strength and superiority, our personal safety, our way of life – was now threatened.
But even more than our way of life, the moral and religious values of our western civilization – the so-called Judeo Christian values – were now threatened as well. The terrorists that day wanted us to know that our belief in God could not save us. They wanted us to know that our way of life could not protect us. They wanted us to know that our core system of values could not provide a firm foundation on which to build our lives. They wanted us to feel lost and stunned. And for a time they succeeded.
Ever since 9/11, terrorist atrocities have continued unabated. As a boxer pounding his opponent into submission, we feel the punches as we learn of bombings in Europe and as we read about the barbaric behavior of ISIS. We remember the attack on a Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France. In that attack 4 years ago three students and a teacher were killed. We remember the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris 18 months ago. As people were buying food for Shabbat, 4 were shot dead and others miraculously survived by hiding in a back room. That attack occurred 2 days after the offices of the magazine called Charlie Hebdo was attacked and 12 people were killed. Individuals with ties to ISIS here in America have gone on shooting and stabbing rampages. Earlier this year the nightclub in Orlando was brutally attacked and just two weeks ago a man was arrested for bombings in NY and NJ. We’ve been disgusted and horrified as ISIS releases videos of beheadings and of their destruction of ancient archeological treasures.  
As these terrorist attacks continue we feel despair. We feel as if our safety and our well-being are out of our control. With the terrorists’ claim of Divine intervention and their ability to attack wherever and whenever they want, we cower in fear. They have succeeded in turning our world upside and making us feel as if we are at their mercy. Crying “allahu akbar” – God is great - as they use the Bible and the Koran for support for their acts of evil, they cause us to question our devotion to our sacred texts.
There is a book that I’ve been reading this past year that has helped me come to terms with some of my emotional and religious despair. The book is titled, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence[1] and is written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the past chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. He has written many books about Jewish thought and values and his eloquence has been a source of inspiration for Jews throughout the world.
In this book, Rabbi Sacks responds to the very issues I just raised. He too is outraged by the way the Bible has been used for evil purposes. If terrorists can find justification for their actions in the words of our sacred text, why would we want to be associated with that text? Why would we want to read the same words that cause evil to be perpetrated in God’s name? Rabbi Sacks makes the case for us to reclaim our text and to know that these words that are millennia old, still carry the moral and religious weight they were intended to.
One example, which actually is found in this morning’s Torah reading, should suffice to understand Rabbi Sacks’ argument. It can be argued that the Torah is the story of the Jewish people. We read about Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood and Abraham and Sarah in order to understand our history. We need to know from where we came and the history of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is a particularistic story, a story that can lead us to think that we were created superior to other people on earth. Abraham and Sarah’s unique relationship with God could lead us to think that we are unique if not better than other societies.
But is that the case? Does the Bible teach that one group of people is better than another? Does the Bible really lead people today to claim superiority over others? Rabbi Sacks has us look at this curious incident of Hagar and Ishmael. Our Torah reading this morning began with God fulfilling the promise made to Sarah and Abraham with the birth of Isaac. Sarah had responded to her infertility by forcing Abraham 13 years before to take her maid Hagar as another wife and to have a child with her. Ishmael is born and could be the heir through which the covenant with God would be passed down. However, Sarah herself becomes pregnant after angels announce God’s intended plan.
When Isaac is born Sarah becomes possessive of him and jealous of Hagar and Ishmael. She forces Abraham to kick them out of their home. Hagar and Ishmael wander aimlessly in the desert outside of Beer Sheva. At this point the Torah says: (Genesis 21:15-16) “When the water was gone from the canteen, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance...for she thought, ‘let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.” God hears Hagar’s cries and promises her that her Ishmael will become the father of a great nation.
As the Torah describes this story of Hagar’s desperation and tears we, the readers, are supposed to feel sorry for her. Our modern sensibilities should be appalled by Sarah and Abraham’s treatment of Hagar. But Rabbi Sacks would have us understand something even more profound. If the Bible was meant to be particularistic and only focus on Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, why then would it include this little sub-plot of Hagar and Ishmael who, the Torah tells us, becomes the father of the Arab people? Why muddy the water of the story of the Jewish people with this other story?
The point is, according to Rabbi Sacks, that the Bible isn’t just a story about the first Jewish family.  The Bible is really intended to teach us about compassion, love, morality and ethics. We can’t read the Bible through a narrow Jewish lens. We can’t read the text in a fundamentalist, literal way. We have to understand the subtleties and subtexts of the narrative in order to appreciate the broader and more timeless lessons that the Bible is truly teaching. Hagar’s tears are incorporated in our story today - on Rosh Hashanah - precisely for us to realize that life isn’t just about us. We’re not just supposed to think today about our Jewish lives and our Jewish story. We have to also think about those outside of this room, those in the world crying like Hagar, in pain, disadvantaged and lost.
Our Torah reading this morning is one of many examples Rabbi Sacks brings forward as he teaches his main point – namely, we need to reclaim our sacred text from the terrorists. We can’t let the terrorists use these holy words to carry out unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty. We must remember the Bible’s true message of kindness, justice and mercy.
But what we also learn from Rabbi Sacks is that the Bible is really a book that can help us find our way again. After being worn down by the constant horrific acts of terror and feeling as if our lives were out of our control these past 15 years, the Bible helps us regain control. If we can see Hagar’s tears as motivation to act compassionately toward others then we can regain our footing and fight back against evil. Just as God listened to both the prayer of the Jew – Sarah – and the prayer of the Egyptian – Hagar – we are supposed to be aware of each other’s needs and act compassionately toward one another.
Last month, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Lenore and I went to Ford’s Theater to see the play “Come From Away”. The musical is based on the true story of an event related to 9/11. US airspace was closed as soon as the attacks occurred yet there were planes in the air at the time. What were the airlines supposed to do? 38 flights from Europe with a total of 7,000 passengers on board were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland. Back in the day when planes had small fuel tanks, they refueled in Gander on the way to and from Europe. It had the largest airport in North America at the time to accommodate all those stopovers. Now the airport is largely abandoned since jets can fly much further. On 9/11 this rundown airport and the town of 9,000 people was faced with the task of housing 7,000 strangers. For 5 days the people of Gander took in passengers from around the world speaking so many different languages, feeling lost and frightened. The residents of Gander saw it as their natural duty to provide shelter not only in the schools but also in their private homes. They cooked for the passengers, provided clothes and medicine for them, entertained them and made them feel at home. The passengers – those who came from away - met this incredible communal act of loving-kindness with incredulity. The passengers could not believe that they could be treated so nicely and compassionately. With sensitivity, honesty and humor the playwrights tell the story of the people of Gander and teach us how we are supposed to truly live.
I laughed and cried throughout the 2-hour show. I was amazed how the regular folks of Gander transformed into heroes.  When faced with a crisis they gathered together, realized the enormity of the task ahead to feed, clothe and shelter so many people and they made it happen with good humor and cheer. The frightened passengers, disoriented and frustrated by not being able to be with their families back home, were made to feel comforted and loved.
The actions of “gemilut chesed” – of loving kindness – by the people of Newfoundland serve as an example for us. We may feel like the passengers on those planes – lost and frustrated. We may feel as if our lives are at the mercy of others. Instead we look to the people of Gander and recognize that in the face of evil we must act with kindness. In the midst of atrocities we must show compassion. In the midst of danger we must have faith in the future.   
As Rabbi Sacks teaches, the Bible is really about how we respond to Hagar’s tears. The covenant we have with God, the laws received at Mt Sinai, the miracles performed on our behalf all lead ultimately to how we treat our fellow human beings. The rabbis in their midrash go even a step further. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a) Rabbi Chama in the name of Rabbi Chanina said, “What does it mean when the Torah says (Deuteronomy 13:5) ‘Follow the Lord your God’? … It means that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One. As God clothed the naked (when God gave Adam and Eve clothes in the Garden of Eden) so should we clothe the naked. As God visited the sick (when angels visited Abraham) so too we should visit the sick.” Being compassionate then isn’t just a response to evil in the world, it’s an imperative taught to us by God. By being compassionate, by continuing to act righteously one deed at a time, we slowly take back the world from the evil forces within it. Instead of throwing up our arms in despair and grief in response to the chaos, we must instead throw our arms into doing good. We can’t let the terrorists take over our Bible and create an environment of fear and anarchy. We must instead take back our Bible, recover our tradition and commit ourselves to do good. By doing so not only do we regain control over the Bible, we regain control over our lives. By acting compassionately we show that is truly how life is meant to be lived.
Last month on Shabbat September 10, Marilyn Pontell (Darin’s mother), spoke after services. I asked her to reflect on what her life has been like 15 years later and to share some lessons she thought she could impart to us. Marilyn is a strong woman who survived the deaths of her husband and 2 of her sons. (Her mother at age 104 passed away just a day after that talk.) Marilyn courageously reminded us of the beautiful person Darin was. She proudly recounted his days in the Navy and his service to our country. Though her burden of grief is great she expressed how imperative it has been to live on and carry on in Darin’s memory. We must continue the fight against terrorism, she said, and we must continue to pray for the day when Good will triumph over Evil.
Marilyn and Darin’s bravery will never be forgotten. We will always cherish our connection to Darin. Even more so, we will vow to understand and live by the core value of our sacred tradition. We will see Hagar’s tears and we will show compassion and we will bring good to the world around us. That is how we will defeat the terrorists and that is how we will subdue our fear. “Kein yehi ratzon – so may it be God’s will.” Amen.

[1] Published by Schocken Books, NY, 2015