Our Jewish Stories

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5777/2016
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As I survey our assembled multitude on this holy evening, two thoughts come to mind.

The first is a sort of corny line that a rabbi or congregational president might use: “Welcome to the Annual Meeting of the Jewish People.” It’s sort of funny—with allusions to the fact that our multitude tonight is a little more multitudinous than on a weekly Shabbat service. It’s also sort of true. This is when gathering and making a showing in Temple is a way of showing everyone that we are a part of   עדת בני־ישראל the congregation of the Jewish people.

The second is an image from the Rosh Hashanah when Joni and I were living on a kibbutz in Israel. As we went into the dining hall, the foyer was filled with displays showing the kibbutz annual report. There were charts about the cotton, avocado, and grape harvests, reports on milk production in the dairy, photos of new machinery and facilities, and some financial tables showing expenses and income. My favorite board had the photos of the babies born that year—a kind of human production report. Rosh Hashanah was, for the kibbutz, a time of summing up and considering the current state of their communal story.

At our Rosh Hashanah gathering, we too should consider our communal story and think about how it is going. Clearly, the High Holy Days are focused on our personal stories as we reflect and repent and hope that our pages in the Book of Life are good ones (לשנה טובה תכתֵבו!). Our fates, the Tradition counsels, is a combination of what God writes and what we write. This makes us active participants in our own stories. 

I would maintain, as well, that we are active participants in the Jewish story. We Jews, as individuals and as a group, have the opportunity to write our own pages in the Book of Life. 

This combination of identities is always interesting. We have our individual identities and paths through life, and we are also members of various tribes—our families, our social groups, our religion, our nation. We often feel a kind of tension as we are pulled by different loyalties, divergent imperatives. Sometimes we feel great solidarity with our cohorts, and sometimes we feel differentiation. I would think that, for most all of us, Jewish gatherings can bring a kind of ambivalence as our individual identities and various tribal identities vie for attention. I also believe that part of our work as Jews involves developing and negotiating our relationship with our Jewishness.

What I would like to do, then, is to remind us of three Jewish stories—Biblical stories which point to the essence of this holy endeavor that calls to us and draws our attention. Each has a different theme, and each speaks to a different aspect of what it means to be Jewish. How we each relate to each story gives us an understanding of what Jewishness can mean. 

The first story is from Deuteronomy 26, and it involves a ritual from ancient times, a religious rite that includes a story. The mitzvah is bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the Tabernacle. Our ancient ancestors were to put the produce in a basket and give the basket to the priest on duty. The priest was to place the basket on the altar, and the worshipper was to say:
“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a great nation, great, mighty, and populous. And, the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders, and brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So behold, I now bring the first of the fruit of this ground which You, O Lord, have given me.”

The theme of this story is appreciation—appreciation for God helping us through difficulty and appreciation for the abundance with which we are blessed. Part of Jewish Identity is this sense of thankfulness for our history, our community, and the blessings we enjoy.

A second story is a little more directive. It is from Exodus, chapters 19 and 20. Chapter 20, of course, has the Ten Commandments, but the lead-up to the revelation sets the emotional, spiritual, and communal stage.
“Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Then, after some housekeeping about where everyone is to stand for the revelation and a description of the indescribable descent of the Infinite God to the finite world, we have the Ten Commandments: 

(1) I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods beside me.
(2) Do not make idols and worship them.
(3) Do not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.
(4) Keep and observe the Sabbath day; make it holy.
(5) Honor your father and your mother.
(6) Do not murder.
(7) Do not commit adultery.
(8) Do not steal.
(9) Do not bear false witness.
(10) Do not covet your neighbor’s house or wife or anything that is your neighbor’s.

It is a story with purpose. God rescued us from travail—but for a reason. Our communal existence is thus put into the context of a holy mission, and we are then given our orders—all ten of them.

The third story comes in two episodes that comprise the Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah. They may seem like two separate stories, but I think they should be seen as a unit. In both cases—the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the almost sacrifice of Isaac, our ancient family unit was threatened with tension and alienation. You may remember that, after many years of hoping for a child, Abram and Sarah resort to a curious custom. Sarah offers her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, with the idea of considering any eventual children Sarah’s contribution to the family’s future. Hagar gets pregnant and gives birth to Ishmael, but Sarah is less than happy. Things get worse when, miraculously, Sarah gets pregnant herself. Little Isaac brings laughter to the family, but Sarah worries about what it will mean for Isaac to have an older half-brother. When she demands that Abraham throw Ishmael and Hagar out, Abraham is mortified. He goes to God for help, but God tells him to follow Sarah’s demands. How can God command him to abandon his own son—and the woman whom he presumably has loved? We may not be satisfied with the resolution, but what God seems to be doing is establishing separate destinies for Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac is to be the Patriarch of the Hebrew religion, while Ishmael is destined for wealth and power and the leadership of his own tribe. Though Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from Abraham’s compound, they are still in God’s.

The story of Isaac is both more famous and more horrifying. This time, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham—in a hard-to-understand devotion to God—agrees. He almost does it, but, at the last possible second, God’s angel stops him. Abraham offers a ram in Isaac’s place, and we have a ram’s horn ritual every Rosh Hashanah to recall this story in all of its complexity.  

How do these stories define our Jewishness? Sometimes, in this sacred endeavor, things do not go smoothly. Not only did our ancestors face truly heart-wrenching decisions, but also subsequent generations may have felt uncomfortable with the choices our people have made. 

Both stories have nechemta—ameliorating “happy endings.” Isaac is saved, and Ishmael is given greatness, but these holy destinies come at the price of great personal sacrifice. No one likes personal sacrifice and so therefore the stories represent the discomfort we often feel at what God’s holy mission requires.

The question before us tonight is how we connect to our Jewish stories. Do we see ourselves as active participants in these stories, and how do we want to continue them? As I said, I believe that a certain amount of ambivalence is inevitable as we balance our individuality, our communal membership, and the many different behaviors that can be found in our communal past. We can feel very Jewish in some ways and very distant in others. 

There is usually some common ground, but an open-minded, honest approach will certainly involve reservations—some of them serious. I would beware any tendency to sweep away legitimate concerns in the interest of group solidarity. Our communal moral presence has never been unanimous or un-debated. Indeed, part of what makes us Israel, the God wrestlers, is our willingness and moral commitment to work for both truth and wisdom, both justice and compassion, both holiness and holy practicality. We gather to feel the power of our tradition and to be reminded of the potential that our Jewishness can bring, but the details are ours to work out. We are called by a great unity in the universe and by the conviction that there can be a connection between heaven and earth, but we have to figure out how that connection is to be made. What we think and say and do make a difference, and so therefore we struggle. 

Let me conclude this reflection upon our Jewish stories with a piece in our prayerbook about one more definitional narrative:

We Jews who are called “The Children of Israel” should always remember how we got the name. It was the name given to our grandfather Jacob—Jacob who wrestled the angel, Jacob who would not let go. “Israel” they called him for he was a wrestler. “Israel” they call us for we are wrestlers, too. We wrestle with God as we search for wisdom. We wrestle with people as we struggle for justice. And, we wrestle with ourselves as we make ourselves better and more holy. Yes, we Jews are the Children of Israel, the children and grandchildren of a man who wrestled an angel.