ROSH HASHANAH MORNING
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.
It happens each year, if we follow the calendar of readings from the Torah, for each individual Shabbat and then for the major festivals that are mentioned in the Torah and have their own specific Torah services (not Purim or Chanukah or Tu BiShvat) – it happens each year, throughout the year, that we are confronted with difficult texts. Texts which challenge us. Texts which discomfort us. Texts which even frighten us, or embarrass us. Texts which we maybe feel should not have been written or, once they were written, should have been banished to some dusty old section of the library and never looked at again.
But Judaism does not work that way. We are obliged to open the Torah each week and each festival and to read and study and discuss and contemplate some aspect of our past, as humans or as Israelites, whether this means the question of how the universe began or where it is going and when it might end… and how; whether we discuss how major floods can destroy everything, how groups of people fight and kill each other, how lands are taken and lost, how homes are found and lost, how families can function or not, how generations are meant to pass on experience and wisdom, how fathers relate to sons and sons to fathers. (I am sorry: Mothers are mentioned too and also Daughters, but usually only in a subsidiary capacity – Sarah and Rivkah and Leah and Rachel are certainly active and influential in their own ways but it is the men who dominate the narratives; Moses has a sister as well as a brother, for example, but Miriam is mentioned much less and does not found a dynasty the way Aharon does.)
There are many examples and this is why a Rabbi must explain each week what he or she can, about the specific section being read on that occasion. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we are confronted with TWO stories of attempted murder, of a Son by his Father. In Progressive synagogues we normally read only the second one – it comes in the book of Bereshit Chapter 22 and deals with how Abraham prepares to slaughter, actively, with a knife, his beloved second-born son, Yitzhak. But in the previous chapter Abraham showed himself prepared to let his first-born son, Ishmael, together with the boy’s mother Hagar, starve to death or – more likely – to die of thirst in the desert, sending them away without protection and with just one skin of water between them. Horrible texts, disturbing texts, embarrassing texts for they challenge the cosy image of Abraham as ‘Avraham Avinu’, Our Father. WE know that, in both cases, the respective sons will survive – indeed, they will do more than survive, they will eventually become themselves fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers – but this is not clear when the stories begin, and it is not clear to Abraham himself.
I will not go here too deeply into the text because we read it together and hopefully we remember some of what we learned last year, if we are not here for the first time, and if we ARE here for the first time then the shock is in any case deep enough. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that we read it at all.
The Torah is full of embarrassing and unpleasant sections, just as a human body is full of sticky smelly, itchy, pimply or painful bits. Yet, if you look at the way that human beings are presented in our society, these bits are hardly ever mentioned – or if so, only in order to advertise some commercial product that claims to cure the smell, the itch, the pimple, the falling hair, the sagging muscles, the excessive layers of body fat, the bad breath, or whatever. And even then, they are normally shown AFTER the product has worked and they can smile and glow again….. For the rest, characters in novels and films never seem to have to go to the toilet, they never get headaches unless the script demands it, they never get haemorrhoids or digestive troubles….. When do you ever see a fairy-tale princess burp or a prince break wind? When a screen couple fall in love they kiss deeply and passionately, but they never seem to notice that their partner has a bad tooth or gum disease or simply bad breath. When a couple sleep together, neither of them ever snores or has a full bladder. When has a Madonna, breast-feeding her child, ever suffered from a blocked nipple? Or had to change a nappy? Or had to cope with projectile vomiting? The Child always lies there, quiet and content. Idealised. When has a hero, returning from a successful campaign, ever had to cope with erectile dysfunction or perhaps some sexually-transmitted disease acquired during the long time away from home? It just never happens!
But in real life – it does. And in the Torah. Not absolutely EVERYTHING is described, but we find, amongst other things, instructions on how to build latrines outside the camp, or how to bury corpses, and how to wash after contact with uncleanness, and we find whole chapters relating to skin diseases and discharges and menstruation. We find wives prepared to betray their husbands and who plot to enable a favoured son to betray his own father and brother. We find parents who lose children to sudden fiery accidents, we find parents unable to control violent children who commit criminal acts and murder, using ‘family honour’ as an excuse. We find warnings against looking for excuses by praying to false values. We find commands not to murder or steal or commit adultery, because it is accepted that people will do these things unless they are commanded NOT to. (And maybe even then… so we also get instructions on what to do with those caught breaking the rules.)
Just in the chapters in Genesis connected with Abraham and Sarah we find problems with fertility, and we find problems with relationships, (also between an uncle and a nephew), we find a couple who cannot have children, we find a proposed solution that works but – by working – creates jealousy and hatred, murderous hatred; we find a husband who, aware of how hard it is for him to satisfy his wife by giving her what she wants most of all, a child, gives in instead to her jealous demands – he does want at least SOME peace at home, after all – and so he prepares first to expel the pregnant maid and then, when that doesn’t work, to expel both her and her son. Whew! And people call this the HOLY Torah? What would it take for them to call it an UNHOLY one?
Then comes the chapter we read today, in which Abraham not only prepares to murder his surviving son but to do so without the knowledge and agreement of his wife, the mother. Afterwards, she will die, though they never seem to speak to each other beforehand; he will have to negotiate a burial plot for her, he will have to organise a daughter-in-law for Isaac to marry, he will himself remarry and become a father again, and so on. And all the time he lives with the awareness that there is a God with whom he can debate and argue in certain circumstances, if not in all. He has already been told (back in chapter 12) to leave his own home and family; he has had to survive starvation by moving abroad and lying about his wife to save his own skin; he has got involved in a war between various kings and has had to save his nephew Lot; and he has been able to haggle with God in an attempt – unsuccessful, as it turns out – to prevent certain cities being utterly destroyed with their populations in massive attacks from the air; His life is certainly not boring, but it would be a mistake to think it was one always filled with blessing and peace and fertility.
And yet we read it, regularly, in the synagogues. We don’t hide any of these issues, we don’t deny them. We don’t ”photo-shop” the images or pixellate them. The Torah text commands circumcision – Brit Milah – but admits that this can be painful. Being in the Covenant, the Brit, can be painful. It can be confusing. We can hear promises made but not, it seems, fulfilled (when will Abraham ever see his descendants so numerous as the stars of the sky, or secure in their own homeland? No, in chapter 25 he will die a nomad with no possessions apart from a tent and a promise; He will give his six later sons presents of cash but he never formally passes the Brit to Yitzhak, Yitzhak just inherits it when his father dies, like an hereditary title.)
This is important, it is very, very important. Jewish heroes and heroines are humans. They do not wear haloes. They are sometimes villainous, mistaken, they err, they sin, they fail, they lie, they fight. Couples quarrel. People die.
One could argue, from a theological perspective, that in Christianity a Human is given divine attributes, whereas in Judaism God is given human characteristics. God can get angry and impatient. I will not go here too deep into Theology, but we are in a country which is very deeply influenced by Roman Catholic Church doctrine and traditions. We are in a country which, itself, spent a long time in exile before returning to a land promised to it by outside powers, with borders and boundaries defined anew – after both the First and the Second World Wars. A country which has a lot of history, some of it ancient, some of it modern, some of it heroic and romantic, some of it – well, embarrassing. Just think of the fates of many of those who had lived in what suddenly became Poland in 1945, but think also of the fates of many of those who thought they were Poles until 1938 but who were then rejected and deprived of their rights and their identities, denied even re-entry into the country as it then was…. Think of the fates of those who lived here, as Poles, during the war and after the war, yet were isolated, persecuted and mistreated by others because they were somehow a ”wrong kind of Pole”, belonging to a ”wrong”’ religion or ethnic group. Think of those who had to flee and live in exile, and also in 1968. Think of those who rose in revolt against totalitarianism and set off what was actually a civil war – Poles against Poles, ideals against ideology.
Does one dare speak of this? May one admit that in these difficult, conflict-ridden periods some betrayed others, that some fought against each other rather than against a common enemy? That some were prepared to kill neighbours, relatives, and profit from what they left behind?
I am only an amateur historian and I do not claim to know everything but what I DO know is that, if something happened, then Jewish teaching is that one is obliged to record it and to talk about it and not to hush it up or to pretend it never happened. The ONLY way to work through an injustice – whoever committed it, whatever it was – is to be open about it, to acknowledge the fate of the victims, and their suffering and their loss, to acknowledge the motivation of the perpetrators, and also the conditions under which they did what they did – often, in history, one did not know all the facts at the time, or one stood between two options, both of them Wrong but maybe one of them more wrong than the other….. Just as Abraham did, when he had a God telling him one thing and a wife perhaps telling him another, when he was promised an idealised vision of a Future but had to survive in the less-than-ideal Present….
On Rosh Hashanah we stand, each of us, before the Heavenly Court. But others do too – it states in the ‘Unetanneh Tokef’ that ”all the creatures of the world” and even the angels stand this day before Judgement. No-one is exempt. I hope I do not have to be more specific. It is not just an issue of ‘this history’ or ‘that history’, ‘this group of victims’ or ‘that group of victims’; It is not about politics but about morality. It is about being Honest about the Past. About being open about human beings and their weaknesses as well as their strengths, their failings as well as their successes and triumphs. About not retreating into selectivity and ‘white-washing’. About not forbidding others to do their own research and present their own findings.
It is my hope – and I trust, Our hope – that the coming year will see a change in attitudes, that those who seek to deny or to bury the Past will instead come to study it, to confront it, and to work through it. Neither we nor they can change it – but we can write it down and read it out and learn from it. Which is, after all, what History is all about. Our Future depends largely on our understanding of our Past.
Then it will indeed be a Shanah Tovah, a Good Year, one worth writing about itself in due course, one worth remembering and celebrating.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.