Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Rosh Hashanah 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The twentieth-century American artist Georgia O'Keeffe, known for her enlarged and stylized flower studies, once said: "Nobody sees a flower really - it is so small - we haven't time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time." Whatever else our High Holy Days might be, they are surely about helping us sharpen our vision. If I had to reduce the drama and choreography, the prayer and music of this protracted season to a single, encompassing goal it would be to enable us to catch another glimpse of what has grown dim or to discover an insight beyond our ken. And because seeing afresh cannot be hurried, we slow down and withdraw, gradually diminishing the bombardment of distractions.
The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana takes up the subject of seeing. Its selection goes beyond the birth and circumcision of Isaac, whose binding by Abraham on Mount Moriah will be the focus of the reading on the second day. Rather, our attention is absorbed by the unwarranted expulsion of Abraham's concubine Hagar, who bore him a son with Sarah's consent, while Sarah remained barren. Yet once Isaac appears, Sarah can no longer suffer the presence of either Hagar or Ishmael and demands of Abraham to cast them out. Assured by God that they will survive, Abraham sends them forth into the wilderness with provisions.
But Hagar goes astray and soon runs out of food and water. In her distress, she lays Ishmael beneath a bush and removes herself so that she might not hear the searing sounds of his death. God, however, does and addresses Hagar firmly to return to her boy. He too, like his half-brother, shall sire a great nation. Apropos to our subject, rescue is not effected through a miracle: "Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water (Genesis 21:19)." The well had always been there; overcome by panic, Hagar simply failed to see it.
The tale is paradigmatic and that is why we are confronted with it at the very outset of these Days of Awe. We too are oblivious to the wells of salvation that lie within our reach. But to extend our sight, we need to achieve a mood of patience, tranquility and concentration. The biblical narrative makes no reference to time. Indeed, its rapid pace misleads us into thinking that everything follows instantaneously on everything else. But I imagine that Hagar and Ishmael lay there in their anguish for a long time. As Hagar regained her senses and her ability to focus on the problem at hand, she detected the well, which fright had obscured. It was her inner state - not her surroundings - that God transformed.
Judaism does not aspire to see God. In the Holy of Holies neither Moses nor the High Priest on Yom Kippur presumed to experience God through the sense of sight. The Talmud cautions in the name of Rabbi Yehuda in the 2nd century C.E. that many mystically inclined in his day sought to see God's throne but never caught even a glimpse of it in their lives (B.T. Megillah 24b). And a thousand years later, the author of the magnificent Ashkenazi "Hymn of Glory," which abounds in paradox, confesses, "Without having seen You, I declare Your praise; without having known You I laud You and Your ways (Siddur Sim Shalom p. 47)."
Our gaze should instead be fixed on the world in which we live, for Judaism is above all a this-worldly religion. Each day in the opening blessings of the morning service we thank God, after another night's sleep, for restoring to us the inestimable gift of sight (Sim Shalom p. 11). But on a deeper level, I have always felt those pregnant words, "pokeah ivrim", to include a plea for depth vision, to see the nature of our lives and of the world as truly constituted.
This is the profound yet realistic goal of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Teshuva, a redirection of our lives, does not spring from divine grace but human effort. The vast compendium of the Mahzor is designed to imbue us once again with perspective that might lead to action. The profusion of prayers turns on but a few grand themes. The liturgy is an exercise in shrinking our ego. Repeatedly we intone the majesty and supremacy of God to whom we are subservient and accountable. As sovereign, God is awesome; as judge, stern; but as parent, full of compassion.
We remind ourselves of our insufficiencies and muster the candor to confess our sins. The introspection is driven by facing reality. We have squandered another year and the time of our death draws ever closer. The blast of the shofar summons us to live as God's partner and not adversary, as the human condition cries out to each of us to make a difference. Repeatedly the Mahzor affirms that the choice is ours alone. It resides neither in our genes nor in our parents nor in our circumstances.
Atonement and not forgiveness is what we seek. The consequences of our actions can be mitigated but not wholly reversed or erased. "Penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree," but no more than that. What we may merit with spiritual exertion is the cleansing and invigorating embrace of God's presence, the seed bed of our resolve and renewal. God awaits our return, but we must take the initiative to heal the rupture. At one with God again, we can set about to assuage the hurt we have administered to others.
Such is the theological matrix for our annual spiritual inventory. Judaism offers no instant gratification nor deathbed conversion, only an arduous process of self-correction studded with slips and setbacks. But the path is also embedded with mitzvot, the recurring opportunity to turn intention into action and thereby to reinforce the inner transformation underway. If we take the time to experience the High Holy Days fully, they will endow us with the vision and momentum to lift our lives to undreamed of spiritual heights.
May Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur do that for each of you this year.
Shana tova u-metuka,