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Rosh Hashannah address 5776

Ist Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5776/2015 by Sarah Montagu

When Jonathan first asked me to do today's d'var torah, my first reaction was a mixture of
terror and reluctance; but then when I looked to remind myself of the Rosh haShanah
reading, the parashah we have just read, there were the words ' כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶי שָׂרָה
שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ (whatever Sarah says to you, take heed to her voice) - how could I resist the

Of course, לְהַבְדִּיל - Sarah is not me but שָׂרָה אִמֵּינוּ , Sarah the matriarch, the mother of the
Jewish nation. In The Talmud, in Megillah 14a, she is also counted as the first prophetess,
long before Miriam, who is the first woman in Tanakh actually to be called by the term
נְבִיאָה . Sarah is identified in the Talmud passage as the same person as Jessica, which in
Hebrew is 'Yiscah', a character who is only mentioned once, in the genealogy at the end of
Bereishit Chapter 11; 'Abram and Nahor (who were brothers) took themselves wives; the
name of Abram's wife was Sarai and that of Nahor's wife was Milkah, the daughter of
Haran, the father of Milkah and Yiskah'; the tradition of Midrashic interpretation hates loose
ends and included in that are people who are specifically mentioned only never to appear
again. So the rabbis want to know who Yiskah can be, and therefore identify her with
Sarah (who we already know from Chapter 20 is Abraham's half-sister), in other words, the
two brothers married two sisters. One of the reasons given for identifying Sarah with
Yiskah, and hence Sarah being a n'via'ah, is because the name Yiskah relates to a verb
sakhah which means 'to see' or 'to foresee', so Sarah was designated as a prophetess
from the very beginning of her life with Abraham.

So although Sarah had said when Isaac was born, כֹּל הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצחַק לִי , all who hear will
laugh with me, and Yitzhak's name itself means 'he will laugh', Yishmael's laughter when
he is מְצַחֵק , wasn't the kind of laughter that she had meant and the rabbis interpret
Yishmael's laughter as being a kind of mockery, a crooked reflection of Isaac and Sarah's
joyful laughter that epitomised Yishmael's lack of morality. In this view, Sarah's acute
perception of the person that Isaac is and the environment that he needs to be in in order
to fulfil his destiny as Abraham's spiritual successor, shows that she, rather than Abraham,
is gifted with divine insight, and this is why Abraham is reminded to listen to her voice and
follow what she says.

Of course, another way in which Sarah's voice resounds down the centuries is the way in
which we can see her not just or not even as a distant and unapproachably perfect
matriarch but also as an intensely human person, who has gone through a roller-coaster of
emotions throughout her long life, where she has for years had no child, and when she
eventually gives up hope of ever giving birth, she allows Abraham to have a child with her
maid-servant who then torments Sarah with her arrogance when she immediately
succeeds in giving Abraham a long-promised son; when Sarah herself at long last
succeeds in giving birth to her own child, she then becomes fiercely protective of her own
son's position in his father's household. In this light, her reaction to Hagar and Yishmael is
understandable, even though it can seem harsh and unforgiving.

Either way, whether it is by prophecy or not, Abraham is told to listen to the ' קוֹל , the voice
of his wife, to 'everything that Sarah says'.

This is in contrast to what happens in the haftara to Hannah, who, like Sarah, is barren,
but nobody hears her voice, or certainly not at first. Elkanah, like Abraham, already has
progeny with his other wife, and he has no clue, he cannot perceive or understand the
source of her all-consuming sorrow. His comment 'Am I not better to you than ten sons?'
has to rank as one of the least perceptive remarks from a husband to his wife. However,
Hannah's reaction to his complete missing of the point is to take her destiny into her own
hands and to turn to HaShem. But when Hannah prays at the temple, we hear the
contrasting echo of what is said about Sarah; here we have: ' קוֹלָהּ לֹא יִשָּׁמֵעַ ', her voice
was not heard, and Eli, the priest, assumes she is drunk. But this is the moment when
Hannah finds her voice for all to hear, and she presents her case not only to God but to Eli,
who tells her that God will hear her prayer. As has been said many times, Hannah is
specifically cited by the rabbis as the model for how we should pray; we should direct our
hearts and our intentions in our prayer, in the same way as Hannah was ,מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל־לִבָּהּ
literally 'speaking on her heart', and although we say our prayers silently, our mouths still
form the words, just as Hannah's did, rather than just reading the words in our heads. 

Hannah, having found her voice, is also different to Sarah in that it is not Sarah's choice
what will happen to Isaac, which we will read about tomorrow; Sarah appears nowhere in
that part of the story whereas it is Hannah who makes the clear decision from the outset
that she will dedicate her son to the service of God and the community in the temple at
Shiloh, and we then hear Hannah's voice loud and clear through her powerful hymn of
thanksgiving, which she recites once she has given Samuel over to God. 

Hannah, as well as being a model for how we pray, is also a model in that she dedicates
her most precious gift to the community. She did go on to have other children, but of
course at the point when Samuel was born, she had no way of knowing whether Samuel
might not be her only child, so her dedication of Samuel to the service of God in the
Temple was an act of deep commitment. My own parents, Gwen whom many of you here
still remember, and of course my father Jeremy, have equally been models for me in their
dedication to the life of the Jewish community, both in Oxford and outside. They moved to
Oxford 34 years ago and found the relaxed, mildly eccentric but inclusive approach of
Oxford exactly to their liking. They have been involved in all sorts of different aspects of
this community; it is an expression of how much Gwen achieved that she is still so well
remembered here, although it's already 12 years since she died, and thankfully Jeremy is
still going strong and still contributing to the community. Having followed them here to
Oxford 10 years ago, I have found exactly what they found; this community is unique, as
we all know, in its approach to religious toleration and inclusivity and also in the range and
breadth of activities which are on offer, despite the relatively small size of the community. 

One of the jobs I've been doing for the last few years is compiling the Annual Report, and
every year, I am impressed once again by what a huge number and what a variety of
things there are that go on here - as editor of the Report, it doesn't make my job any
easier, as it becomes harder and harder to shoe-horn everything into the number of pages
allotted to the Report. But as a member of the community, I think it is something we
should all be enormously proud of, how much a community made up of volunteers and
people willing to have a go can achieve.

One of the other jobs I have recently taken up is my role as Centre Manager, which has
given me a whole new insight into (quite literally on occasion) the nuts and bolts of how
this synagogue runs. While it is an important job to do, to make sure that the building is
here, and that there are chairs in the right rooms and that the building is a pleasant place
to be in, the running of the building only has meaning if it is a means to an end, not an end
in itself. This Centre, the Oxford Synagogue, is!
only here as a vessel, as a space to be filled, and what fills it is this community, all of you
and all the different things you want to do here. We're filling it today to come together as a
community to celebrate the New Year and to begin the process of self-examination and
assessment which will culminate on Yom Kippur. On other days, the Centre might be full
of the buzz of OJC Sunday mornings, with the Cheder, parents chatting in the Mosaic cafe
over a bagel and coffee, people dropping in for a Mosaic talk or to brush up their Hebrew,
or it might be a week-day and a class from one of the Oxfordshire schools is gasping in
awe and astonishment as the ark curtains are opened to reveal the Sifrei Torah in all their
splendour. Or it might be an evening and university students are dashing in for their
kosher meal provided here at the Centre, and then some more people pop in for a Talmud
shiur or for a choir rehearsal or for a meeting. 

There's a huge amount of stuff going on, which is largely due to the energy and
commitment of all the many different volunteers who contribute to this community, to all of
whom I for one am immensely grateful; if you happen to feel that there isn't something for
everyone, or more specifically that there isn't anything for you, then you can always start
up whatever it is that you want to see happening here; there's always room for more
activity, more expressions of what we stand for as a community. I hope that, unlike Sarah
in the story of Yishmael and Hagar, that we do not have to push out or exclude the people
who don't do things the same way; that we can continue to find space here for all the
different ways in which the Jews of Oxford want to express their relationship with each
other and with every aspect of Jewish identity. I hope also that you all listen to what Sarah
says and heed my voice, when I say that we look forward to seeing all of you, not just on
the High Holidays but throughout the year, both benefiting and contributing to what the
OJC has to offer.

I also wish all of us a year of peace, sweetness and fulfilment, לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוֹקָה to all

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