2nd Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5777/2016 by Sara Yael Hirschhorn
-Thank you to the “fearless leaders” President Jonathan Bard, Clive Lawton, OJC Committee, and everyone else who makes High Holy Day Services possible and memorable. This does not happen on its own and I’d like us to take a moment to recognize these efforts.
-I am so honored and grateful to be asked to address the congregation today, especially as a little more than 3 years ago, this bewildered Yankee showed up in Oxford during the “Yomim Noraim” —
When I moved here in 2013, it was my 3rd trip to the UK — I had been here once on family holiday when I was 12 (schlepped around to the Tower of London and other tourist sites), a second time for my job interview at the university, and then finally, a third trip to take up my post at the university.
I really knew nobody in and nothing about Oxford and its Jewish community and the OJC welcomed me so warmly. Our congregation has done so much for myself — and many others — in helping make Oxford our homes and include us within the ranks of the synagogue and communal life.
I wanted to relate this idea to the themes of our Torah and Haftorah portions during Rosh Hashanah —
Yesterday, we read about Abraham and Sara, who were blessed with a child late in their marriage — meanwhile, Abraham — at Sarah’s urging (and let’s keep this in mind!) had taken Hagar, who bore Ishmael, both of whom were thrown out by our matriarch and my namesake Sara after Issac was born. Today, we read of the near-sacrifice of this beloved son and true tests of faith by both parent and child.
Similarly, the Haftorah readings have told us of another couple, Elkanah and his wife Hannah, who also have a child, Samuel, late in their marriage and must undergo trials and tribulations as part of the story of the Jewish people — which is also the theme of today’s Haftorah reading.
The situations we have in these biblical stories is surely familiar to us moderns: dysfunctional families, blended families, childlessness, near death experiences, physical and mental disabilities, difficulties of everyday life as well as traumas of the spirit. Our matriarchs and patriarchs also knew the human emotions that so many of us have also experienced: jealousy, fear, grief, bitterness, pain, as well as joy, serendipity, and fulfillment.
Sometimes, to manage these situations and emotions, are forefathers and mothers also chose strategies that I think would resonate with us in defining — and even policing — the boundaries of who belongs in our homes, our communities, our countries, and our ways of thinking.
Yesterday, we read of how Sara’s open marriage — and perhaps open heart — closed when her child was born. Whether from resentment or a desire to protect Issac, Hagar and Ishmael were banished from their home and nearly left to die in the desert as refugees from Abraham’s tent. Curiously, God both allows Abraham to send them into the wilderness, but also saves them from death.
In the Haftorah as well, we read of Eli’s suspicion about Hannah’s extreme emotional distress, nearly threatening to chuck her out of the synagogue as a drunk until he understands it is not alcohol but unanswered prayers that bring her to his doorstep.
Today, we read of another kind of story involving community — Abraham, following what he believes to be God’s will, takes their son Isaac from the family home (leaving Sarah behind, who will die of grief) into the mountains to sacrifice him — only the intervention of an angel — a stranger from outside Abraham’s physical and emotional world — stays his hand from slaughtering his child.
In each of these stories, the real and often confusing power of human dramas have even brought out forefathers to question whether they or others belong within the “big tent”.
What these readings suggest to me is that our sages were well aware of the fact that life is messy, complicated, emotional, and fraught — and that Jewish individuals and communities don’t always fit nicely into the “boxes” of traditional families and life. However, these texts also suggest we also struggle to know what to do with fellows Jews — and sometimes those of other faiths - who seem different than us, who may be undergoing extraordinary circumstances, who don’t fit the mold of previous generation, or who may have special needs or desires to be accommodated.
In today’s world, we may not have to figure out what to do about our live-in concubines (or well, most of us don’t anyway — if that’s your family situation, that’s between you and your Maker on Yom Kippur, I was just asked to give the Rosh Hashanah address!) or are called upon to place their child on an altar on a hilltop, but surely either our lives — or those of people we know — have been touched by some of the same dramas: not having a “normal” family because we are unmarried, childless, divorced, widowed, estranged, or are trying to create a new blended family. Many of us have made epic sacrifices for our children or parents or other loved ones, often only known to those closest to them or to God. We may suffer from physical or mental illness or care for someone who does. We may have overcome both common problems and near-death experiences — and many of us will surely know many kinds of loss in our lives at some point or the other. And sadly, many of us will know that because of these situations, we may have felt — intentionally or unintentionally — excluded from our Jewish community.
What I have found in my 3 years here is that the OJC has been a incredibly warm and welcoming place that has embraced all types of Jews — even the Yankees!
I encourage our community to continue to be place and space where all feel included and utilized. That we continue to be a place that embraces the very modern realities of Jewish life and those who are living it, while preserving our ancient traditions. That we also be a “big tent” that looks both inward and outward — that we care for those within it and open our doors to those outside it — whether by continuing to reach out to those of our faith and maintain ties of those of other faiths and recognizing broader social issues which our Jewish teachings can inform. One of the poignant lines of the liturgy is that the Lord listens to those “knocking softly on the gates of heaven” and I hope we too can do this.
Last but not least, I ask, in the name of my rebbe, John F. Kennedy, each individual sitting here today to “ask not what your shul can do for you, but what you can do for your shul” — we each come from different walks of life, with certain strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully we can find a way to contribute, each to our own abilities and talents.
I wish us all a year of blessing and many simachot to celebrate with the OJC community —
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah!, Sara Hirschhorn