Rabbi Hannah’s Rosh Hashanah Dvar Torah for 5782

We Don’t Accept Fate; We Co-Create Our World

Rosh Hashanah Dvar Torah 5782/2021
Rabbi Hannah Dresner

Hagar sinks into a dark night of the soul. Dispirited, degraded, defeated, she turns away rather than watch her child die of thirst. But Judaism isn’t about acceptance of fate. If it were, why bother with teshuvah? If it were, we’d still be slaves in Egypt.

Egypt pulled us low. Israel was, like Hagar, kotzer ruach, short of breath, voiceless, so demoralized by suffering that we didn’t have the capacity to cry out, let alone affect change. 

And perhaps we have experienced dark times of our own, recently. Dark times so overwhelming that we’ve felt compelled to give up, give in to pain or depression.

One of you wrote to me recently of having driven the width of our province through apocalyptic smoke, a blood red sun overhead and helicopters wherever you looked. You sent me a photograph of your cabin on the prairie – a cherished retreat refurbished over years with the help of loving friends – now threatened by fire. This is real, and we can’t look away imagining we won’t be affected. Nor can we look away because it’s too much for us. Our children’s lives are at stake. They’ll die of thirst if we accept our compromised climate as some sort of a “new normal” that we could or should acclimate to. We must assist in whatever Great Turning is brewing in this extraordinary moment.

Hagar’s story offers a paradigm in which the low point does not seal our fate. Rather, the low point is where the inevitable, the incontrovertible cracks open to reveal a redeeming alternative. Numbness gives way to hope, and hope inspires action, and action allows for survival and even the foreshadowing of future flourishing. Ishmael, after all, does become a great nation.

Hagar is resigned to the idea that her child will die. And in that protracted moment of suffering, alone in the burning wilderness, her eyes open and she sees a way through. Impossibly, miraculously, she sees a well of water! Hers is a story about a revitalizing change in perspective in the eleventh hour! What’s Hagar’s insight? She wakes up to the fact that her situation is an emergency! She realizes that her son’s not going to die unless she lets him! Her world’s not going to end unless she allows it.

Hitting rock bottom cracks Hagar’s assumptions open, loosening her allegiance to the old story of where power resides and by what means she can be saved. Her husband’s house has abandoned her. In the patriarchy that has governed her existence till now, she and her son are expendable. Withering away with nothing left but the prospect of slow death, she breaks down into tears. Surely her tears begin in submission, eyes averted. But Hagar reaches a tipping point: sinking one measure deeper, Hagar recovers her own power and her tears or powerlessness are transformed to tears of resistance!

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the great Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, teaches that teshuvah is our return to the person we have not yet been. Hagar returns to the woman she has not yet been, living into her power. Now, rather than avert her gaze in resignation, she’ll do anything to save her son – disrupt fate, invent a new reality. Imagine a well in the desert, even (supernaturally) slake her son’s thirst from the waters of a mirage! In the eleventh-hour Hagar calls it an emergency and acts like it’s an emergency!

In Deuteronomy, God declares: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed shall live.” And that is what Hagar does. And that is what we must do, my friends: we must choose life, that both we and our seed shall live. 

We are here today because we’re aware of the fragility of life. Between the Covid we’ve survived and the variant that’s upon us, we yearn to celebrate a return to fuller vivacity, praying for life because we believe there is so much promise still to unfold! But if we remain passive in the climate emergency, whether in apathy or in despair, we could survive the pandemic and still lose it all, as the web of living systems unravels.

Give us a break, right? We’ve given up so much for the sake of the greater good. Do we have to take on one more cause? Right now? Can’t we just coast?

But as Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “There is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain indifferent. We are either ministers of the sacred, or slaves to evil.” 

We’ve come so far; we’ve been so good. We’ve learned so much, particularly over these past 18 months, about how to restrain ourselves, about what’s truly important to us, and about how to extend loving kindness more often and to wider spheres of Others. We’ve gotten a lot right – but we can’t coast. 

The God I believe in is not going to swoop in and unilaterally save us. Sustaining our world is a partnership. God continually chooses to enact Creation, never ceasing to breathe the spirit of life into our world, lest we blink out of existence. In reciprocity, we are entreated to persistently receive that gift, making daily choices that minimize damage to our earth and her non-human beings, repeatedly relinquishing our human chauvinism, continually embracing our relationships, not only with all people, but with all creatures and with the dust we came from and will return to.

I know: As soon as I say “continually,” or “daily,” I know we’re on tenuous ground. We’re humans, not angels. Humans have been falling off our right course, even the program of choosing life, since we were created! That’s why our tradition builds in safeguards and resets.

Some say that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden because they ate from the Tree. But the Midrash in Genesis Raba teaches that it was not because they transgressed, but rather because they refused to repent. Mistakes are to be expected. We don’t always choose life. We have nearly destroyed our world! But it is important to know, as Nechman of Bratzlav teaches, “Im ata maamin sh’yecholim l’kalkel, tamin sh’yecholim l’taken” – “If you believe that we have the power to destroy, then [you’d better] believe you have the power to repair.”

We can choose life. We can, as our great Systems Theorist Joanna Macey says, “still act for the sake of a livable world.” “We can meet our needs without destroying our life-support system.” “We can exercise our imagination to bring our lifestyles into harmony with the living systems of earth.”

Judaism gives us latitude to free-roam this earth for a year at a time. Then, on days like today, God summons, calling us as God called to Adam: Ayeka? – Where are you? What are you up to? And like Adam, we’ve been hiding. Like Hagar, averting our eyes. 

But today, on the Birthday of the World, with 100 blasts of the shofar, let us hear God’s call! And even though we are afraid to look at the pain of the world, that is exactly where teshuvah begins. Our Days of Awe begin with the fast of Tisha B’Av! For, what can we restore if we don’t acknowledge the walls tumbling down? If we don’t look at the pain? Let us hear the call to look, not away, but toward signals of distress: job layoffs, homeless families, hurricanes, floods, droughts, acts of hatred, military offensives, dying species, dying languages, dying cultures. Today, let us turn and look at what is all around us through eyes veiled with tears. Called to renew our relationship to this world; called to awaken the powers in us for its healing.

Let’s really look – while supporting one another not to fall into a void of despair. Reb Nachman teaches that no matter how low we’ve fallen, it’s forbidden to give up hope. It’s forbidden to say: “What can I, or this small ‘we’ do?” And our Mishna famously teaches: “If not me, who?” “If not now, when?” I pray that our individual teshuvah will stretch beyond the sphere of righting personal relationships, into the realm of our greater responsibility to repair the World. 

And, as if tradition knows what the world needs this very year, we’re doubly called today: called by Rosh Hashanah to our annual attunement of self, and called communally, to a systemic adjustment in this, the Shmita year of 5782 that begins today, a periodic year of system-wide ecological repose and social rebalancing prescribed by Torah.

There’s a powerful old story that needs disrupting, the story of getting ahead and business as usual that corporations and politicians and news agencies propagate. And guess what? Just as Hagar’s son was expendable in the paradigm proffered by the powerful of her time, our children and children’s children are expendable to this paradigm. We’re in need of organizing our collective will, not just to be life-sustaining individuals, but to build what the Earth Policy Institute calls a Life-Sustaining Society. 

Today begins a Shmita year! The seventh year in our cycle of sevens, the sabbatical during which our forbearers stepped back from business as usual, let the land rest, remitted debts, and freed slaves.

As the Israelites entered their land and worked it, cultivating abundance for their families and their tribes, it was expected that they would grow more and more proprietary of their wealth. Inequities between the “haves” and the “have-nots” would surely grow. So, Torah provides checks and balances for the utopian experiment in the Land of Promise, calling for periodic re-calibrations of equity and conservation. Every seven years is an uber-Sabbath during which all efforts to harness the earth for human benefit is suspended. The land lies fallow, its natural produce ownerless and free for use by anyone. Even animals are prioritized over land owners, given free rein to eat from the fields left fallow. 

Indentured servants are freed. Debts forgiven. All released. It’s a fire break. A direct, unequivocal, un-negotiated communal call to halt the seemingly incontrovertible fate flowing from imperfect human choices! Meant to be enacted in the land of Israel, this is Judaism’s indigenous seven generations approach. 

What Shmita adds to our teshuvah is a sense of interconnection. Shmita insists we act together as communities, and as a society, to identify and champion what is life-sustaining and to contain, even neutralize what is destructive.

We don’t accept fate; we do teshuvah. Periodically, at predictable intervals, we stop to turn and look at the consequences of personal and social failing. And we choose, yet again, to minister to the sacred, channel blessing, and choose life. Jewish patterns, cycles, and structures don’t leave us to spiral down dark holes of our own making. Judaism never loses sight of our dynamic rise and fall and our capacity to rise again.

Today I hear the Shofar as a siren, like on a fire engine! It’s an emergency. And Rabbi Arthur Green, likens the shofar’s blasts to the cycles I refer to of brokenness and repair. The first whole note of tekiyah as Edenic – life, in us and around us, sustained, complete. Then the tekiyah breaks into the increasingly urgent short blasts of shevarim, shattering further into teruah. Ultimately the blasts resolve into a reborn, healed tekiyah and, finally, into the tekiyah gedola – a prolonged whole note, the messianic note we strive for.

As another of you recently wrote to me: “I will continue to believe that the answer lies before us, maybe not in you or in me, but in ‘us’.”  

Bless us, O Creator, to join hands, this day, in compassion, as we suffer with your living earth. Just as the seemingly hopeless incident on the desert engendered new sight in Hagar, our planetary crisis could serve as the birth moment of a new consciousness amongst us. May we weep tears that transform our perspectives in this eleventh hour, so that we are restored to vigor, and see our way through, inventing a blessed future. 

May we choose life, that we and our seed shall live.