Rosh haShanah 5778 — Day One “Crying Out — Reviving God”
Excuse me. I’d like to speak to the manager?
My husband Anthony grew up in a military family in Texas and the Bay Area. I grew up just north of Manhattan, among New York Jews.
The difference in our upbringing, I think, is most palpable when we sit down in a restaurant. Anthony, given the choice, is happy sit wherever.
Me? Well — I try to be polite.
Now I know that restaurant work isn’t easy — so, I’m actually not the type to escalate my issues to manager status. But I am assertive.
“Can we sit farther from the kitchen? Do you have a booth?
“Can I move the table in just a bit?”
Anthony, because he loves me, puts up with it — save the occasional eyeroll.
Look, if I’m gonna be in a place for awhile, I want to fully enjoy it.
Now, we don’t know how long we get to be here on planet Earth. Our time is guaranteed to be finite. That’s one of the big messages of the High Holidays. At any moment, God could say to any of us — God forbid — “excuse me, here’s your check, sir. We need the table.”
So how do we take full advantage of the time we do have?
Well, we could just accept life as it is. Judaism, like other religions, teaches appreciation and gratitude. Our prayers direct God to sabeinu metuvecha. “Make us satisfied with Your goodness.”
But what if that goodness doesn’t feel so — well — good?
Last night, I quoted Rabbi Yitzchak, in the Talmud, as saying that “Four things reverse a person's fate. Tz'akah — crying out; Tzedakah — repairing injustice; Shinui HaShem — a change of name, and Shinui Ma'aseh — a change of action.”
This morning, I want to encourage you to engage in some tz’akah. Crying out.
Yes, that’s right. I’m telling a room full of Jews to kvetch more.
Something isn’t fair, isn’t right, isn’t working? Let’s resolve, this year, to talk about it.
Talk to each other about it. And talk to the Manager about it.
Our role models in this work are the two women who are the scriptural heroes of the first day of Rosh HaShanah. Today, we would call them an Arab and a Jew. Hagar and Hannah. Both cry out. And because they do, both change history.
Let’s start with Hagar. Abraham, as we know, is the first Hebrew man, an immigrant guided by the vision and promise of the One. Yet God’s promise of countless descendants seems tragically out of reach, as Abraham and Sarah struggle, and fail, to conceive.
Sarah’s solution to this problem is to lend out her maidservant Hagar to husband Abraham (how’s that for “traditional marriage?”) and the resultant offspring will be counted to Abraham. The fruit of this union is Ishmael.
Ever the Jokester, God throws everyone a curve when Sarah, at the laughable age of 90, becomes pregnant.
It is, in fact, so laughable that Abraham names their new son Isaac – or in Hebrew, יצחק, “He will laugh.”
The laughing stops, however, when Sarah believes Ishmael to be a threat to her new son’s inheritance — and wants both Ishmael and Hagar banished from the house. Though it seems wrong to him, the next morning Abraham sends mother and child away with nothing but a little bread and water.
The water is exhausted quickly. Hagar fears the worst for her son. But she doesn’t remain silent.
Al-ireh b’mot ha-yeled! she cries. “I will not watch this boy die!”
Now maybe, we might imagine, Hagar isn’t yelling at God. She’s just upset. Right?
18th Century Turkish Rabbi Yaakov Culi, in his commentary the Meam Loez, tells us otherwise.
“Is this the promise that You made to me seventeen years ago??” he imagines Hagar shouting directly at God, in bitter fury. ‘I will make your offspring numerous? They will be so many, they will not be able to be counted?’
Now he is dying… and nothing will come of the promise!”
Hagar is not punished for impudence or rudeness. In fact, the Torah says that God “heard the voice of the young man.”
Why “the young man?” Could Ishmael have been crying out as well?
That is exactly what our commentators imagine. “When a sick person prays for himself,” the Meam Loez explains, “it is infinitely more precious than when others pray for him.” In Hebrew, we see that it is how Ishmael got his name: “God heard.” Vayishma Elohim. Ishmael.
And in that moment, God opens Hagar’s eyes. There is a well of water.
Was it there all along?
They both drink. God repeats the promise to make Ishmael a great nation.
And, like a well that wasn’t there but suddenly is, a text of tragedy impending becomes a blessing, before our eyes. But not before a vocalization of pain, a voicing of the hurt. Crying out.
Consider: on this first day of the Jewish New Year, our Jewish sages invite us to read a text about the survival of a people who will not be Jews, a people who in a different time and place will be enemies to Jews.
And, still, God hears them.
The haftarah portion for Rosh HaShanah morning speaks of another suffering mother, Hannah. Like Hagar, the prophet Hannah vocalizes deep, heartfelt emotion over her inability to conceive. Rather then hold a “stiff upper lip,” Hannah speaks in plain terms of her pain, promising to dedicate her future child to service in the temple at Shiloh.
As now — speaking so openly sometimes invites ridicule. Eli, the priest, the purported religious authority, accuses her of drunkenness.
Hannah will hear none of it. It is her soul’s cry that inspires a Divine response – the birth of her son. Samuel, the future Israelite prophet.
Whose job it is to cry out on behalf of both Israel and God.
God can only hear if we cry out.
The path walked by these two individual women, it should be said, would ultimately be traveled by women as a group. Feminist thinker Anne Forer described the process in which the collective struggle for gender equality emerged in the 1960s.
“One night at a meeting I said, 'Would everybody please give me an example from their own life on how they experienced oppression as a woman? I need to hear it to raise my own consciousness.’”
From then on Forer made it an institution, calling it “consciousness-raising.”
This consciousness-raising, the awakening to our own worth through speech, is the first step toward liberation.
The Jewish people know this process intimately. For the Exodus itself would not have been possible, were it not for the power of the voice. The Israelites suffer years of degradation under Egyptian bondage before God comes to their aid. Nu? Where has God been hiding?
The text is explicit. After yamim rabim – many days – the Israelites finally cry out. It is only at that moment, the moment or speaking, that God responds. The exact words from the Ishmael story are repeated. Vayishma Elohim. God heard.
As for the individual, so too for the group. God can only hear if we cry out.
So why don’t we do it more often. Certainly, our culture discourages the honest and open expression of pain. And for us, the ugly stereotype of the whiny Jew may make us even more reluctant than others to do so. And, after all, conventional wisdom tells us “complaining never changed anything.”
The message of the high holidays is the polar opposite. The transformation of these days depends on the whole-hearted holler of distress. Avinu Malkeinu, B’sefer Chayim, Al Chet — most of the best-known prayers of the high holidays dependon us crying out to God — a daring demand for healing and wholeness.
Perhaps the most gloriously audacious act of chutzpah is our recitation of the 13 attributes of God (YHVH, YHVH, El Rachum v Chanun…) — plaintively demanding that God be a God who forgives.
Even moreso, if you consider the source of these 13 attributes. The first time we encounter them is after the most grievous sin ever perpetrated by the Israelites, the sin of the Golden Calf. The covenant with God in ruins, the Israelites’ faith proven to be to be woefully inadequate, even then Moses cries out to God. Hodeini-na et-drachecha. “Let me know me Your ways.”
Talk about chutzpah.
“Listen,” God says, “you wouldn’t be able to survive in the presence of the fullness of My reality. But I’ll make you a deal: make two more tablets of the covenant, like the ones the Israelites just broke, and you’ll get a little taste of it.”
Moses does as instructed. And God shares with Moses the 13 attributes.
And, make no mistake, this is no ordinary list of traits. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan teaches that the 13 attributes serve as nothing less than a Jewish bat-signal. Whenever Israel is in trouble? They should call on God with the 13 attributes.
And wouldn’t you know it… the Israelites do indeed get themselves in trouble again.
It’s later, in the book of Numbers. Having survived the near-death experience of the Golden Calf, the Israelites find themselves getting by in the wilderness, schlepping toward the Promised Land.
Of course, this being the days before Yelp, checking out the Promised Land requires an actual trip.
Sh’lach l’cha anashim. “Send men,” God instructs Moses,”that they may scout the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel.”
And so twelve scouts set out for the Land. They check it out. They come back. The reviews are mixed.
First, the good news. The place is literally awesome. Like good Jews, they start with the food. “Oh my God the food in this place! It literally flows with milk and honey. The pomegranates are beautiful! You should have seen this plate of figs! And the grapes! We cut down a branch of grapes, and it was so big, it took two of us carrying it on our shoulders!”
So what’s the bad news? That’s where the complaining comes in. Turns out, it’s not just the grapes that are big. The people are also huge. Apparently, there are bouncers.
Two of the reviews, from Joshua and Caleb, take this in stride. “No problem! We got this! God is with us, so we’ll be fine!”
The other ten? Not quite as glowing.
“You know who we saw there?” … “We saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak,” — apparently very large — “… and [compared to them,] we looked like grasshoppers! And so we must have appeared to them!”
(By the way, in Hebrew, the root letters of nefilim are nun-feh-lamed? Or, in English, N-F-L. Apparently, the holy land is filled not just with giants, but with the New York Giants. Now I know how this crowd feels about the Giants. Imagine how the Israelites felt!)
The review sends the crowd into a panic. “Imagine how small we look to them! We’ll never make it! We’re so screwed!”
Anybody here ever heard that kind of hysteria in their communities? Anybody here ever felt it in their hearts?
It’s here where that healthy Jewish tendency to complain doesn’t feel so healthy. The voice in the meeting that smothers enthusiasm. The wet blanket that puts out the fire of justice. The voice of defeat. Of resignation.
“I wouldn’t try it. Too risky. Look, this is the way we’ve always done it. What are you gonna do? It’ll never work.” And so it doesn’t work.
Rabbi Chaninah bar Papa notes an interesting grammatical feature in the bad review of the ten. Chazak hu mimenu, the book of Numbers reports them complaining. “They [that is, the Nefilim] are stronger than us.”
Rabbi Chaninah says mimenu can mean not only “than us,” but also “than Him.”
They are stronger than Him. They are stronger than God.
This kind of complaint — the complaint with no solution, the complaint that says it’s too hard, it’s too complicated, it’s too much, too soon — smothers the spark of creativity before it can ever catch fire.
We curse ourselves with the death of possibility. We murder our own dreams, sometimes rushing to do so. Before anyone else can beat us to it.
We don’t like to admit, but our willingness to speak what’s in our hearts often depends on how we feel we’ll be perceived. By our adversaries, of course.
But sometimes by our friends. Or our families. Or our employers. Or our fellow congregants and community members.
Maybe if I complain, I’ll look like that guy. I’ll be seen as too whiny. Or too traditional. Or too pushy. Or not a team player. Or not Zionist enough. Or too Zionist.
Or too Jewish.
Can we be honest with ourselves and ask: how does how I look to other people inform when and how I speak up in my world?
Because if we don’t believe in the possibility, we run the risk of exhausting it.
The generation of the spies wears God’s patience. Fed up with the people, God makes Moses another offer, a chilling proposition.
Who needs this hassle? Let’s get rid of these folks, and start over.
“I’ll destroy them,” God offers Moses, “and I’ll make of you a nation, greater and mightier than them!”
Imagine Moses, frustrated and exhausted, repeatedly tested by an arrogant people who just don’t seem to get it. The offer must have sounded at least a little tempting. What should he do? What would you do?
Moses will have none of it. Moses the lawgiver, the speechmaker, gives perhaps the most important speech of his life. It’s also a complaint.
Excuse me. I’d like to speak to the Manager.
And what does Moses say in that speech?
YHVH YHVH, erech apayim, v’rav chesed, nosei avon vafesha. “God! Slow to anger, and great in compassion! Forgiving transgression and sin!”
And, as promised, God listens. Our actual High Holiday liturgy picks up here, from the book of Numbers: Salachti kidvarecha, God says. Salachti. “I have forgiven [the people],” God tells Moses, ki’dvarecha. “Like you said. Because of your words.”
This community, this wreck of a people, that God was ready to destroy — God reorients the future, changes the warp and woof of reality, and resolves to save them. All because of the word of a human being. Because a person has the audacity to complain.
Beacause the urgency of the hour called someone to speak.
From Hagar’s terrible cry over Ishmael’s body, to Hannah’s anguished shouts of the emotional pain, to the shrieks of the enslaved Israelites in Egyptian bondage, it is the vocalization of agony that is the catalyst for transformation.
You might even say that nothing changes until somebody yells at God.
It would seem, then, that it is not just the world that needs to change. Maybe God needs to change. Maybe we need to tell God to change.
Because our survival may depend on it.
And maybe more than just our survival.
After God forgives the generation of the Spies, the next verse begins with the words v’ulam chai Ani. “And as I live…”
In that phrase, our sages see something remarkable, and make a theological claim that is nothing less than extraordinary. “Raba said in the name of R. Isaac [the phrase “as I live” means that] the Holy Blessed One said to Moses: ‘Moses, you have revived Me with your words!’”
Not only, it seems, were the generation of the Spies on the precipice of destruction. So was God.
And it was human agency, human intervention, the audacity to challenge the paradigm, to speak not of self-interest but of that most Jewish of principles — justice — that revives the dying God in this world.
How much power we have. In mere speech. So much, we don’t even realize its true potential.
So, another question: How does our crying out "revive" God in our community? And if it doesn’t, how can it in the future?
This day, this moment, demands our attention.
No, God is not threatening to destroy an Israelite camp. But this morning, a man is refusing to make a call to his brother out of spite. And an immigration officer in Burlington is threatening to tear a mother from her children. At midday, a woman will absorb yet another thoughtless insult from her husband. And a supervisor in Waltham will threaten to fire a restaurant worker who wants to form a union. As afternoon shadows fall, a man in Maynard will refuse to speak to his friends in this congregation, because of an unresolved slight from ten years ago. And a Senator in West Virginia will threaten to take away life-saving Medicaid coverage from her very own constituents. And at day’s end, a father will mock his alienated daughter, rather than reach out to her in kindness. And a frustrated police officer in St. Louis will beat an African-American boy with a billy club, because he knows he can.
And in each case, the very reality of a loving God will be called into question. In each case, God needs reviving.
Now you may not agree with all things I think are worth complaining to God about. OK. So if you made a list, what would be on it? If you got to speak to the Manager, what would you say?
Or have you given up? Have you given in to cynicism, to self-defeat, the cruel lie that none of it matters?
Far be it from us as Jews dismiss the idea of prayer, ignore the moan of exhaustion, neglect the shriek of impatience. Far be it from us to refuse to let it emerge from our own throats.
Because one thing is for sure — the prayer never uttered will be sure never to be answered.
Tsur Yisrael, we demand in our prayer — not just on the high holidays. In every morning minyan. “Rock of Israel.” Kuma b’ezrat Yisrael. “Get up. Help us.” A complaint. A holy complaint.
Are we bold enough to cry out, to complain, to say what needs to be said? To demand that God come through? To demand that we come through for each other, that we speak to each other, plainly, about what must be done? Before it becomes a tragedy?
“It came to pass,” we read in the book of Joshua, the Israelites standing on the brink of their Promised Land, “that when the people heard the sound of the shofar, the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat.” (Joshua 6:20)
When the cry of the shofar is heard, the highest walls are brought low. When the cry of the shofar is heard, the strongest barriers crumble.
So to with our cries.
We pray for the walls to come crashing down in this New Year – the walls of indifference, cynicism, despair. Because our future is at stake. And so, teach our sages, is God’s. Do we have the koyach? The strength? Do we dare to open our eyes, to open our hearts, to open our mouths — to do the work, finally, this year, and speak the words that will, at long last, revive God?