Where the Oppressed Shed Tears

A view of inside US CBP detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas

Sermon for Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah 5780 — September 30, 2019

According to tradition, the powerful, piercing cry of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is meant to awaken us from our spiritual and moral slumber, the mindless and purposeless manner in which most of us use up our precious moments and spend our limited number of days. The Shofar’s blast is designed to call us to attention — attention to the disconnect between who we could be and who we are, between the values we claim to cherish and the ones we end up living by, between what we are called to do in this world and what we actually do with our lives.

But the Shofar is a blunt instrument. It certainly wakes us up, but its formless and wordless sounds can be less than helpful in pointing us back toward our highest ideals and forward towards our fundamental purpose as individuals and as Jews. Fortunately, for that, we have today’s Torah reading. 

At first blush, today’s parashah seems an unlikely candidate as a source text to redirect us for the year to come. Indeed, the story of the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael seems an odd choice for this Holy Day. On its surface, the story seems to have little to do with the purpose of human existence, our relationships, our faith, or God’s call to do teshuvah, to turn our lives around, which are the central themes of this season. But, if we look at it closely, we will find that it actually embodies and teaches the most essential of Jewish values, illuminating the righteous path for us to follow in the coming year. 

To put the story into context, Abraham and Sarah, we are told earlier in the Book of Genesis, are unable to have children. Since God had promised that Abraham would become the father of a great nation, this is a major problem. So Abraham sleeps with Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar, who conceives and gives birth to a son, whom they name Ishmael. 

For at least thirteen years, Ishmael is raised as Abraham’s only child. But there is a major plot-twist: A couple of angels tell Abraham that Sarah, by now an elderly woman, will miraculously conceive and give birth to a son. 

Our Torah portion opens with the fulfillment of that pronouncement, with Sarah giving birth to a son whom she and Abraham name Isaac. 

A reader encountering this story for the first time would invariably assume that, after many chapters dealing with Abraham and Sarah’s struggles to attain what God had promised them, we are about to move into some resolution of our heroes’ story, a kind of “happily ever after” coda to the saga of Abraham and Sarah, and the transition of the narrative to a new arc — namely, the building of the nation that God had foretold through Isaac. 

And we, the worshippers reading this story on Rosh Hashanah, a day on which we are concerned with our fates and busy ourselves in prayer to secure God’s favor in the year to come, might be led to believe that our tradition gives us a narrative about God’s reliability in fulfilling the covenant, about God’s reliability in answering our prayers favorably, or about how God treasures the Jewish people — embodied, as we now know ourselves to be, through the lineage of Isaac; about how God will never forsake us. 

But things are not always what they seem. At first, all indeed does seem to go well with this new addition to Abraham’s household. The first two years, according to the calculations of the classical commentators, pass by without incident. However, some time after Isaac’s second birthday, we are told that Sarah sees Ishmael “playing” (מצחק in Hebrew). In response to this seemingly minor offense, Sarah says to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac!” 

Now, it’s unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing that so offended Sarah. According to the medieval Spanish scholar Nahmanides — as well as several other commentators — it was the very presence of Ishmael that was worrisome to Sarah. Ishmael, after all, was Abraham’s first-born, and despite the fact that his mother was a slave, he had been raised to his teen years to be Abraham’s successor and heir. And Ishmael would likely have been resistant to the idea that Isaac, his younger half-brother, would supplant him; this could have posed major trouble down the line. 

Additionally, Sarah probably would have been concerned that if Ishmael were to make a claim on his inheritance as the firstborn, Hagar would be elevated and she would be diminished. In other words, Sarah’s objection about Ishmael and Hagar were not about what they were doing, but rather about who they were. Sarah sees the covenant as zero-sum: if Hagar and Ishmael remain in the picture, she and Isaac get a lesser share. Their very existence threatens her. 

It is noteworthy that Sarah neither refers to Ishmael nor Hagar by their names. Rather, she calls them “that slave-woman and her son,” underscoring their ethnicity and their class. To Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael are not human beings equal to her, but rather more like objects: When she needs them to realize God’s promise, they are hers to use, and when they are no longer useful, they ought to be thrown away. 

So Sarah commands Abraham to expel both Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah’s request distresses Abraham, but he ultimately consents when God reassures him that God “will make a nation” of Ishmael, too; our first indication that God does not share Sarah’s point of view. So “Early the next morning, Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.”

After rambling in the desert for some time, Hagar and Ishmael run out of food and water. Matters start to get dire. Ishmael apparently is close to dying of thirst. Out of options, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush, and positions herself a bowshot’s distance away — maybe 50 or 75 yards — so that she would not to have to watch her son die. 

And then, as Hagar bursts into tears, God appears. This is a recurring theme in the Torah. An oppressed person cries out. God hears the cries, and leaps into action. Where the oppressed shed tears, God appears. To offer perhaps the most obvious example, in the Book of Exodus, God is moved to liberate the Children of Israel from their bondage only after they cry out. 

Here, too, where there are tears, God appears. Hagar cries, and immediately, an angel calls to her, saying: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Just then, a well appears before her. Hagar fills her skin with water and revives Ishmael. The story concludes by saying, “God was with the boy,” ויהי אלהים את-הנער. 

It turns out that this is one of only two places in the Torah where the narrator tells us that God is with someone. The other comes later in Genesis, in chapter 39, when Joseph is sold as a slave to the Egyptian noble Potiphar. Think about that for a second: in the only two places in the entire Torah where God is described as being “with” somebody, both subjects of God’s intimate care, concern, and support are slaves

In both instances, the slaves that God is “with” have been treated as inconvenient objects by people who can exert power over them and are threatened by their presence. In both instances, God is “with” them in the precise moment when they are most broken, most vulnerable, most desperate. In both instances, God being “with” them means that God witnesses both their humanity and their suffering, responds with intimate and immediate presence, and provides spiritual and material support. And in both instances, God being “with” them means that God watches over them, saves them from trouble, protects them, and ensures that, whatever their challenges, they ultimately prevail. 

That these are the only two times in the entire Torah where God is described as being “with” someone gives us a crucial insight about the Torah’s point of view: From the Torah’s perspective, God’s primary concern is with the plight of the marginalized, the poor, the broken, and the oppressed. God pays special attention to and is especially present with oppressed people. And when the oppressed shed tears, God appears.

The more familiar one is with the Hebrew Bible, the more one recognizes this defining divine characteristic. To give but one of countless examples, according to the psalmist, and in language familiar to anyone who has attended morning prayers, God is best described as One who “secures justice for those who are wronged, gives food to the hungry…sets captives free…restores sight to the blind…makes those who are bent stand straight…protects the migrant…[and] encourages the orphan and widow” (Ps. 146). The psalmist here echoes the Torah itself, which identifies God as the One who “upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the migrant, providing him with food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:18).

But understanding God in this way is not a mere academic exercise. Our tradition tells us about God’s qualities and characteristics, about how God acts in the world, and about how God relates to and interacts with human beings, in order to teach us how to act in the world, how to relate to and interact with our fellows. Because while Jewish tradition believes that God operates in history, it also insists that God generally relies on human beings to act on God’s behalf in the world. We are God’s agents, dispatched into reality to do the work of the sacred. Therefore, we learn about God so that we may, to the best of our human ability, behave like God, so that we may act in the world as God would act. Indeed, many of our Sages say that the Torah’s commandments — the entirety of our vast tradition — all aim at this fundamental objective: getting us to imitate the Divine in our lives and in our world.

But how can a mere mortal emulate God? 

When I visited Guatemala last January with American Jewish World Service, our group met with the lawyers of Bufete Juridicio de Derechos Humanos — the Human Rights Law Firm — and some of their clients. We heard story after heartbreaking story from victims of unthinkable atrocities: forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial executions, the massacre and plunder of entire communities; folks who have been evicted from their homes so that their land can be given to mining companies and drug cartels and who must live in makeshift refugee camps under unthinkable conditions. And we heard from the lawyers representing them: attorneys who for no pay walk hand in hand with their clients to fight steep uphill battles, in a thoroughly corrupt legal system, for years on end, with only a small chance of victory. That’s what it looks like for a mere mortal to emulate God.

The lawyers of Bufete Juridicio de Derechos Humanos are an extraordinary example. But I’ll bet we can all think of people closer to home who have made all kinds of sacrifices, even people who have put their livelihoods at risk or their bodies on the line, in order to lift up the vulnerable, the broken, or the oppressed. And when any of us act in this way, at any level, we are emulating God.

The Torah itself makes this point. Recall the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy I just quoted a moment ago, where God is identified as One who loves the migrant. Immediately after the Torah describes God that way, it commands: “You too must love the migrant.” Since God loves the migrant, the way we follow in God’s footsteps is to love the migrant, too. 

It’s important to point out something else from this passage: God’s love of the migrant is expressed by God’s “providing him with food and clothing.” That’s because love, for the Torah, is not a feeling. It’s an action. Love is emotion manifest in deed. As Maimonides teaches, we may not be able to will ourselves to love migrants in an emotional sense. But we nevertheless must engage in acts of compassion and kindness toward them. 

In other words, regardless of how we feel personally, emotionally, or even politically about those who leave their homelands to seek out a new life in a foreign country — whether they are fleeing poverty, hunger, violence, persecution, or natural disaster; whether they are seeking temporary protection, asylum, refuge, or simply opportunity; whether or not they are one of the lucky few who are able to navigate the confoundingly complex and often prohibitively expensive bureaucracy of legal immigration — we are commanded to act in a loving way toward them, just as God would.

This imperative to emulate God lies at the very heart of our tradition. In Leviticus, in the literal center of the whole Torah, this law is put succinctly and emphatically: “You shall be holy, for I, the Infinite your God, am holy.” The climactic instruction of the Torah is that we must strive to act — indeed, that we must strive to become — like God. 

We fulfill this core Jewish value by walking “in God’s ways,” by following God’s footsteps. As our rabbis emphasized, “just as God is gracious and compassionate, you must be gracious and compassionate…[just as God] is called kind…you too must be kind.” According to tradition, God acts with kindness and compassion by clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and comforting mourners. That’s why we, too, are obligated to clothe the naked, tend to the ill, and console the bereaved. Our tradition goes even further, saying that God demonstrates Divine kindness and compassion by showing up for, liberating, and protecting the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. Therefore we too must show up for, liberate, and protect the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. Jewish tradition from the Bible to the Talmud and beyond demands that, when the oppressed shed tears, the Jewish people appears.

This principle means that, in order for a Jewish community to rightly be called a Jewish community, it has to be more than merely a community that happens to be comprised of Jewish people. Instead, it must be a community that is committed to being present for people who are vulnerable and suffering, a congregation that is devoted to doing whatever it can to alleviate peoples’ pain. 

Of course this means we must take care of our own, that we must be a community in which each of us — not just the rabbi or the cantor, but each one of us here — shows up for each other at the bedsides, the funerals, and the shiva houses; a community in which each of us comforts the bereaved, visits the homebound, and offers presence, love, and support to anyone encountering a trying time.

But it also means more than that. Much more. As we learn from this morning’s Torah portion, God shows up to help the oppressed whether or not they are part of our Tribe. One of the meanings of monotheism is that ALL people are Gods people. In fact, the Torah insists that God is uniquely concerned with those who can’t support themselves, with those on the margins, and with those on the outside: the orphan, the widow, and the chronically destitute — and, especially, the migrant, the person who crosses the border of a foreign country to sojourn there with the hope of having a better life. The Torah singles out this class of people for special protection 36 times, far and away more than any other group, specifically because they are outside the protective support network of the Jewish community and are therefore at special risk of exploitation and oppression. 

So if we are to emulate God, then we must see all people as our people, not just our members, not just our fellow Jews. A Jewish community, to be truly Jewish, ought to be paying at least as much attention to those in need outside our community as inside. When the oppressed shed tears, a truly Jewish community appears. 

This is not work that is extraneous to congregational life; not something we do on the side, or when we have some free time. It is not just something that the rabbi or the cantor should be doing. It is the very essence of what it means to be a Jewish community. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us, and of all of us.

In so many ways, it feels like we are living in an era marked by indifference to the cries of the vulnerable and the oppressed. Sometimes, this indifference seems to bleed into out and out cruelty: People seeking asylum from violence, oppression, economic depression, and environmental devastation are being denied refuge and forced to live indefinitely in unthinkable conditions. Families are being separated — both at the border and within our borders — and children are being locked in cages. Where is God in all this? 

According to today’s Torah portion, according to our sacred texts and revered rabbis, God is with the Guatemalan family as they travel by foot for thousands of perilous miles to seek a better life in America. God is in the squalor of the detention camps. God is with the two year old who is inconsolably crying after having been ripped from her mother’s arms. Yes, our tradition tells us where God is in this moment. But more importantly it asks of us — we who are called to act like God, we who are commanded to be like God — it asks of us: where are we?

There are many ways to meaningfully answer that question. But that question — that challenge — of where we are when the oppressed cry out, lies at the very heart of the Rosh Hashanah service. The central ritual of this Holy Day is blowing the Shofar. In the few short passages where Rosh Hashanah is alluded to in the Torah, it is only referred to as Yom T’ruah, a day of Shofar blasts. According to Maimonides and others, the sound of the Shofar is supposed to remind us of crying. Other commentators are even more specific, teaching that the sound of the Shofar is meant to remind us of Hagar — expelled by Abraham, watching her only son die of thirst — wailing in the wilderness. 

Hearing the Shofar is the essential ritual of Rosh Hashanah because on this day — a day that calls us to consider who we are, what we believe, and why we exist; a day that urges us to remember our highest ideals and to take stock of how we’ve failed to live up to those commitments; a day that beckons us to realign ourselves with our purpose as human beings and as Jews — we are reminded that there are people, including and especially the world’s most vulnerable people, crying out, right in this very moment. We are reminded that ours is a God who, above all else, seeks to alleviate the pain and suffering of the oppressed. And we are reminded that our tradition’s most fundamental teaching is that we are commanded to emulate the God who acts with kindness and compassion toward the broken and bereaved, the victimized and the marginalized, that we can and must act like God toward those people, offering our presence and encircling protection. 

The cries of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah call out to us and test us. What will we do in the year to come? What will we do in our lives, in this world, where so many throats are sore from weeping, and so many cheeks are drenched with tears? Our tradition teaches us that, where there are tears, God appears

This year, may we heed the call to do the same. 

Shanah Tovah.


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