The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Message on Rosh Hashanah

[This drashah was given on Sept. 17, 2023]

Human beings will go to amazing lengths to hold onto hope, so much so that it almost seems hard-wired within us.  Let me give you an unlikely example.  When an abusive parent dies, very often the child will still mourn them, despite what they suffered from this parent.  But surely being freed from ever experiencing the cruelty of the parent should be a source of relief?

Psychologists explain that the child is not mourning the parent who abused them.  What they are truly grieving is the loss of hope.  Because as long as the parent is alive, the child maintains hope that the parent might change to what a parent should be:  a loving, protective presence in the child’s life, rather than a violent, destructive one.  But at the death of the parent, that possibility is wrenched away, and hope for change is no longer possible.  The parent can never be the one she should have been.  It is the loss of the hoped for parent that the child mourns.   But nothing less than the death of the parent can make the child give up hope.

In our time, being hopeful is difficult, and the temptation to give into despair is constant.  In the psalm for the Sabbath day, the poet expresses it so well.  Bifroach r’shaim k’mo esev, the wicked seem to spring up like the grass.  Just when we’ve pulled up a weed, three more seem to have sprouted.

This morning, we’ll listen to some of the women of Rosh Hashana, whose lives and teachings can be a source of hope for us.  We usually think of the great theme of Rosh Hashana being the crowning of God as king – and that is true.  The mahzor overflows with images of God’s sovereignty, and our prayers that it become a reality.

But there is another recurring theme – less obvious but no less present:  heart-broken mothers weeping for their children.   At different times and in different texts during these days, women speak to us.  We hear Sarah, mother of Isaac, and Hagar, the mother of Yishmael.  We hear Hannah, as she struggles to bear children and who becomes the rabbinic example of how to pray above all others.  We hear Rachel, sister of Leah, and a Canaanite mother whose name we don’t  know. In each case, they come to teach us different things.  I want to listen to two of them with you this morning.

First the Canannite mother.  The Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashana tells us mitzvat hayom b’shofar –  The mitzvah of this day is hearing the shofar.   And what are we supposed to hear when we listen?  According to the Talmud, the sound of the shofar is to remind us of the tears of a Cannanite mother for her son. 

The song of Deborah in the book of Judges recounts that the mother of Sisera, the enemy general of the Israelites, is waiting for her son to come home from battle.  What she doesn’t know is that he’s been killed.  And she looks out the window, hoping against hope for his safe return.  But slowly, reality begins to sink in that in fact, he won’t be coming home after all.  And she cries, va-tyabev em sisera b’ad ha-eshnav – the mother of sisera looks out the window and weeps.  And our shofar is the sound of her tears.

We battle our enemy, and yet our tradition asks us to hear his mother cry, not to excuse what our enemy has done, but to think of him in a larger context than we usually do.  We don’t stop fighting enemies, but we remember their families enough so that we don’t come to relish fighting them.  Our tradition helps us not lose ourselves in the darkness of it all.  War is always a tragedy, even when the ‘good guys’ win.

As many of you know, Michael and I, to our great joy, became grandparents this past spring.  We spent the month of May in tel aviv as Michael mentioned yesterday.  In our third week in Tel Aviv, the Israeli air force went into Gaza to attack militant enclaves.  In response, the Palestinians started raining down rockets on Tel Aviv. 

When the rockets begin, the sirens go off and people head to the bomb shelters, or if you’re in an apartment building, you go into the stairwell.

One of the days we were there, the sirens went off and I happened to be holding our grandson, Shai, at the time.  We left the apartment and went to stand in the stairwell with Hannah and Yehuda’s neighbors, to wait until the ‘all clear’ message was received.

But you could hear the rockets exploding outside.  And I was standing there holding Shai, and I found myself beginning to be furious, a profound anger rising within me.  I was holding this child who had only been in the world for one month, and suddenly, it was unfathomable how anyone could drop a rocket near such vulnerability and fragility. 

And yet afterward, I was taken aback by my capacity to feel such extreme fury. 

The Shofar of this Rosh Hashana says to me, you think of your opponents as the ones who have a dark side, but haven’t you just seen that capacity within yourself.? To hear the tears of my enemy’s mother is to hear something that is not easy to hear and yet important to remember:  that we have our own capacity for darkness, and that even as we have to fight our enemies, we have to remember their human context, the mothers who mourn them. 

That is one of the central purposes of the shofar – it is supposed to shake us out of our complacency, our comfortable opinions, and our tried-and-true ideas.  The tears of Sisera’s mother are asking us to consider both ourselves and our opponents differently from the way we usually do.  The shofar asks us to listen to our world in a different way, to truly open our ears, because the more we know about the potential darkness within ourselves and the human context of others, the more capacity we have to make true choices about the people we want to be.

So these first tears jolt us into greater awareness of who we really are, and who others really are.  Our ability to grow, to see further than we have before depends on it.

In our haftara of today, we hear the tears of another woman, our matriarch Rachel.   The prophet Jeremiah imagines the scene:  On high, Rachel imeinu, our mother Rachel, is watching hundreds of Judeaens – her descendants – as they march, forced to leave the land of Israel and go into exile in Babylonia.  Rachel’s weeping is b’chi tamrurim, bitter, anguished cries.  And she is Meiana l’hinachem, and she is refusing to be comforted or appeased in any way.  In Jeremiah’s imagination, God yields to Rachel’s tears and says to her:   ‘Rachel, you can rest from your cries and your tears,  Yesh Sachar l‘peulateich – there will be a reward for your efforts – your children will return from the land of their enemies.’

The late Rabbi Norman Lamm, z”l, (1)“… Rachel refuses to bow to these realities… Meianah le ‘hinachem, she refuses to submit,… she refuses to accept exile and destruction as the last word. Her cry, her tears, her protest to God, … beholds reality in all its ugliness, but sets out to transform it. The tears of Rachel are … a sign not of weakness but of strength; not of resignation or frustration, but of determination.”

The midrash on this verse goes further, and pictures Rachel arguing with God, displaying that holy chutzpah like Avraham and Moshe.  She says:

“Master of the universe, it is known before You that …when the time for my marriage to my husband arrived, my father plotted to exchange me with my sister.” 

Rachel then relates how she had planned to thwart the plot and prevent the switch. But she changes her mind because she doesn’t want to humiliate her sister.  She says to God: “…I was not jealous of her, and I did not lead her to humiliation.  If I, who is flesh and blood, was not jealous of my rival, and I did not lead her to humiliation and shame, You, who are a living and eternal merciful King, why were You jealous of idol worship that has no substance, and You exiled my descendants…?”

Immediately, the mercy of the Holy One was aroused and He said: ‘For you, Rachel, I will restore Israel to its place.’ as it says, “and your children will return to their borders.”

The midrash here has Rachel pulling out all the stops to do what she can to change the situation of her children.  Even when observing a done deal – she’s watching her children walk into exile – she won’t give up and she won’t settle.  Like Abraham before her and like Moses after her, she dares to argue with God. 

Rachel’s example asks us to consider the possibility, that, like her, we might have wells of strength within ourselves that we had not known are there.  We might be surprised to find that our own capacities for hope and resolve are more formidable than we knew.  Rachel’s tears call us to wake up in a different way from Sisera’s mother’s tears, to perhaps surprise ourselves with possibilities of inner strength we may never have considered.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently quoted the Israeli poet Yehuda amichai, who describes Jews as niguay tikva – the ones who are infected by hope.  And we recharge that hope every day during Elul twice a day, when we say in psalm 27, Kavei el hashem… Hope in Adonai and let it strengthen your heart with courage, Hope in Adonai. 

Rachels tears challenge us to do nothing less.

Sisera’s mother’s tears evoked by the sound of the shofar are to wake us up and open our ears to the larger context in which others exist, and perhaps to darkness within ourselves that we might rather not contemplate.  And then today’s haftara shows us the other side – Rachel’s tears – a model of hope, life and determination, asking us to consider that we may have those capacities within ourselves as well.  The women who speak to us today from so long ago have faith that we can wake up.

My hope for us this Rosh Hashana is that we hear both of these women and learn from them, things we didn’t know or hadn’t considered.

May those deeper awarenesses and knowledge liberate us so we can more fully choose the path we want to take.  In so doing, may we become Yisrael, the ones who dare to struggle with God, and Amichai’s niguay tikva, those so infected by hope that we find strengths we didn’t know we had.  In gaining a larger perspective and in harnessing hope, we are choosing life, and choosing life is the way we write ourselves into that book of life.  So may it be.

  • 1. Rabbi Norman Lamm, “Three Who Cried,” September 1962.