Get Up, Lift Up, Hold Close: A Message to Hagar and To Families in Conflict – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

This post on “If Not Now, When?” – Fairmount Temple’s interactive blog, includes excerpts of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk’s sermon at the Congregational Rosh Hashanah Morning Worship service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio. We encourage you to comment below, post or share with others to help us offer teachings of Jewish tradition in the wider community.

A television commercial I once saw began with a young man, the father of a newborn, looking through the window of a hospital nursery, eyes full of hope and possibility alongside fear and awe. Then we see an older graying man arriving at his side, and our attention is drawn to the older man as we realize their resemblance. For he is (in fact) the young father aged 25-30 years older. He then turns to his younger self with reassurance and says: “It turned out alright. You got the job in Boston you were waiting for. Your wife opened up her own business, and he’s in grad school now– at the top of his class. You did it. You made it. It’s going to be alright.”

It’s a great life insurance ad! The message of the ad is very clear- make the right choices now- and your highest dreams will come true. It’s a worthy idea. All of us want to believe that the decisions we made this past year- especially decisions involving risk, deep seated concern and the possibility of helping or hurting others- that these were the right decisions, the best ones we could have made.

Think about it. On Rosh Hashanah, I encourage you to look back to a challenging time in your life. Perhaps it was a time in your career when you were forced to choose between ethics and ambitions. Or a time when you struggled with being unhappy in some aspect of your life. It may have taken place in your childhood…or in more recent years when you struggled to make a decision for the care of a loved one- your child, your parent, or sibling. Life is filled with such challenges. If you could go back to one of these situations, and advise your younger self- what would you say? What regrets would you share? It’s common to say we’d be generous with our younger selves. But is that really true?

A story: There was once a young woman and her husband who were raising two young girls into adolescence. Her husband, recently home from a stint in the army infantry, was working long hours as a driver for a local trucking company. She cared for him but found that as hard as she tried, she was truly unhappy in their marriage. She felt that the dreams and goals she had for her life were blown away by elements beyond her control. After her husband worked each day, all he wanted was life at a slow pace with no commotion. He was a good and decent man who genuinely cared for his wife and he would never betray her or hurt her. But honestly their life together had been disappointing. She just couldn’t imagine that she would live the rest of her life sitting by his side on the living room couch and not getting out of her house to travel the country and the world. He couldn’t imagine life any different. Of course she wanted only the best for her kids, but she also craved the opportunity to make her own living, to see outside the confines of her house. If any of us met this young mother- and she confessed to us her true feelings, she would likely hear the sting of our judgment. In truth—we have all met someone in our lives whose situation is akin to her or her husband. What has been our response?

As a rabbi, I can tell you that I meet many people who are truly unhappy in a significant aspect of their lives or are regretful of choices they’ve made in their work or their home lives. But the hardest burden many carry is the feeling of harsh judgment from people in their lives who they felt kicked them when they were down. “Get over it,” they were told.  “You aren’t going to change anything,” warns the voice of a friend or a fellow congregant who seemed threatened that someone they know was changing their life in a significant way. These expressions come so thoughtlessly to the lips of others, but they really hurt! When we judge others living alongside us, when we objectify others and diminish their pain, we make it nearly impossible for them to confidently face hard decisions.

Consider with me the Torah portion which we will read this morning. In this portion, Hagar’s life is suddenly swept out from her control when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. What’s worse is that Hagar had done nothing to sow seeds of discontent in her community. She had simply done what was asked of her. But once Sarah and Abraham were able to conceive their own child, they banished her from her home.

Notice: Hagar and Ishmael had already been mentioned by name in the Torah. But when Sarah banished the two of them, she objectified them, only describing them by the status they bore in society. She said: Geresh Ha-Amah Ha-zot V’et B’nah. (“Throw out that servant-girl and her boy.”) Thinking of Hagar as a nameless, faceless, household servant, Sarah could more easily dismiss that Hagar is linked to Ha-Ger (“the stranger,”) the one whom Jewish tradition actually emphasizes ought to draw our loving compassion. We are taught to avoid hurting the ger, but the mitzvah of protecting and empathizing with them.

If Sarah had actually acknowledged Hagar’s name, she might have realized that the person she was subjecting to judgment and banishment was a living breathing, emoting, human being, a woman whom Sarah actually knew well. But Sarah dismissed her- and sent her on a long journey carrying only a small amount of bread and water! She and her son Ishmael wandered aimlessly and their water was soon gone, leaving them parched and panicked.  One can only imagine what anxieties arose within them. Hagar tried to care for Ishmael by holding him, but to no avail. She laid him under the shade of a tender bush to give him room to be soothed at a distance, but this also failed to soothe him.

I know this feeling. I bet a lot of you do -trying to soothe and console someone in our lives as they weep during a crisis. Yes, we do so with children. But we may have also held in our arms the grown adults in our lives, as they wailed with frustration, sadness, loneliness or fear! So we can truly empathize with Hagar when we see her carrying the burden of her son’s tears, and shedding her own mournful tears. But what happens next is crucial, for it illustrates an important lesson for us to apply in our own lives!

First, God took the time to hear the cries of the boy and his mother. Then, God spoke to Hagar tenderly- not with judgment or bewilderment but with a reassuring belief in her ability to come through this journey. Mah L’cha Hagar? What is troubling you? God asked. Then God said:  Al Tiri, Do not be afraid. For…[I] have  heard the boy’s cry where he is. Kumi, God said. Get up.  S’ei et Ha-na’ar. Lift up the boy. V’hachaziki et Yadech bo. Then reach your hand out to him.”

Get up. Lift up your loved ones. Reach out your hand to them. These instructions are not just for Hagar. They are commandments for us to follow in our community right now! Whatever we have gone through, whatever the painful truth of our experience, all of us still bear a God-like capacity to respond to people around us whose lives, marriages, careers, and relationships are falling apart. For God knows…every human being has it within them to show empathy- especially to the one who is burdened, estranged, separated or in family conflict.  We as Jews know what it feels like to be alone and to be supported. At the core of our Jewish values is the empathy born of the fact that we ourselves were strangers, personally estranged in Egypt. But then the waters parted, we were redeemed, and we crossed over narrow straits to the other side of crisis.

I wish I could say that such idealism rooted in our Torah was more universally acted upon in our community. I wish I could. But you know, there is a tremendous diversity of beliefs in our congregation. We have no consensus among us concerning God or healing or redemption. There are many beliefs held here.

  • Some of us vouch for God  in our personal acts, believing that when we act as caregivers or when we speak out against injustice, we help God keep faith with those most in need.
  • Others of us feel that God is more of a creative force that once set life into motion but who no longer reaches out to individuals, no matter the obstacles they face in their lives.
  • Many of us carry serious doubts that there is any God in this universe, any source of healing or redemption in which to believe

But most every one of us is determined to pursue our own vision of a better life, to cross the narrow waters before us no matter who is at our side – be it God or a good friend or even a stranger walking into the sea alongside us. The moments when someone truly shows us their love and support are amazing. These moments prove to us the power to transform and change our lives is not Gods act alone. It is in our hands to perform acts of decency, in our eyes to envision a happier life, and in our hearts to change direction to pursue happiness, kindness and fulfillment.

Our, hands, our eyes, our hearts – when I think of such images of independent strength, when I consider the determination many have shown us to face adversity come what may, I am deeply moved. For those ideals make me think of the role models in my own life. I think of the people who have stood in a singular way for the values I most admire. Have you had in your life someone who exemplified to you the very best of independence, of strength or faith?  For me, that person was undoubtedly my grandmother, Frieda Pantzer, a model of living life on your own terms- but also with love and devotion for her family and her faith.

Still, in 1955, my grandma faced a horribly challenging moment in her life. She felt so deeply conflicted about her marriage. She lived in a close-knit Jewish community- and was raising two daughters with a loving husband. But she was desperately unfulfilled by her life. This crossroads in her life occurred nearly six decades ago-  but today I so admire that Grandma risked complete social ostracism by leaving and starting over when doing so were truly uncommon.

I will tell you- she knew the road ahead would be tough. She had no guarantees it would turn out alright. But she also knew she couldn’t be true to herself if she spent the rest of her adult life craving another path than the one on which she first started.  So she took a massive risk because of an incredible reservoir of trust and faith in God and in herself.

There is no way I could know the obstacles and judgments that she and my grandpa and my mom and aunt faced in those years. This was a tremendously difficult time and like in the situation of Hagar, no one sought the heartbreak and the pain involved, though there was plenty. For remember, this was a time when women were actively discouraged from making their own living or exerting their own will on a family by leaving or even trying again to stay in an unhappy marriage.

I can only tell you that by the time I came into the world, Grandma Frieda was already an accomplished small business owner, a devoted mother and a loving grandmother. She had traveled, grown her own jewelry and fashion business, and staked out a new claim.  But achieving such goals was only consistent with how she had taught us as her grandkids. She believed that you should never be cheap- not with your loved ones, not with your loyal friends and most of all, not with yourself. She didn’t wait for birthdays to give you a gift. She gave you gifts whenever you saw her because she wanted to see you cherish the life right in front of you.

Grandma never really found a man with whom her heart could settle. My Grandpa George remarried and found happiness and contentment with a new and loving partner and I got the blessing of my Grandma Esther, a third grandmother who turned 95 a few months ago! But Frieda never really found a true love besides her caring sisters and her two daughters who ultimately became her most cherished life companions.

On New Year’s Eve, about five years ago, I was sitting with my grandma as a thick new layer of late December snow grew outside her window. I sat with her and told her what my kids were up to. Then I read her the entire NY Times Sunday Style Section. She was lying peacefully asleep next to me as I read the wedding announcements to her. She had suffered a stroke the week before, so all that was really left of her courageous and beautiful independent spirit was a shallow sweet breath that sustained her life.

So before I left her bedside, I told her how much she had taught me. I told her that she taught me how to be generous. And I thanked her for her courage. And then I realized something that my mom and my aunt had known their whole lives. Their mom, my grandma, was a determined person. She had held on in this shape for several days. As she had proved each day of her adult life, she was going to follow her heart until her heart would beat no longer.

Get up, she taught me. Lift up those who need you. And hold them close. We find this advice in the Torah. But it is the people in our lives and others in our communities who bless us when they take these actions. We can follow these instructions too – as we treat the conflicts which are present in our friends lives with empathy, with sensitivity and with patience. We don’t know what it is like to feel the pain that causes another to be tearful, heartbroken, or lonely. But we do know our own pain. So let us be guided by what God taught Hagar: “Get up.” God said. Lift your loved ones and friends. Hold them close. And just in case I forget to do this, I have a note that reminds me.

About a month after my grandma’s death I was clearing out a box and I came across an envelope with my Grandma’s handwriting on it. The letter inside had been sent to Joanie and I twelve years ago, when we were living in New York, and our son was only one year old. And it read: “Dear Mom and Pop, I’m enclosing a check. But I want you to buy [with it] something that Zachary doesn’t need. Use it for something he must, just must have– All my love, Grandma Frieda.”

Friends, in the New Year, may we all live generously with ourselves and with others as they patiently see themselves from one side to the other side in a crisis. May we grow within us a faith that inspires those who will live long after we have passed from this Earth. For what we choose matters. We can choose to bring comfort to those who are afraid or who bear conflict in their homes. We can choose to withhold judgment as our friends and fellow members of the community sort out the challenges they are facing.  But first all of us will have to get up, summon our courage, and walk lovingly with those who feel estranged on a path of compassion and blessing.

Keyn Y’hi’Ratzon. May we live up to such values and fulfill this thoughtful vision. Then our new year will truly be sweet. Amen.