September 17, 2020


9.18.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

It’s hard to be apart at this time of year.  Many of us would be planning menus: who will bring what, and is anyone going to make gefilte fish from scratch?  Elders might be teaching family recipes to younger generations, and at Beit T’Shuvah, we’d be together in the sanctuary listening to the choir and cantor stir our hearts with compassion and hearing (fellow) residents share their stories – really our stories – of coming to truth and t’shuvah.

But this year is different.  Children can’t visit parents because of COVID risks.  We’ll be on Zoom at specific times without the energy of physical proximity.  Residents will be eating together, but not families.

A regular participant in our 6-day-a-week meditations, CoVital, said that she was brought to tears of loneliness for the first time during this pandemic, as she and her sister planned how to have a virtual Rosh HaShanah together.

This might be a lonely time.

And that loneliness might remind us of being in addiction when we skipped the holidays or skipped out on family.

So we say to one another: HOLD ON.  We shout it.  Rabbi Micha’el holds up a sign on Friday nights.  We type into Zoom chats.

In our Torah reading for Shabbat Rosh HaShanah, there is a story of holding on. Hagar and her son Ishmael have been cast out of Abraham’s camp and sent to die in the desert.  When she believes she and Ishmael are about to die of thirst, she leaves Ishmael in one place and sits a bowshot away, crying to herself: “Let me not look on as the child dies” (Genesis 21:16).  Hagar cries.  Ishmael cries out, and an angel answers:

“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.” God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink (Genesis 21:17-19).

At first Hagar does not hold on.  She lets go of Ishmael’s hand, sets him far enough away not to watch or hear him suffer, but not so far that she doesn’t know where he is.  She isolates, and cuts herself off, and cuts her son off from the comfort his mother can provide in what might be his dying moments.  And we can understand her actions.  I remember when my daughter Frankie, only 3 weeks old, needed a minor surgery.  My wife quickly said she didn’t want to hold her because she didn’t want to see her suffer.

And then Hagar hears a voice from outside of her: “hold him by the hand,” but the voice of the angel doesn’t get her to move.  She can’t even open her own eyes.  God opens her eyes, and only then can she move to get the water and hold on to her son.

Many of us have let go when we might have held on.  Some of us run, we hide.  Some of us relapse.  Some of us die.  And as painful as those choices have been, both our own choices and the choices of friends and family, we can understand them.  As a community of recovering addicts and people who love us, we can understand wanting to avoid suffering – mine or someone else’s – through drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping.

We also know that there’s this call from outside of us to open our eyes.  Some of us drown out the call or don’t trust it or think it’s for someone else.  Sometimes then God reaches directly into our lives and forcefully opens our eyes to the water, the nourishment, the help that is right in front of us.

And we thirst for that help.

The High Holy Days acknowledge that thirst, that yearning for an end to suffering, for a better life.  “I cry out from the depths!” we pray throughout the High Holy Days.  Prayers acknowledge that there’s a lot we can’t control and it hurts.  We make so many mistakes, and suffer for them and cause others to suffer for them.  “For all of these sins forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement!”  We are powerless.

And when we accept that powerlessness, we realize we do have some power – over our own actions and choices.  We can choose to hold on to life – just like Hagar got up and got the water and went to hold Ishmael.

Our power is to hold on.

The High Holy Day prayers say this is how we hold on: t’shuvah, tzedakah, and tefilah.

When we

  • do t’shuvah, become a better person each day,
  • give tzedakah, giving what isn’t really mine anyway,
  • pray tefilah, ask for help,

we make meaning of our suffering.  And when we make meaning, we have a reason to keep going, a reason to hold on.

These High Holy Days – during a pandemic, divisive political uncertainty, and even an apocalyptically colored sun – there is a way through our suffering.  It begins with the help right in front of you.

Hold on.

Shabbat Shalom

and A Good and Sweet New Year,

Rabbi Kerry