D’Var Torah by Rabbi Aaron Philmus
May we all be inscribed in the book of life for a good and sweet year.
I want to begin by thanking all of you for welcoming me and my family into your kehillah kedosha your holy community and for inviting us to become part of your story.
My wife Valerie and I have three children Sophie is 16, Aeden is almost 14 and little Mae or as the bubbies call her “the bonus baby” is 4.
It is so exciting to enter this new year with all of you at a time in the shul’s history when it really feels like something big and important is being born.
And Rosh Hashanah is all about birthing –
It is the only major Jewish festival that occurs at the waxing sliver of the new moon (and not the full moon).
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam often translated as the birthday of the world
But if we look closer at the Hebrew,
Harat Olam actually means
the conceiving and the gestating of the new year (what happens before birth)
Suggesting that on this day we are like a fetus in the womb of the year about to be born.
So if Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creating of the world and humanity, then wouldn’t it make sense for us to read the first chapter of the Torah today?
You know the very beginning,
Why is it that on Rosh Hashanah we are reading instead about the birth of Isaac,
and the family drama of our patriarchs and matriarchs?
Perhaps the rabbis are reminding us that if we humans really want to understand the meaning and purpose of our creation
instead of studying cosmology and the big bang, we need to think about the birth of a child
the way people grow and learn from their mistakes.
And the fact that we are all interconnected
Perhaps we are reading about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their family drama today to teach us that in order to repair our relationship with God we need to work on healing our relationships with God’s avatars in the world- people…
especially our family
and our extended family (our community).
Our sages teach that the world was created because God was lonely and wanted to be known through the eyes of another
So G!d created the illusion of separation and disconnection
So that when we reach out beyond ourselves to connect with another we will remember the hidden truth that we are not isolated but we are part of the greater collective of Imeinu Sh’bAretz, this great living mother earth.
2,000 years ago Rabbi Akiva the most influential figure in the Mishnah, said that the most all-encompassing principle of the Torah is found in Deuteronomy Dvarim, the last book of the Torah
“v’Ahavtah Le’re’echa kmocha – Love others as you love yourself”
But Ben `Azai disagreed and instead quoted the first chapter of the Torah, “God made human beings Btzelem Elohim – in God’s image”
This! said Ben Azai is an even greater principle than “Love others as you love yourself.” because from ‘Love others as you love yourself’ one could reason “If I do not feel love for myself, why or how am I supposed to love others?”
Yet if I can see every person as a manifestation of G-d, a unique outer expression of G-ds inner self, then each person becomes invaluable, each person becomes a whole world unto themselves.
In our Torah reading today we read the sad story of how Abraham and Sarah and Hagar forgot this most fundamental principle of the Torah – btzelem Elohim. That everyone is created in the image of the Divine.
When Sarah was unable to bear children, she asked Abraham to have her Egyptian maidservant Hagar act as a surrogate mother so that Sarah could have a child through her.
However, once Hagar conceived with Abraham and became pregnant she came to despise her boss Sarah, and stopped following her orders.
When Sarah came to Abraham asking him to step in and help out, he was too afraid to confront Hagar.
“You go deal with her, she’s your maidservant. Do what you will.” he said.
In deciding not to intervene, Avraham was giving Sarah the green light to unleash her jealousy and rage on Hagar, who was soon to be the mother of his only child.
Sarah put Hagar through the most exhausting and humiliating work possible.
It was so bad that Hagar ran away from home.
But Hagar had no place to go and in a vision God promised her that things would be okay, so she returned home and gave birth to Ishmael.
Several years later, Avraham and Sarah miraculously conceived a child in their old age, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
As Isaac grew up and began playing with his older step-brother Ishmael, Sarah started to worry that Ishmael would be a bad influence on him and jeopardize the great future promised to their offspring.
So she told Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the house for good.
At first Abraham protested, but God confirmed to him that Sarah was right.
In order for Isaac to become the true heir of the nation of Israel, Hagar and Ishmael had to go their own way – and the children of Ishmael would go on to become the nation of Islam.
Abraham woke up early in the morning and kicked them out with nothing more than a loaf of bread and a skin of water.
Sending them off into the harsh desert with almost no rations was basically a death sentence.
And we thought OUR families were dysfunctional!
But seriously, it is really disturbing that this is how our foremothers and forefathers behaved.
How did they come to be our greatest Jewish role models?
Or could it be that their struggles make them even more fit to be role models?
At first it may seem more impressive for them to be flawless like angels, but wouldn’t you rather have heroes who are real people who make mistakes?
Doesn’t that make them more relatable?
Maybe we can actually learn more from people who make mistakes.
Perhaps our great ability as Jews to be self-critical comes from the fact that our role-models themselves were so flawed?
As we hear such painful family dramas unfold in the Torah reading today it touches deeply upon our own relationships,
how we take care of one another and yet also sometimes hurt the ones we love?
The first thing the rabbis teach about Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah, the ancient oral tradition, is that on this day all who have come into the world pass before God.
If not on any other day of the year, this is the day that we cultivate a feeling that somehow our personal family stories and dramas are a kind of living Torah that is being written, read, and judged with Divine compassion.
We are to feel that somehow we are like Avraham and Sarah in that God sees us for who we truly are, faults and all.
Rabbi Ibn Pekuda taught, “Your days are like scrolls. Write on them only what you would like to have remembered.”
One of the four names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron- the day of remembering, to remind us that all of our actions are written and remembered in the book of our lives.
All of our actions are recorded in the affects and impressions they leave on the people and the world around us.
Even in our bodies where we attempt to bury our pain and our fears in ways that can wreak havok on our health.
Even those in-between moments when we thought no one was watching.
every once-in a while that motorist who we impatiently cut off
or that beautiful person we stared at just a little too long
catches our eye and we freeze – we see ourselves in their gaze,
our rage and our lust.
And we don’t like what we see.
The former Rabbi of a shul I worked at in San Francisco,
Rabbi Alan Lew- of blessed memory said,
“you know that the ones who fully record our lives with an unflinching precision are the members of our family.
This is a tape that never stops rolling.
We may look beautiful, positive, and successful in that snapshot that we post to the world out there
but when we come home and take out our frustrations on our parents, our spouses, our children,
the tape is still running,
and that is the tape that counts the most. Because our behavior is stored forever in their hearts.
who watch and absorb our actions like permanent ink on the scrolls of their hearts
It’s not what we lecture to them about life that gets recorded but it’s how we treat others, especially our family
All the GOOD things, all of the acts of unconditional love we do for them that build their self worth and capacity to trust and open up to others,
And all of the bad things too, the insensitive and hurtful acts are passed down from one generation to the next.
We can see it in the children and grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah
Who manage to carry the family traditions and values forward for better and for worse
We see that Isaac and Rebecca continue to have the same problems that there parents had
Not a single word is spoken between Isaac and his wife Rebecca about how they want to divide up their inheritance for their children Jacob and Esau.
Instead Rebecca convinces her son Jacob to lie and trick Isaac into giving the bulk of the inheritance to him instead of Esau.
After that incident the brothers don’t see each other for over twenty years!
And then Jacob never speaks up to his father-in-law about how angry he is that he tricked him and took advantage of him for twenty years.
And of course we can still see these stories playing themselves out in our lives and the lives of people we know today.
In order to heal and break the cycle of fear and abuse we need to look beyond the symptoms and go to the root cause
What is it that feeds the forces of evil and destruction in the world ?
In our first glance at today’s Torah reading it is really hard to make sense of what happened
Abraham and Sarah are legendary for having incredible kindness and hospitality.
it is said that they were so happy to feed and take care of random guests, that their tent was completely open on all sides!
Even if it was time for them to split up, how could they bring themselves to treat Hagar and Ishmael, their own family, like such garbage?
Yet, if we dig a little deeper we can see some very subtle clues of the emotional distance that led to their breakdown in communication and enabled them to hurt each other like they did.
Nowhere in the story do Sarah and Abraham ever speak directly to Hagar and Ishmael about the conflicts that arise
There was no attempt to resolve the situation in a more respectful and less damaging way.
And most tellingly, is the fact that every time Abraham and Sarah met to discuss their problems, they never called Hagar and Ishmael by their real names
It was always “my maidservent,” “your maidservant” “the maidservent’s son” or simply “the boy.”
As we prepare to enter the new year, these stories compel us to look back at our own life story in the past year
and consider how often we didn’t really see the people in our lives because we were so busy looking at ourselves.
How we allowed ourselves to become so distant that at times we saw them as objects to get out our frustrations out on, or obstacles standing in our way.
And at that point we were cut off from God’s Heartbeat- God’s love,
Because real love is not about just seeing ourselves, real love is about seeing each other.
But it is so difficult to keep seeing the other, particularly in a marriage.
We get distracted. We get lonely and self absorbed.
There was this great movie which won all kinds of awards that came out a bunch of years ago called “The Kids are Alright.”
It’s about a marriage between two women, and their two teenage children. There are many complications and marital problems. And Jules, the woman played by Julianne Moore, says to her children (leaving out the R-rated words),
“I need to say something. It’s no big secret your mom and I are in hell right now, and… Bottom line is, marriage is hard. Its really really hard. Just two people slogging through the muck, year after year, getting older, changing. Its a marathon, okay? So, sometimes, you know, you’re together so long, that you just… You stop seeing the other person. You just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices, which is what I did. And I feel sick about it because I love you guys, and I love your mom, and that’s the truth. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most. I don’t know why… I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually.”
There you have it. Whether it is a gay or a straight marriage, or any long term relationship, after a while a couple stops seeing each other.
They see themselves, they are looking through the distorted lens of their own junk.
This problem of course also happens between parents and children, siblings, and friends.
Sometimes we become so blind and distant that the very existence of the relationship itself is threatened.
We hope it never comes to this, but these kinds of wake up calls can trigger what the sages of the Talmud called – Teshuvah MeYirah
Repentance out of fear
Fear of loss can be a powerful motivator,
But What if “repentance” wasn’t really about feeling guilty or terrible, sorry or afraid?
what if it was really about coming back to who you were supposed to be all along–and doing the repair work needed to get there?
Our rabbis teach that Tshuvah me’ahavah – repentance stirred by love has even more power to heal us and help us remain healed, then repentance out of fear.
This is the deeper meaning of why we dip apples in honey
The apple skin is red, dry, and tart – this represents judgment and fear.
But we smother it with sweet honey that sticks to the apple representing chesed love and kindness
In eating them together we pray that the pain, fear, and judgment of the past will be touched and sweetened by the love and compassion we douse it with in the present.
When we turn from love to heal our relationships and not out of fear, we have the power to transform our mistakes into a force for good.
In the Talmud Reish Lakish said, “Great is the power of teshuvah, (returning) for a person’s intentional sins become like unintentional sins!” (Yoma 86b)
But in another place Reish Lakish says something even more startling: that teshuvah can transform a person’s intentional sins into merits!”
The sages explain that there is no contradiction between these two statements.
The first case (intentional sins becoming unintentional sins) refers to teshuvah meyirah – returning out of fear,
the second statement (where sins become like merits) is when we return out of love.
Sometimes our relationships become so entangled that we become like a useless rope, all caught up in knots.
When this happens we have to cut away the mess and repair the cord that connects us to each other.
If we think of ourselves as standing at one end of the rope and our loved ones at the other
Then after the mess is cut away and the rope tied together again, the repaired rope actually brings us closer than we might have been had we never severed the connection in the first place.
Such is the power of teshuvah meAhavah – repentance stirred by love.
During these ten days we are given the time and an extra measure of courage and strength
to shine the light of awareness onto our wounds so that we can see them clearly and begin the work of tikkun – the sacred work of fixing and healing.
We may sometimes worry that traumas from our past have left us irrevocably damaged and that there is no hope for healing.
But neurological research shows that our brains are in a constant state of change and plasticity.
When we become more aware of our own issues and how we project them onto others we are less likely to keep unconsciously hurting the ones we love.
Life is short, and we’ve only got ten days until Yom Kippur
Why not take a moment right now to close your eyes and think about a person in your lives for whom it would be a mitzvah to have a meaningful conversation with. Imagine what their face will look when you see that they too have been hoping for an opportunity to reconnect.
You don’t have to know how it’s all going to work yet, all you need to do is begin the conversation from a place of love and have faith that you will figure it out together.
Dr. Robert Waldinger co-author of The Good Life: Lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness reports that the strongest predictors of who stayed not just happy but who was healthy as they went through life were the warmth and quality of their relationships. We get little hits of wellbeing from having positive interactions and bonding with the people in our lives.
When something stressful happens and my body gets all revved up, if I have somebody who is a good listener that I can go home to or call on the phone, I can literally feel my body come down back to baseline, if I can talk to somebody about it.
Perhaps that is why in Mishnah Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia gives his most essential wisdom for a good life:
“עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב Make for yourself a Rabbi (that’s an important one!),
וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר and acquire for yourself a friend (even more important),
וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת and judge every person favorably (perhaps the most important one of all).
We can start the year off right by prioritizing time with family, friends, and community just as we would for exercise or any other thing that helps us live longer healthier lives.
We might think that our good friends and family will be with us forever, so no need to do anything to keep those relationships healthy but just like our bodies will wither away without exercise, we also need to prioritize our social fitness. What they found in these decades long studies on happiness, was that there were people who never thought they would have good relationships, and then found a whole collection of good close friends in their 60’s or 70’s. There were people who found romance for the first time in their 80’s! It is scientifically proven that it is never too late to find friendship, love, and intimacy.
Husbands and wives – remember that moment when you realized that you were soul-mates and you wanted to spend rest of your lives together?
That feeling in your body of peace when you couldn’t stop smiling – and every time they walked in, the room lit up?
It’s finally time to turn our gaze away from the endless distractions and back into the glowing eyes of our beloved, to remember that love can continue to blossom and grow new fruits in every stage of life as long as we are willing to turn to them from love, to do teshuvah me’ahavah.
Children and teenagers- can you remember how you saw your parents when you were really little and they were your heroes·? Remember how awesome you felt riding on their shoulders?
Remember how specially loved you felt when you got sick or hurt and they knew just how to take care of you?
Remember coming home from a long car trip late at night in your pajamas and when the car pulled into the driveway you pretended you were still asleep because you wanted them to pick you up ever so gently and carry you to bed?
Old friends, remember when you felt like they got you better than anyone else in the whole world, how you could really just be yourself with them and laugh at the absurdity of it all?
All that love from the beginning… It’s still here, and it always will be
All we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to really see the people in our lives
Not who we think they should be, not the junk that we’re projecting onto them.
We CAN break down the barriers to communication today.
Start by doing something fun together that you both enjoy.
Go to a game, ride bikes – cook together – go apple picking, or go for a hike in the woods – Light shabbat candles and have shabbat dinner together.
In doing this work you are not only healing your relationship in the present, but you’re also helping the future generations downstream,
and you’re even redeeming the souls of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents upstream
because you’re healing the inner wounds and conflicts that were bestowed upon you and transforming them into a force for good.
This is the power of teshuvah me’ahavah – repentance stirred by love.
My Rosh Hashanah Prayer, is that over the next ten days, the Holy One will grant us the courage, the strength, and the love to really see the people in our lives and love them for who they are.
We are taught that no human can look directly into the face of God, not even Moses.
But when we see through to the soul of someone we love,
we are seeing the light of the face of G!d!
Shabbat Shalom and L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’techatemu.
May you be signed sealed and delivered for a year filled with sweetness, health and lots of love!
And now one more short story from the Talmud that reminds us of what is truly most precious in our lives.
In the tumultuous years after the Romans had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, a Jewish couple in the city of Zidon was not blessed with children. They loved each other dearly and tried to bring brightness into their lives, but the crushing emptiness of their home proved unbearable. Back then they had no IVF and I guess adoption was not the preferred option.
So after 10 years of waiting, they came before the great sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, asking to be granted a divorce,
Hearing their tale of woe, the rabbi replied thoughtfully: “Just as your union began with feasting and drinking, let your parting of ways be similarly celebrated.”
With mixed emotions, the pious couple dutifully prepared a feast for the last day of their marriage.
At the meal, the wise woman poured cup after cup of wine for her husband. As his mood gradually lifted, he said to her: “My dear, look around our house. Is there any precious item here that you would like? Please choose a keepsake and take it with you to your father’s home, where you will once again be living.”
The wife bided her time until her husband fell into a deep sleep. “Quick,” she told her servants, “load him onto a bed and carry him to my father’s home!”
At midnight, after the alcohol had worn off, the husband woke up from his stupor. “Where am I?” he called out in the darkness.
“You are in my father’s house,” replied his wife.
“What am I doing here?!”
“Did I not do exactly what you told me?” said she. “You instructed me to take the most precious thing from your house back with me to my parents’ home, and there is nothing in the world more precious than you.”
Realizing that they were meant to be together, the couple once again approached Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who prayed for them, and Like Abraham and Sarah a year later they were miraculously blessed with children.
The Talmud concludes this story by comparing it to our relationship with G-d.
If one mortal says to the other mortal, “I want nothing else other than you,” and as a result they are blessed with miraculous blessings, how much more so when a person turns to G-d and says, “I desire nothing in this world more than you G-d,” they will surely be blessed with miraculous good fortune.
May we all have a chance to remember what is most precious to us in our lives and make time to repair and strengthen those relationships with our loved ones and with G-d
And in doing so may it bring us miraculous good fortune in the year ahead
L’Shana Tovah Tikatevu v’techatemu
May we all be inscribed for a year of good health, more good deeds, and a big vat full of honey to remind us of what is most important and precious in our lives.