The Jerusalem Post

Rosh Hashanah: Expanding who we are

‘DOROTHY, YOU always had the power.’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ 1939. (photo credit: Insomnia Cured Here/Flickr)
‘DOROTHY, YOU always had the power.’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ 1939.
(photo credit: Insomnia Cured Here/Flickr)

One of the most compelling aspects of the Torah is that its individuals, even our great role models, are presented not as perfect saints but as complex, at times even contradictory, people.

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah offers several important insights, lessons, and messages to help us with our High Holy Days’ work. Truth be told, this work is our year-long task – intensified during these 10 days.

In the words of Rabbi Maz Artz, this time period can “serve us as a reminder that only by resolute will and severe self-discipline can we hope to lessen the distance between what we are and what we ought to be.”

We begin by reading: “The Lord took note of Sarah as God had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as God had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac” (Gen. 21:1-3).

We find two messages in these open words. The first goes to the heart of this holiday season – we hope to be heard; not only by God, but by those with whom we come in contact. Our task is to live a life committed to others, hence our prayers and our concerns are in the plural, and we hope our efforts receive the echo of response and acknowledgment. Accordingly, we hope our lives matter to others – experienced as a two-way street.


The other lesson found in these sentences is contained within the name Isaac, meaning “will laugh.” Rabbi Everett Gender pointed out that laughter is a very important human quality. Humor and joy are critical aspects of living a whole and healthy life. The hassidic masters talk about how essential the cultivation of joy is for our lives. These opening sentences remind us, at the start of this new year, of those qualities we need to develop, to benefit ourselves and others.

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

In the midst of this Torah reading, we are also forced to confront one of the more difficult passages within the Torah. The expulsion of Hagar and her teenage son, Ishmael, by Abraham, at the insistence of Sarah: “God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘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.’

“Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman” (Gen. 21:17-20).

The imperfections of our role models and ourselves

One of the most compelling aspects of the Torah is that its individuals, even our great role models, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Abraham, Sarah, and many others, are presented not as perfect saints but as complex, at times even contradictory, people. This time of the year, as we confront our own shortcomings, we are reminded that imperfection lies in all of us.

In Hebrew, het (sin) means “to miss the mark.”


Our internal work to improve ourselves, to get closer to the target, can sometimes cause us to be too hard on ourselves, and we can feel overwhelmed, as was Hagar, although she was overcome for external reasons. But in those moments of despair, we sometimes learn that what we are looking for lies right before us – like the water, life, which was right in front of Hagar.

A similar lesson is given to Dorothy by the Wizard of Oz: “You always had the power – everything you were looking for was right there with you all along!”

IN THE penultimate sentence of the Torah reading, we learn that “[Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Beersheba, and invoked there the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33).

This sentence may seem unremarkable, but it informs us of a very important aspect about Abraham. He had a keen sense of how his environment worked. The eshel tree (tamarisk) can grow in saline soil. Not only that, but its needles are able to absorb the salt, causing them to turn brown and fall to the ground. In turn, those needles create a blanket around the base of the tree, forming a layer of mulch, making it more difficult for other trees and plants to grow nearby. Thus the tamarisk tree has less competition for the very scarce desert water.

Moreover, as Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies points out: “The tamarisk has a thick mass of branches which create a shade that is cooler than other desert trees. In addition, it has thick roots that loosen the soil, making it easier for other animals to burrow there. It is also a good place for birds and bats to build homes. Finally, honeydew is formed on the flowers by insects that can be used by us as a natural sweetener.”

 Having just completed the year 5783, the hottest in recent history, we learn from Abraham the importance of knowing how our local environment operates. As we enter this new year, it is incumbent upon all of us to better understand and appreciate how God’s given environment works if we are to have any chance to mitigate the damage we have done, as a species, to this shared home of ours.

Water, as we are reminded in the passage above, is essential for life. One way we can become more sensitive and aware of the water in our lives is to add the watershed in which we live to our mailing address. In Manchester Center of the lush Green Mountain State of Vermont, it would be the Battenkill Watershed, while for those on Kibbutz Ketura in the desert of the southern Arava valley, it would be the Shalav Watershed.

This small addition to our addresses will broaden our outlook, awareness, orientation, and sense of place for the new year. ■

The writer is a Reconstructionist rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.