Rosh HaShana, the Great Jewish Hope, and All of Us

September 10, 2018

Here is a d'rash (a sermon) I was pleased to deliver at Beth Messiah Congregation in the DC area. 

I've never heard anyone sing HaTikvah at Rosh Hashana, but I believe it is a most appropriate song for this season.  I am especially drawn to the line which states, "Od lo avda tikvateinu--our hope has not yet perished." Here, in this one line, we find all the possibilities of fulfillment and disappointment to be found in this season.  After all, this is the season when Jews seek spiritual renewal.  And yet, without "tikvah" without "hope," no renewal is possible.

Ze'ev Vlaldimir Jabotinsky, the great Zionist, stated it this way:  "Mi she'ein tikvah b'libo, nidon la-mavet--Whoever has no hope in his heart is doomed to death." This need for hope is well illustrated in the Torah, Haftarah and B'rith Chadasha readings assigned for Rosh HaShana.  Let’s begin with the Torah reading. This one brief chapter of B'reishit, Genesis 21 falls neatly into three sections corresponding to three areas where hope seemed lost, and yet was found.


Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac

The first section describes Abraham and Sarah whom Hashem had promised a son in their very old age.  Theirs was clearly a "hopeless" situation.   After all, Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah, his child bride, was a mere ninety.  The Torah explicitly states that she was past menopause, and that humanly speaking, she and husband Abraham were without child, and beyond hope.

Yet, as our passage opens up they becoming parents to Isaac, whose name means "laughter," as well it should, considering the decrepit condition of Mom and Dad.  Abraham circumcises him on the eighth day, as God had commanded, and when he is weaned, which could happen anywhere from the age of 18 months to five years, we see another rite of passage, Abraham throws a big feast. The boy has reached a significant stage in his life, and now able to eat solid food, he is more likely to survive the rigors of childhood in the ancient world: it is time to celebrate!

But we would lose the message this passage has for us if we simply focus on Father Abraham, Mother Sarah and Baby Isaac.  No, the important thing to note is what is written at the beginning of this account:  "HaShem remembered Sarah as He had said; and HaShem did for Sarah as he had spoken."

You see, without the faithfulness and intervention of G-d, all we have in this story is two people in an impossible situation: old, enfeebled, and childless. What injects hope into this story is the faithfulness of HaShem in carrying out his word to Sarah.Their hope would surely have died, had not the L-rd intervened. They too could have sung this line from HaTikvah, "Od lo avda tikvateinu--our hope has not yet perished"--because they were trusting in HaShem, who kept his promise to them, and right on schedule.

Again, the parasha divides naturally into three sections.  So much for the first section, concerning the birth of Isaac.


Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael

The second section tells about conflict between family members.  This is another kind of "impossible situation" many of us face, as did Abraham and Sarah, our great ancestors. An impossible family situation. Hagar was what some call a "half-wife."  In the Middle East of Abraham's time, when a wife did not produce an heir it was possible and desirable for her to fulfill her procreative obligations by giving her handmaiden to her husband, that the handmaiden might bear him children.

However, this was never a happy solution.  On the one hand the handmaiden and her children would never have the full rights of a wife and children.  On the other hand, the situation created a real possibility of tension, even life-long tension, among the parties involved.  This is what we discover in our reading.

Before Isaac came along, Hagar, Sarah's handmaid bore a son to Abraham. His name was Ishmael.   After Isaac was born, Sarah became increasingly uncomfortable with Hagar, especially since Ishmael had been teasing him, perhaps over the nature of his birth to two aged people or the advanced age of Mommy and Daddy Sarah and Abraham.

Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael. She will no longer tolerate the idea of Ishmael growing up to be a rival heir alongside her precious Isaac.  Abraham is not happy with the idea. He is not only attached to Isaac: he loves Ishmael.

Again, it is HaShem who intervenes, injecting the surprise of hope into this conflicted situation.  Hr urges Abraham to acquiesce to his wife and he promises to bless and look after Hagar and Ishmael, even though it is Isaac who is to be the heir.  And so it happens.

In both this vignette about Hagar and son Ishmael, and the previous one about the birth of Isaac, the text alludes to a covenant.  Isaac is circumcised as a covenant sign, and God covenants to take care of Hagar and her Ishmael, although the blessings covenanted to Abraham will be transmitted through Isaac.


Abraham and Avimelech

The third and final section of this chapter speaks yet a third time of a covenant, this one between Abraham and a local chieftain, Avimelech.  Avimelech comes with the Captain of his Army, Phicol, to make a treaty, a covenant, with Abraham and his descendants, sealing the covenant with an oath at a well, with seven lambs sheep as a gift exchanged between Abraham and Avimelech.  The oath was made at a well, in Hebrew, "Be'er.” Sheva could mean "seven" or "oath" (from the Hebrew word shvu'a). In this case the meaning is probably "oath,” as the ancient Hebrews believed seven to be a lucky number, and the Hebrew "shvu'a" (to take an oath) literally means "to seven oneself.”

In each case in the chapter, we see Abraham our father in a hopeless situation—

• a situation of barrenness, where nothing seems to be happening, and all hope seem lost,
• a situation of family conflict, where there seems no way out of the bitterness and contamination of the social system,
• a situation of political or business conflict.

And in each case, hope prevails, and for only one reason.  As Avimelech says to Abram when he makes a treaty with him:  "elohim im'cha b'chol asher attah oseh--G-d is with you in whatever you do."  It is the Presence of the faithful God that enables the characters in each of these stories to attest, “Od lo avda tikvateinu--our hope is not yet lost.”


Hannah and Samuel

We see the same dynamics illustrated in today’s Haftarah reading.  In the case of Hannah, who lived about a thousand years later than Abraham, the first two of Abraham's conflicts are mirrored precisely.  She too, like Sarah before her, is barren and in her story too, mocking leads to action. And she too bore a son because, as with Sarah, "Vayizkareha HaShem--and the Lord remembered her."  In Hannah’s situation as the three involving Abraham in our Torah reading, it is only the presence and intervention of God that brings hope to our otherwise hopeless and unsolvable situations.

It is fascinating to note how, at the very end of Hannah’s song of praise to the God who has fulfilled her hopes, Hannah makes reference to the ultimate Jewish hope saying, "Yitten oz l'malko v'yareim keren m'shicho--The Lord will give strength to his king and will exalt the horn of His Anointed One [His Messiah]."

For Jews, of course, the Messiah is the ultimate Jewish hope.  Years ago, in my congregation, I had the great Mike Quarry, whose brother Jerry fought Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship. Jerry was known as "the Great White Hope."  And the Messiah could well be called, "the Great Jewish Hope," for he is the one on whom our people have for so long set our hope.


Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus

This Messianic hope appears as well in a related New Covenant reading, toward the end of Luke’s Besorah: These Jewish men who were walking along the road to Emmaus had invested all their hopes in the Messiah.  Like Abraham, like Sarah, like Hannah, when we encounter them, they are in a hopeless situation.    They had hoped that Yeshua of Nazareth was the Messiah through whom Hashem would deliver Israel.  Yet, things had not turned out the way they had expected.  He had not received a warm reception from the Jewish leaders, who indeed had handed him over to the Romans who had executed him just three days earlier.  The ultimate hopeless situation had overtaken them--death.

And now some women had claimed to have encountered angels who said he was alive.  And some of their men had also found the tomb empty. And these fellows on the Emmaus Road just can't figure it all out.  They are emotionally exhausted, and not about to hope again, thank you!

Then Yeshua reveals himself to them, gently reproving them for their slowness to understand that indeed he had pulled off what the prophets had promised all along: he had suffered to fulfill God's plans for his people and now was alive forevermore.

Of course this encounter infused the Emmaus travelers with a hope that burns brightly even today.  You see, for them, as for Abraham, Sarah and Hannah, it was the unmistakable intervention of HaShem in their impossible situation that turned calamity into triumph, and bereavement into hope.


How About You? How About Me? And How About Now?

So, as we begin the Ten Days of Awe, as we enter into this holiest season of our Jewish calendar, the Torah, the Haftarah and B'rith Chadasha readings all ask us the same question and offer us the same solution.

The question: what are your hopeless situations?

• Is your hopeless situation some barren dilemma, like Sarah and Hannah's, where something you have long hoped for doesn’t seem like it will ever materialize?

• Or is it some sort of unsolvable interpersonal even family conflict that is just tearing you apart, as was Abraham's experience with Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael?

• Or perhaps it's some other area of disappointment and confusion where something you cared about has died. where you just can't figure out what's going on anymore, as was the case for the men on the road to Emmaus?

In every case, the answer is the same.  The only reason we can say "Od lo avda tikvatenu--our hope has not yet perished," the only reason we can hope for refreshment and renewal in this or any season, is that Hashem keeps his word and comes to rescue us.

That's how our Torah reading began. . . "HaShem remembered Sarah as he had promised,"

That's how Hannah's situation was turned around, as our text said, "And HaShem remembered her,"

That's how the men on the Road to Emmaus turned from despair to joy as Yeshua showed them how, in his death and resurrection, HaShem was keeping his promises to Moses and the Prophets and to our people.

And that's how we can have hope in this season: we serve a God who keeps his word and who remembers us in our impossible situations.  Therefore we can sing, and sing, and sing again, "Od lo avda tikvateinu--our hope has not yet perished."  In Hashem, and in his Messiah Yeshua, the Great Jewish Hope, HaTikvah lives in our lives. Od lo avda tikvatenu!

Here are four quotes about hope to finalize what we are saying

“We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of His living light.” (A.J. Heschel)

The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof, running down its hallways, touching the  (walls on both sides.(Barbara Kingsolver)

I am not an optimist, because I am not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly. I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is the feeling that life and work have a meaning. You either have it or you don't, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you. Life without hope is an empty, boring, and useless life. I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me. I am thankful to God for this gift. It is as big as life itself.  (Vaclav Havel)

Now, and not only now, but tomorrow, and not only tomorrow but for all the tomorrows yet to come,

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of Ruach HaKodesh - The Holy Spirit.”  (The Apostle Paul)


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