Rosh Hashanah 2013/5774: The Bridge from Fear to Joy

Kol haOlam kulo gesher tzar me’od
(Our whole entire world is a narrow bridge)

 V’ha’ikar, v’ha’ikar, lo l’fached klal
(And the whole point, and the whole point, is not to fear)

DEM-Glam-Shot1These words come to us from Nachman of Breslov, set to music by Shlomo CarlebachNachman and Shlomo taught that even when our world seems narrow and constricting – tzar, as in the Yiddish tsuris (trouble) – even then, aiming for joy isn’t optional.  Joy isn’t an extra or a detour on the spiritual path: as they put it, joy is “the whole point.”  But the joy they taught isn’t a naïve glee, or mere fun, or escape from daily life: their joy is freedom, feeling the fullness of reality, even the stress and strain of daily life.  Joy can be a homing beacon that issues from our bleak and broken places.

But while seeking this kind of joy can be a challenge anytime, during these Days of Awe, it can seem totally far-fetched.  After all, Rosh Hashanah enhances our sense that life is fragile, that what’s most real may not be what we tend to see and seek most of the year.  This time of year asks us to see habits and fears that distance us from our loved ones, from our highest selves, and even from God – then cross the bridge toward changing them.  This crossing isn’t always easy, and let’s face it: we humans tend not to associate joy with things that are hard.

Rosh Hashanah asks us to see so that we can seek, so we can turn and grow.  Maybe we can find joy in this.  The chance of teshuvah, turning toward one another and our highest selves, invites deep joy – and our community, this “Shul by the Sea,” aspires to be an especially joyful place.  Too many Jews, however, have known Rosh Hashanah as such a serious time – long services, foreboding talk of sin and judgment, endless sermons – that for some, the joy has gone out of it.

So let’s be real about joy.  And being real about joy means also being real about the opposite of joy, what keeps us from joy.  In Rosh Hashanah’s call to teshuvah – coming back to ourselves – the opposite of joy isn’t sadness: it’s fear.  We know this from experience.  Joy opens us and brims with possibility.  Joy uplifts and expands us.  Joy feels like there’s nothing we can’t do, no hurdle or habit we can’t overcome.  Fear is the opposite: fear shuts us down and says we can’t.  Fear freezes us in place.  We feel fear as a constriction in our chest: we feel pushed in and bottled up.  So because the opposite of joy is fear, Nachman and Shlomo come to teach us, “Our whole entire world is a narrow bridge, and the whole point is not to fear.”  The whole point is to learn how to cross the bridge of life with joy.

Of course, these words can be hard to live.  As if we need a reminder, today’s Torah reading offers graphic proof in the story of Hagar and Yishmael.

Hagar had every reason to fear, and no earthly reason for joy.  Hagar was not Abraham’s wife but an ill-treated servant who bore Abraham a son, Yishmael, when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, couldn’t conceive.  After Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak, Hagar and her son were cast into the desert with only bread and water that soon ran out.  Hagar’s son was hot and parched in the desert.  Hagar hid him under a bush that offered little shade.  Hagar retreated to the distance of a hunter’s bowshot and said, “Don’t let me see the child die.”  With her son’s death approaching, Hagar wept; and as a grieving mother, maybe she herself also wanted to die.  And then:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֘ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּ֒עַר֒
God heard the voice of the child,

וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶל־הָגָר֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם
And God’s angel called to Hagar from heaven,

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ
And said to her:

מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר
What’s with you, Hagar?

אַל־תִ֣ירְאִ֔י
Do not fear!

.כִּי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָׁם
For God heard the voice of 
the child exactly where he is.

ק֚וּמִי
Rise up!

שְׂאִ֣י אֶת־הַנַּ֔עַר
Lift up the child!

וְהַחֲזִ֥יקִי אֶת־יָדֵ֖ךְ בּ֑וֹ
Take him firmly by the hand!

.כִּי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ
For I will make him a great nation.

Of all the Torah stories we might read on Rosh Hashanah, a day about joy and transformation, why this story filled with such fear and grief?  Three words offer three clues.  First, in Hebrew, Hagar means “stranger.”  Second, the name of the child, Yishmael, means “one who hears God,” as in Shema: Hear!  Third, a Hebrew word for “sin” is chet, an archery term for a hunter’s bowshot that misses the mark.

With these words for Hagar, Yishmael and the bowshot, let’s re-tell our story.  Hagar, “the stranger,” and her son, Yishmael, “one who hears God,” who came from deep inside her, were cast into the desert.  Yishmael, the one who hears God, grew hot and parched in the direct sun.  The stranger hid the one who hears God under a bush that offered little shade.  The stranger removed herself from the one who hears God to the distance of a hunter’s bowshot – the distance of chet – and said, “Don’t let me see the death of the one who hears God.”  The stranger wept.  And then:

וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֘ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּ֒עַר֒
God heard the one who hears God,

וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶל־הָגָר֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם
And God’s angel called to the stranger from heaven,

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ
And said to her:

מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר
What’s with you, stranger?

אַל־תִ֣ירְאִ֔י
Do not fear!

.כִּי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר .בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָׁם
For God heard the voice of the
 one who hears God where he is.

ק֚וּמִי
Rise up!

שְׂאִ֣י אֶת־הַנַּ֔עַר
Lift up the one who hears God!

וְהַחֲזִ֥יקִי אֶת־יָדֵ֖ךְ בּ֑וֹ
Take him firmly by the hand!

.כִּי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ
For I will make him into greatness.

Each of us has been Hagar, feeling like a stranger from ourselves, our loved ones and God.  Psalm 39 says on Rosh Hashanah, “God!  Hear my cry!  Don’t keep silent at my tears, because I feel like a stranger from You!”  Those could have been Hagar’s words – and they might be ours, too.  But just as we all have been Hagar, Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we also are Yishmael, the one who hears God – the still, small voice deep within.

So our story of Hagar and Yishmael is really a story about us.  Yishmael, one who hears God, got hot in the bright light of truth, and sometimes truth can seem dry like the desert.  When Hagar left Yishmael and retreated a bowshot away, that was chet: the distance that misses the mark, our word for “sin.”  When we retreat from the voice of conscience deep within, our distance from our conscience is chet – sin.  It’s this very distance that estranges us from ourselves, each other and God.

But Hagar’s tears, and our tears, call to the divine.  We aren’t alone, and not even chet can chase God away.  To the contrary, the cry of Hagar calls forth a response from on high: “Mah lach, Hagar?  What’s with you, stranger?  Do not fear, because God hears you and your innermost self.  So rise up!  Lift up your innermost self who hears God, and hold it tight – because from it God will make greatness.”

It can be scary to hear our conscience and not distance ourselves from what we hear.  But conscience has a pesky way of being persistent and direct.  We might hear the call to apologize, ask forgiveness, make amends, keep a promise or change a habit – and sometimes the call can leave us feeling hot and bothered.  Maybe we don’t want to hear.  Maybe the call feels too hard to hear.  Maybe we feel like we tried and failed.  And if we’re deeply honest, we might discover – like Hagar – that we’re afraid.  Just as Hagar hid Yishmael under a bush in the desert, we might try to hide our conscience, but no bush will fully shade its truth.  The light of day will shine on it, and it will refuse to fade.  So maybe we retreat to a distance we think is safe, beyond where its slings and arrows can reach us, but the bowshot’s distance ischet.  The distance from conscience and truth is exactly what we call “sin.”

But precisely from that distant place, from chet, from missing the mark, from the heat and thirst in our lives, Rosh Hashanah calls us to cross the bridge back:

Kol haOlam kulo gesher tzar me’od
(Our whole entire world is a narrow bridge)

Even though our bridge may seem narrow, the point of our journey – the point of our story about Hagar and Yishmael, the point of Nachman and Shlomo’s song, the point of Rosh Hashanah itself – is to cross the bridge anyway.  As Hagar heard, “What’s with you, stranger?  Do not fear!”  Or as Nachman and Shlomo put it,

V’ha’ikar, v’ha’ikar, lo l’fached klal
(And the whole point, and the whole point, is not to fear)

Of course, learning this lesson isn’t a one-time thing.  We need to re-learn it, year after year.  One of the reasons we tell the story of Hagar and Yishmael every Rosh Hashanah is because fear, inertia and feeling like a stranger in our own skin can creep up on us every year.  We make promises that we don’t keep.  We forget what we remembered this time last year.  We lapse into laziness and fatigue.  And we have good reason: life is busy, sometimes life is hard, truth and change can be scary, and we can lose our joy.

So Rosh Hashanah wisely meets us where we are, in our personal realities of fear, distance, imperfection – what’s dry and scary in our lives.  Rosh Hashanah says that they’re all real – there’s no denying them – and also that it’s time to cross the bridge back.  This coming back is teshuvah.  And even if we might not fully succeed, that’s okay.  It’s why we read this story every year.  It’s why we’re called to forgive each other and ourselves, why we need to forgive each other and ourselves.  That, too, is teshuvah.  The chance to try again is one of Judaism’s great gifts, because the promise of another chance can give power and joy.

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