Rosh Hashanah is the day we are remembered in heaven, as God remembers Sarah in today’s Torah Portion. Chayim Nahman Bialik, a 19th century poet, says, “Before God there are yet other languages than those of words: melody, weeping, and laughter. They are the possession of all who are alive …. They are the manifestations of the very deep levels of our being.” Sarah communicates with God in laughter. She laughs when she overhears that prophesy that she will have a baby, and when Isaac is born she says, “God has brought me laughter.” Hagar and Ishmael communicate in weeping and silent cries. The Torah says that Hagar burst into tears, and follows with “And God heard the cry of the boy,” but we never read that the boy cried as well. Thus, says Rabbi Mendel of Vorki, a Hasidic master, “We learn that God can hear the silent cries of the anguished heart, even when no words are uttered.”
On the chapter about Rosh Hashanah in his book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew writes: “On Rosh Hashanah, the gates between heaven and earth are opened, and things that were beyond us suddenly become possible. The deepest questions of our heart begin to find answers. Our deepest fear, that gaping emptiness up ahead of us and back behind us as well, suddenly becomes our ally. Heaven begins to help us.”
Heaven helps even if we don’t know how to articulate the ask. Heaven hears each voice in the multitudes reciting the Rosh Hashanah. Heaven may be God, the Unnamed Power of the Universe, or your own intuition and instinct. Whatever Heaven is, Heaven hears you in whatever language you are using. Heaven understands your laughter and your weeping, your praying and you singing, your speech and your silent meditations. But when Heaven gives you an answer, are you listening? Are you ready to make the changes necessary to move forward, to adopt a High Holy Day attitude for the whole year?
In our Torah portion, Sarah behaves pretty shamefully. She makes unfair demands on Abraham and casts out innocent people, nearly condemning a helpless child to death. It is hard to reconcile that this woman we consider our matriarch, a woman who communicates with God in laughter, could be so petty and jealous and afraid of a child. But we also know that it is important to the narrative. We know that God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael as well and provides for them. We know that God reassures Abraham that listening to Sarah is the right thing to do and that all of Abraham’s children will be cared for. Can we give ourselves that reassurance? In the absence of direct conversation with God such as the Biblical characters have, can we still open our hearts to hear the messages of forgiveness and reassurances that we are doing the right thing?
Lew also said in his Rosh Hashanah chapter, “What would happen if every time we did something we disapproved of, we opened our heart to heaven? What would happen if every time we felt an impulse we didn’t like we acknowledged its Divine origin?” What would happen if we acted with the decisiveness of Sarah, even if we didn’t know that our actions were the right decision? What would happen if we rolled with the punches like Abraham and tried to keep peace with our friends and family and neighbors, no matter what crazy thing they ask of us?
I’m not advocating we go around giving in to the base instincts of ourselves or others. I am not saying that it is okay to cut people from your life because they seem suspicious to you, nor that you shouldn’t reprimand friends and family who behave harmfully. Of course, use your common sense and act in accordance with your own conscience. But, know that you will mess up sometimes, and that’s okay. Know that you don’t need to deliberate over every option because whatever you end up doing is right for you for that moment. Even when it’s wrong, it will give you an opportunity to learn a lesson, to accept your own humanity, to know how to do better next time. If we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, than even our flaws and faults are reflective of God.
“The real work we have to do at this time of year,” Alan Lew postulates, “is to find compassion no matter what. But we have to find it for ourselves before we can be of much use to others. The real work is to look at who we really are, and to contemplate Who made us that way.” We have to be willing to live with the choices we make, including the ones we wish we’d made differently. We have to be willing to learn from those we wish we made differently and actively work toward making different decisions in the future. We have to be willing to accept that we won’t always do right, but we can always do our best. We have to be willing to be honest with ourselves so that we can hear our own laughter and weeping, singing and prayer, speech and silent meditation.
And when we are ready to achieve that self-compassion and that self-awareness, may we find ourselves able to behave year round in accordance with our Rosh Hashanah souls. Amen.