Shanah Tova! This morning, we have read the stories of our ancestors that the ancient rabbis decreed we should read on this day. We read some of the story of Isaac, and as I mentioned last night, we know his story is a difficult one. Sarah believed she couldn’t have children. She shows great faith in her husband’s relationship with God and does all she can to ensure his legacy and the Jewish people’s covenant. She is rewarded with her miracle baby Isaac. Though we know his life is a miracle and that he is the one prophesied to carry on the line of Abraham, we hear that God tells Abraham he must sacrifice Isaac and Abraham seems willing to do so. Thankfully, God interferes just in time, and we learn that the whole thing was a test. Abraham and Isaac show great faith that all will work out however it is meant to in the end. They all face adversity with strength and bravery, and are flexible as the situations shift.
We read the story of Hannah, who, like Sarah, was a beloved but barren wife. Her husband also had children by a secondary wife, but Hannah desperately wanted to have a child of her own. She prays fervently at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, so emphatically that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk. When he sees that she is not and understands the depth of her prayer, he promises her that she too will have her miracle baby. Sure enough, she gives birth to Samuel. Samuel, like Isaac, must be given to God. Thankfully, unlike Isaac, it is not through near-sacrifice, but rather to serve God with life-long service. Again, though the challenges our heroes may not be experiences we’ve had, or their choices may not have been ours, we can see and learn from these stories, the way in which they were willing to pray and face difficulties with utmost faith in God.
Another passage of our Tanakh that is traditionally read during Rosh HaShanah is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Though we won’t read it directly here at Ner Shalom, we can learn from that too. Jeremiah lived and wrote after the northern Israelite Kingdom of Samaria had been destroyed by the Assyrians and he saw that the Babylonians were coming to finish off the Israelites in the southern kingdom. He warned people that the Babylonians were coming because the Israelites had strayed from God, were worshipping idols, and were being unkind to one another. The Temple was being used to carry out business transactions among the wealthy and ruling classes while the poor, the orphan, and the widow, remained cold and hungry in the streets of the holy city. If the people continue to look away from God, Jeremiah warns, God will look away from the people.
Although this doesn’t come to pass in Jeremiah’s lifetime, he continues to prophesy beyond that and predicts what will come after the exile into Babylonia. He foresees that there will be those among the people of Israel who will stay strong and brave and survive the Babylonian attacks and oppression. These survivors will see the errors of their ways, will heed the warnings of Jeremiah. It will be too late for them to avoid the Babylonians or exile, but it is never, ever too late for Teshuvah. God will hear their prayers, their apologies, and God promises to lead the people back to the Holy Land. Jeremiah tells the people that God has appeared to him and reminded him of the “Everlasting Love,” Ahavat Olam, that God has for the people of Israel. He assures them that if they truly repent, even if it comes too late to avoid the destruction coming for them now, they will still be forgiven, and will surely one day replant the gardens of Samaria and the fields of the Judean hills.
God hears the cries of the oppressed, even if they themselves are not free of sin. God hears the weeping of those who know they’ve done wrong and want to make it right. God hears those who yearn to make the world a better place. A famous line comes from this haftarah which tugs at my heartstrings every time I read it. Jeremiah 31:14 says, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children, because they are not.” Rachel is the matriarch of the exiles because she is the only one of the Matriachs and Patriarchs not buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah at Machpelah. Rachel, like Sarah and Hannah, was the favored wife but had difficulty having children. After her own fervent praying, she gave birth to Joseph, whose story I’m sure you know. We are not told if there is more praying or how she gets pregnant the second time, but we are told she dies while trying to give birth to Benjamin. Jacob gives her a hasty burial at their encampment near Beer-Sheva and continues on his way. She is separated, left to haunt the roadway between the land of Israel and the East, crying for her children. Her weeping is silenced by God, through Jeremiah’s promise to the sinful people of Israel: your emotional labor will be rewarded. After true teshuvah, the children of Israel, Rachel’s lost babies, will be spared destruction and they will follow her callings home.
Jeremiah’s message is clear: there is always hope. There is no sin too great for God to forgive, it is never too late to turn back. In the wake of recent events, I’ve been hearing more and more about the former white supremacists who have seen the error of their ways and now make it their purpose in life to reach out to young white men at risk of being sucked into neo-Nazi groups. For some of these men (and they seem to all be men, since racist and sexist ideologies often go hand in hand), they found their ways out of the cult-like communities of white nationalists by finally meeting a Jewish person or person of color and seeing that people who seem different in some ways are really still just people, similar to themselves in so many other ways. To be the Jewish person or person of color (or someone is both) that takes on educating someone convinced to hate you requires an immense amount of emotional labor and could even be physically dangerous. I wholeheartedly commend those who have done that to start this wave of reformed white nationalists, but I also recognize the greater importance of the reformed white nationalists carrying on the work. They can reach the key demographic much more easily and safely and make the important connections that allow someone doing this sort of soul searching to meet us safely. In doing this kind of work, they are doing real teshuvah, and truly making amends for their pasts. No matter what hate they’ve spread already, in turning away from it now, I truly believe they can help undo some of that damage. In helping others undo it, they are showing us they are worthy of our forgiveness and our help, and I’m certain that God will inscribe them in the Book of Life this year.
Whatever guilt you carry in your heart now, let it go. Have hope in a brighter future. Know that there is no sin too great, no time too far past to apologize, repent, and turn toward goodness. This new year, have faith in your own strength to face the difficult situations that true teshuvah requires. Know that God wants you to be dedicated to righteousness, whatever it takes to get yourself there. Follow the callings of Rachel, believe in the promise of Jeremiah, and take to heart the resilience modeled for us by our ancestors. I’m certain you, too, will find your way home and be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.