One of the loveliest aspects of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the concept of forgiveness, the notion that if we are sincere in our commitment to make atonement for past sins and try to improve our ways, God will, in effect, wipe our slate clean at the outset of the new Jewish year.
But too often, despite our best efforts, human nature intervenes and we are back to our old ways before we know it.
That’s why one particular, and often neglected, passage of the Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah resonates with me. Most of the attention and sermonizing, naturally, is on the day’s main narrative, that of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. But the reading ends with the story of Abraham making a pact with Abimelech, the leader of the Philistines.
Abraham offers sheep and oxen to Abimelech and they name the spot Beersheba, which translates “they swore an oath there.” Then, Abimelech departs and returns to the land of the Philistines, who were known for their violent ways.
And Abraham? The Torah tells us he “planted a tamarisk [tree] at Beersheba and invoked there the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines a long time.”
The different responses of Abimelech and Abraham speak volumes. Both men have just come together to make a solemn agreement, just as we come to the synagogue on Rosh HaShanah to make an inner pact, pledging to better ourselves. But afterward, Abimelech returns to the Philistines. In other words, he returns to his old habits.
Abraham, on the other hand, puts down roots, planting a tamarisk, and invoking God’s name. That’s why he is able to live in the land of the Philistines and yet remain a righteous person. Despite his surroundings, he is ever aware of God’s presence in his life and is committed to establishing a permanence, symbolized by the planting, that can be passed on to the next generation.
Perhaps that is why God blessed him and Sarah with a son, Isaac, who will ensure the survival of the Jewish people to this very day.
This same chapter of Genesis, read each year on Rosh HaShanah, takes on added significance in that it also makes reference to Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, destined to become the progenitor of the Arab world.
After the birth of Isaac, we read how Abraham sends away his concubine, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael. Mother and child wander in the desert, out of water, and seem destined to die. Suddenly, “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.’” The angel then promises to make a great nation of Ishmael, which of course is the Arab nation.
One traditional explanation for why this passage is read on Rosh HaShanah is that it shows the depths of God’s forgiveness, a message of hope to us all. The key phrase here is that God heeded the cry of the boy “where he is.”
Since we are taught that the Torah does not use extra words, we could well ask why the phrase is necessary. After all, the text would make sense by simply saying that God heeded the cry of the boy.
But our rabbis point out that despite the fact that Ishmael would grow up to be a hunter and destined to lead a life of violent acts, God did not take that into account at the time. Rather, the boy’s cries at the moment of pleading were sincere, and that was enough to evoke God’s compassion. That’s why the Torah notes that God responded to the boy “where he is.” And the message is clear to us as well — if our prayers are heartfelt, they can be heard on high “where we are” and answered favorably.
A final thought. The sentiments above were written 20 years ago, in the days before Rosh HaShanah and on the eve of The Handshake on the White House Lawn between Yasir Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin, seemingly heralding the path to a resolution of the long and bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Amidst the deep skepticism at that time on entering a pact with the world’s leading terrorist, there was also a sense of hopefulness for many Israelis, and Jews here, bolstered by the belief that Rabin, the flinty former defense minister, was an analytical, grounded leader, not about to jeopardize Israeli security.
I closed the column by wondering if Arafat could be seen not for his past bloody deeds but in the present, for “where he is,” or appeared to be, at a moment fraught with smiles, handshakes and pledges and promises of peace. Could he be trusted? I asked.
We all know the answer. Two decades later we look back on those dark times of suicide bombers, two intifadas, untold tragedy and countless reasons to conclude that Jews and Arabs are fated to forever fight over Abraham’s birthright.
Yet now — and yes, again — haltingly, and skeptically if not cynically, we find ourselves on the verge of another round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The leaders have changed but the bitterness and distrust have not. Only God knows if there is honesty in the hearts of Palestinian leaders, though officials in Jerusalem will have to make that determination for themselves in protecting the state, land and people of Israel.
All of us, though, can internalize the message in our own lives as we begin a new year, planting today for tomorrow, as Abraham did, and opening our hearts, asking heaven to judge our prayers “where we are.”
Gary@jewishweek.org; This column is a revised and updated version of one published Sept. 9, 1993.