Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ishmael and Isaac: Rosh Hashanah 5775

Drasha Diamond Number 7: In recent months*, Abq Jew has highlighted exceptional drashot that he felt deserved to be brought to the attention of a wider audience.

And Abq Jew invited any and all of the reported 24 ordained rabbis who currently reside in the Land of Enchantment to join in the fun. Today, we turn again to Rabbi Arthur Flicker of Congregation B'nai Israel of Albuquerque.

This drasha - another jewel - deals with the problems presented by the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It is reprinted here by permission. Rabbi Flicker's got the copyright; all rights reserved.

Drasha Diamond Number 7
Rosh Hashanah 5775, First Day

Rabbi Arthur Flicker
Congregation B'nai Israel

Ishmael and Isaac

One of the challenges of the High Holy Days is our first day Torah reading. It is not that it isn’t an interesting reading, from which many lessons can arise, rather it is the fact that the reading tomorrow seems to be so much more powerful and meaningful for the High Holy Days.

Tomorrow, we will read the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac.

It is a powerful story of love and devotion to God. It is a powerful story of the challenges related to following the commands of God. And the end of the story, when Abraham sees a ram and sacrifices it instead of his son, offers us one of the reasons for the Shofar which is such an integral part of our High Holy Days.

It is such a wonderful Rosh Hashanah reading that the Reform Movement reads THAT reading on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah rather than the story we read.

So, why should we read about Hagar today, and not read about the Akedah until tomorrow? There are many more people here today than there will be tomorrow. Why not read the more powerful story today and save Hagar and Ishmael for tomorrow?

While there are many reasons for reading the story of Hagar today, one powerful one comes from the desire of the rabbis to answer some of the questions that many of us contemplate as we begin these High Holy Days.

Our liturgical text will refer to God in several ways during these High Holy Days. The text will refer to God as King. The text will refer to God as Judge. Using these themes for God, the liturgy suggests to us that we should stand in prayer and confession as if we were face to face with God – God the King and God the Judge.

It is certainly a scary image. Who among us can face God without any sins, without any guilt? If the rabbinic theme is correct, we all should be trembling in our seats.

However, few if any of us are trembling. That is because each of us, deep in our heart of hearts, knows that it really doesn’t seem as if God is judging us.

And if God is indeed judging us each year, then it appears as if God’s judgments are not fair or just. We can all see that good people suffer pain and loss each year, and bad people seem to reap rewards each year. God’s decisions don’t seem to be just.

The rewards the Torah promises don’t seem to be fairly distributed and the punishments seem to be completely random. That doesn’t seem appropriate for a true God of justice.

So on a certain level, as we contemplate the prayers and songs of these days, each of us sometimes wonders why God isn’t judging fairly and justly? As Rabbi Harold Kushner asked in his famous book, we all wonder, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

It is an issue that isn’t confined to our own personal lives and concerns. Who hasn’t questioned God’s motives upon hearing of another major misfortune, or tragedy, or natural disaster in the world? We watch the news on TV and see houses and communities destroyed, innocent people killed and we wonder, “Where is God?”

We wonder how God could have remained silent during the Holocaust or why God is silent in the face of genocides in Darfur or South Sudan, or the kidnaping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria with the plan to sell them as slaves. Imagine, the open selling of girls as slaves in the twenty first century! Surely we have progressed farther as civilized people than that. Yet, it is happening and we wonder where the punishments of God are against people such as this.

I think THAT is one of the reasons the rabbis selected THIS Torah reading for us on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. 

Yes, it is about Hagar and Ishmael instead of Isaac. Yes, it doesn’t have the drama of the Akedah we will read tomorrow. But it DOES deal with the very issue of God’s fairness and justice.

Here is poor Hagar. She has done everything right. She did good work for Sarah. She obeyed her boss and bore a child for Abraham. She never violated any rules. And yet, out of nowhere, her mistress comes along and tells her she has to leave the camp and take her son with her.

And what about the man for whom she bore this child? He is prosperous with horses and servants and a good supply of food. Yet, all Abraham gives to Hagar is some bread and water – no servant to help her, no horse to carry her and his son, no significant food supplies to take care of them in the desert. He just sends her on her way.

Surely Hagar had a legitimate right to challenge God. “Where is the justice? She should be REWARDED for her loyal and obedient service! And yet, it appears as if she is being punished.

In other words, just as we were asking moments ago, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

The Torah provides an interesting answer. Although the general theme of the Torah is “reward and punishment” a different answer is given here.

Hagar places Ishmael under a bush and goes off to cry over her loss and suffering. Then we are told that God opens Hagar’s eyes and there is a water well. She gives water to herself and her son, they are re-energized and they travel on. We are told that Ismael will become the father of a great nation.

The water well was there all the time. 

The solution to Hagar’s crisis was there all the time. She just didn’t see it. The solution to Hagar’s problems wasn’t with God, it was within herself.

That is the lesson the rabbis want to offer us as we begin our High Holy Days. As we begin our season of reflection and repentance, the REAL question we should ask isn’t “Where is God?”

The question we should ask is “Where are we?” 

Why are we not doing more to be better people? Why can’t we see that, like Hagar, the answers to the challenges we face are all around us. Why are we silent when we witness the injustices and unkindnesses in the world around us?

It is easy to blame God. It takes away the responsibility from ourselves. However, the truth is that we humans aren’t doing a whole lot to overcome suffering in the world.

When it comes to curses, we humans far outdo God! We bring down far more calamities on ourselves than God does. We start the wars. We invent these horrific weapons of destruction. We pollute and damage the environment. What are WE doing about it?

Why aren’t we doing more against injustices? Why aren’t we speaking out about hunger, poverty, pain and suffering? Why aren’t we doing more as individuals and as communities?

Perhaps, before we blame God, we ought to ask ourselves what WE are doing to alleviate suffering and pain in the world.

Of course, it is easy to say that we really can’t do much about the poor kidnaped girls in Nigeria. Nigeria is an independent country thousands of miles away. Other than offering protests and some military expertise, there is not much America can do.

There really isn’t much we can do about Crimea or the Ukraine. We would like to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, but there really isn’t much we can do about it here. As powerful as the United States is, we can’t be the police department for the whole world.

But the truth is that there are many challenges right here in Albuquerque and New Mexico about which we are mainly silent.

When that young boy, Omaree, was found kicked to death by his mother, there was an outcry. Yet, the programs designed to protect our children remain woefully underfunded and understaffed. I don’t hear people protesting this injustice. I don’t hear people demanding more protection for our children. Yet that is, in truth OUR job, not God’s.

Throughout our state, there are poor and elderly, mentally challenged and sick who need care and yet it is not being provided. Why are we silent? This isn’t God’s issue alone, this is ours as well.

The shooting of James Boyd, a homeless man with mental health issues, resulted in riots in the streets of Albuquerque – not over the issues of homelessness and mental health, - but over the shooting.

The shooting of Mary Hawkes a few days later, a young woman who was addicted to meth, drew more protests. However, the protests weren't over the lack of drug addiction treatment in New Mexico, it was only on police violence.

The violence is awful and deserves to be protested. There need to be changes in the training and culture of APD.

But where is the anger over our lack of efforts to curb homelessness, to help those with mental health issues, to help those addicted to drugs, to provide for people who are suffering, literally right in front of us on the streets of Albuquerque!!

We don’t have to look around the world for the challenges we face; there are plenty right here in our own back yard. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking “Where is God?” regarding human suffering, until we can answer the question “Where are we?” as people suffer all around us.

Our High Holy Day liturgy continues the theme. On Yom Kippur we will chant the Unetaneh Tokef.

As it concludes, we will recite together, “Uteshuvah utefillah utzedakah va’avirin et roa hagezeirah – Repentence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.”

The liturgy is saying that, like Hagar, the solution lies with us. 

We need to open our eyes to the world around us. We need to see those who are hungry or homeless and find solutions. We need to see the mentally ill and demand the services they need. We need to see the elderly and infirm and demand that they be cared for. WE, not our neighbors. WE, not our fellow congregants. WE, not God.

During these High Holy Days, we are told to call God “Judge and King.” We are told that our behavior for the past year not only should be reviewed by each of us, but also will be reviewed by God and that God will decree who shall live and who shall die.

It seems so simple. Do good, and get another year of life. Do bad, and God will get you. And there is certainly a strong temptation to wish that life were so simple.

Yet, experience teaches us otherwise. It doesn’t seem as if justice is being fairly meted out.

Perhaps it isn’t so much God that doesn’t act with fairness and justice. Perhaps it is we who are acting without fairness and justice.

We reward ourselves with our personal successes. Then we punish others, and sometimes ourselves, when we allow our lust for personal rewards to blind us to the needs of others.

Just as God opened Hagar’s eyes, may God open our eyes to see the injustices and sufferings around us. And may we then be stirred to actions to care for those around us. 

And then, perhaps the world will no longer be cursed with that suffering. And then, when we gather here again next year, we will discover that we have been blessed with the caring community and brotherhood that God intends.


Rabbi Arthur Flicker was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. A graduate of Northwestern University, with an MA in Jewish History from the Ohio State University, Rabbi Flicker was ordained by Rabbi Rueben Luckens in 1990.

Prior to coming to Congregation B'nai Israel, Rabbi Flicker served congregations in Tyler, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Columbus, Ohio. He always been active in community affairs, having been awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Spirit Award by the Cincinnati Baptist Ministers Conference. 

In Albuquerque, Rabbi Flicker has served on the board of the Samaritan Council, the Public Safety Partnership, the Governor’s Homeland Security Religious Advisory Taskforce and as a Chaplain for the Albuquerque Police Department.

A former public school teacher and coach, business owner and synagogue administrator, Rabbi Flicker brings a unique collection of skills to the rabbinate. Partnering with volunteers within  the congregation, Rabbi Flicker has brought diverse services and programming to our community. He has also encourage the participation of members of all ages in our religious services. 

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