Rosh Hashana 5761

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana always strikesme as odd. For starters, the section focuses primarily on Hagar and Ishmael,characters that are ultimately marginal in Jewish historical terms. On topof that, the story that the section deals with is arguably the leastflattering episode in the lives of our forefather and foremother, Abrahamand Sara. It is the story of their expelling Hagar and Ishmael from theirhome to face a highly uncertain future in the wilderness. Why did our sagesselect this story to be read on this day?

A great variety of responses to this question have been offered, many ofwhich require that we shift our focus away from the Hagar-Ishmael expulsionepisode, and concentrate instead on the passage that opens the reading,namely God's remembering the promise of motherhood that He had made to Sara.(Divine remembering is, after all, one of Rosh Hashana's major themes.) I'dlike to join with the other school though, in suggesting that our sages wereactually intending for us to glean the message from the reading's centralepisode, and to leave for another time an analysis of Abraham and Sara'srole in this troubling narrative.

Picking up the central part of the story then as it approaches its climax,we find Hagar and Ishmael wandering in the desert, out of water. Ishmael istoo weak to continue walking. Hagar places him beneath a bush, and sits downsome distance away not wanting to behold her son's demise. An angel of Godthen appears to Hagar, informing her that she should not fear, for God hasheard her son's voice “in the place that he is.” What does this final phraseof the angel's utterance mean? To the sages, it sounded extraneous. It is inthe sages' consequent reinterpretation of that phrase that I believe theRosh Hashana message may lie.

Instead of reading the phrase as “in the place that he is,” the sages renderit “in accordance with his status at the present moment.” That is, althoughat a future time (as the Jews would be leaving Israel following thedestruction of the first Temple) Ishmael's descendants would act withcruelty toward God's nation, Ishmael himself would be judged at the presentjuncture in accordance with his present status. Since at the present time heis an innocent lad, free of sin, God would intervene on his behalf,providing a well in the desert from which he and his mother would drink. Thepresent moment is the relevant moment. It alone will determine the outcomeof the story.

Generally speaking, we rarely occupy ourselves with the present moment. Weare always either planning for the future, or reminiscing about the past.The present is merely the point in time at which we are engaging in one orthe other of those activities. We consider the present moment to essentiallybe a disposable unit of time, too insignificant to ponder. But from RoshHashana on through to Yom Kippur, we need to alter this perception.The Talmud teaches that Isaiah's words, “Seek God when He can be found” arereferring to these first 10 days of the New Year. According to thisteaching, we are now presented with 10 days — 14,400 minutes — that are likeno others during the year. These are minutes and days during which we arepromised by Isaiah that self-examination will be easier to accomplish, andthat the obstacles that ordinarily stand in the way of our ability toconnect with God will be removed. They are unique days and minutes, which wecan only capitalize on if we deeply enhance our appreciation of theoft-dismissed, oft-discounted present moment. The special opportunity isonly now.

This is the message of the first day's Torah reading. Sometimes the presentmoment really is like no other. There are times in life when neitheryesterday nor tomorrow can produce the same outcome as today can. There ismagic in the air these ten days. Forget the future for a while. The presentis calling.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.