Angels On Their Shoulders
Rosh HaShanah 5772
by Rabbi Sim Glaser
Being here with these wonderful teens singing their hearts out brings me tremendous joy, and much rabbinical fulfillment. Like the Torah portion we heard read this morning, they stand at Sinai, along with all of us, looking toward a bright future, one filled with hope and vision. When I feel hopeless, I look to them and remember what it feels like to have that world of possibilities right there in front of you.
But I do wonder whether my generation, we parents, teachers, rabbis, mentors are standing with them as we confront a challenging world and a lot of uncertainty.
A few weeks ago at Shabbat dinner with my daughter Hannah and her best friend Hannah – (there was a shortage of girls’ names back in ‘87) the subject turned to politics, the condition of the world and the future of humanity. We like to keep our table conversation light. Hannah, our guest, laughed and said she didn’t think people would even be around in another thousand years. Our Hannah agreed: Well, duh dad, who really thinks humanity have a future. As disturbing as that was to hear, what Hannah our guest said next troubled me even further – “my mom agrees”. Your mom agrees? I asked Your mom agrees?
So I’ve been wondering what kind of message I have been conveying to my own children and indeed what we have been implying to the coming generations about just how seriously we care about their future and the state of this world we have shaped for them.
I cannot recall how many times I have heard older folks respond to a gloomy future outlook with the words: “well I won’t be around by then anyway. What about the kids? What about the grandkids?
I think our silence or our negativity about the future, or our acceptance of the status quo, speaks volumes to our young people as they look at a world fraught with problems. As though we are all in some silent acquiescence that this is the next step in evolution; yes, my darling, we’re pretty much going to wipe each other off the face of the earth; sorry, climate change is irreversible; yes, honey, the economy is tanking and your chances of getting a job really stink. And oh, by the way, Israel will never know peace with its neighbors; the United States will be at war for decades to come; and we will always be fighting terror.
Have you seen the “end of days” books flying off the shelves? They’re all the rage. Rapture, The End of Days – The Maya Mystery of 2012, Armageddon, Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse - Our Final Hour, Why the Future Doesn’t Need us, The End of History; The Last Man Left Behind.
These may be statements of someone’s faith, but to me they are exclamations of fate and superstition. They may titillate our maudlin curiosities, but they carry an insidiously inappropriate and decidedly un-Jewish message. We’re moving into a new year, folks. Our story must be different; The Jewish people are a people of hope. We don’t leave things up to chance or sit at the feet of prognosticators and seers. We don’t carry rabbits’ feet or read tarot cards; our prophets are not fortune tellers. The only time I think I’ve seen a Jew with a sandwich board proclaiming “the end is near” was the day Fishman’s closed.
Not that the Jewish people don’t have our own superstitions. We do. We talk a lot about beshert – fate – particularly as the New year falls upon us. A Talmudic reference for this holiday season states that one who wishes to know whether he will live out the year ought to bring a candle into a house which is completely sealed off from any wind, and light that candle between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. If the light stays lit, you know that you will live out the year. If it goes out, you’re toast.
Sure, we patchke around with fate and luck and omens. We give traveling tzedaka to our kids going to Israel - a dollar in an envelope to donate to the needy in the holy land and thus secure them a safe journey. We say Mazal tov, good luck; we sing siman tov u’mazal tov – it’s a good sign! Yay, the Mohel did a good job, the kid is set for life. Some wear the hamsa to ward off evil. We say k’eyn ahora – a defense against the evil eye. We tell them not to get tattoos. They ignore us.
The unetaneh tokef prayer we read this morning traditionally asks terrifying questions: Who shall die by fire? Who by stoning? Who by drowning? As though our fate this year is entirely in the hands of an either benevolent or a vengeful God.
Our version in the downstairs creative service modifies the sentiment and says things like “who shall be truly alive and who shall merely exist? Who shall be happy and who miserable?” The kids aren’t going to buy it, and so we reject the superstition of beshert and take control. But repentance prayer and charity annul the severe decree – or in the Talmud would have it –Ha-kol be-yedei shamayim hutz mi-yirat shamayim - everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven. Indeed we are fated unless we want it to turn the tables on fate and turn to hope. That choice is in our hands.
If you really look at the major symbols employed in the Jewish faith you’ll see they are all symbols of hope. Today, on Rosh Hashanah we dip apples in honey for the blessing of a sweet new year! Traditionally, pomegranates were eaten with the wish for a year of merits as plentiful as the hundreds of seeds inside. A childless mother finds two yolks in the egg she has cracked open. A siman tov! Mazal tov! There is even a lesser known tradition that single people at the Rosh Hashana table should eat dates. Or underpaid employees are to partake of a salad made of raisins and celery as a hope to achieve a “raise in da selery.” I’m not even kidding. I did not make that up.
In the chilling Torah portion from last week – the binding of Isaac - Abraham is called to bring his son, et bincha - his only one, et yechidcha - the one he loves – asher ahavta…
And offer him as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. That is the first time the word love – ahavah is ever used in the Torah – as though to press the question: How do I respond to someone I love dearly when they turn to me with the ultimate question? - “Do I have a future?” Is humanity going to make it through the next millennium? Do we abandon them to fear? Or do we say: Hineini – Here I am, and we will walk the path up this hill together!
The most troubling words in that already wrenching story are when Isaac says: so, dad, where is the ram for offering? His father is unable to give him a decent hopeful answer because he himself has given in to fate. He withholds information. He lies, responding with a strangely ambiguous: Adonai yirei et ha seh, b’ni - “God will see to the Ram, my son”. Nonsense! God had already told Abraham to take his most beloved cherished son and serve him up on the altar. Who is he kidding? If you look closely at the Hebrew, in which there is no punctuation, Adonai yirei et ha seh: b’ni Abraham might well be saying: “God will see to the sacrifice: my son.”
It was a critical moment in our history – a child asks his father – is that it? Are we done? Am I to be the sacrifice? Am I the end of the line? Is there no future for me? Thousands of years later I believe the same question is being asked today by our children, implicitly and explicitly. What kind of world are you turning over to me with a future you don’t even believe in?
In the deepest moment of a crisis, what do you say to a child? Here we are, 10 years out, and post-9/11 studies over the last decade show that parents’ continuing attitudes toward traumatic events have played an enormous role in how their children react. Feelings of trust and communication with parents ease anxious children’s reactions to disasters. But where there was parental silence and no hopeful answers given, there was fear; where parents restricted their own activities out of their anxiety about the future and their family’s safety, the children were three times as likely to meet criteria for PTSD and other anxiety disorders and depression. And strangely enough, even when parents recommended that their adolescents seek help and advice from others, the young people saw this as a sign of parental inability to keep them safe in the future.
At the end of that terrible story of the binding of Isaac it takes an angel to order Abraham to stay the knife and remind him that the future is just beginning, not ending, which would never be God’s intention. An Angel of hope.
Where are the angels upon whom the task falls in the eleventh hour to talk positively about a future? We are as ambivalent as Abraham. We are avoiding the innocent question by implying that God will see to the sacrifice and you’re it!
Our children are not fools, and they are looking to us for a positive response to trauma. As they climb the mountain alongside us facing a world in turmoil they can sense when we have become fatigued, or resigned, or feel hopeless and have given up. As Isaac did on that fateful day, they may even go along with us on it. “I don’t think there will be people around in a thousand years, and my mom agrees.”
It never ceases to amaze me how Abraham and his son ascend that mountain together, but by the end of the terrible ordeal, the Torah text tells us that only Abraham comes down the mountain! In my imagination I see Isaac parting company with his father after that stunt, and saying – you know, old man, you came within inches of denying me and my generation a tomorrow. I think I’ll take another path down the hill. You go that way.
In 1939 a young girl in Germany was about to depart alone for an 11,000 mile journey half way around the world to safety. She asked her mother what was going to happen when they parted. Her mother told her to have faith in God’s angel that protects all children and ensures their safety. Mother and daughter did not kiss or hug goodbye so sure were they both that this was not the end.
I reread that part of the girl’s story on page 31 of my mother’s book that was finally published posthumously three weeks ago. I’m not up here hawking books on Rosh Hashana – (though God knows my mom – alayha ha shalom - would have had no problem with that) It is a book filled with fond memories, gripping descriptions of her youth in Germany, her neighbors and family, the Nazi rise to power, her journey at age 12 alone by train through Siberia, China, Japan and finally to San Francisco.
There is hope on every page. A loving tribute to her grandfather and the outpouring of support from all the citizens of Malsch at his funeral in 1936. Her curiosity and excitement about the non-Jewish neighbors whom she was certain would be there for her family if times grew tough; her childhood best friend Otto who stood by her when she was abused by her non-Jewish peers. Her eventual arrival in San Francisco, adoption in a foster home and the constant hope for years that her parents would someday soon join her in the United States.
Mom always told us as children that she consistently felt the angel her mother provided accompanying her on her journey. But then at one point she realized in Kobe Japan – the last stop before the U.S. - that her visa had expired and the officials were determining whether she could continue through or be sent back. Agata became separated from the rest of her group in a train station and she believed she had reached the end.
She writes: “I walked slowly around the deck as the officials deliberated. Tears left their wet tracks on my cheeks as, finally, I cried. Oh angel at my shoulder, I thought, I can barely feel your presence. Are you there? Oh Mother, you told me the angel would be there always. Angel, will they let me go? If I fall on my knees and beg, will they let me go? Then they called me. One of them wrote something in the passport, another stamped it and handed it back to me. They all smiled and bowed. I was free to go.”
Years ago when we were discussing the title for her book my mother suggested we call it: My Angel Left Me. I laughed out loud and admonished my mom – That’s a terrible name for the book. 59 of the 60 pages are filled with immense hope and strength of character and determination, and you want to call it My Angel Left Me? Davka, as we say in Hebrew. On the contrary, your angel never left you!!
But recently I was thinking of that passage again where her mother promised her, Promised her that the angel was tied to her future. That is a legacy that took a 12 year girl old half way around the world, drew her to others, kept her in touch by mail with her then captive parents, surviving their eventual death, marrying a man who would do great things in the world, raising four children, one of whom would become a stellar though humble rabbi in the Midwest, and even going back to that little village in 1970 and revisiting her past, reuniting with her childhood buddy.
No doubt my mother was scared when she parted ways with her parents for that long journey. But her mother said: take this angel with you to remind you that you are not alone. Ever. This is not the end, but the beginning of a great adventure. Let this angel remind you that there is hope and that I have faith in your future.
When our children see us blandly accepting the dire predictions; when they witness adults fighting and arguing with no middle ground whatsoever, these are situations without hope. When there is ongoing anxiety about a trauma suffered, and no firm plan to overcome it, that is not hopeful. When political parties are at constant odds and the governing process grinds to a halt, that is a situation without hope. When everybody is so absolutely certain about what they believe, that no one hears the other voice, and the discussion ends, the kids stop asking questions, because they see that the sacrifice has been identified, and it is them! This is a situation without hope.
In this new year and with the possibility that we will be facing hundreds of harrowing headlines and nay-saying voices of surrender and rapture and apocalypse, who will be the angels at the shoulders of our children and grandchildren? Who will be there to bring positive vision about the future of our world to build strength and encourage this tremendous determination our children our children so clearly display?
Who will still the negative response, the sigh of surrender? Who will provide for them the vision of a humanity that can indeed overcome its mistakes and bind together with them to clean up the environment, to create jobs, to assist the populations of drought stricken nations, to assure affordable housing in our own neighborhoods; to abolish racism, to end war, to conquer poverty and seek justice?
I believe we are atop Mt. Moriah yet again. The blade of doubt raised over the children relegated to sacrifice at the hands of their negligent forbears.
Who then are the angels who must speak the words of hope and vision to the children who inherit the future? Who will be the angels to stay the raised knife-wielding hand and inform the next generation that tomorrow will be good, and they should be hopeful, and that they will be safe, and that we will climb that mountain alongside them and come down with them as well?
I believe that you and I are these angels.