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Shema Koleinu: When We Are Not Heard

September 16, 2015

Shana Tovah! The last time I referenced a movie in one of my speeches it was Animal House. Today I have another movie reference that might make some of you scratch your heads and wonder “Who is this new rabbi that we hired.” I wanted to share with you a scene from the classic White Men Can’t Jump. The movie stars Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes who are street basketball players. They hustle other street ballers to make lots of money. The big dramatic buildup is whether Woody Harrelson will ever be able to slam dunk a basketball.

The scene I want to share with you takes place in Woody Harrelson’s beat up car. Harrelson is driving and his girlfriend (Rosey Perez) is in the front seat. Wesley Snipes is sitting in the back. Woody Harrelson pops a cassette into the tape player (because that was still a thing). And the following exchange takes place:

Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes): Heeeyy, what is this.

Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson): Jimi Hendrix.

Deane: Oh I know who it is, but why are you playing Jimi?

Hoyle: Because I like to listen to Jimi.

Deane: Oh you like to listen. That’s what the problem is — y’all listen.

Hoyle: What am I supposed to do, eat it?

Deane: No, no, no you’re supposed to hear it.

Hoyle: I just said I like to listen to it.

Deane: No, no, no there’s a difference between hearing and listening to it. You see, [you] people, y’all can’t hear Jimi. Y’all listen.

The exact dialogue might be slightly more animate and more colorful than what I just conveyed.

The idea of hearing resonates with me strongly this Rosh Hashanah.

First, there is the motto of our shul, “Netivot Shul: A Modern Orthodox Community Where Everyone Has A Voice.”  We value the voice of everyone and recognize that everyone has  unique skills and contributions to make our community and our shul vibrant and successful.

Second, this is the first time I will be blowing Shofar.  There is a major debate among the Rishonim about the nature of the mitzvah of Shofar.  The Rosh (R. Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1329 Germany and Spain) quotes Rabeinu Tam and others that the proper bracha to recite prior to sounding the shofar is ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצוני על תקיעת שופר or לתקוע בשופר – implying that the essential mitzvah is to sound the Shofar or the act of blowing into the Shofar.

Rambam disagrees.  He says that if the mitzvah were the act of blowing into the shofar then each individual would have to blow for him or herself, just like each individual must wave their own lulav and each person must sit in the Sukkah.  Rather, the proper ברכה is אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לשמוע קול שופר – the mitzvah is to HEAR the Shofar.

And finally, this year in particular I have been thinking about what it means to have our voices heard.  Much of the Jewish community has just gone through a massive campaign to make our voices heard in opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement.  And many of us feel like Wesley Snipes’ description of Woody Harrelson – they can listen to Jimi, but they can’t hear Jimi.  Displeasure with the deal was made known to Senators, Congressmen, the media, President Obama, etc.  And yet we are left with a sinking feeling.  While the official vote is scheduled for this coming Thursday, many of us enter Rosh Hashanah feeling like our voices have not been heard.

Whether it is the Iran deal, some other political cause, whether we are parents trying to communicate with our children or whether we are children trying to get our parents to understand us, we all experience the disappointment and frustration of feeling that we are not being heard.

This morning’s Torah reading speaks to this.  The reading opens with

וה’ פקד את שרה כאשר אמר ויעש ה’ לשרה כאשר דבר: ותהר ותלד שרה לאברהם בן לזקניו למועד אשר דבר אתו אלקים:

And HaShem remembered Sarah as He had said, and HaShem did unto Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which G-d had spoken to him.  (Breishit 21:1-2)

After years of disappointment anger and humiliation over infertility, Sarah finally becomes pregnant and is blessed with a son!  But all is not happy on the home front. The Torah reading that opens with Sara’s prayers being answered proceeds to tell us of the disappointment of so many around her.

וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶֽת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק׃ וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק׃ וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son.  (Breishit 21:9-11)

Avraham, though elated to have a son with Sarah, has a strong love for Yishmael and we can only imagine the hurt and disappointment that Avraham must feel at Sarah’s ultimatum which is then upheld by Hashem.

And what about Yishmael?  This young boy who has a special place in his father’s heart, who appears set to follow in Avraham’s footsteps and take over his mission.  Not only is he banished from Avraham’s home, but even Hagar, his mother seems to abandon him.

ויכלו המים מן החמת ותשלך את הילד תחת אחד השיחם:  ותלך ותשב לה מנגד הרחק כמטחוי קשת כי אמרה אל אראה במת הילד ותשב מנגד ותשא את קלה ותבך:

And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.  And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.

Yishmael, having already been rejected by his father is now abandoned by his mother and left to die on his own.  Yet the Netziv offers a different take.  Noting that the Torah twice emphasizes that Hagar sat a distance from Yishmael, the Netziv picks up on a seemingly minor detail.  The first time we are told ותשב לה מנגד which literally means she sat for herself against him a good way off.  The Netziv explains that this first time Hagar distanced herself from Yishmael for selfish reasons.  She could not bare to see him suffer.

The second time we read ותשב מנגד (she sate at a distance) without the word לה(for herself).  The Netziv explains:

ותשב מנגד – עוד הפעם, להראות שנתרחקה יותר ממטחוי קשת, באשר בקשה לבכות קול ולא רצתה שישמע הילד בכיתה,שזה קשה לחולה בין אם עומד להבריא בין אם עומד למות,על כן הרחיקה עוד ותשא קולה ותבך מש”ה לא כתיב ותשב לה,באשר ישיבה רחוק זו לא היה בשבילה אלא בשביל הילד

She sat against him – a second time.  To show that she distanced herself even more since she wanted to cry and did not want the boy to hear her cries.  For this is difficult for a sick person, whether he/she is going to heal or die.  Therefore she distanced herself more and raised her voice and cried.    That is why it does not say “she sat for herself” because she did not sit far away for herself but rather for the boy’s sake.

One of the lessons that we can derive from this explanation is that at a certain point Yishmael had to confront his rejection, his disappointment and shattered dreams by himself. Not even the embrace or the tears of his mother could help him deal with the situation.  Perhaps this is the meaning of the words the angel says when he assures Hagar that Hashem will provide for them and they will be okay:

ויקרא מלאך אלקים אל הגר מן השמים ויאמר לה מה לך הגר אל תיראי כי שמע אלקים את קול הנער באשר הוא שם

…and the angel of G-d called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for G-d hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. (21:17)

We tend to read this through the lens of the Gemara RH 16b, which is quoted by Rashi.

לפי מעשים שהוא עושה עכשיו הוא נדון ולא לפי מה שהוא עתיד לעשות

A person is judged according to his current deeds, and not his future deeds.  The angels told God to let Yishmael die because in the future he and his descendants will do evil to the Jewish people.  Hashem responds that He will judge only based on the present, and at present Yishmael has done nothing wrong.

Perhaps we should understand the angel’s promise to Hagar that Hashem will take care of them because God has heard Yishmael’s cries באשר הוא שם – having fully recognized, accepted and confronted his current state of disappointment.  Yishmael’s voice is heard only after he has experienced what it is like not to have been heard. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik provides one more layer in our discussion of having our voices heard and not heard.  The Rav observes that sometimes we are not able to give voice to the issue that is most important.

“I always say that we would be a most unfortunate people if God were guided exclusively by our prayers. Sometimes we pray for things that are a menace to us, and sometimes we don’t pray for things that are of the greatest importance.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening, ed. Rabbi Menachem Genack. 75)

The upshot of this is that sometimes we feel as though our voices have not been heard, when in reality that for which we were crying out was not the appropriate thing. Sometimes God hears our pain and answers the prayer that we should have offered rather than the one we did offer.

This was expressed very powerfully by Roy Campanella. Campy was the catcher for the Brooklyn Dodger in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. His career was cut short in its prime when he was paralyzed in a car accident. While rehabbing he came across the following quote on a plaque near the hospital:

A Creed For Those Who Have Suffered

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn to humbly obey…

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things…

I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise…

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God…

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things…

I got nothing I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed

The shofar gives voice to our innermost prayers – those that we can articulate and those that we can’t.   Let me conclude with the prayer that as we sound the Shofar and enter the new year, let it be a year where we find our inner voice and commit to making our voice heard.  Though we are certain to experience disappointment in the coming year, may it be a year where our voices are heard and our prayers are answered even if we cannot see it.  May it be a year where we can say with both confidence and humility שמע קולנו – hear our voice!

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From → Chagim, Yamim Noraim

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