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Hearing Ishmael - Rosh Hashanah Day 1

In this morning’s parashah, Abraham sends his son Ishmael and his son’s mother, Hagar, into the wilderness at Sarah’s order in order to remove the threat she perceives Ishmael to be to Isaac. The two – mother and son – soon face certain death from starvation and dehydration. The text reads, “15 When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, 16 and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, "Let me not look on as the child dies." And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. 17 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. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him." 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.”

Why doesn’t God respond immediately to Hagar’s prayer? Why does God only respond after hearing “the cry of the boy”? And how does this passage relate to the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

The Talmud relates a story (as retold in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Wisdom”) about the nature of prayer and – by extension – the nature of teshuvah.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai was – shall we say – a philanderer who frequented women of ill repute. Following one of these dalliances, he feared that his repentance would not be accepted.

He went and sat between two hills and mountains, and said, “Mountains and hills, plead with God to have mercy on me.”

They replied, “Before we pray for you, we must pray for ourselves.”

He said, “Heaven and Earth, ask God to have mercy on me.”

And the heaven and earth said, “Before we pray for you, we should pray for ourselves.”

He said, “Sun and Moon, ask God to have mercy on me.”

And the sun and the moon also said, “Before we pray for you, we should pray for ourselves.”

He said “Stars and Constellations, ask God to have mercy on me.”

And the stars and the constellations similarly said, “Before we pray for you, we should pray for ourselves.”

He said, “Then the matter depends on me alone.” And he placed his head between his knees and groaned and wept until his soul departed.

A heavenly voice went forth and said, “Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai has been summoned to the life of the World-to-Come.”

Although many of us have been engaged in the work of teshuvah since at least the beginning of Elul, last night we formally began ten days of active repentance. This task may seem daunting, especially since most of us prefer to explore other peoples’ behaviors, saying, “if only he or she had (or hadn’t) done this or that, I would not have done this or the other thing.”

But our Sages make clear that our teshuvah must be our own. We can’t ask someone else to do it for us, and we can’t be successful if we focus on the wrongs others did to us.

Let’s look again at the text when we read that God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, "What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is..."

Does this mean that God did not hear Hagar? No, of course not – God hears everyone. Rashi notes this oddity as well. And Rashi teaches us that “a person's prayer for himself is preferable to others praying for him, and is sooner to be accepted [for though the verse speaks of Hagar's weeping, it tells us that it was Ishmael's cry which God heard].” And Rashi continues to teach, “From here [we learn] that the sick person’s prayer is more effective than the prayer of others on his behalf, and is the first to be accepted.”

In other words, it is not enough for us to weep for someone else, to demand that someone else do teshuvah or pray for a “successful” outcome for someone else’s teshuvah. We must focus on ourselves, doing our own work, in order to have God hear us clearly. And when we do, we find an interesting psychological twist: by focusing on ourselves, we manage somehow to change others – or at least our relationships with people we resent or fear. What appears to be an act of selfishness – spending time on our own behavior – is, in fact, an act of supreme selflessness. We must take care of our own side of the street, as it were, before we can help someone else. Recovering addicts know this well from decades of 12-step recovery.

Hagar, reacting with fear and pain for the imminent death of her son, cannot bear to look at him or to even notice the nearby well. Hers is the behavior of a selfless mother. But Rabbi Ellen Frankel teaches us by way of Genesis Rabbah that Too overcome with grief over her son’s approaching death, she fails to attend to her own survival. But when Ishmael calls out from “where he [was],” the angel appears and reassures Hagar that they will both live. It is the child’s selfishness, not the mother’s selflessness, that storms heaven’s gate. Only then do Hagar’s eyes open so that she sees the well that has been there all along. As it is written, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” (21:19)

God willing, we will find the strength to be as selfish as Ishmael and as self-focused as Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai so that God will hear our repentance over the next ten days.

L’shanah tovah tikateivun – may we all be inscribed for a good year.

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