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Rosh HaShanah: What We Don't Want to See Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Rosh HaShanah Morning—Thursday, September 5, 2013

When we are first born, we are atheists with regard to the rest of the world: we don’t really believe it is there. Only if we are actually looking at something do we have confidence in its existence. We lack what child psychologists call “object permanence”. If something moves out of sight, then for us as infants, it doesn’t really exist.

I think we revert to that infant like thinking in times of great stress. At least that’s the only explanation that I can come up with for Hagar’s behavior in our Torah portion this morning. Her son, her only son, the one she loves, is dying and rather than holding him to offer him comfort, she casts him off under a bush and goes to sit an arrow’s shot away. The Torah records her as saying: “Let me not see when the child dies.”

What mother would abandon her child like that, unless in her unbearable distress, she has returned to a kind of magical thinking. ‘If I don’t see him die, then perhaps I can believe that it isn’t happening’.

That magical thinking was brought to mind for me in David Grossman’s wonderful and painful novel, To The End of the Land. There the mother of an Israeli soldier keeps moving along Israel’s equivalent of the Pacific Crest trail, thinking to herself: ‘ If the army can’t find me to notify me that my son has been killed, then he won’t really die’.

I think some of us practice that same denial. Sometimes when someone we love is suffering and we say that we don’t want to see them again. ”I want to remember her as she was”, we say, and our minds are begging, “please don’t make me look at his suffering, please don’t make me see her so diminished from herself, let me pretend to myself that this isn’t happening.”

Sometimes we can move on from that place and focus on what our loved one gains from our being with them, even if it’s just holding their hand, even if they are beyond knowing that it’s us and are aware only that they are not alone. If we are a little further out in the emotional constellation, we can support the inner circle of caregivers, giving them respite and a chance to air their feelings. But sometimes we remain in that place of denial, wrapped in our suffering of their loss, trying to ignore what is really happening.

We also practice this sort of denial as a society- out of sight out of mind. We are in many ways atheists, unbelievers, in the suffering of those outside of these United States. Rarely do we do anything that reflects awareness of the 1.1 billion people in this world living in profound poverty (on less than a $1 a day). These people, one sixth of the world’s population, are too ill, too hungry, too destitute to even begin to take the steps that would improve their lives. They live alongside the 2.7 billion really poor people on the globe who scrape by on less than $2 a day, who are also suffering deprivation. Ironically, the amount of money needed to improve the lives of these almost 3 billion people in significant ways is a mere pittance: medicine that costs 12 cents a dose, for example, could prevent half of all malaria deaths in children.

As Americans we think that we are doing a lot. The average American believes that we are spending ¼ of our Federal budget on foreign aid but in reality the United States actually spends less than 1%. What we share with the rest of the world is less than one tenth of one percent of our nation’s GDP. Imagine what the impact could be if we doubled that and spent the percentage that European countries spend, still only 2% of GDP. Sure, we respond to the catastrophe du jour, but that quickly fades and psychologists have found that we feel more pity for a cute puppy than for starving multitudes.

When I was in India this summer, as part of a delegation of rabbis sponsored by the American Jewish World Service, I saw deprivation. The village in which we 17 rabbis worked did not yet have electricity. There was no running water and no sewage system. The proud and immaculately dressed women we met with were still doing their business in the fields, and when children were thirsty at school they went outside to pump water. But in many ways the people we were working with were more fortunate than those living in urban slums. They had a community and spoke about the mutual support they experienced from family and neighbors. When someone is in pain, one woman said to me, we all know and try to help.

Those living in the shacks at the side of the road, the shacks behind the city of Luchnow’s downtown, the shacks Behind the Beautiful Forever, for those who have read Katherine Boo’s amazing piece of journalism, have even less and they represent a growing segment of the world’s poor, lured to cities, where despite the evident economic growth, there is nothing for them.

Our tradition teaches us lo lehitalem, not to hide ourselves, yet we do hide from the reality that we in top 1% of the world’s population ( and that’s who we are even if we don’t live in Hillsborough or Atherton) and consume the greatest share of the world’s resources, while the bottom 80% have annual incomes below $2,000 a year.

But I want to return to Hagar for a moment. As you recall, Ishmael doesn’t die, he lives. How does that happen? It happens for two reasons.

The first is that Hagar in the time of her distress is not really seeing Ishmael clearly. She calls him a yeled, from the root to be born, but he is hardly a new born or even a boy. Three chapters earlier he was 13 at the time of his circumcision. He was big enough to shoot arrows at his younger brother with sufficient skill to make Sarah insist on having him banished. The text itself calls him a naar- a youth, a teenager, and that is how the angel refers to him repeatedly in talking to Hagar, as if to say, look, see, your son is not a fragile helpless child.

That is another thing I found in India. India is not a helpless child. While I spent most of my time in the village, India is also its cities, cities that are bigger than LA or New York, cities with neighborhoods that match the upscale sections of San Francisco or any city in the world with stores to match and a growing economy. And even for the 70% of Indians who live in the villages, there is forward motion. Electricity is coming village by village, though my experience was that it doesn’t work 24/7 like at home. Bricks are being delivered so that villagers can build sturdy homes to replace their mud and thatch huts. There are government schools to provide education until grade 12 though without a truancy system student attendance is sporadic and tends to trail off in the upper grades when children are more useful as workers in the fields or girls are married off illegally below the government’s legal age requirement.. Those of you who saw the pictures of our classrooms were probably struck by what you didn’t see. By American standards the schools lack the furniture and supplies that we take for granted. And yet, even in the rural areas, there are billboards advertising schools with pictures of their recent graduates, girls and boys, next to their scores on the national exams. In India, I met children who ran away --to go to school, not to flee from it: there is a great hunger for education.

During our trip we slept and ate at a non-profit center which provides training to the lowest level of government officials, the ponchaya’s, and to women in small economic collectives. In India many women are elected only because the law requires that a certain percentage of officials be female. Often they start out as puppets of the more powerful men who run them for office, but once elected some of them understand and embrace their own potential. Coming to the center for a week of training without your husband- imagine how life changing that experience is for women who have never even been in the local city market, the shuk, even though it is only a 30 minute bus ride away.

The developing world, the global south, is not all devastation and need. When we think about it we need to think about its developing strengths as well, about how India and other countries in the global south, exist on many levels of development all at once. They are bursting out like a teenager growing but still needing help.

Ishmael survives because he is no longer a helpless, vulnerable child, but also because once the angel calms Hagar’s panic and despair, Hagar opens her eyes and sees the well that has been there all along. With that help Hagar and Ishmael are able to continue their trip, so that he can fulfill his destiny of being the father of many peoples.

Help in the form of foreign aid in the developing world has definitely been a mixed blessing. For over five centuries it was motivated primarily by the needs of the developed world, often from the stance of, we know better than you what you need. Sometimes even well intentioned aid has focused on immediate and pressing needs like famine with long term effects being ignored, and human rights issues put aside until after the crisis was over. Grain delivered from abroad undermined local agriculture, working against a long term solution. Alliances were made with autocratic leaders, disregarding human rights abuses.

Today there is recognition that the short and long term both must be considered in any intervention, and that development challenges cannot really be solved while ignoring human rights issues.

Just as here in Santa Clara County and across the United States, the power of organizing has been recognized. Positive development work is going on in the global south by enabling people to work to solve their own problems. As we read in our prayer book on Shabbat, and as was quoted at the anniversary march on Washington: “there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands marching together.”

Our role as those who come in from the outside must be to empower the community and give them the tools to do their work. The well is there, the help that is needed is to see it and use it effectively. We also play a role in our own country in influencing legislation that has a profound influence on what happens abroad. The well is not useful to the community, if the first million gallons of its water must be paid in foreign debt or is committed to multi-national corporations for their own profit making ventures. This literally happens with Coca-Cola in India using so much of India’s water that it contributes to falling groundwater levels and water shortages.

Rosh Hashanah is unique among the Jewish holidays, in having a universal rather than a particularly Jewish theme. Rosh Hashanah is about the entire globe. Hayom Harat Olam- today is the birthday of the world, and a day for us to open our eyes to the reality that exists beyond our doorstep and to think of ourselves as global citizens. In our work lives, in our neighborhoods, in the clothing and food that we purchase we are already living in a global marketplace. Can we not open our hearts and minds so that our moral universe is global as well?

When I left Rayka, the young girl who tied this red string around my wrist, I promised myself that I would not forget her. Join me on Yom Kippur afternoon as we study Jewish teachings on balancing needs at home and abroad, for the ill and the hungry, for our families and for others. Even more important join me in the year ahead as we speak out and act for the good of our more distant neighbors, our brother and sisters with whom we share this globe.

Almost a decade ago, after a congregational trip to Israel and following the practice of Israeli Reform congregations, we added the words, ve’al kol yoshvei tevel, literally, for all who dwell on the globe, to our prayer for peace at the end of the kaddish prayer. Let us do more than pray for the welfare of the world, let us speak out and let us act.

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