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Letting Go of Hatred

09/26/2022 09:21:38 AM


Guest Rabbi Rebecca Joseph

Letting Go of Hatred, Inviting Love Rosh Hashanah I 5783

Shana tova u'metuka – a sweet, blessing-filled year to everyone joining us in person in our High Holiday sanctuary and at home on Zoom!

Earlier this morning, I spoke about God's loving response to Hagar's despair. Long despised by Sarah, Abraham concedes to her demand that Hagar and her son, with Abraham, be expelled permanently from the household. Far from her own people, with no connections and few material resources, she wanders with Ishmael in the wilderness. When they run out of water, she tucks her child safely under a bush and turns away in lament, unable to bear the thought of watching him die.

The anthropologist and memoirist Ruth Behar suggests that for Jewish listeners, the purpose of the story of Sarah and Hagar is to awaken both the humility and the courage to stand before the cold winds of self-scrutiny. This act we know is essential to the Days of Awe. She says:

As Jews, we read the story of Sarah and Hagar as we begin the new year, brimming with hope, desperately seeking that state of grace where we are ready "to risk loving again those who have wounded us," and ready for "others to trust us again despite the fact that we have broken their hearts." 1

This narrative, which is the origin story of our covenantal relationship with God, also teaches us that one of the most significant stumbling blocks in our efforts to ready ourselves to love and be loved again is the internalized hatred that we are so adept at finding ways to justify, minimalize, or simply are unable to see.

Let me briefly explain. In biblical stories, names count. Here, the husband is 'ab-ram, "exalted father," and the wife is sarai, "the princess." This woman is hagar, her name comprised of the same Hebrew consonants as haggēr, "the outsider." 2 In the Torah, which has no vowels, the two words appear identical. Vocalized, they differ by a single vowel sound.

Even before the woman called Hagar - surely not her given name nor one she chose for herself - is literally living outside, everything that we learn about her reinforces a negative stereotype and creates moral distance. She is an Egyptian, enslaved, a surrogate mother, and is always Hagar, the lesser dehumanized "Other." In the biblical narrative, even God addresses her this way.

Telling and retelling the story conditions us to dehumanize this character, too. This can occur without our awareness of what is happening. We may not connect our negative judgment of her character or behavior with this pre-conditioning. However, we still believe that she is disserving of her mistreatment because she is Hagar.
We may turn to validating sources, of which there have been many throughout the ages, that encourage us to exclude other voices. – How many of us here today know that Hagar was a princess wed to Abraham in a dynastic marriage in Islamic tradition?

One day, we realize that we hate Hagar and that hate is powerful. Now it is Rosh Hashanah, and here we are.
In one of his most famous sermons, Loving Your Enemies, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars...Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

The love that drives out hate requires a strong heart. A strong heart is a flexible heart. This is no less true of the heart, our spiritual and relational center (our neshamah), which some call the soul, than of the physical muscle at the center of our circulatory system, pumping blood around our bodies as it beats. 

How do we develop the strong heart it takes to live fully in this world, enabling us to love our enemies as well as our friends?

A well-known Chasidic parable tells the story of a king who has stored away his precious possessions in a treasure room, locked with a complex set of keys. The keys were given only to his most trusted servants, who also needed instructions for using them. In our generation, though the King wants His beloved children to have the treasure, the keys have been lost altogether. All we can do to get to the treasure is to smash the lock.

The lock in the parable is the human heart. All we can do is break our hearts, which are filled with arrogance, pride, and, too often, anger and shame. When we come to God in true brokenheartedness, all the locks open on their own.

An open heart is a humble heart, and a humble heart is ready to receive and give love. But how?
Psalm 27, which accompanies us from the month of Elul through these Holy Days, speaks directly to this question.
In last verse, the psalmist says: Put your hope in Adonai; You strengthen and fortify your heart when you put your hope in Adonai. (Psalm 27:14)

The middle phrase, chazak v'ya'ameitz libecha – strengthen and fortify your heart, echoes the instruction that Moses gives Joshua, who soon will lead the Israelites as they resettle in the Promised Land.
In a sort of literary hug, this verse's first and last words are the same: kivva el-Adonai – put your hope in God.

The word kivva is closely related to kavvanah, which means "direction of the heart." We direct our hearts to God with prayer, study, and mitzvot when we do them in ways that lead us inward toward God's presence, as Rabbi Art Green says, "offering our words or deeds upon an inner altar." 3

Knowing this, we might retranslate the last verse of Psalm 27 as: Direct your heart toward God, toward Adonai; the way to strengthen and fortify your heart is to direct your heart toward God, toward Adonai.

Dwelling in this verse today and in the coming days is a powerful practice in and of itself as we recall and do our best to make amends for our failings during this just past year.

An embodied practice connecting our spiritual and physical hearts is another tool available to us. Let's try this together:
Take your non-dominant hand – for me, that's my left – and place it gently over your heart. Now place your dominant hand over it. Sit with this for a moment feeling your heartbeat. You can close your eyes if that feels good to you right now.
With your hands resting over your heart, take in this prayer poem written by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg:

Ahavah Rabbah
What is a great love?
A love that reaches deep inside our hearts and minds and never departs.
An expanding, continually surpassing compassion that flows toward and with us…
May we know that we are held in an embrace of infinite kindness… May it shine from our eyes
as the love that it is.
May our minds and hearts be unified to behold with love and wonder
that which is ever becoming.
No more victims, no more powerlessness, no more blaming or shaming each other and ourselves.
For our faith in this,
in this sacred this, makes us joyous.
Continually gathering peacefully from the dispersed and distracted into this right here, our home.
closer to your name, what is, sacred love.4

Taking a deep breath in and releasing it slowly, you can bring your hands down now and open your eyes if they have been closed.

Ahavah ("love") in the Jewish religious context is nuanced. It refers to three things that we elevate and center on Rosh Hashanah:

  • The first is God's love for Creation and each individual creature. The constant flow of God's love to each creature is the essence of life itself because Creation, which we celebrate today, is an eternal process of the one God's becoming manifest in infinite forms.
  • Second is the mutual love between God and the soul of every human being. Created b'tzelem Elohim ("in the image of God"), each of us is born with the enduring capacity to know God from within by knowing our own heart. Responding in love to the Divine love that gives it life, our neshama longs to cause God's light to shine forth into the world around it.
  • The third is the love between God and the descendants of Sarah and Abraham, expressed as an eternal covenant. Despite our fears to the contrary, we know that God's love is unconditional. At the same time, we remain challenged, knowing that its expression depends on the job we do as love-bearers in the world.

God is beyond needing our love.5 What we can and must "do" for God this Rosh Hashanah and throughout the year is strengthen our hearts. Our people, humanity, and all of Creation are depending on it.

1 Ruth Behar, "Sarah and Hagar: The Heelprints on Their Faces," Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holidays, p. 42
2 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, pp.225-226
3 Arthur Green, These are the Words, p. 131
4 Excerpted from God Loves the Stranger, pp. 118-119
5 Arthur Green, These are the Words, pp. 115-116

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783