9/11 and Rosh Hashanah: Reconciling Abraham's Families, Celebrating American Diversity

Dear friends,

Before I share with you some thoughts about the intersection this year of 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah, I want to remind you: I am one of four rabbis who will be leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur retreats at Elat Chayyim/ Isabella Freedman, the lovely spiritual center in Connecticut.

The Shalom Center co-sponsors those retreats, and our community is entitled to 20% reductions in the cost of room & board. Just enter SCRH10 as the discount code when you register here.

This year especially, I urge us to plan to include in Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur Torah readings the passage on reconciliation of the two families of Abraham -- Gen. 25: 7-11, when Ishmael & Isaac come together to bury their father and then after long estrangement decide to live together at Ishmael's wellspring. This reading could then open up a discussion of what it means about our intimate families and our larger family, in this generation when the children of Abraham through Hagar & Ishmael and the children of Abraham through Sarah and Isaac are so often at each other’s throats.

Here's why to do this especially this year:

This year, the ninth anniversary of 9/11 falls on Shabbat Shuvah, just after the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The day will be used for a demonstration in New York City denouncing Park51/ Cordoba House (the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan) by several right-wing political figures, including Geert Wilders, an ultra-right-wing Dutch politician who is on trial there for anti-Muslim hate speech.

They will be trying to inflame hatred of all Islam, including the peace-seeking Sufis of Park51/ Cordoba House, as if all Muslims were responsible for the 9/11 mass murders.

It seems to me that one of the factors (not the only one) in the wave of opposition to Park51 from many conservative, Tea Party, and other right-wing politicians is the hope of using it as a wedge issue to split voting constituencies and communities that generally vote progressive. The obvious target here is the American Jewish community, and it behooves us to take great care not to let anti-Muslim bigotry sweep away the Jewish voting community.

Of course different Jews have many issues to consider, and many different perspectives from which to do so, in choosing whom to support in the November elections and beyond — our varied economic views, our varied outlooks on US foreign policy, our concern about terrorism, our concern for religious freedom and civil liberties. But hatred of Islam, as if all Muslims and their religion were our enemy, should not be one of them. And given the attempts to inflame Jews to feel this way, we need to take special care to oppose such abuses.

How then can we address this question, especially in the light of the confluence of 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah?

The traditional readings for Rosh Hashanah are two deeply disturbing tales: Abraham’s and Sarah’s expulsion of Hagar & Ishmael, almost to die in the wilderness, saved only by YHWH’s opening Hagar’s eyes to a well at the last possible moment; and Abraham’s readiness to offer Isaac as a burnt-offering, from which disaster both were saved at the last possible moment by YHWH’s opening Abraham’s eyes to a ram he then killed as the offering.

Both lives are saved, but Abraham's two families remain divided.

Muslim tradition has some important differences — not only does it say that the son almost offered up was Ishmael, but it has no tale of the breakup of Abraham’s family. Interestingly, Jewish midrash says that after Sarah’s death, the woman named Keturah whom (according to Torah) Abraham took to wife was actually Hagar.. In other words, the broken family was healed.

One might say that our two traditions are expressing two complementary though different truths: one about the spiritual effort involved in healing brokenness; the other, the spiritual effort involved in protecting wholeness.

AND -- not only the midrash but the Torah points toward reconciliation. In Genesis/ Breshit 25: 7-11, the Torah describes how upon Abraham’s death, his two sons (indeed the phrase connecting them, “his sons,” is used for the first time) come together to bury him. And then Isaac goes to live at the “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me,” the well YHWH revealed to Hagar & Ishmael.

It seems that the two estranged families are reconciled. Somehow the death of the man who was most dangerous to both his children, and the task of burial, broke down the barriers of many years of separation. This passage is about tshuvah and slichah -- "turning" or repentance, and foregiveness.

But we read this passage only in the regular cycle of Torah portions. We do not lift it up into our intense awareness as we do with the expulsion of Ishmael & the binding of Isaac, by reading these two stories on Rosh Hashanah as well as in the regular cycle.

So I have a proposal: That either on Rosh Hashanah or on Yom Kippur, we read these few verses from the Sefer Torah, Gen. 25: 7-11, with all the sacred blessings for reading Torah, and open up a discussion of what they mean about our intimate families and our larger family, in this generation when the children of Abraham through Hagar & Ishmael and the children of Abraham through Sarah and Isaac are so often at each other’s throats.

In some congregations, it might even be possible to invite a Muslim -- perhaps a Muslim Sufi like Imam Rauf, or any Muslim who has taken part in interfaith work, to share her/his insights into Jewish-Muslim reconciliation.

And perhaps we might read as Rosh Hashanah preparation the Beacon-published book The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, rooted in the varied tales of the Abrahamic family, co-authored by a Benedictine nun (Sr. Joan Chittister), a Sufi teacher (Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti, also known as Neil Douglas Klotz), and me, with a couple of very important chapters by Rabbi Phyllis Berman.

Indeed, one essay by Phyllis, “Why Hagar Left,” is a very bold midrash on the true relationship of Hagar & Sarah.

This year, American society (including the American Jewish community) is in the midst of an intense argument, emotional far more than intellectual, over whether Islam and Muslims are a fully legitimate strand in the American rainbow-colored fabric.

At a time of unwinnable wars and economic disaster, there is great danger that fear of the little-known will turn to fury, as it did during the Great Depression when a wave of anti-Semitism swept across America. But our country did ultimately realize that the Jewish community could bring its own unique threads into American society. That realization took work to accomplish -- grass-roots education, inspiration, organizing.

It is important to do the same kind of grass-roots education, organizing, and inspiration, to achieve the same result in regard to Islam. If the High Holy Days are indeed to be Holy, that is one holy task we should be doing.

Jews are taught that precisely in the doorways that might seem to separate my home from the world, and in the "city gates" that might seem to separate two different cultures, we are to lift up the mezuzah that reminds us, "YHWH [the Breath of Life] is One."

This is a crucial moment to cross the thresholds that have divided our Abrahamic families, and to affirm that we celebrate the same Breath of Life.

Shalom, salaam, shantih, peace --

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center

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