By Rabbi Avi Weiss
Sitting with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Pastor John McCoy opposite Zakiah after the tragic death of her husband, I could see tears welling up in her eyes. Zakiah is the widow of Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security officer who was murdered at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, as he protected thousands who were inside. When Zakiah did speak, she said very few words, "I am in great pain. I don't understand why this happened. But deep down I know we're all in the hands of God." And that's what I'd like to talk about today.
The Talmud records that the major reading on Rosh Hashanah is the story of the expulsion of Yishmael. The Akeidah narrative is a tag along so we have something to read on the second day. One wonders, if today is the anniversary of creation, why not read that narrative from the beginning of Genesis? Why is the main reading on Rosh Hashanah the Yishmael expulsion story? What does this story have to do with creation? A brief analysis of this narrative shows the way.
After the birth of Isaac, the Torah notes that Sarah sees that Yishmael is metzachek (Genesis 21:9). What exactly does metzachek mean?
Robert Alter, the contemporary Biblical scholar argues that the simple interpretation of metzachek is that Yishmael wanted to be Yitzchak, he wanted to be the covenantal heir. In simple terms, Yishmael was "Isaacing."
As a consequence, Sarah feels that Yitzchak's status as the next patriarch is threatened. She therefore demands of Avraham, expel Yishmael. "Garesh ha- ama ha-zot ve-et b'nah, expel this handmaid and her son; he is her son, not your covenantal son."
Avraham, the Torah tells us, reacts strongly. "Vayera hadavar meod be'enei avraham al odot bno, The matter was evil in the eyes of Avraham concerning his son," referring to Yishmael. In other words, for Avraham the true covenantal son was Yishmael.
Here, Sarah and Avraham are having a monumental disagreement. For Sarah, the covenantal heir was Yitzchak. For Avraham, the covenantal heir was Yishmael.
It is here that God intervenes and proclaims: "kol asher tomar eilecha Sarah, sh'ma be-kolah - Sarah is right, and you, Abraham, are wrong".
And that's why we read this narrative on Rosh Hashanah. Yes, Rosh Hashanah is the day when we challenge ourselves to improve, to fix mistakes, to do more, to overcome.
But on a certain level it's also the day to acknowledge that sometimes certain things are beyond us. On the day of God's ultimate intervention, the day we celebrate God's creation of the world, we read the story of God intervening in history and declaring, Yitzchak is the covenantal heir, not Yishmael. And that's it. Ultimately, God is the decision maker. He is in control.
The Torah reading on Yom Kippur has a similar message. We're told that the High Priest takes two goats. Lots are cast to determine their fate. One is cast to the wilderness - Azazel, and the other is offered to God.
The Talmud points out that the goats were absolutely equal in appearance, in size, in worth. "Shneihen [hayu] shavin be-mareh u-vekomah u-vedamim " (Yoma 62b). Despite their similarity, they experience opposite fates. This reminds us, says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, that while their fates seem to be determined by random lottery, it is in the end really decided by God. Once again, God is the decision maker. He is in control.
An important idea emerges here. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of self-evaluation and commitment to do everything within our power to do better. But on these days, we must also recognize that life is often beyond our rule. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us that our fate lies with God.
This point was made at our Shabbat table a few weeks ago. We went around the table asking everyone to comment on what they loved most about the High Holidays. One of our guests, Dr. Adiel Schremer, said that what he loves most is the prayer, Ochila la-El. The complete first line reads, "Ochila la-El achle panav eshalah mimenu ma'aneh lashon - I put my hope in God, I plead before Him. I request that He give me the gift of language." In other words, we say to God, "O God, I implore you. I do not know the words. I do not know what to request. Give me the words. You make the request, as you know what is best for me. Give me the gift of language as I am in Your hands." The tefillah goes on, "le'adam ma'archei lev u-me'hashem ma'anei lashon", which can be loosely translated, "A person arranges life, but ultimately all comes from God." It's nothing less than my Bubbe's constant refrain, a mentsch tract un Got lacht - a person plans and God laughs.
Of course, Rosh Hashanah is the time to resolve, to take action, to improve ourselves, our families, our people, the world. But Rosh Hashanah is also the time to learn a little bit of humility. To recognize that we can't do it all. To understand the central role God plays in the world. Without God, all would be lost. Such recognition allows one to feel God's love, God's presence, God's protection.
This may be the deeper meaning of the names of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom ha-Keseh. Literally, it means "the Day of Covering" as it falls on the day when the moon is hardly visible. But more deeply, the covering refers to the hope of feeling God's protection, like a child in bed at night uncovered, who is lovingly blanketed by a parent.
The name Yom Kippur has a similar meaning. Kippur is kaporet, which was the covering over the Ark; once again, a symbol of God's protection and love.
The time had come to part company from Zakiah. We all rose and held hands and sang songs of hope and belief. I thought of that song from many years back, "He's got the whole world in His hands. He's got you and me brother in His hands. He's got you and me sister in His hands. He's got everybody here, in his hands. He's got everybody everywhere in His hands. He's got the whole world in His hands."
As I left, Zakiah gave me a booklet which was distributed at the memorial service for her husband, Stephen Tyrone Johns of blessed memory.
It included a letter, one of thousands she had received, which read:
Dear Officer Johns' Family,
I was at the Holocaust Museum that Wednesday afternoon. I think I was very lucky to have met Officer Johns. He was the first person I met at the museum. He joked with me about all the coins in my pocket. He said he was going to have to keep my money. Then he told me he was joking with me and we both laughed.
I would like to give this medal to his family for his bravery. I think he saved many lives including mine.
Sincerely, Riley Grisar - age 9½
P.S.: I have included the coins I mentioned.