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Our Time to Listen

Rosh HaShana 5766

By

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh

Mara was at a conference in Japan. She left her two young children with her husband a full time dad. In the middle of a sushi dinner, her cell phone rang. It was her best friend from childhood, Jill. She answered it immediately. Jill was grief stricken, her father had died suddenly. Mara knew what she needed to do. Though many miles away, she tried to comfort her friend and then as soon as she hung up, she dialed her husband.

“Hi it’s me. Listen, I just got a call from Jill. Her dad died last night. I think I really need to come home early to go to the funeral.”

Silence.

“Hello…?”

“Yes, I’m here. You’re coming home? I thought you said this was a very important conference and you couldn’t cut it short.”

Mara started to get angry. “This is our friend. Her dad just died. Don’t you think we should both be there?!”

“But it’s going to be very expensive to change your flight” he protested.

And then…click.

Mara never was sure whether her husband hung up, or the phone disconnected. Ten minutes later, she called him back. He said the phone suddenly cut off.

A week later, after the dust settled and many long discussions, Mara and her husband uncovered what was at the bottom of their anger. It turned out that her husband was angry because he wondered if Mara would be there for him if he was in a crisis. Mara in turn was angry at him because she often felt controlled by him and wished he could have been more sympathetic that she had to leave her conference early. Like many of us, they struggle to communicate. They argue about content because there’s so much that is unspoken.

Let’s look at today’s Torah portion through the eyes of Mara and her husband; through the eyes of two people who have a hard time being there for and with each other.

The story is a painful one. Sara and Abraham are married for many years, yet Sara is marked by being barren. Whether or not she is bothered by her situation is unclear. Nevertheless Sara comes up with an idea. Back in Genesis 16 she says to Abraham, “Look, God has kept me from bearing a child. Sleep with my maid (Hagar) and then perhaps I’ll have a son through her.” (Gen 16:2) As a wife myself, I’m always deeply saddened by this verse. Not because she gave her husband her maid, many women in the Bible did this, but because of the silence between them.

I’m saddened because not once do our first matriarch and patriarch sit down and open their hearts to each other. Did Sara not want to have sex with her husband because she didn’t feel close to him? Was she lonely among her women friends who always spoke of nursing and diapers? Was she angry at God? I have no idea. And neither does Abraham. Did he doubt God’s existence due to his lack of progeny? Was he longing for home? Was he consumed by his job and finding it difficult to connect with Sara? I have no idea. And neither does Sara because she also doesn’t ask.

Now I have to admit, one doesn’t usually find our matriarchs and patriarchs bonding over a cup of tea, and pouring out their life’s joys and sorrows with each other. This isn’t “Oprah.” Still, we do see hints of loving exchanges in the Torah. One day before battle, Jonathan and David vowed their love to one another. Isaac was said to have been comforted by Rebecca after his mother’s death. And Moses prayed deeply for his sister Miriam’s recovery from a skin disease.

But even though Abraham and Sara don’t sit down with each other, today they sit on our laps. On Rosh HaShannah, we evaluate our most intimate relationships - with our spouses, children, parents and friends. So this morning, Abraham and Sara share our seat, glare into our eyes, and warn us that we could easily turn into them.

As the story unfolds Abraham and Sara fall into three traps. They ignore what’s going on between the two of them, they hide their feelings by emotionally withdrawing from each other, and they find a substitute to fill their void. I’d like to look at each of these three traps, not only to examine how Abraham and Sara grew apart, but to use their relationship as a warning for each of us.

After Sara suggests that Abraham sleep with her handmaid, things quickly progress. Hagar, about whom we know nothing, instantly conceives and bears a son named Ishmael. Never once does Abraham or Sara refer to her by name. Instead she is pushed around like a chess piece, used by each side to attack the other. Ultimately Sara does get pregnant. She bears a child named Isaac and orders Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the house - because she doesn’t want him to threaten her son’s inheritance.

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