The person who walks amidst the songs of birds
and thinks only of what he will have for dinner
hears–but does not really hear.
People who hear the sound of the Shofar
and do not feel the need to change their ways
hear–but do not really hear.
As the new year begins,
strengthen our ability to hear.
That’s the prime purpose of holy days. People will do with them what they will. But if we engage holy days as they want to be engaged, our ability to hear what needs to be heard is strengthened. That’s what the piercing sound of the shofar is about. And the sweetness of apples dipped in honey. And also the annual re-telling of the Torah story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac.
Now, you would think that the Torah story to be retold on Rosh Hashanah would be the one from Genesis, the creation story, majestic with lines like, “And God said, let there be light…” Brilliant with refrain after refrain of, “And God saw that it was good.” Yet Rosh Hashanah, even as it commemorates the birthday of the world, puts particular and special emphasis on the birthday of the HUMAN world, the birthday of HISTORY, which is what Sarah’s giving birth to Isaac is about. So that’s the Bible story that gets the annual re-telling this time of year…
The context is this: Long after the Flood and Noah, God spoke to a faithful man named Abram and said, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Abram was supposed to have been 75 years old when God said all this to him, and God kept on saying it, in one place and then in another, throughout his and Sarai’s long journey. But despite all the assurances, Sarai—equally aged—remained infertile. The infertility wouldn’t budge.
It goes on like this for around 25 years! And then look who steps into their lives again: God. Like a broken record, God repeats the promise—and to make the deal even more earnest he renames Sarai Sarah and Abram Abraham, names we know them better by today. “This is my covenant to you,“ God intones… “This is my covenant to you…”
Abraham counters with silent laughter. After all the long years and all the promises, what else could he do? As the Bible puts it: “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’” How possibly can the birth of anything new come from parents so completely worn out?
This story of promise and perplexity continues with the appearance, one day, of three visitors near Abraham’s tent. It’s hot outside, and Abraham is moved by the sacred law of hospitality to refresh the visitors with food and drink and rest. The dialogue between them, as the Bible captures it, appears a bit confused, since sometimes it seems to be conversation between Abraham and human beings and other times it seems to be Abraham and the Lord talking together. Here’s what we read in the Torah:
“Where is your wife Sarah?” the visitors asked Abraham.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed out loud as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But the LORD said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
And that’s the story from the Torah.
At this point you may be asking why the LORD is giving Sarah such a hard time about laughing when Abraham laughed too. Feels just a little patriarchal … but, on the other hand, Abraham’s laughter was way more modest than Sarah’s. Nothing modest about Sarah’s laughter at all. It was loud enough to be heard outside of the tent and, as I hear it in my imagination, it’s buzz-saw loud, it’s snorted-out loud, it’s uppity loud, it’s no-holds-barred loud, it’s loud in a way that basically thumbs the nose at the God of all creation….
And why not? It’s Sarah’s body that’s at issue here, and she gets to have a clear opinion about that. It’s her body! She lives with it every day and knows it intimately. So she is downright skeptical. The whole idea of her worn out, infertile flesh giving birth is a cruel joke. She’s just in despair and bone-tired of all the promises she’d heard, yada yada yada, over all the long years….
And here’s where the story might touch our own. Ask yourself: Is there something happening in your life right now that feels just like Sarah’s body, and you’re seeing things just as Sarah saw them? Overlay the story on your life: is there resonance? Can you relate?
Promises are set before us. Promises that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Promises of happiness and wellbeing in our families. Promises that we can be happy and healthy in our own lives. Rosh Hashanah itself is one of these promises, that hope can be reborn to us in the new year! But we have heard all the promises before, and we well know all the times the promises didn’t come true. We also well know how we can be our own worst enemies. The renewal doesn’t come because we don’t do the soul searching necessary to make way for it. We are not honest with ourselves. In a time for truth, we do not ask ourselves hard questions.
This is why, at the thought of new birth–at the thought of renewal in a new year—all we might want to do is laugh. Just like Sarah. Be buzz-saw loud, snort-it-out loud, uppity loud, no-holds-barred loud, just like her. And say, in a way that fits our own unique situation, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Give me a great big Sarah laugh, right now!
Yet we look ahead with hope,
giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal,
for the promise of good to come.
Rosh Hashanah wants to strengthen our capacity to hear our inner Sarah—and then to hear beyond that, to the renewal that did and does happen against all odds. Don’t get me wrong. I love Sarah. I am Sarah, and so are we all. All that grit, all that spunk. Keeps us grounded. Keeps us real. But don’t stop there. We must never forget how the story ends for Sarah, and how it can end for us…
Years of infertility—year after grinding, hopeless year—can’t stop the miracle. God makes the seemingly infertile fertile. Isaac is born. And through him comes an entire nation, a great nation. And even if the story never really happened as told, but is a sheer mythology of the race, still, the greatness of Israel is real. The greatness of the Jewish spirit. Here and now, we celebrate it. The birthday of a people and a history, against all odds.
If Isaac’s birth means anything, that’s it.
Clearly, we don’t have the benefit or the challenge of Abraham’s God stepping directly into our stories, visiting our tents for food and drink and rest. But for those of us who are God-believers of some sort, we know that God is an ever-present source of renewal that is always available to tap into if only we stop long enough to focus and to listen. And for all of us, God-believer or not, we are healed and made whole by the power of friendship, the energy of compassion and kindness, the grace of the world’s beauty, the wisdom of teachers around us and those who have gone before us, the gifts of traditions like Judaism which our precious Unitarian Universalist religion opens us up to.
Rosh Hashanah says, new birth can happen. What that’s going to look like, exactly, may very well end up very different from what’s expected. This is something important to acknowledge. A dear friend puts it like this: the universe is a fantastic gift giver but a terrible, terrible gift wrapper….
Right now, life might feel as dry and infertile as Sarah’s body; and your mind might be just as jaded and cynical and despairing as hers. But that’s how renewal begins, in the places which feel the most impossibly stuck. So stay in the game. Stay curious about what happens next. Stay patient for the time when the birth will happen, and the child’s cry will pierce the deadening silence, and you will have just come through the valley of the shadow of death, and you will enter into sweetness, the very life of life, the life that is more than you could have ever imagined.
That’s where you will be! Be patient for it. Believe.
The name “Isaac”: do you know what it literally means? It literally means “Laughter.” Laughter that begins in surprise, laughter that turns cynical and buzz-saw loud, laughter that ends up sweet and joy-filled and deep.
May the laughter of Isaac be yours and mine and everyone’s.