A New Year: What Can we Hope for?
September 18, 2020
By Harvey Sanders

Fall is my favorite season.  I love the colors and the scent of the air.  The school year starts and Rosh HaShanah is this weekend.  I don’t care what the secular calendar says, the year for me starts now. 

This Fall is especially new for my family: we recently dropped off our older son for his first year of college more than 1100 miles from home and our younger son started his senior year of high school under circumstances that are anything but normal – and seem to change daily.  We’re in the middle of a pandemic, climate-related crises are tormenting our country and the world, there is social, economic and political unrest and polarization, and the election is 46 days from today.  It is overwhelming.

When I look for hope, I often look to the scriptural reading.  This week, it is the one for Rosh HaShanah.  As I re-read the familiar story of the birth of Abraham’s son Isaac and the binding of Isaac, I focused instead on the story of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar.  God told Abraham he should expel them, as his wife Sarah had requested, but he should not worry because God would make a nation of Ishmael.  Yet, we have no reason to believe that as the story unfolds.

As they run out of water, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush and goes off a distance, saying “Let me not look on as the child dies” and she cries.  Things seem hopeless.  Even though the text does not report that Ishmael cries, it says, “God heard the cry of the boy.”  How did God hear the boy’s cry, but not that of his mother?  The Hasidic master, Rabbi Mendel of Vorki said, “God can hear the silent cries of the anguished heart, even when no words are uttered.”  The medieval French Rabbi, Rashi, citing Genesis Rabah, concluded God hears the cry of the victim more readily than that of others.  God sends an angel, opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well, and the story concludes “God was with the boy and he grew up.” 

I found a lovely midrash that adds to this story, in the Book of Legends.[1]   I’ll summarize.  Even though Sarah insisted Hagar and Ishmael be expelled, three years later, Abraham goes to see Ishmael.  Ishmael was not home and Abraham was not well-received by Ishmael’s wife.  Abraham left the message that Ishmael’s household was unwelcoming.  Another three years later, Abraham again goes to see Ishmael, who again was not home.  This time, Abraham was well-received and he prayed on behalf of Ishmael and his house was blessed.  When Ishmael heard what happened, he realized his father still loved him.

As I look at the world today and I see all of the unrest and I think of all the innocent victims, I pray that their prayers – silent or verbalized – will be answered by God.  I pray that no matter how bleak things sometimes seem, God can open our eyes to a way forward.  And I pray that no matter how divided and polarized our communities seem to be, that our innate love for other humans can help us understand and respect one another. 

Harvey Sanders is a partner at Sanders & Sanders, a law firm specializing in employment law.  He is a Past President of Temple Beth Tzedek and currently serves on the Federation’s Board of Governors.

[1] It cites an 8th century narrative, Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, and a 14th century text, Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis by Rabbi David Adani.

A New Year: What Can we Hope for? - Jewish thought of the week graphic