Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann Last year at this time, I stood in front of this…
Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the New Year, is a day of seeing and a day of hearing. It is a day of seeing ourselves, gazing inward to see the places we have gone astray; it is a day of hearing — hearing to the blasts of the shofar that awaken us out of our spiritual slumber.
I understand Rosh HaShanah also as a time to see beyond our normal field of vision and to hear the voices that are not audible to us. I believe that Jewish tradition teaches us to seek out those experiences as part of our work of teshuvah, turning on this holy day.
I derive this understanding from two primary teachings about the holiday: The first: the torah reading for Rosh HaShanah. The second: a midrash (rabbinic teaching) on the shofar.
The torah reading for Rosh HaShanah is peculiar, given the cosmic significance of the day. On the birthday of the world, we might expect to start with the story of Creation.
Instead we are given a window into the imperfect life of our first family, including the birth of Isaac, reports of strife between Ishmael and Isaac, and Sarah’s decision to banish Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, and Hagar, her maidservant. Abraham, with assurance from God, goes along with Sarah’s demand, and banishes his own flesh and blood and his former concubine, giving them just some water and meager bread to survive the wilderness.
Every year at Rosh HaShanah and during our torah reading cycle, I am struck by the fact that the story does not end there — it does not put its view back on Sarah, Abraham and Isaac — which would make sense! Hagar and Ishmael have their own “scene,” their own moment, even though their story is ancillary to the larger narrative. We witness Hagar in her moment of suffering and vulnerability, as the water runs dry and she places Ishmael in the shadow of a bush so that she will not see him die.
We witness Hagar in her moment of suffering and vulnerability, as the water runs dry and she places Ishmael in the shadow of a bush so that she will not see him die.
Hagar — who has spent most of the torah in the shadows, a puppet of Sarah and a vehicle of procreation — appears to us for the first time as a human being, and as a mother who cries for her child. I do not believe the choice of this torah reading is accidental. On this holy day of turning and returning, we are asked to see a person who lives in the shadows in their full humanity. Can we do so, more, each day?
The second teaching is about the shofar:
One of the names of Rosh HaShanah is Yom T’ruah– the day of the sounding of the shofar. Commentators over the generations have offered various teachings about the meaning and significance of the shofar blasts. One teaching I find particularly meaningful is that the sound of the shofar is the cry of a mother in pain. This interpretation is found in several places.
According to one such midrash, the blasts are connected to our matriarch Sarah: Abraham has taken Isaac up to the mountain, potentially to sacrifice him but Sarah doesn’t know where he is so when Isaac comes back, she asks him where he has been. Isaac tells her the horrific truth.
When she hears his words, she lets six incredible sobs, loud enough to fill the universe — and these six sobs correspond to the shofar sounds on Rosh HaShanah! After this, she dies from heartache.
What a very powerful way to understand the shofar blasts!
Alongside its traditional interpretation, the shofar becomes a call for us to hear the crying of a mother in pain — and in an expanded understanding of this teaching, the cries of all who suffer and are in pain.
In the words of Rabbi Shmuely Yanklowitz: “Everywhere, there are invisible people with hidden cries. They are victims of deep injustices and violent oppression. They are the boys who wash our dishes at restaurants…the girls who make our hotel beds and women who serve in our homes…they are the homeless… Theirs are the open cries reverberating within our souls and the loud cries of the streets. Theirs are the subterranean cries of those yearning for support and comfort. Do you hear them?”
Today, I want us to consider this holy work of seeing and hearing, its potential to change us, fuel us and sustain us as we try to heal our broken world. First, I am going to share some personal stories and lessons learned, then I will share applications of this teaching for this moment and finally to offer accessible and concrete action steps.
First Story: When I became a Tomato Rabbi
Four years ago, I had a profound experience of seeing some of most “unseen” in our country — migrant workers that labor and sweat in the fields to produce the food we comfortably buy in the supermarket. I traveled with T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, to Immokalee, Florida on a study mission. We sought to better understand the struggles of the those who farm our tomatoes and to learn about their inspiring efforts to improve their working conditions.
I hope to share the fuller story at a later point but a short summary is: The farm workers designed the Fair Food Agreement, wherein mega-corporations like McDonald’s and Whole Foods sign on (typically after a long campaign), and agree to pay a penny per pound of tomatoes (just a penny per pound!) and to purchase their tomatoes from farms that uphold basic human rights.
Our days were filled with sessions and site visits, but the most impactful ones were when we met with the farmworkers and listened to their stories. We heard about the atrocious, slave-like conditions of the workers before they started organizing. One woman explained that workers would have their already minimal pay deducted for taking five minutes to drink a cup of water while laboring in extreme temperatures.
An older man shared of being threatened with violence for using the bathroom. A young man recalled that managers would force the workers to over-fill their buckets but not pay them for the top layer, in essence wage theft. A young mother spoke about having no recourse to report a manager who threatened her with sexual violence and having to make the difficult decision to forgo wages or risk her own safety. While these horrific conditions were improved with the Fair Food program, day to day struggles remained as not all companies have signed on.
The experience of hearing the stories of the farm workers organizing for their dignity was nothing short of transformative. On a basic, everyday level, I have never looked at a tomato the same way! When I pass them in the supermarket, or when I see them on a plate in a restaurant, 99 times out of 100, my mind goes to Immokalee and to the faces of the men and women that I met there. And that awareness helps me expand to a greater understanding of the struggles of people who are invisible to me on daily basis but make my life function.
I also gained a role model of holy hutzpah. If those with very little institutional power can have the courage to stand up and demand dignity from those who have tremendous power, how can I not have the courage to stand up for what I believe in?
Second Story: Learning to Listen and Not to Fix
Before moving to NYC, I was involved with a local, interfaith clergy group and had built many relationships across difference. But I was having a hard time making a connection with one particular pastor, an African-American woman about fifteen years my senior who was the minister in a church in a section of Philadelphia heavily impacted by poverty and violence. Much of its community in crisis and thus her “ministry” looked very different than mine. After months of cold or even negative interactions, I one day approached her and asked her what was going on; was there something I had done wrong to make her feel wary of me?
She looked at me and said: “I have seen many well-meaning leaders like you before. They have come into my community and offered their ‘help’ and ‘their assistance’ and then they were gone in a few months.” She continued, “I don’t want your help. I want you to know me and to know the struggles of what goes on inside this church.”
I asked her to tell me more. She shared the stories of several of her congregants and the challenges they face — dealing with the everyday impacts of racism, including the risk for daily stop and frisks for the younger members of her congregation; failing schools in her and surrounding neighborhoods based on the school funding crisis, and lack of job opportunities. She talked about how each of them also plays many roles in their lives, about this one’s commitment to visiting their grandparents every day, about another’s good works in the church.
After all that, she said to me: “I will work with you, if you see my congregants fully, if you hear their stories and you allow them to be at the front of the struggle for justice.”
In this powerful interaction, I was reminded that seeing and hearing those beyond our immediate view is not about fixing or improving — rather it is about seeing others as full human beings, created in the Divine Image. Seeing invites an opportunity for a relationship of equals, not a hierarchy.
Final Story: Meeting Judith from the New Sanctuary Coalition
The last few months, I have started to volunteer with New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that helps protect immigrants at risk for deportation.
Through New Sanctuary, I met Judith, an immigrant who lives in New Jersey and has been in this country for twenty three years. She and her husband have one son who is not a citizen as he came with them at 5 months old (now 23) and two sons who are citizens (ages 20 and 17).
Judith and her husband have worked virtually every day since their arrival; they pay taxes through their jobs and they own a modest home.
But because they are undocumented and not in the system, day to day life is full of tremendous obstacles and complications as well as tangible fear.
A few examples: They cannot access basic government services like food stamps, even if their salaries would qualify them. Neither can get a driver’s license, so driving to work, which is necessary for Judith’s husband’s job, becomes an act of daily risk. If he were to get pulled over for even the most minor infraction, he would risk detention or deportation.
In 23 years, they have never left the state of New Jersey, except to come to NYC because in Judith’s words, “the risk is too great.” The family tries to keep a distance from her neighbors, because she has had friends who have been deported after a neighbor called the police or ICE on them. With the new threat of DACA being repealed and not replaced, there is a heightened fear of separation among the family.
She said: “Being undocumented feels like you do not exist; you are not part of anything; you are a shadow.” She continued, “But, I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to stop living my life.”
As she told me her story, my heart broke open — but in the best of ways. I was able to be present to the pain of her situation and to build a relationship with her. Since our conversation, my experience of this issue, which was already something I was passionate about and committed to, has changed. When I think the 11 million undocumented immigrants, I think first of Judith. When I think about the 800,000 people at risk if DACA is taken away, I think of her son and their family. And when I feel afraid, I find strength in her strength.
There is great power in seeing and hearing. I believe this lesson is especially important today, after a year in which white supremacy and xenophobia defined our daily news and dictated public policy; a year in which those already vulnerable found themselves at greater risk.
This year, many of us have become more aware of inequality and racism in our society. Yet, we don’t necessarily know how best to engage. Seeing and hearing the unseen is a vital step in the process. Bryan Stevenson, an author, attorney, activist and personal hero of mine, speaks about this in his book Just Mercy. Stevenson says that if want to address poverty and oppression, we need to “getting proximate” and draw closer to it. He puts it simply: “You cannot change what you cannot see.”
We cannot change what we do not know about — and when we come close and really allow ourselves to see and be touched, it becomes hard to look away. And in coming close, we, as Stevenson says, “find the power to change the world.”
Seeing and hearing, getting proximate is transformational. This is true not only for us as individuals but also as a society — seeing and hearing are often what moves major social justice movements forward and creates progress. For example, tt was seeing Emmett Till’s casket that brought the horrors of racism and the pervasiveness of lynching home for so many people and catapulted civil rights. Today, seeing the video of police shootings is awakening people to a problem that has not necessarily gotten worse over time- but that with technology, we are confronting with new eyes. Awareness has the potential to keep us enraged and to keep us engaged in the pursuit of justice. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.”
Seeing and Hearing not only fills us with a thirst for justice, it can also help sustain us along the way. Many people today warn about the dangers of compassion fatigue. And for good reason! This year, it has felt that almost every day, certainly every week, there has a crisis that leads a particular group of people at risk (including Jews and members of Jewish communities) and that demands our attention and response. While as Ruth Messinger teaches us, we do not have the luxury to fall into despair, we may still feel exhausted from constant demands of the moment.
It has been my experience that coming closer to pain and suffering increases my capacity for compassion. I am not just fighting for justice — I am fighting for my friend. I am not just working to address immigration policies of intimidation and fear — I am fighting for and with my friend Judith and for all those immigrants whose stories I have had the privilege to know and learn from.
This, it seems to me, is the difference between fighting for justice out a place of anger and fighting from a place of love. Anger inevitably fizzles, love sustains. Anger motivates short term response, love supports long-term engagement.
Now that I have shared stories about the power of seeing and hearing and spoke about the significance of this teaching for today, I want to offer some ways we might bring this teaching into our lives.
First, let’s start with the good news- one does not have to travel to Florida or across the world to see those who may be beyond our normal field of vision. We can start at home, right from where we are.
We can also become involved in organizations that promote a better world but also invite us to work alongside and in allyship of those most affected by oppression.
Over this past year, many SAJers have said to me “But I am not an activist” or I am not able to volunteer or march, what can I do? I am about to suggest something a little radical for New Yorkers- something that everyone, activist or not, can do: talk to people! We can ask questions and chat person-to-person with those who walk in different walks of life but whom we encounter regularly at stores, offices, parks, subways.
Often, we can and need to begin within our own communities, to understand those in our community who may be struggling against odds we are yet aware of.
And all of us, whether we talk to people or not, can make it a daily practice to take note of people, to become curious about who they are and what story they might tell.
Today, I have been speaking mostly about seeing the pain of others and hearing the stories of those who are in pain and oppressed. I want to offer that there is also power in seeing and hearing people who are just simply out of our view because they live in different neighborhoods or have different backgrounds or life experiences. This is an important way of getting out of the proverbial bubble in which we live.
One such opportunity this year comes in the form of a collaboration between SAJ and Grace Congregational Church in Harlem (thanks to Alan Sidransky for being our matchmaker). Our two congregations will gather for monthly study of sacred and discussion of issues of racial justice. This is an opportunity for the members of Grace to see us and to hear our stories and for us to listen to them and to hear from them. At the heart of this experiment is a belief in the power of seeing and hearing one another to engender open-heartedness and personal change.
And even if you say to me: Rabbi Lauren, I cannot do any of these things, I suggest a simple practice: when you read the news, look for the stories of the people who are impacted by what’s happening around us. This shift will change the way we understand and relate to the problems of our world.
These actions may seem like small things in the face of the enormity of today’s challenges, but they are not small at all. In fact, they made be the needed tikkun, healing, that is needed right now.
There is a lively debate about what got our country into the place we are in today — and I will leave that debate for another conversation.
But what I do know that is that it is much harder to hate when you see, truly see, the person you are hating. And it is much easier to oppress and even perhaps more importantly to ignore or overlook the oppression of the vulnerable when you are not in relationship with those who are impacted.
If we got into our current situation because of a lack of seeing and hearing, then it follows that one way to heal the brokenness and move forward is to see, to hear, to see the dignity of those who struggle and to link our struggles with the struggles of others.
In 5778, a year we hope will be better yet expect will also bring continued hatred and increased risk for the most vulnerable, I ask us: Can we see the pain of Hagar? The weeping of Sarah? And all the vulnerable people who might be outside our normal field of vision or outside of range? Let’s see those who we may have not seen before. Let’s listen for their stories and elevate them.
May this work inspire us to act and to grow in compassion and love that will sustain us in the long-term work of tikkun olam, healing our broken world.
- Midrash on Sarah’s Cry: Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 23:1–2
- Shmuely Yanklowitz: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-hidden-cry-of-our-generation-see-the-invisible-people/
- Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
- www.ciw-online.org (Coalition of Imokalee Workers)
- Heschel from Speech on Religion and Race: http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/heschel-religion-and-race-speech-text/