Two-Way Street for Rosh Hashanah | Facing and Embracing the Other

Rabbi Gerry Serotta
on August 26, 2021

With God’s help, Rosh Hashanah 5782 will feel in so many ways like a rebirthing of hope after so much despair. The possibilities for repair within our torn relationships in both the US and Israel/Palestine can at least be visualized now with the changes of political leadership.

Yet at the turning of this year, we are ever more aware of both the fragility within our lives as well as the hope for tikkun halev and tikkun haolam that frame our experience of the Days of Awe. For me, the choice of the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh HaShanah and the Isaiah passage on the true purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur always inspire reflection on the double tikkun we seek.

Wise teachers among us will discern how to apply Isaiah’s insistence upon concern for the vulnerable to the challenges of inequality and structural racism. But what new perspective can we glean from the continuing heartache of family conflict that plagues our people, foreshadowed by the Biblical account in Genesis 20.

Whose children have the primary right to the land of Canaan, the descendants of Sarah, the resident alien Ivriah/boundary crosser from the fertile crescent, or those of Hagar, the enslaved Egyptian? Do those descendants have to separate and partition their lives in order for both to thrive, as our Biblical text seems to derive from Sarah’s demand with support from the Holy One? Or in its contemporary version, the “Two-State Solution?”

Could we aspire to a different framework that goes beyond the rhetoric of partition or divorce (in the metaphorical language of Amos Oz)? Whatever the feasibility of two separate states, could we look for an eventual solution that echoes the reunion of Isaac and Ishmael who spend much of their lives living together in harmony with Haggar (and according to the midrash) in the family of Ibrahim/Abraham and the freedwoman newly renamed Keturah.

Both realism and the demands of justice force us to consider other models, such as confederations. Knowing that we have one land and two peoples, should we look to other versions of self-determination for each people such as those envisaged by the Eretz L’kulam movement in Israel/Palestine? The pure pragmatism of the demographic argument does not reflect the best values of our people. We ought to strive for a higher standard. In this vein, we might look to the insights from three great theologians of the past 100 years – Emanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Rabbi Art Green.

I don’t think we have adequately probed the meaning of a phrase from God’s prediction of Ishmael’s fate in Genesis 16:12וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־אֶחָ֖יו יִשְׁכֹּֽן ׃ “He will dwell in the face of/ his kin.” The actual and literal face of the other makes ultimate demands upon us, Levinas teaches. In the context of a roadmap for relationships with the Palestinians, the distinguished scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr* wrote recently, “This path… is illuminated by acknowledging, as Emmanuel Levinas beseeches us, the face of the other … in the fullness of her existential reality. To see the face of the other requires the courage and ethical resolve to discard the lens of ideology, fear, and a single absorption in one’s own story and woe.”

Mendes-Flohr also points to an article published shortly after the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948 in which Martin Buber held that the founding of the modern state ”confronts Judaism with the gravest crisis in its history.” For, “[E]ven should the spiritual wealth of the People of Israel residing in its own land greatly increase, it does not necessarily follow that from this wealth will flower new life for Judaism. For if we properly comprehend the uniqueness of Judaism, then it has but one content and purpose … The Lord expects that Israel should live a life of justice before itself and the world… the people of Israel are called upon not only to build just institutions but even more demandingly, just relations between itself and other peoples.”

Rabbi Green commented recently on Parshat Shelach L’cha: “They [Joshua and Caleb] said to the whole community of Israel: “the land which we passed through to spy out is a very, very good land,”

ויאמרו…הארץ אשר עברנו בה לתור אותה טובה הארץ מאד מאד

Green continues, “The midrash of our generation needs to read ‘very, very’ in this verse to mean that it is good enough to hold both us and those who dwell there already. We do not accept the alternatives of ‘slaughter them, be slaughtered, or go back to Egypt.’ A ‘very, very good land’ is one that can be shared…We need to declare, clearly and openly, that we have grown beyond the ethos of ethnic cleansing, conquest, and slaughter that characterized our people’s vision more than two thousand years ago. As victims of genocide, we read such passages in order to remind ourselves to stand up in witness against them.”

*See his remarkable essay, “Cri de Coeur: Lachrymose Reflections on Israeli-Palestinian Relations” by distinguished Emeritus Professor Paul Mendes-Flohr published June 1, 2021, in Tikkun magazine for references to Buber and Levinas.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta is Executive Director Emeritus of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington, and previously served as founding Executive Director of Clergy Beyond Borders. He was a university chaplain and Hillel Rabbi for 28 years and for twelve years served congregations in Maryland. Rabbi Serotta was also the Founding Chair of both Rabbis for Human Rights, North America (now T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) and of New Jewish Agenda, a national progressive organization.

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