Rosh Hashanah Day 5777/2016: Hoping to See, Seeing Hope

By Rabbi Shohama

Shanah Tovah, everyone. This holy day of Rosh Hashanah is about teshuvah, about returning to our sacred center. And hope, tikvah in Hebrew, is our theme for this year. Hope is part of what draws us to return. We hope for a better quality of life, right now, and in the year to come, and the years yet to come. We sense that it will take more than our own efforts to bring this about. Our Torah reading this morning brought us examples of two different kinds of hope. For Hagar, it was hoping to see, and then seeing hope. For Abraham and Sarah, it was a Divine promise of hope and then a long-awaited fulfillment.

Let’s look first at hope for something that is already there but requires an internal shift to see it. Psychologists call this “inattention blindness,” which is what happens when we are so focused on one set of circumstances that we miss seeing something right in front of our eyes. It happens to me every day as I go hunting for something I have misplaced, like my keys. I look and look and then, lo and behold, there they are, on my desk or dresser, hiding in plain sight.

Although inattention blindness is a psychological concept it has spiritual relevance. I learned about it through reading the weekly column of my colleague Rabbi Marc Angel. (Those of you who know my connection to angels will smile at the fact that his name is angel.) Rabbi Angel wrote about a social experiment in which psychologists asked a group of people to watch a film of a basketball game. They were to count how many times the team members passed the ball to each other. While the people were viewing the basketball game and concentrating on their assignment, a person in street clothes walked right through the center of the basketball court. Yet, when the viewers were later asked about the film, almost three-quarters of them had no memory of having seen anyone walk through the basketball court. In other words, they were “blind” to this interruption in their concentration. They did not see someone who was right in front of their eyes.” This is a clear example of inattention blindness.

We see this phenomenon in the story of Hagar, who had been sent away into the desert with her son Ishmael. She and her son were in a heightened state of fear—fear of dying of hunger and of thirst. Torah explained (Gen. 21:14-21), “They wandered in the wilderness of Beersheva, where she (Hagar) sat down a distance from her son, and wept.” Then, narrates Torah, “God heard the voice of the lad where he was, and a malach (a messenger or angel) of God called out to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘Do not fear… and God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”

The miracle here was not that God created a well for Hagar and Ishmael, but that God gave Hagar hope by sending an angel to give her a message of hope. Then she was able to look up and see what was there all the time. By hoping to see, she saw hope. That “God opened her eyes” is a metaphor; it means she was no longer blind to what was in front of her very eyes.

How did the Holy One send Hagar a message of hope? As mentioned before, the word for angel, malach, also means messenger. Perhaps this malach was an angelic being and she heard an outer voice or an inner voice saying, “do not fear.” Maybe the malach was a message of intuition—she sensed a suggestion to look up. Perhaps the message came through her bodily state of feeling, and when she felt less afraid and stopped weeping, she was calm enough to look more carefully at the landscape. However the message came, it came from an inspirational place, and then she saw the well that had been there all the time.

Let’s look more deeply at the phrase “God opened her eyes.” I don’t think it literally means that God reached down and opened her eyelids. Perhaps it means she reached a different level of consciousness. In our morning blessings, we say “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, pokeiach ivrim. Blessed are you, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who opens the eyes of the blind.” It can refer to our eyes literally opening in the morning when we awake, or it can mean we have a spiritual or mental awakening. We suddenly see a truth that was not visible to us before.

As for Hagar, so it is for us. We all have personal challenges. How do we see past our blind spots, when by definition being blind means not seeing? Or as Rabbi David published in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, “how do we remember what we’ve forgotten when we forget that we don’t remember?” Inattention blindness, like spiritual blindness, is the challenge of this season.

The first thing we need to do is become aware that we must search. Jewish tradition offers us a number of tools. The first is the commandment at this time of year to do teshuvah, to return to our highest, holiest self. We can do that through personal prayer, by asking God for help. Our Hasidic teachers told us to simply relate to God as you would with a beloved– talking, beseeching, or shedding tears. Tears are a great opener of the channel of connection between us and God.

Another way is through words. The entire book of psalms is a collection of poems calling out to God for help, affirming God’s goodness and justice. There is an ancient tradition of reciting psalms when we are in need of spiritual help. Psalms also infuse our prayer books. An important tool is to pay attention to the words of liturgy in our prayer books and allow them to touch our hearts. Sages who felt a strong connection to the Divine put them there; when we pray those words we may connect with their hearts and souls.

Yet another important tool is to connect with community; when we pray with others we may sense their faith, and it strengthens ours. Of course location, location, location, as in real estate, is important in spiritual life. We may feel hope when we are in what feels like a sacred place, whether it be in a house of worship or out in nature. Many tell me that when they walk into this sanctuary, they feel a presence of something ineffable, something spiritual.

It’s also true that what opens our channel to the Sacred need not require belief in God or calling on God. Chesbon hanefesh, taking account of our deeds and our soul, is in itself a spiritual practice that brings us in touch with our spirituality. It can be done by sitting alone and contemplating, or by writing in a journal. We may be spiritually empowered by creating a sacred corner in our home, with objects that have spiritual resonance for us. My table has a Bible, a prayer book, a tallit, and some objects that have special spiritual meaning for me. Some people use photographs or stones. Sometimes getting away opens our perspective; we may need to go somewhere else, doing different so that we might see different.

My teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, often urged us to share our troubles with a spirit buddy, a person who would understand our needs and see what we are not seeing. A spirit buddy might be a therapist or spiritual director, a treasured friend or family member who can be a holy listener and reflect back to us our truths.

Lastly, God – Source of Life—Source of Hope, Source of Comfort, has provided for hope through the gift of time. As the psalmist says (30:5), weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Perhaps we just need to wait, and allow time to heal– or to reveal– what is already there. That is our first kind of hope; hoping to see, and then seeing hope.

The second kind of hope is not for what is already here but for what is yet to be. This hope may take years or decades or longer to be realized. We just heard about the birth of Isaac to our Biblical mother and father, Sarah and Abraham. This birth took place a quarter century after God’s initial promise to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation…and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-2).

Decades went by and still Sarah did not become pregnant. It wasn’t until Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah eighty-nine, that this miracle occurred. (Gen 21:1) “God took note of Sarah as promised, doing for Sarah as had been said.” Sarah became pregnant at 89 and gave birth at 90! Isaac was born twenty-five years after God had made the promise! Sometimes we have to hang on to hope for a long time, sometimes a very long time before our dream is fulfilled.

God does not promise that all our hopes will be fulfilled, or fulfilled immediately. The 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God’s promise is to be like our shepherd, always tending and caring for us, even through rough times. Rosh Hashanah calls us to return to that hope of feeling God’s care, and to hang on to that feeling. As the great preacher Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” He was voicing the words of Psalm 37 verse 9, “Od M’at,” just a little longer. Hang in there—just a little longer. Keep hope in God, the power of goodness, just a little longer. The tide will turn, od m’at, in just a little longer.

Let’s pray. Let’s ask. Let’s extend ourselves to each other. Let’s give up our inattention blindness and notice the wonders and miracles right before eyes. As our theme song for this year says, “Kavei el Adonai. Keep hope in the One.

Chazak v’ya’ametz libecha. Be strong and open your heart wide.” Then it will be a Shanah Tovah, a good New Year.

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