Expanding the circles of responsibility

1 TISHREI 5779 / SEPTEMBER 10, 2018

Everyday, we wake up,
we engage in our daily affairs
often just trying to maintain status quo;
work, school, play, rest:
we try to find a balance
between what we do for ourselves
and what we do for others.
We try to live meaningful lives.
In the everyday and over time,
how do we make the world a better place
through our sense of responsibility?

On this most holy day,
let us consider:
Who are we responsible to?
And how do we prioritize our responsibility to
ourselves, our families, our communities,
our Jewish people, the wider world?

Today’s Torah reading is the story of how we balance
our responsibilities to self, family and tribe, as well as to others.
It is the story of Hagar and Sarah, of Isaac and Ishmael.

Unable to conceive, Sarah practices an ancient custom,
and tells Abraham to take her maidservant Hagar,
and have a child through her.
After Ishmael’s birth,
and despite her and Abraham’s old age,
Sarah does conceive and gives birth to Isaac.
Yet, she doesn’t want to share
her own son’s inheritance with Ishmael.
Protective of her newborn son, Isaac,
she tells Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out of the house.

Stranded in the parched desert,
with no food or water,
Hagar sits at a distance from her son and weeps:
“Let me not see the child die!”
There lies Ishmael alone, under a bush,
and we are faced with the tragic story of Ishmael’s near death.

Of course, as moderns we are troubled by this story.
Even the medieval rabbis “were loath
to criticise the patriarchs and matriarchs”,
yet Nachmanides wrote:
“Our mother [Sarah] transgressed
by this affliction (of kicking Hagar out of the house),
and Abraham did likewise by permitting her to do so.”
(Rabbi Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, p.113)

Yet still, the story also makes us face our own selves
and our obligations to our own family,
whether biological or chosen:
Are there not times when we simply must put family first?
Consider for a moment how much time and energy and resources
any one of us actually gives to others beyond our inner family.
Surely others have great need,
quite often a greater need than our own.
Yet, of all that we are responsible to,
family is one of the most primary Jewish values.

Of this epic story,
contemporary Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:
“At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family —
the birth of its first children —
we feel for Sarah and Isaac.
She is the first Jewish mother,
and (Isaac) the first Jewish child.” (p.118)
Sarah and Isaac remind us that we must always remember our own.

But the story does not end there,
nor does our sense of responsibility.

Dr. Gretchen Rous Besser taught me
the beautiful phrase “spiritual empathy”.
The rest of this story is an exercise
in cultivating “spiritual empathy” for another,
in this case Hagar and Ishmael.

And G-d returns to the bereft mother Hagar
with her child Ishmael close to death. G-d asks her:
“‘What ails you, Hagar?
Do not be afraid, for G-d has heard the voice of the lad…
for a great nation will I make of him!’
And G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water;
she went, filled the skin with water, and gave the lad to drink.
And G-d was with the lad as he grew up.” (Gen. 21:17-20)

And so today’s story ends.

Rabbi Sacks offers his commentary:
“Despite the fact that Abraham, Sarah and Isaac
are the heroes of the story as a whole…
our imaginative sympathies are with Hagar and her child.
That is what gives the story its counter-intuitive depth…” (p.115, 117)

“In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side
can come to seem like a kind of betrayal.
It is this that the Ishmael story is challenging.
We enter their world, see through their eyes,
empathise with their emotions.
That is how the narrative is written,
to enlist our sympathy.
We weep with them, feeling their outcast state.” (p.118)

“At the core of the Bible’s value system
is that cultures, like individuals,
are judged by their willingness to extend care
beyond the boundary of family, tribe, ethnicity and nation.” (p.123)

The Hagar and Ishmael story
stretch our human ability to recognize that
responsibility is not a zero-sum game.
While G-d chose Isaac and his children as our ancestors,
even as we reach within our own family,
we are also meant to reach out
and offer others the compassion and help they deserve.

More than 4000 years later
since Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac,
and Hagar and Ishmael all walked this earth –
here is why it matters today, the Torah’s message still felt now.

This spring, a group of JCOGS young teens and parents
recently sat together with the Anti-Defamation League
to talk about the effects of anti-Semitism in our communities.
Every single youth around the table had a story of anti-Semitism
they had personally experienced in their local schools.
Every single child.
Then earlier this summer,
there was the swastika spray-painted
on the fields at People’s Academy.

With these incidents,
your JCOGS community has spent time
and energy fostering relationships
by reaching out to the families and youth impacted,
to local law enforcement,
to interfaith partners, to the superintendent,
all to sensitize them to the needs of our Jewish children and families,
never forgetting that if we do not care for our own family,
our own people, we have missed one of the primary Jewish principles.

Yet further, just the week after
the graffitied swastika at People’s Academy,
an organized group of families with adopted children of colour
came to Stowe to enjoy a week of camp.
Instead they experienced “overt racial incidents”
that made them feel not only “unwelcome, but unsafe”,
“experiencing hostility from the moment they got off the plane”,
hearing plain, old racist slurs wherever they went,
moving indoors to seek refuge
for the rest of their stay in Stowe. (VTDigger)

Add to these stories
others I have heard of from the local schools,
those being targeted for looking different,
targeted for simply being;
like the n- word carved on bathroom stalls;
transgender kids feeling unwelcome;
gay and lesbian and questioning kids fearful of coming out;
children with disabilities on the fringe;
not to mention the many children living in homes with domestic abuse
or struggling with significant poverty in our county.

Here is what I say:
If we are not responsible to all of the children of our community,
what are we here for?
Because our youth should not need to worry about whether they will be targeted simply for who they are.

Joining with the Greater Stowe Interfaith Coalition
that is why JCOGS has written letters and spoken out
highlighting that we do not tolerate intolerance.
We have marched in the pride parade.
And we have recently joined a new Lamoille community group
of local business people, faith leaders,
politicians, school officials, law enforcement, and others,
to work within our many communities
to stand up against bias and to protect civil liberties.

Our work on protecting our youth against anti-Semitism and racism,
on bridging communities across faith lines,
on protecting refugee and asylum seeking families torn apart,
and with the Lamoille Community House winter warming shelter,
and more – is all about making sure that
children and families and individuals are safe from fear and harm,
and given the opportunity to live a full life.

As Rabbi Sacks has written:
“Throughout history, Jews were called on to value children.
Our entire value system is built on it.
Our citadels are schools,
our passion, education, and our greatest heroes, teachers.
The seder service on Pesach can only begin
with questions asked by a child.

On the first day of the New Year,
we read not about the creation of the universe
but about the birth of a child – Isaac to Sarah, Samuel to Hannah,
(and the struggle of the youth Ishmael).
Ours is a supremely child-centred faith.”

Let us give our children the role models they need to foster love.
Give them a home where they feel safe,
where they feel a sense of belonging,
where they know we have not abandoned them.
For our children’s sake, and their children’s children’s sake,
and also for our own.

And let them know that we will also not abandon their friends,
or even those we do not know who are in need.

Give them the ability to expand their circles of compassion.
In the words of Reverend Forrest Gillmore,
“We each build a circle of empathy around ourselves.
These circles extend to include those beyond ourselves,
those we believe have value and dignity,
those we consider worthy of life,
and exclude those we don’t….
Our greatest societal conflicts emerge in our communal debates
over who lives within and who lives outside those circles…
It’s our job as a society to expand the circle…
to keep including those who have not been included,
those who have been marginalized, oppressed, murdered…”

To expand the circles can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Juggling family life and work and the daily demands
is enough to hold onto and can often feel exhausting.
The more we expand, the more complex the work.
So where do I begin?

Certainly balancing the self and family
and widening the circles takes great resource.

To care for others though does not need to mean
that we abandon our own causes and our own families.
It means that with our families,
we extend our care beyond our families.

Nor does it mean that the burden necessarily increases.
The more we expand our circles,
the more allies and friends we have
each of us holding up our side of the tent.
As we care for each other,
lifting each other up,
so all are blessed.

How and why we expand our circles
depends on each of us, what we are capable of,
and how deep a well we draw from.
What can I do this coming year
to practice self-care and to be here for my family?
And how can I and my family reach out further to others?
The journey and the work is in the practice.

We each begin with ourselves.
And we expand our circles.

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה
“Rabbi Tarfon would say:
The day is short, while the work is much.” (Pirkei Avot 2:15)

At JCOGS, we are each part of the long road ahead,
there for families, there for the greater community.
Let’s continue to expand our circles
and do our part to make sure that all are taken care of.

A sweet, happy and healthy new year to each one of us,
to our families, to our community of JCOGS,
and to our Jewish people,
to our community of greater Stowe and Vermont,
and to this most precious world —
may we all know health and happiness.