Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Other and the Self - A First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon


Of Self and Other


Here’s a tale.

There is an outsider, schlepped into a tightly knit group of insiders to do the dirty work no insider can do. They get on with things, always on the edge, never fully embraced.

It’s unpleasant. They are oppressed, even as they do exactly what is demanded of them.

They consider fleeing, but ultimately stay; fulfilling the role they were brought in to perform.

Then, just as their services are no longer needed, they’re expelled, exiled and gone.


Sounds like a Jewish story, no?

Sounds like the oldest Jewish story there is;

·         From Joseph, right hand man in the court of Pharaoh, genocidally oppressed a generation later,

·         To the Jews of this green and pleasant land, used and then expelled in 1290

·         To, Spain, Germany, ah the list is long.

This sounds like our story.


But try this reading of the Torah tale we read this morning. It’s a reading I first encountered in Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s extraordinary work, Reading the Women of the Bible.

Hagar the Egyptian is schlepped into the marriage of Abraham and Sarai, to bear a child, not for herself, but for Abraham and his ‘proper’ wife.

She conceives and is despised for it. Sarai complains to Abraham, Abraham tells his wife to ‘do with her whatever is good in your eyes.’

Vteaneha Sarai – Sarai oppresses Hagar who flees, only to return, to give birth to this child-cum-contractual arrangement, at which point she is expelled - .

Vay’shalechecha – and Abraham sent her away.


It’s easy to find this a difficult story. It takes no great empathetic leap to struggle with the actions of Abraham Avinu – our patriarch Abraham, and Sarah Imeinu – Sarah our matriarch.

But here’s the insight that literally took my breath away when I first read it – Hagar the Egyptian is ‘the type of Israel.’[1] The Egyptian is the Jew.


Ah, the biting irony of it.

How dare the Egyptian claim my Jewish narrative?

How dare the outsider appropriate MY story?

How come I, at this most precious of Jewish days, have to see myself on the wrong side of the comfortable division between the hard-done-by and the bully.


So many times the Torah tells us to take care of the stranger, the powerless and the outsider, since we were slaves in Egypt.

But here we are, deep in the midst of the Genesis narratives, and we are the ones oppressing and sending away.

On this most holy of days we expose a deeply twisted paradox about ourselves.

We are very good at considering ourselves powerless, oppressed, hard done by.

And yet we are powerful, all of us, and the more we insist on our own powerlessness, the more dangerous we become.

The more we insist on our own powerlessness the more dangerous we become.


Resist the tug into focussing on blame, “he said she said,” isn’t going to cut through this Gordian knot.

The dynamic power of this paradox is not solved by focussing on fault.

The Torah tale we read today fires barbs at all its protagonists.

Sarah oppresses

Hagar gloats

Abraham abdicates responsibility for his own actions.

The point of the Torah tale is NOT that we should focus on who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Life is too complex for parcelling out gift-wrapped boxes of guilt and innocence.

The point is that the over-simple bifurcation of other and self, powerless and powerful collapses; it will always collapse, in any relationship, especially over time.

“The story of Sarai and Hagar,” writes Frymer-Kensky, is not the story of the conflict between ‘us’ and ‘other,’ but between ‘us’ and ‘another us.’”

The story is a test of our ability to see beyond our own sense of being hard done by.

The story is a test of our ability to see the other as the key which unlocks our own sense of self.


Let me start with two political examples and I’ll move closer to home before I’m done.


These are gut wrenching times for those of us care about even the most basic of human rights. The tales of Syrian citizens gassed by their own ruler sickens us to the core. And there is a little voice that chirps up and tells us that this doesn’t matter – they are other to us. And as much as we don’t like Assad, we are not entirely sure what welcome awaits, especially for Israel, an opposition whose connections to Islamist groups is unclear.

But that’s all irrelevant – if we have are being challenged to consider, and indeed love, the other as part of us. If we wish, and goodness we certainly did wish, that someone would protect Jews from being gassed. We have to be prepared to engage with our others today. Frankly even if we don’t feel drawn to engage with the horror of Syria out of our own experience of mass murder, we still have obligations to care and engage because they are our other – and there is, on this holy day, very little space between our other and ourselves.


A second story, one that hasn’t made it to the front pages here, but one that challenges us in an even more complex manner, to empathise and create a space for the consideration of what it means to be the other. About 40,000 Bedouins, citizens of the Israeli state, among them thousands of soldiers in the Israeli army, are being relocated by the Israeli Government - expelled from ancestral villages and relocated into what the Bedouins protest are ghettos – there they go appropriating our language of dispossession.

It’s a complex story, but ultimately I can’t get beyond a gnawing sense that this is a tale of the dispossession of the powerless by the powerful.

I signed a Rabbinic letter about the expulsion together with a slew of British Rabbis; Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Masorti. We went to meet the Israeli Ambassador to ask him to relay our concerns to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

It was the first time I’ve been to lobby the Israeli Ambassador, and he wanted to know was it about this issue that brought my Rabbinic colleagues and I out in this way?

The truth is I empathise with Israel because I identify as a Jew – and also because it is genuinely a complicated issue – and I empathise with the Bedouin because, religiously I identify with the stranger.

Vger lo tilchatz vatem yadatem et nefesh ha ger

You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger.


I’m both myself and my other in this story, both Hagar and Sarah, both Arab and Jew, both Bedouin and Israeli Jew.


There’s a touching moment in a classic commentary on a Torah verse we read tomorrow.

The command to bind up Isaac as a sacrifice begins with God telling Abraham, ‘take your son, your only son, the one you loves, Isaac.’

The Rabbis are puzzled by the stuttered repetitive language. They interpolate a conversation into the verse;

Take your son, says God – I have two sons says Abraham

Your only son, says God – they are both the only sons of their mothers, says Abraham

The one you love, says God – and Abraham responds - Traivahu rachmina lehu[2]I love them both, says Abraham. The Aramaic is even more interesting, rachmina, comes from the same root as the word for a womb, they are both part of me, says Abraham, the son who is to bear my name, and the other son who will become founder of another nation.


So Abraham, even as he casts out his son Ishmael, finds the space in his one heart to care about two alterities – that which will become his own future, and that which will become the other of his future.

That’s holy.

Here’s the test - can we find space in our heart to love the self and other at the same time.

Can we love that which we don’t know, don’t understand, can we love that which we even distrust?

Can we care for the other even in its otherness?


This is the test of the great C20th Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas.

When we allow the other to break in on ourselves, when we allow the other to make demands of us and call us to better action - that is, says Levinas, ethical.

Looking after ourselves, or even other people who are close to us, isn’t ethically significant. The challenge is how we handle that which is different.


The challenge of the other is twofold.


On the one hand, we are tempted to exculpate otherness – they are so terrible, they pick on me, how could they? We turn so quickly to the language of blame. If I am right and you are different to me you must be wrong.


On the other hand we are tempted, in Levinas’ language, to efface the otherness of the other. He’s French, he can’t help writing like that – effacing the otherness of the other means say, ‘they’re just the same as me, they’ll only want what I want. I can do whatever I want and they’ll be fine with it.’ We blur away that other people want other things; things that get in the way of my getting the things I want for myself.


It only counts as doing something for the other when you have to give up something of yourself. I’m continually struck by the Hebrew word usually translated as ‘patience’ – sovlanut – it comes from the root sovel – pain. In other words, if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not being patient. If you are not forgoing your own place in the sun, you are not responding to the call of the other.


Frankly, we don’t need to look to Israel, and heart-breaking failure of two cousins – the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac – to find a way to care about each other’s otherness.


We can find our others as we walk the streets of London, past the poor and the destitute.

We can find our others in arguments about politics or tax or the treatment of women in the public sphere or even football teams or X-Factor contestants.

We can find our others in our sibling rivalries – I don’t mean the childish behaviours of little boys and little girls, I mean the adult manipulations and effacements.

We can find our others in our work colleagues, parents, our partners, our children.

Is there room in our heart to love traivahu - both self and other?

Do we have the ethical reach to distance ourselves from the blame game which never has an end?

Do we have the ethical power to allow the other to be different from uscan I love you even as I can’t understand quite why you don’t see the world exactly as I do.


So this is the homework, on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, while the books are open and the opportunity to reframe our year to come still lies, at least in part, in our own hands.

Do we dare stand before God based on the way we treat our others?

Can we avoid the blame game which has no victor and no end?

Can we allow them to be different, even as their difference jars and even as it threatens up?

Can we find a way to love both?


Can we invert, even if it just for this one sacred day in the year, the selfishness that draws us to love our selves and NOT the other.

Try it, try it for these 10 days of Teshuvah.

Try it and see if any of the intractable patterns of intransigence and ossification can be cracked open to let the light in.

Try it, it just might make us worthy of the year of health, happiness and sweetness we all seek,

May it come to us all,


Shannah Tovah Tikateivu


[1] T. Frymer Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, p.236

[2] Sanhedrin 89a

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