High Holidays | Opinion | Opinion

Some lessons from the New Year texts

For the past several years, and again this year, I have been honored to be chosen to read the Torah in my synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah – and each year I struggle with the troubling text and try to figure out what it is saying to me.

For those who may be unfamiliar, the reading from Genesis Chapter 21, tells of how Sarah, long after she has given up hope, finally gives birth to a son, Isaac. But Abraham already has a son named Ishmael through the servant woman Hagar. After Sarah sees them playing together (and the sages believe there may have been something inappropriate about Ishmael’s play with Isaac) she demands that Abraham cast Hagar and her son out into the desert.

Abraham is deeply troubled about the fate of his son but is reassured by God that he should do what Sarah asks because his legacy will be carried forward by Isaac. Still, God tells Abraham that He will also protect Ishmael and he too will become the progenitor of a great nation. Abraham provides some bread and a bottle of water and sends Hagar and his son away into the wilderness. The water is soon exhausted and Hagar prepares to die. But God hears the voice of the child as he cries out in distress. An angel calls down to Hagar and points the way to a well – and so the two are saved.

There are many perplexing aspects to this story but one thing stands out. God takes pity on the child. Ishmael’s mother is “foreign” and he will not be a part of the Jewish people but he too has the right to life.

After this summer’s Gaza war, this lesson seems more striking than ever. In the course of an operation aimed to defend Israel from Hamas rockets and tunnels, some 2,000 people were killed in Gaza, several hundred of them women and children.

Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself – and making sure Israelis are safe is the most solemn task of any Israeli government. And we must also be moved and concerned by the fate of the civilians on the other side, and especially the children. God hears their cries too.

It is striking that the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of “the binding of Isaac.” In both readings, a child is saved — the foreign child on the first day and our own child on the second. And the overriding message of the second day is that child sacrifice is an abomination.

Since we are created in the image of God, we too must hear the voices of children crying, both our own and those of our neighbors. We hear the voices of traumatized Israeli children, frightened by sirens and rockets and rushing to shelters. But we also hear the voices of children in Gaza who have no shelters to rush to.

It is not my intention to examine Israel’s actions during the war and in fact the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces are already looking into what happened to determine whether at least some of the civilian casualties could have been avoided.

But we do have a clear duty going forward to try to avoid this situation happening again in a couple of years. The people of Gaza need to be given hope. The children of Gaza need to grow up knowing they have some future and the chance of a better life. The way Israelis and Palestinians are living now, with these horrible episodes of deadly violence every couple of years, is not tenable.

More broadly, the Gaza conflict has clarified that the course Israelis and Palestinians are on now leads inevitably to recurring conflict, violence and despair. Failure to achieve a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means a never-ending cycle of devastating death and destruction, while providing neither long-term security for Israel or freedom and justice for Palestinians.

The Gaza conflict has shown once again there is no military solution to the threats to Israel’s security, only a political one that addresses the root causes of the larger conflict.

As we meditate on the year that has past that the one that lies ahead, let us open our hearts to the cries of children on both sides of the conflict – and let us work to create a better future for all.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications at J Street.