A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 8.20.21

August 20, 2021


We had an illuminating discussion this past Wednesday night in our Elul session about the human yearning to “be seen.” Being seen means that someone recognizes you for who you are, in your essence, in your humanity. We looked at the complex passages from Genesis 16 and 21.  In the first, Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, pregnant with Abraham’s would-be heir Ishmael, runs away from her mistress’ ill-treatment. In her flight, she encounters “an angel of the Lord,” who assures her that “the Lord has paid heed” to her suffering and that God will “greatly increase her offspring.” In turn, remarkably, she gives a name to God – El Ro’i – “God who sees me.” Someone, at last, has “seen” her.

In the follow-up story, in Genesis 21 (the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana), Sarah, now a mother herself, insists that Abraham “cast out that slave woman and her son.” Abraham sends them off, with only a skin of water and a loaf of bread, into the wilderness. When the water runs out, she sits down, at a distance from the lad, so that she does not have to see him die. In her desperation, once again, she encounters “an angel of God.” In a story in which she and Ishmael are repeatedly referred to as labeled objects (”the slave-woman,” “son of the slave woman,” etc.), it is God, through the angel, who calls her by her actual name: “What troubles you, Hagar?…” The angel assures her that God has “heeded the cry of the boy where he is” and that God will “make a great nation of him.” Once again, she is “seen,” and the story resolves satisfactorily.

The past year has been one of so much difficulty, loss, and isolation. The coming year (as painful as it is to say) promises a variation on the same theme – though we have reason to be optimistic, we have a difficult road ahead. The question we posed in our Elul session was: when you sit down on Rosh Hashana and open your machzor, what will you be focusing on? How will your prayers intersect with your lived reality? What can you do to make the coming year, with all its anticipated difficulty, more meaningful? Along with session co-leaders Audrey Korelstein and Julia Ostrov, we posed a possible locus for High Holy Day meditation: the idea of seeing others the way they need to be seen, and in turn seeking to be seen ourselves. This means making an effort to delve deeply into our relationships, to explore ways of going “in” when going out is still a risk. We can seek connection with our loved ones, with our friends, with the divine. We can also aim to see strangers in this way – to deeply empathize with people whose lives are difficult and painful, regardless of what country they live in, what their background is, or what God they pray to. Hagar was an Egyptian, an outsider in a story about Israel. But the God of Israel pays no heed to these constructed differences: to God, she is as human, as important, as worthy of a name, as deserving of compassion and empathy as anyone else. If we can learn to cultivate even a drop of this kind of “seeing,” then perhaps we might be rewarded with being seen ourselves, and perhaps the coming year will pass a little easier than the last. 

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – wishing you a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine

As usual, a few housekeeping details:

  1. Shabbat services have gone back to a 9am start time. Now that we are hybrid, the service is necessarily longer (with the reintroduction of the full Torah service). The Torah service usually begins right around 10am for your information.

  2. Talking about the length of services, we will be trying to keep High Holy Day services on the shorter side in order to minimize chance of exposure for those attending in-person. Consequently, you may observe some changes from our “normal,” non-COVID service. One significant change this year will be a minimizing of on-the-bimah honors. If you are accustomed to having an ark opening or some other honor, we beg your understanding this year as we continue to grapple with the dangers and complexities of life under COVID protocols.

  3. Marjorie Sanua has given me her weekly update on the Acosta Molina family. We’ll be able to find out how they’re doing in person next Shabbat when they come to visit us. They’ll spend a little time with us at the end of the service, and then, if all goes well, anyone who wishes will be able to join us for a picnic (bring your own food) with the family in the park after services. If you’re a Spanish speaker (and especially if you have any younger Spanish-speaking kids!), you’re a hot item, so dust off your Español and meet us for almuerzo.

If you have any of the following items lying around the house, the family could use:

  1. a bunkbed 

  2. bookbags and school supplies

  3. school clothes and shoes for the fall 

  4. a tricycle or bike for a five-year-old

  5. diapers and wipes 

  6. twin-sized sheets 

  7. a baby-stroller

Many thanks!!