There is this famous scene in Harry Potter when Professor Snape shows us that after all these years, even though his true love has died and even though she chose another, he still loves only her. After all these years, “always”…. It is a profoundly moving scene and reminds me of the Torah readings we encounter on Rosh Hashanah: when we confront G-d who operates according to His own plan and not necessarily ours, and then climaxing on Tzom Gedaliyah — when we are forced to confront the enemy that is ourselves.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about the birth of Isaac — the dream of Abraham and Sarah, finally realized – and we hear a hint of Sarah’s discomfort, as she says: ”Anyone who hears of this will laugh.” This laughter can be joyous and celebratory, or mocking and shameful. She finally gets her dream of having a child, but at such a late age that she becomes famous as the strange old lady who had a baby. Certainly not what she had in mind when she asked for a child.
And yet, she is joyous and they celebrate and she says thank you to G-d, even though this was not her plan.
On this same first day of the New Year we read about Chana, also childless for so long. For Chana, her husband Elkanah and her sister wife, Peninah, their relationship with G-d and choice to stay engaged with Judaism, could be seen as a rebellious stand. At the time, the two sons of the high priest, Eli, were incredibly corrupt and evil. Anyone who made the pilgrimage to the Tabernacle was forced to confront the hypocrisy and pain they faced when dealing with G-d’s supposed messengers. Chana’s family makes a courageous choice to stay connected and not to allow corruption to steal their G-d and religion from them, and so they keep coming to worship there four times a year and — according to the Midrash — they even try to bring others with them. They know their leaders are immoral.
And yet, they stay engaged and strong in their practice even though others were so turned off, they refused to engage in Judaism anymore.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Abraham is told to do the unbelievable — to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Both of them seem to realize what is happening when Isaac asks his father where the animal is to sacrifice and Abraham let him know that G-d would make it clear what to do. Following this vague response, the text simply states that they “walked together.” The Midrash understands from this that Isaac understood that he was to be the sacrifice and he went anyway. Ultimately, G-d tells Abraham that He does not ever desire human sacrifice — but this lesson was taught in a very acerbic and painful way. I often wonder how one comes back from such a journey. They return home, though, in the shadow of the traumatic event.
And yet, they still believe and love G-d.
On the second day, we read about the prophet Jeremiah who comforts the people as they are led out in chains, following the destruction of the Temple. We could have been so distraught that we gave up hope. We could have abandoned our G-d and our religion in the face of such pain, so Jeremiah paints a picture for us of another Jewish hero who also could have chosen an easy path, but did not. We recall our matriarch Rachel, who was promised to her love, Jacob after he worked for seven years for the right to marry her. Jacob and Rachel suspected that her father, Laban, might try to pull a fast one on them so, the Midrash tells us, they made up secret hand signals to make sure they were not being tricked. On their wedding night, Laban cruelly forces Rachel to stay home and insists that her older sister Leah marry Jacob instead. The Midrash describes how Rachel shares the secret hand signals code with Leah to save her sister from shame. This singular act of self-sacrifice for another becomes the symbol for G-d’s comfort of the Jews as we are led out of Jerusalem in chains. Jeremiah tells us that Rachel, our mother, cries for us, and insists that G-d owes her one. G-d responds that her act of sacrifice will be rewarded: her children will return to their land. Rachel is indeed rewarded — as we see even in our own days — but this was not how she had planned her wedding night. Nor was it how we as a people envisioned our time in our Promised Land. The reward is very late in coming-
And yet, Rachel, and her future children still believe and engage with G-d, even when things do not go as they had planned.
These readings depict an honest engagement with G-d on Rosh Hashanah — and model for us how others have struggled with G-d, engaged and enraged with G-d, but stayed connected and in the relationship. Despite it all.
Tzom Gedaliyah forces us to confront not G-d, but ourselves. On this day, we fast because of petty jealousy that led to the innocent murder of many and cost us Jewish autonomy in Israel for many, many years. Gedaliyah was the appointed governor of the Jews following the destruction of the Temple. As he starts to lead and comfort the people who are left, he brings a sliver of hope and begins to rebuild. It is on Rosh Hashanah, of all days, that he and the remaining Jews who survived the sack of Jerusalem, are brutally murdered by Gedaliyah’s cousin, no less. His cousin was angry because he was not chosen to lead — and his blind anger caused loss beyond words. This day is about the greatest enemy we have — ourselves. On this day, we confront not G-d, but each other, and face the truth of our pettiness and egos. Where Rosh Hashanah gave us the opportunity to engage with G-d, our expectations and hopes and to allow for the possibility that G-d will not follow the storyline we have written for Him, on Tzom Gedaliyah we have the opportunity to engage with each other — to endeavor to understand each other more deeply, to connect more soundly, to become a people, a family, and not merely “cousins” who seek attention and fame.
Perhaps this fast day allows us to prepare even better for the opening lines of Yom Kippur, when we claim to be allowed to pray together — even with “sinners.” It turns out, we all have pieces of Gedaliyah and his cousin in us. We all yearn to build again, to foster hope and grow, and we also have fear, jealousy, and ego that drive us apart.
On this fast day, may we prepare for Yom Kippur by confronting the challenges we, ourselves, bring to the world. So that — like Professor Snape — yes, even after everything, still we love. Always.