Origin Stories | Brooklyn Jews Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon 5780
Delivered by Assistant Rabbi Matt Green
I stand here before you this morning, aware that the Jewish People is today at a great crossroads. Something has happened that might be kind of painful to accept, something that’s been weighing on me as a rabbi, but which I’d like to process with you here. I’m speaking, of course, of the fact that the Amazon series Transparent has officially ended. Many of you may know that this past Friday, the series finale became available online. A two-hour musical extravaganza, marking the end of a five year run for a TV show that explored transgender experience and Jewish identity through the story of one deeply messed up family. I can only imagine that Jill Soloway timed the season release for the start of the Jewish holidays on purpose.
Some of you have heard me speak before about Transparent. Whether or not you watch the show…or like the show…Transparent simply is the cultural artifact of Jewish life in early 21st century America. For five years, we’ve watched the Pfeffermans navigate the transition of their patriarch, Mort, into their matriarch, Maura. We’ve watched Shelly break down over bagels, and Sarah plan a tacos-con-Torah event at her synagogue. We’ve watched Ali sneak off to the West Bank on a family trip to Israel. We’ve watched them beat their chests on Yom Kippur…and then watched Josh have a twisted love affair with Rabbi Raquel.
There are times, watching Transparent, when I wonder how it’s possible that so many Gentiles also watch the show. But of course, the same question can be asked of the book of Genesis. And therein, I think, we find a key insight. The story may be about our people, the characters might be our patriarchs and matriarchs. But there is something human and complicated and raw that is truly universal about it.
Like the Pfeffermans, the biblical figures in the book of Genesis are all essentially flawed. They lie to and cheat their parents, they are jealous, and conniving, and insecure, and every so often they get blackout drunk and take off all their clothes. (I’m not exaggerating, read Genesis 9). The writers of the Torah did not intend for these figures to be moral exemplars. They shared these stories to tell Jews where we come from, to root us in a mythic family story. And just like our own literal family stories, and like the Pfeffermans, the biblical characters are complicated.
The Book of Genesis offers us our origin story as a people. And this morning’s Torah reading recounts a key episode in that story, replete with the kind of bad behavior that we should expect from our patriarchs. But intriguingly, this particular chapter of Torah also suggests to us that even our origin stories themselves — the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from — sometimes fail us, and need to be reimagined.
At the beginning of Genesis 21, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, at the biologically improbable age of 91. She had many years earlier given up on getting pregnant, leading Abraham to eventually have a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. This arrangement devastated Sarah. The rabbis explain that for thirteen years she was furious with Abraham, who prayed only for himself to have a child and not for her to get pregnant. For thirteen years this was her narrative. Until here, in this episode, she becomes pregnant with Isaac. Elated that her dream has come true, Sarah calls out in this morning’s reading: “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”
She specifically comments on his, meaning Abraham’s, old age. Sarah focuses on Abraham, but of course some part of her knows that it is her old age that had prevented them from getting pregnant. In this moment, Sarah is trying on a new story. For decades, she told herself she’d never become a mother. But when she finally does, she has to adjust to a new narrative. And it’s hard. Her lingering insecurity of barrenness leads her to order Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael from their home. Though she finally has everything she ever wanted, she still feels inadequate.
And at this point in the drama, Ishmael is already a teenager. Abraham had gotten used to being his father, accustomed to the idea that his genetic line would continue only through Ishmael, his firstborn. And the text explains what should be obvious, saying: “the matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned his son.” Abraham does as he is told, and banishes them. But he’s not happy about it. And now he, too, has to learn to tell himself a new story.
Tomorrow morning, when we read the Akedah, the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, Isaac, God instructs him, “kach na et bincha et y’chidcha, asher ahavta,” “take your son, your only son, whom you love.” God calls Isaac “your only son,” effectively erasing Ishmael from Abraham’s story. And in so doing, God hints to Abraham to accept the new story he has to tell himself, now that Isaac has been born. There’s no other way to fulfill his destiny.
In this reading, Sarah and Abraham each have to grapple with a major rupture in their narratives. And their emotions, as they try to shift their earlier stories, are especially raw. We relate to them, perhaps, specifically because they navigate the vicissitudes of human relationships in a messy way. And they remind us, also, of the times when we, too, have had to change the narratives we tell about ourselves. Every time we revisit the complicated and emotional origin story of our people, we are invited to consider our own origin stories, our families, our pasts, where we come from. And as these stories of Abraham and Sarah demonstrate, inevitably there are times when the ancient stories we tell about ourselves no longer serve us and need to change.
This is, of course, what Transparent describes from the very beginning. In Chapter 1 verse 1 of parashat Transparent, Maura comes out as transgender. The story of having one father and one mother no longer works for the Pfefferman family. And the whole premise of the series is that each family member has their own complicated path toward telling a new story about themselves.
As a rabbi, this bumping up against ancient narratives is something that I encounter on a regular basis. I’m not referring to the Torah, although I suppose that is also true. But with the people whom I serve.
I think, for instance, of the successful writer whose book was recently published and whose articles appear in impressive publications, but who, despite it all, can’t shake the feeling of being an imposter. Growing up he never thought he was one of the smart kids in class, and after spending his 20s working odd jobs and not getting anything published, that narrative still rears its head, making him feel small.
I think of the man who converted to Judaism years ago, who comes to everything at shul and knows more of the words at services than almost anyone else present. And though no one has any clue that he grew up Catholic, he still imagines that people are judging him as an outsider at synagogue.
And I think of the woman who recently entered into her first serious relationship. After years of being single, convinced of her incapacity to be intimate because of her parents’ tortured relationship, and telling herself she was unlovable, she fell in love. Suddenly she has to confront the love of someone else, but the memory of being unlovable keeps rearing its head.
Each of these people has to confront the fact that the longtime stories they had about themselves had outgrown their utility, and are getting in the way of them being truly happy.
Don’t worry, none of these people are here this morning and I didn’t share anything that would compromise confidentiality. But I share these stories because in different ways, we are these people. We, too, have experienced things in our lives that are new, that shake us and make us question everything we thought we knew about our lives. Things that, for better or worse, challenge our old assumptions and old narratives. And when we experience these things, we have a choice: do we cling to the old narratives we once told ourselves, or do we change? Do we hold onto the the earlier narratives because they’re familiar, even though the narratives are harming us and are objectively untrue?
Is it ever really possible to change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves? The basic premise of the High Holidays is that yes, we can. We take stock of our lives during these holidays. We think about who we have been and consider who and what we want to become. And though we acknowledge today all the many things that are out of our control, we also understand that some things are within our control. Our central prayer of the High Holidays, which we’ll pray in just a moment, Unetanah Tokef, asks who shall live and who shall die? But after acknowledging the many possibilities that we can’t control, we say, “u’t’shuva u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezerah.” But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgement’s severe decree. This might trouble us — thinking that somehow praying or giving tzedakah will tip the scale of cosmic justice in our favor. But the word ma’avirin here is more literally translated as “to pass through.” By repenting, praying, and giving, by looking inward and giving of ourselves, we can pass through the things we can’t control, and try to make good decisions about what we can. We can pass through where we’ve come from, and try to chart a different course for the future.
This is really hard. We are seemingly hardwired to rely on our origin stories. Especially ones that have to do with our childhoods and with our parents. But by looking at where we come from, unearthing ancient feelings, we can interrogate whether or not our most enduring self-narratives really reflect who we are today. And if they don’t, those stories might block us from reaching our potential.
Toward the end of our Torah reading, after Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael, Hagar is beside herself. All her life she was not only Hagar, but HaGer, “the other.” Forever misunderstood. She had been abused by her mistress for years and never believed she had a divine calling. And now here she is wandering in the desert, convinced that she and her son will die of thirst. She weeps, as we heard earlier. Until she opens her eyes and sees a well of water right in front of her. She is going to be OK after all. And not only OK — she becomes the mother of a great nation. Our ancient rabbis go further, suggesting that later in life she sheds her backstory of being Hagar, HaGer, “the other,” returning to the house of Abraham by a new name, Keturah, by which she goes on to live a new and beautiful life alongside Abraham. She is able to move beyond her initial narrative, once she opens her eyes.
What is it, for us, that we need to open our eyes and see? It may be painful, or it may be so glorious, or both. What is the thing about our present realities that doesn’t mesh with what we used to think about ourselves? And how might we use this season of self reflection to transition into a newer story?
I won’t spoil the Transparent finale for those of you who haven’t had a chance to see it. Maybe you’ll take the rest of your afternoon off to watch it. But I will say that in the last scene, there’s a moment when Ali…who now goes by the name Ari…chants the Torah portion they didn’t get to chant at the bat mitzvah they cancelled in Season One. The portion is, appropriately, Lech Lecha, the parsha in Genesis where Abraham first hears the voice of God saying those words, Lech Lecha…go forth. And once they chant the first few words of Hebrew, the characters break into song, paraphrasing Genesis 12: “Run from your father’s house…there’s a land that I will show you.”
It’s not exactly subtle. But by paraphrasing Genesis, they draw us into the awesome and seemingly oxymoronic truth that even our own origin story as Jews beckons us to be open to telling new stories. To hear the call to go forth. To see the well in front of us. To recognize that as we get older, we are crossing through to a place that we are making for ourselves. As we enter 5780, a new decade on the Jewish calendar, may each of us be open to telling a new story of who we are and where we come from, and may we find the strength to transition.