Parents and Children
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
In one sense you could say that Rosh HaShana is a festival about parents and children. It is about us.
From the Torah, we read about Avraham’s tortured relationships. Sarah could not conceive, and Avraham had a child Ishmael through Hagar, Sarah's maidservant. This led to tension between Hagar and Sarah. Avraham was torn between the two.
The Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah starts with Sarah conceiving. She gave birth to Isaac. This too brought conflict with Hagar, and she insisted that Abraham choose. He was reluctant. But God instructed him to side with Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael were exiled. There is a very moving episode where Hagar believed that Ishmael was dying of thirst until God intervened and they ended up in another part of Avraham’s estate. One can feel the pain that all the characters were suffering and were in a sense, innocents being tortured by circumstances. The narrative continues with Avraham’s difficult relationship with the political powers he had to engage with.
On the second day’s reading, Avraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. We are told in advance that it is a test, a charade if you like. But Avraham did not know. One can only imagine the agony he went through. He could barely speak. One feels the tension. His inability to communicate with his son. We know that it turns out well, although the Midrash suggests that Sarah was the real casualty and died of shock.
The Haftarah advances hundreds of years to the time of Samuel and his mother Hannah. Hannah too had a problem conceiving. Her husband Elkanah loved her, but he had taken another wife to bear children. In her agony, she poured her heart out to God. Unlike most people when they pray, she does not ask for anything. It is a profound expression of yearning for ease, a reaching out to feel the presence and comfort of God. Hannah‘s prayer is an example of what personal prayer ( in contrast to public prayer) should be like. It is so relevant to Rosh HaShanah in that it illustrates how one should relate to God in our tradition. A desire to create a relationship through our tradition, to use emotion rather than logic.
I see her as the mirror of the agonies Avraham and Sarah experienced. And I suggest that this is the core of the Rosh Hashana experience. Atonement comes later. The first stage is communication between humans and how we can understand God, despite the pain and alienation that so often get in the way.
The relationship between parents and children reflects the relationship between God and us. From the Bible to Freud, we know about the tensions and conflict that exist in family dynamics and the constant struggle to get it right both personally and in relation to our Jewish tradition. The rabbis of the Talmud called it “ Tsaar Gidul Banim,” The Pain of Bringing up Children. And yet children can bring so much joy and pleasure. And in a way, this parallels our relationship with God and Judaism. Both want us to succeed. To be part of our families and our Jewish identity.
The greatest religious obligation of parents towards their children is education, to see that they are taught, and they ensure our continuity. And yet in every generation, many of us fail. So many of our children drift further away from their roots and only a minority dedicate themselves to keeping the tradition alive. Assimilation robs us of most of our heirs.
The shofar takes us back to the ram that replaced Isaac on the altar. Its intangible sound is a symbol of memory, how we came to be the people we are today. Born out of pain and alienation. Yet there were always those children who helped pass on the baton.
We are all children on Rosh Hashanah facing the future, relying on what our parents have given us. And aspiring to establish a relationship with God who is a symbol of our Jewish heritage. All families experience pain, loss, and alienation. Yet it is the passion that helps us cope and thrive. And when we succeed there is no greater delight in this world. Rosh HaShana invites us to examine our values and Yom Kippur inspires us to do better.
The world around us is dysfunctional and alienating, wherever we look. We rely on our families and our traditions to give us refuge and enable us to cope.
May you have a very sweet, healthy, and successful New Year.
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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.