Run and Return
By Student Rabbi Miriam Grossman and Zachary Wager-Scholl
Rosh Hashana Day 2
Miriam: If you’ve been with us for the last two days, you may know the phrase “Ratzoh v’shov” as a kind spiritual shorthand for life’s ebb and flow. In it’s original context in the book of Ezekiel, “Ratzoh v’shov” means something more active and intense,“run and return”. “Run and return” describes the sudden movement of supernatural creatures, who run and return, sprinting about the way fire flashes and burns. Later Kabbalists used this phrase “run and return” to describe the way our minds mind might jolt off ahead of us, consuming us with that which is truly unknowable, until we settle our spirits and return our attention to the present moment.
Since the election, I have felt my mind running, racing. Felt it jolt ahead of me in a flash like fire. I have run to the past, to my grandparents' worst nightmares, their descriptions of violent pogroms and world wars, their unshakable sense that Jews are perpetually marked and eternally unsafe. I have run to the future, my own nightmares come true, visions of world where every liberation movement of the past century has been nullified. Always the work is to return to the now. To ground myself in this moment so that I might face its pain without obscuring its good, and without missing the tools of resilience and resistance that are all around. With THAT kind of groundedness, that kind of wakeful awareness, how might we return again to the past, to the histories, voices and stories buried there? And what will we find in our searching?
Zachary: When learning to build a fire, the first lesson my dad taught me was the need for air. That if the fire was to have any chance at all, there needed to be a clear passage. Stacking logs criss-cross style with supporting smaller branches in between the solid structure, with the mix of pine needles and dried leaves in the center, I would watch in a mesmerized haze as if from my lungs came the core of the fire. Up from the middle, the kindling would engulf and with the sounds of crackling and exhales the purple-orange light and heat would leap up. There was always that moment of thrill, that moment when the fire became its own living, magnificent entity as embers would fly out and I could almost hear this rush of a sound as everything took. The second lesson I had to learn was that fire is more than just the gratifying sparks and flames that would dance and run to the sky. Fire is respect, and time, and intuition, and how to hone that practice to build towards something deeper, something that will last; to be in relationship with the embers and coals so that even when there is glowing fragmentation, or hidden pockets of heat below the surface, there is still fire to return to. There is still a continuation of that spark.
After the presidential election last November, I started researching Jewish women partisan fighters from the Nazi Holocaust. I wanted to learn how they solved problems. I wanted to learn who they were: What were their hobbies? How did they think of themselves? How did they try to make sense of the world around them? In those moments of deep uncertainty this past year, it has felt almost necessary to return and delve and unearth the past, this glowing fragmentation, so that I can then in turn remember the future. Much of what I was taught growing up about the Nazi Holocaust was kept so narrow in its narrative: the past was inevitable death, the future is statehood. I learned of the immense destruction and loss, the intergenerational trauma and pain, the feeling that Jews will never be safe, and that the promise of safety comes with borders and land. The overwhelming narrative of survival was that it was by chance; and yes there is something to be said for chance, but what would have happened had I been taught of the working class Greek Jewish farmer who organized young village girls into women warriors, or of the countless women in the mountains and forests derailing trains, raiding nazi encampments, burning bridges and seeking revenge? This history offers complexity, resilience and promises: the more I returned to it, the more it was as if I was given a well from which to drink.
M: This year I returned to an old story for the first time. Despite having spoken at High Holy Days for years, I have never drashed about Sarah and Hagar before. Frankly, in the past it hurt too much. This story of women set against one another, of women exploited and forgotten by their man and their G-d, of women erased in body and in voice- was too much. And yet this year, in this moment where there are so many stories that might hurt too much to face and yet must be faced - I looked back and thought- I cannot abandon these stories of survival and resilience. I cannot play the part of Abraham and cast these women into the desert. I cannot play the part of G-d and forget them. Even if it does hurt. This year, returning to these verses I had run from, I learned what Sarah and Hagar might have to teach us about unearthing what has been forgotten, erased, concealed. Because as much as Genesis 21 is a story of neglect it is also a story about finding the tools of survival all around us. It is a story about exhuming promises and perhaps histories that have been lost.
G-d promises Sarah a child but for years and years G-d does not deliver. Thus Sarah, whose worth in this family structure depends on fertility, gives her handmaid Hagar to Abraham to bear a child. Ishmael is born. Which brings us to Genesis 21:1, today’s reading, where Torah declares- יהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה “And God remembered Sarah and fulfilled God’s promise to her”. Meaning, somehow God forgot Sarah until suddenly G-d remembered. The ancient rabbis said: God remembered Sarah on Rosh Hashana. They wrote that on Rosh Hashanah, throughout the years, God remembered all the forgotten matriarchs- Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah. Rosh Hashana can be understood as a day of returning, a day of remembering forgotten stories.
Z: Gertie Boyarski of Dereczyn, Poland was born on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. As someone chronically ill, Gertie was doubted and kept from many of her dreams while growing up. When the Nazi party occupied Poland and her family was moved into the ghetto, they narrowly escaped before deportation and fled into the forest, joining up with partisan resistance units. Upon losing her family to a number of raids on their encampment, Gertie asked to fight. Doubted yet again of her abilities in combat for being a woman, Gertie insisted: “I’ve lost everyone, I want to take revenge.” On International Woman’s Day, Gertie and a fellow partisan volunteered to burn down a vital wooden bridge used by the Nazis in transporting supplies. As the smoke billowed and Nazis opened fire, nothing stopped Gertie and her comrade. In an interview Gertie states, “We didn’t chicken out,” as they tore pieces of the bridge off with their bare hands to throw into the river until the bridge was demolished.
M: After Isaac is born, Sarah and Abraham forget whatever promises they have made to Hagar and turn against her. Sarah becomes angry at Hagar for the way their children play and she demands Hagar be sent away with her son Ishmael. Abraham - the patriarch so capable of sacrificing sons - casts out Hagar and their child. The two wander in the desert and eventually run out of water. Hagar weeps, sets the child down and prays not to see him die. Ishmael weeps along with his mother, when suddenly an angel appears and God "opens her eyes" and she sees a well of water. Hagar and Ishmael drink. They survive. The two thrive in the desert.
Z: Eta Wrobel, of Lokov Poland, helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit close to 80 people that set mines under train tracks to hinder German movement and cut off supply routes to the Nazis. She refused to do any cooking or cleaning. She states:” I was the girl who played soccer with the boys. I was the girl who rode the bicycle on the street in shorts, which… no other Jewish girls didn’t do that. See I was born a fighter. I am free. I was always free. When I was a child my father used to say that I am dangerous.”
M: וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ “And God opened her eyes.” The medieval rabbinic commentator Sforno, ever the rationalist, asked, What does it mean that God opened her eyes if clearly she was not blind beforehand? Soforno interpreted the phrase “and God opened her eyes” to mean: God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. And many rabbinic commentators argued that when Hagar and Ishmael cried out of thirst, their weeping was heard as a prayer and answered through a widening of Hagar’s vision, a deepening of her instincts, and/or a calming of her spirit such that she was awakened to her surroundings and found what hidden resources the terrain offered. Hagar finds righteousness, power, and vision in a world where she has very little autonomy.
Z: Claude Cahun was a queer artist, photographer and writer. During the war, Claude and her partner Moore worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC radio reports on the Nazis' crimes, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events, strategically placing the flyers in soldier's pockets, on their chairs, etc. The leaflets were written as if written by a German officer and signed ‘The soldier without a name.’ They distributed the notes themselves, on buses, in soldiers’ pockets, in staff cars. One note was said to have stated: “you are the losing the war”
וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
M: “And she saw a well of water. And She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.” Perhaps that is the power, the promise in Hagar’s story. There is water here to find. There is a pathway to survival even if it must first be unearthed. There is water somewhere. There are histories of resilience and resistance- clues for how we might carve out a path of endurance and liberation. Even if we exhausted, even if we are hurt or afraid there is always the chance to return to the moment and find the water, find the tools. There is a chance to return to the past and find the story. This does not mean optimistic readings of the past or present that feel false. This does not mean that no one in the Torah dies of famine or thirst. To the contrary, it means we cherish stories of how people survive with dignity for however long they can. It is a rejection of pessimism and optimism, an embrace of memory and mindful attention. It means confronting the past and the present, returning to the pain of the story of Sarah and Hagar and facing it anyway, of seeing what truth it holds regardless.
Z: Rita Rosani was an educator who formed and led The Eagle Brigade, fighting for months in the hills just north of Verona. When her brigade was ambushed and a bloody battle ensued, male comrades in her unit suggested they create a diversion so she can escape. Rita responded, “You must be joking!” and threw herself into combat. Recognized as the only woman in the Italian Resistance to die in combat, there is a memorial plaque outside the synagogue of Trieste which is engraved in Hebrew with the passage: "Many women behaved valiantly, but you exceed all."
M: On Rosh Hashanah, on this day when we are told G-d remembers the stories of forgotten women, perhaps we are called to remember as well, to expand our sense of the past. What are the stories you are yearning for in this time? Who are the ancestors, the justice seekers, the meaning makers, the resistors, the water seekers whose voices you need to hear? What kind of returning might anchor you in a here and now?
Z: May this year be one of tenacity and bravery in all its embodiment. May we tear down the bridges and walls built in opposition of justice and liberation; may this year be one of strength and insistence in our personal and collective freedom, coming into our own of what it might mean to be dangerous.
M: May we be blessed with an expanded field of vision that inspires us to seek out histories we have forgotten or never known. May we be blessed with teachers and friends who lead us to water. May we drink deeply from the wells of the past, today.