This Was Not the Year I Set Out to Have (Rosh Hashanah)

The author explores the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out into the wilderness and God opening Hagar’s eyes to the well that was before her. He then shares his own story of coming out and how unpredictable life can be.

September 16, 2009

By Meir Hoberman



This Was Not the Year I Set Out to Have

by Meir Hoberman on Wednesday September 16, 2009 29 Elul 5769

Holiday, Rosh Hashanah

On Rosh Hashanah we read from the Torah the story of the long-awaited birth of Yitzchak (Isaac), the son of Abraham and Sarah. Yitzchak’s birth had been predicted any number of times, but until he actually appeared Abraham and Sarah remained in doubt. Sarah had even gone so far as to offer her own maid, Hagar, to her husband as a second wife, in hopes that so doing would cause her to “merit” a child of her own. When Sarah does have her child as God had promised, Abraham and Hagar’s son, Ishmael, becomes persona non grata in the patriarchal household. With Abraham’s consent, Hagar takes her son and a container of water, and strikes out into the desert.

There she becomes lost and runs out of water. Despairing, she sets her child down under a bush and turns her back, unwilling to watch him die. It is then that a messenger of God speaks to her. God tells her not to fear, that Ishamel will grow up to father a nation; the same promise made to Abraham and Yitzchak. Then God “opens her eyes,” and she sees a well of water, and she is able to give her child water and survive.

For me, reading this story with an eye to the beginning of the new year brings to mind the unpredictability of the future. Hagar prepares for what she can see: she sees the end of her water and foresees the death of her son. When God opens her eyes she sees something different: a fresh, clear well, and her son’s future as the father of a nation of people.

So often when we find ourselves facing the beginning of a new year, we talk about plans and hopes. We make resolutions, restitutions, and large-scale purchases. We clean our homes, as though by so doing we could cleanse ourselves of the accumulations of the year. We cast bread into the water to symbolize casting off our sins, and we cast our sights forward toward a new beginning.

As the year goes on, some things can be planned for, but as many come without warning. My college roommate got married this year, while another close friend ended a four-year relationship; one friend became a mother, while yet another saw the passing of a close relative; one finished her MDiv at a Christian seminary, one was ordained as a rabbi, and another experienced setbacks on the road toward her PhD. Last Rosh Hashanah I was identifying myself as a femme lesbian, and during the course of this year I came out to my friends and family, and my rabbinical school professors and colleagues, as a man.

Looking forward into the first Rosh Hashanah of this next chapter of my life, I find myself casting forward into an unfamiliar future. The path I imagined before me last year has been complicated by a new vocabulary of options, choices, and terminology. The role models before me have changed too, and even what it will look like to achieve the goals I already had seems different.

As my grandmother would say in Yiddish, “Man plans; God laughs.” Jewish tradition tells us that as we formulate our hopes for this year, God is inscribing us in the book of our future. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that we can guess at some of that future, but so much more of it is beyond our control.

Even in the Mishnah dealing with Rosh Hashanah, the question of what can be predicted and controlled is a recurring one. Much of the Mishnah’s concern with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah has to do with the process of determining the calendar according to the new moon. Witnesses who had seen the new moon would make their way to the beit din and testify that it was time for the beginning of the lunar month. Mishnah 6 of chapter 1 of Tractate Rosh Hashanah imagines the challenges that might face such a witness setting out on their journey:

If a person saw the New Moon and is unable to walk, they bring him on an ass, or even on a bed; and if any lie in wait for them, they take sticks in their hands; if the way is long, they take food in their hands, because for a journey lasting a night and a day they may violate the Shabbat, and they go forth and give testimony about the New Moon.

The witnesses and those who travel with them prepare for what they see before them, but how can we prepare for the things we cannot see? We can’t, really. Sometimes we take sticks in our hands, and the bandits never appear. Sometimes we take plenty of water into the desert, and become lost and run out. Sometimes we think all is lost, and God opens our eyes.

As the new year begins, perhaps we should ease up on some of those plans and promises. The year God is inscribing for us is – to us – a blank page. May we face it with flexibility and with courage, with wisdom, and with laughter, and with hope.