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Rosh HaShanah

August 2, 2007

By Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

As we finish preparing for Rosh Hashanah, I would like to offer a few words of Torah. The traditional Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah includes the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham and Sarah’s home. As they wander out in the desert, Hagar, unable to watch the agony and anticipated death of her son, places him under a bush and sits down at a distance in tears. When the angel approaches Hagar explaining that she needn’t fear and that they would not die, she is directed to pick up her son, and ‘hold him by the hand.’ She then is able to see a nearby well; they drink, and survive the horrific experience. It is significant that God did not need to tell Hagar to drink or to provide water for her son; she knew to do that. However, she needed to learn to provide for his emotional needs, and God explained how to do that. ‘Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand’ (vs. 18). It seems like such a simple act, but, it was important enough for the angel to direct Hagar how to hold her son.

This simple act of holding Ishmael’s hand takes on further significance when read in a larger biblical context. The word yad ‘ hand ‘ in the Bible also means monument. How interesting that there is a connection between hands, and the act of supporting people through holding hands, and lasting monuments. Further, God took the Israelites out of Egypt with a yad hazaqah, a strong hand. Grasping a person (or a nation) by the hand can have enduring life-saving and life-altering impact.

These texts remind us to pay attention to the great power of our hands. Reaching out to others and holding them by the hand can be an act of such significance that it serves as a lasting ‘monument.’ Reaching out to others and holding them by the hand can have life-altering consequences. The narratives of our national origins teach that reaching out to others and holding them by the hand is acting b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. It is both comforting and daunting to think that our small acts can have such significance. While we may be encouraged that we are able to touch people in such a simple way, there are times that we may fall short and not perform this simple act, though it would have meant so much. There, too, the Bible provides us with an important model. There will be times when we, like Hagar, are too preoccupied with our own difficulties, or are too oblivious to remember that we need to grasp someone by the hand. We hope that in those times, we too will have our ‘angels’ who remind us what we need to do.

As we enter this High Holy Day season, may we remember those who are lasting monuments to us because they took us by the hand, and changed our lives. In this time when there is so much pain and difficulty in the world, let us remember the great power of a small act, a small act that we can perform on a regular basis.