In our congregation we read Genesis 21 on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This story speaks of the birth of Isaac. It is read for several reasons. The opening line tells of how God remembers Sarah. Rosh Hashanah is known as the day of remembrance. We pray that God will remember us for life and for good. For many years Sarah longed for a child. God hears her prayers, and she conceives, at the age of 90, and gives birth to Isaac. It is through Isaac that the Jewish people trace their lineage. Thus we affirm that God will remember us and hear our prayers.
The chapter concludes, however, with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Now that Sarah has her own child she no longer wishes for her maidservant Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael to remain with them. She instructs Abraham to send them out to the desert. Abraham is distressed, but God reassures him saying that Ishmael will become a great nation as well. Abraham sends them out with meager rations. Soon they find themselves near death. Hagar leaves Ishmael alone for she is unable to watch him die. She begins to wail. The Torah relates: “And God heard the cry of the boy.”
The message is clear. It is not just my prayers but everyone’s prayers that God hears. It is not only Jewish prayers that God listens to, but everyone’s.
And then when we conclude these High Holidays, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, with the reading from the Book of Jonah, the story of a prophet who is called to chastise the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was part of the Assyrian empire. Its people were not Jews. In a surprising turn the king and the people repent and change their ways. God does what God is supposed to do, and what we pray for on Yom Kippur. When people change, God forgives them and renounces their punishment. The story concludes with God’s statement to Jonah: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well.”
I am given to wonder. Why is it on these holiest of days, when Jews most assert their particular identity, did the rabbis assign biblical readings that affirm a universal concern?
Perhaps the answer is that is the opening and concluding word on our holiest of days should be that God cares about everyone and everything—even the beasts.
All we have to do, all anyone has to do, is change.
It starts with a prayer. It begins with any prayer. And it concludes with the turning of repentance. Such are the bookends of readings our tradition assigns to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Perhaps that is a message about which we need to remind ourselves—again and again. Our greatest prayer, our most important teaching, is that we are all in this together.
May we be sealed for life, and may the world, and all its inhabitants, find a measure of peace,