For some reason, as I was preparing for the High Holidays this year I had a phrase from a poem by T.S. Eliot going through my mind. It goes like this: “Thoughts of a dry brain, in a dry season.” This seems incongruous on a number of levels. First of all, this summer has not exactly been a dry season in the Pioneer Valley. It would be more appropriate to the weather we’ve experienced if the line read: thoughts of a waterlogged basement in a deluge. Secondly, the image of an arid and spent old man that the poem conveys is not necessarily one that we would associate with this feast of apples and honey. It could be that the dry brain was just my own—struggling to find the words to this and the other talks I’m expected to deliver over the next week and a half, while at the same time moving house and setting up a small farm. But on closer analysis, I think I found a more intrinsic relationship between the words and the sense of the High Holidays that I’d like to convey to you this morning, and in particular the way I would like to draw upon the Torah and Haftarah portions we’ve read to enhance our understanding of what it is we’re doing here.
The poem is called Gerontion. It was written in 1920, and contains at least one line that could be construed as anti-Semitic. But nonetheless I love it. Eliot begins and ends on this same note of arid weariness. He actually begins with the English version of that venerable Hebrew word that to my mind holds the key to the essence of Jewish spirituality (though I doubt he was aware of this): Hinneni. “Here I am,” reads the first verse, “an old man in a dry month,/Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.”
The image of an old man being read to by a boy does seem a powerful symbol of the turning of the year, but beyond that there is something in the idea of “waiting for rain” that is essential to an understanding of the High Holidays in a way that we seldom consider. Why has our calendar developed such an intense concern for atonement, for the wellbeing of the spirit in its relationship with the divine, at precisely this time of year? Because for millennia, at least since the book of Deuteronomy, Jews have linked blessing with rain, and rain with morality, and this is the time of year that we begin wondering if the rain will fall. Rosh Hashanah is not a holiday of abundance, even though we’ll celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot only 15 days from today. It is a holiday of anticipation, when our ancestors would cast their first wary glances at the sky and wonder if the rain would fall, and then look inward and ask themselves if they deserved it. “Here I am,” they would say, like the old man in the poem, “a dry brain in a dry season waiting for rain.”
What was agricultural for our ancestors has become spiritual for us. Even if we do not need to wait for rain at this time of year, as they do in the Middle East, we may still find ourselves looking inward in contemplation of a parched spirit, wondering what, it anything, will bring it life in the year to come. This may be a radical new understanding of Rosh Hashanah—that, to borrow another famous term from Eliot, it is in fact a wasteland, a landscape baked to hardness by the summer heat in which the very potential for vitality is a matter of speculation and doubt. If you think of the traditional liturgy, particularly Unetanah Tokef, then maybe this idea becomes a little less radical: who will live and who will die in the coming year, we ask? Who will be raised up and who laid low? The power of this day comes in the fact that we do not know, and yet we dare to ask the question. We bring ourselves to the crisis point of the dry season, hoping the rain will fall, and in the meantime we pass through an existential wilderness.
But the question I really want to ask this morning is: what does it mean to come out on the other side? Or, to put it another way: what do we discover when we pass through?
For an answer to these questions, I want to turn away from modernist poetry and go back to the bible. Our Torah and Haftarah readings for today provide us with at least two responses, one traditionally pious and the other more humble and human. Extrapolating from the theme of wasteland or wilderness, it is interesting to note that the theme of the barren woman is very active in both of our readings. Barrenness can be considered a state of being in which the body itself is like a dry landscape, bereft of the expected vitality, causing an emotional turmoil that almost rivals the physical distress of rainlessness. It is also a familiar biblical theme: we should know by now that anyone who is anyone in Torah is either barren herself or the offspring of a once barren mother. It was clearly a theme that captured the imagination of our storytellers—that meant something powerful to them. We find it as the backstory to today’s Torah portion. Sarah and Abraham have been delivered from the trauma of her childlessness, but its residue continues to affect the way that Sarah anxiously guards her miracle son, Isaac, against the perceived threat of his half-brother Ishmael. We might even say that Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, passes through a metaphoric crisis of barrenness. When she must flee to the desert with her son, she enters a period of mortal concern—not with whether or not her body can produce a child, but with the related dilemma of whether or not her resourcefulness can keep him alive.
We find one of the most fully articulated expositions of this biblical theme not in the Torah portion, but in the Haftarah—the first chapter and a half of the book of Samuel, which tells the story of the prophet’s mother Hannah, in particular the tale of the tribulation and triumph that accompany her giving birth to this illustrious man. Our biblical authors make it clear, almost from the start, that barrenness is not to be understood as a fact of nature, but as a manifestation of the power of God. This is stated bluntly in verse five of chapter one: va’adonai sagar et rachma. Hannah is not able to get pregnant because God has closed her womb. No explanation is given as to why—it does not seem to be a punishment as such, though I would imagine that those carrying a moralistic theology might speculate it springs from some unnarrated misdeed. Either way, it is traumatic—resulting in taunting from Hannah’s husband’s other wife, who is fertile, and the curdling of Hannah’s own expectations.
The biblical solution to this dilemma is obviously not surgery or fertility treatments, but a heartfelt plea, with a fervency that is mistaken for drunkenness, to the Master of heaven and earth. “Lord of Hosts,” Hannah prays, while standing at the altar of the pre-Temple Israelite shrine at Shiloh, “if you plant a human seed in the womb of your serving woman, I shall dedicate the child to you.” Her prayer is granted. Vayehi l’tkufot hayamim—and it was at the turning of the season that Hannah became pregnant, and bore a child. And true to her word, when he is good and weaned she brings him back to the shrine to become a servant of the Most High.
Barrenness may not have been a punishment, but it nonetheless teaches Hannah a pious lesson. God is in charge of all things, ordering them according to His will. “Adonai owns the pillars of the earth on which the world was placed,” she sings out in her triumph, “and guards the steps of the righteous.” She has prevailed by placing her faith in God, as His righteous servant, and her reward is all the sweeter, is in fact truly deserved, because of her perseverance through the wilderness. It has been a dark night of the soul, but now it is morning and blessing is falling like rain.
This is what I referred to as the “traditionally pious” answer. Why do we go through this wasteland every year at the turning of the seasons? Because we are seeking a reward from God when we come out on the other side. Why do we pray and sound the shofar? Why will we fast? Because we hope that this affliction, together with the fervent pouring out of our hearts will cause God to remember us like God remembered Hannah, to vindicate us and deliver us with the rains of heaven.
This is the pious answer, but I mentioned that there was another one. We don’t find it in the broad strokes of the Haftarah, but in a careful reading of a corner of the Torah portion that we don’t often visit. It is an answer, I want to argue, suggesting we should not set our sights, like Hannah, on the benefit we accrue on the other side of the dry season, but focus instead on what we can find in the very midst of the wilderness.
The real drama of our Torah reading today lies in the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, sent away from Abraham’s household, at Sarah’s request, so that Isaac’s inheritance will remain unchallenged. But the last two aliyot tell another story, which I have always thought of as “filler”—just so much additional leyning to make sure we get to the requisite 5 aliyot on Rosh Hashanah. It was only the anxiety of originality that made me give them a second look this year—the sense that I had to do a little Torah bushwhacking to bring back something fresh after so many years of reading the same stories. But I’m glad that I did.
These later aliyot speak of a peace treaty between Abraham and Avimelech, the charismatic king of the Philistines. It takes place at Be’er Sheva, now the large Israeli city to the north of the Negev desert, but originally just the name Abraham gave to the spring of water this treaty established as his: be’er—the well, sheva—of the oath. The oath sworn at this well provides Abraham with the water he needs to sustain his household in the barren land he has chosen to inhabit, but it’s not so much this fact as what happens afterwards that I find so remarkable. The fifth aliyah ends with two extraordinary verses, which I’ll take out of order by dealing with the second one first:
Vaya-gor avraham b’erets plishteem yamim rabim.
This seems simple enough, but the first translation I happened to look at actually got it wrong. It read: “And Abraham lived near the country of the Philistines for many days.” But the preposition b’ doesn’t mean near, it means in, and so the verse should read: “And Abraham lived in the country of the Philistines for many days.” It occurs to me that this mistranslation might have been something like a Freudian slip, a mental short circuit eliding a counterintuitive fact: the fact that the Abraham we envision as the bold adventurer, journeying to the promised land to take possession of it, is not the whole story. Whatever was promised to his descendants, Abraham himself is a sojourner, and as such he must compromise his vision, dwelling not in the full victory of a divine reward, however much this may be what he ultimately desires, but in realistic negotiation with his circumstances. He has in common with Hannah that they both dwell for a time in a dry land—hers in her body and his in the scrub country of the Negev. But on one crucial point they differ: the rain does not fall for Abraham on cue.
He is concerned with wells, after all, not rain, and though there is an obvious connection between the two—water has to come from somewhere—having access to a reliable well means making do for a while even when there is no rain. His desire to establish a claim is therefore understandable, but what he does immediately afterwards is a little more esoteric:
Vayita eshel b’v’eer sheva, vayikra sham b’shem adonai el olam—
“And Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Be’er Sheva, and called upon the name of Adonai El Olam.”
This verse contains two rarities. The first is El Olam, the name Abraham gives to God, which occurs nowhere else in the entire Torah. It is hard to translate precisely: “God of the world”, “God of the Universe”, “God of eternity,” “God of existence.” Why this strange name here? What is it about Abraham’s prayer at this moment that calls it into being? Maybe it is only in the service of a Universal God, a God representing existence itself in all of its forms, rather than the God of Hannah’s prayer who hears and answers only the prayers of His righteous, that Abraham can accept the reality of compromise and unmet expectations; that he can set aside, at least for a time, the dream of a vindicating triumph, and concentrate instead on what it takes to thrive in a barren landscape.
Vayital eshel b’v’e’er sheva—
“And he planted a tamarisk tree—an eshel—at Be’er Sheva.”
This is the other rarity. There are only two other times in the entire Bible that the eshel, the Tamarisk, is mentioned, and both times it is in conjunction with an unexpected character—Saul, the tragic first king of Israel. When he first learns that David is rising against him, he is sitting under a tamarisk. After the men of a town he once befriended have pity on his corpse, and take it down from the Philistine wall where it is hanging, they bury it properly under the gangly branches of a tamarisk. By association, we can only understand this tree as a symbol of solace to the thwarted and the circumscribed. And now, in the midst of a strange land, with a blessing to the God of reality on his lips, Abraham plants an eshel beside his well.
There is one other interesting fact I discovered about the tamarisk, in an old encyclopedia that offers a tentative analysis of the natural history underlying the bible. A desert tree, capable of withstanding extreme conditions, it produces a subtle kind of food, a resin of a dirty-yellow color that is sweet and aromatic like honey. In the Arabic of the early-20th century it was still being called man es-simma, which we could translate into Hebrew as manna-min-hashamayim, or just manna. The speculation was that the real basis for the story of the manna that fell from heaven, and sustained the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness, could be found in the tamarisk. Likewise, for Abraham, miraculous sustenance does not fall from the sky, but is rather brought up from a well in the earth and derived from the bark of a humble tree, in both cases by the work of his own skillful hands.
I found a picture of a tamarisk on the internet—on Wikipedia actually. It sprawled across a rocky embankment, set against a backdrop of scattered clouds and hot blue sky, brushing the desert sand with its long, spindly branches, and wispy, bleached-green leaves. It wasn’t that hard to imagine Abraham, beside his well, resting under the tree’s meager shade in the heat of the sun, listening to the noises of his flock and his family, marveling that this thing he had planted from a root or a seed had grown in such an inhospitable landscape—Abraham, the dry brain in the dry season, savoring his first taste of the subtle honey of the wilderness.
I see no reason not to hold out hope that we will be rewarded like Hannah, that the dark night of our souls, our prayer and our penitence, will give way to a morning light, in which the deepest wishes of our hearts, mishalot libanu, will be granted for good, for life, and for enduring peace. But in the meantime, while we wait for rain in this wilderness, we are presented with an equally important opportunity: to look inward, like Abraham, and realize that there is already a seed in our possession, and it is ready to stir.