D’var Torah: The Tale of Two Haftarot

How can we approach the high holy days this year when our world has endured so much over the past year? A year ago I did not imagine a deadly pandemic or the internal strife in our country. Our lives have been disrupted. I am angry, sad, confused and bewildered, not to mention emotionally drained and depleted. I am not anywhere close to a perfect person, but I think I have pre-paid my penance since March. Frankly, I am not sure that I have the mental energy to focus on all of my faults this year. I need to scream out my pain and find some hope for the future.

I did find unexpected guidance while reviewing the two haftarot that we read over Rosh Hashanah.

The first haftorah tells the story of the barren Hannah, who desperately wanted a child. Her desire was unanswered and time was running out. At her family’s yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh, she prayed: “In her wretchedness, she prayed to Adonai, weeping all the while.” Her prayer is famous because her words couldn’t be heard – rather, she prayed from the heart. The head priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and rebuked her. When he learned her true plight, he added his prayer to hers.

It is okay to have a bitter heart now. It is okay to pour out our anguish, fear and anger. We can be mad at ourselves, at others, and at God. This pandemic is awful on so many levels: the obvious death, pain and suffering of those afflicted, the collateral costs to people who struggle with addiction, mental illness, hunger and poverty, and the total disruption of the lives and livelihoods of almost everyone. I have read many articles about how we have used up all of our emotional energy to get through this crisis that has already lasted more than six months. We are depleted. We need to give ourselves a break and lower our results-oriented expectations for ourselves. The only thing we cannot relax is our total commitment to be kind to each other.

This Rosh Hashanah I recommend pouring out our anguish, pain and despair in prayer whether the words can be found in a prayer book or in our hearts. It is even okay to appear like a drunken person while doing so. Let it out!

With that business out of the way, I am hoping we are ready for the second haftorah. The words of Jeremiah are directed to Jews in exile; they herald a return to Zion. “Again you shall take up your hand-drums and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; growers shall plant and live to enjoy them.”

Exiles are different from pandemics, but both are catastrophic events that upend life as we know it. In these dark times we need the words of the prophet to encourage us and spread the word that God is still with us. The vision, for me, of us once again gathering in Palmer and singing and dancing together on opening night gives me hope. We will get through this. And, if we stick together and care for one another, we will once again flourish.

This is the mission I give myself these high holy days: to pour out all my frustrations, fear and anger in prayer and then find reasons for hope. I need to come out of this period feeling a sense that things will get better and we are not forsaken. Let us rely on each other for kindness and strength and may the words of the prophet be fulfilled: They shall fare like a watered garden; they shall never languish again. Then shall maidens dance gaily, young men and old alike. I will turn their mourning to joy, I will comfort them and cheer them in their grief. I will give the priests their fill of fatness and My people shall enjoy My full bounty – declares Adonai. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, page 112)

Shana Tova U’metuka – may it be a good, sweet and healthy year.