The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We’d been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.
My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. “I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!” I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.
My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.
This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.
When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.
Y’all have known me for a while now, so you’re probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.
If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child’s pose, you’ve had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you’ve had a flicker of this experience.
But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It’s a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God’s hand.
As we sing in Adon Olam:
ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.
“Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear.” I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.
I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it’s always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah’s jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.
As Jews, we are the spiritual descendants of Abraham through the line of Isaac. According to both Jewish and Muslim traditions, Abraham’s other son Ishmael became the progenitor of the Arab nations. In Islam, Ishmael is seen as the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad. Jews and Muslims are cousins, forever related through the brotherhood of those two men who were sons of Abraham.
Of course, Jews and Muslims are descendants not only of Abraham, but also of Sarah and Hagar, the two women who are so central to this story. What changes if we think of ourselves and of the Muslim community not as members of an “Abrahamic” religion but as the children of these two mothers? Does that offer us the possibility of relating to each other in a different way?
Of course, as we heard in today’s Torah portion, Sarah and Hagar’s relationship was not always easy.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the story of Sarah sending her slave and Abraham’s other son into the wilderness to die. In my unease, I follow in the footsteps of our sages. Judith Plaskow teaches that our sages were torn between reverence for Sarah as our matriarch, and concern for the powerless, including the slave-woman Hagar. Torah clearly teaches kindness to strangers and to slaves — and yet Torah also shows us Sarah demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out. What can we do with this tension?
One answer is to cut Sarah some slack. Often, we who make unkind choices do so because we ourselves are suffering in some way.
In this story, Sarah’s the one in power. But there are other stories where that’s not the case. For instance, to save his own life, Abraham passes her off not once but twice as his sister. He lies about who she is, and Sarah winds up taken into two different foreign harems, powerless to control her own fate.
Torah is a mirror of human experience. It’s pretty common for someone who has been oppressed to oppress others in turn. Abraham made choices for Sarah without her consent; in turn, Sarah made choices for Hagar and Ishmael without theirs. One thing we learn from this story is that someone who doesn’t have power over her own life may feel the need to assert power over someone else’s.
Another thing we learn from this story is that sometimes what we most need appears, if only we have eyes to see. God causes a spring to appear right where Hagar and Ishmael need it — or perhaps God opens Hagar’s eyes to the spring which was already there. When we place ourselves in Hagar’s shoes, this becomes a story about miracles and gratitude.
Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael also appear in Muslim sacred texts. Many stories about these three figures are found in what’s called the Isra’iliyyat — interpretive traditions transmitted during times of close connection between early Muslims and Jews. The way we understand our sacred story has shaped how they understand theirs.
And the way they understand their sacred story has informed how we read ours. How many people here know the story about Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s workshop and placing a stick in the biggest idol’s hand? Did you know that it isn’t in the Torah? It’s in our midrashic tradition — and it’s in the Qur’an.
In the collection of classical midrash known as Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, we learn that Ishmael’s wives were named Fatima and Ayesha. In Muslim tradition, these are the names of the wives of the prophet Muhammad. That’s another sign of how our traditions have influenced each other.
The story we heard today is also one we share with our Muslim cousins. It’s an integral part of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which each Muslim is expected to make once in a lifetime. In their telling of the story, Hagar, whom they call Hajr, ran back and forth between two hills in search of water. In their version, as in ours, she could not bear to watch her child die. When she called out in her grief, an angel struck the earth with its heel, and at that spot a spring called Zamzam began to flow. As part of the Hajj they reenact her running, and wash hands and feet for prayer in the spring which is said to be the one which appeared and saved Ishmael’s life.
Our traditions have so much in common. Not only do we share stories, but both of our traditions are centered around scripture written in a language which for most practitioners is not a native tongue. Not only that: our two sacred languages are cousins. They call God ar-rahman, we call God ha-rachaman, and we’re both saying “The Merciful One,” using a name which comes from the root rechem which means womb. And that in turn reminds me of the prostration which our traditions have in common, which is so like the fetal position we all knew in the womb.
We can delight in our common ground even as we learn from our differences. In Judaism we feel entirely permitted to grapple with what may seem to us to be flaws or problems in our holy stories. That kind of chutzpahdik interpretation can be a revelation to our Muslim cousins. Meanwhile, our Muslim cousins have things to teach us about the spiritual values of trusting divine providence, of maintaining faith in God, of gracefully submitting to the truth that we’re not always in control.
Take a moment to notice your body. Focus your attention on your breathing; touch your wrist or neck to feel your heartbeat. Isn’t it amazing how your organs work together to keep you alive? Now imagine what it might feel like if your heart stopped speaking to your lungs, or if a clot kept blood from reaching your brain. As a multiple stroke survivor, I can tell you that I didn’t feel the blood clots when they happened — but I noticed their damaging effects.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that each religion is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each religion to shine with its own unique strengths. After all, if the heart tried to do the liver’s work, the body wouldn’t function so well! But we also need each religion to be in community and connection with the others. Because if the heart weren’t speaking to the liver, the body couldn’t function, either.
All of humanity is part of one whole. And when we mistrust each other, the lines of communication between one faith-tradition and another — between one organ and another — become blocked. Our fear of each other is like a clot, blocking the connections that humanity needs most.
There are old wounds between our two religious communities, wounds which may date all the way back to Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and her son. They’re certainly exacerbated by the painful last century in the Middle East.
It’s easy for both communities to take refuge in triumphalism: for us as Jews to say “our story is the right one because ours was here first,” for them as Muslims to say “our story is the right one because it came down as a corrective to yours!” And there are triumphalist voices in both communities — voices of those for whom religion is a zero-sum game, for whom in order for us to be right, they have to be wrong, whoever “they” are.
But I believe that in this historical moment we are called to shed triumphalism, and to embrace the redemptive potential of affirming that ours is not the only path to holiness. I believe that this era of internet-assisted interconnectedness gives us a historically unique opportunity to see ourselves as part of a greater whole. As Reb Zalman also taught, once humanity became able to see our planet from space, our eyes were opened to our interconnectedness. What hurts “them” hurts “us” also.
If each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity, then our fears and anxieties about each other are shrapnel in that body, sources of recurring pain. But what might happen if we committed ourselves to learning about each other? To meeting each other face to face not as strangers but as cousins, descendants of the same complicated clan?
Maybe we would have the experience of looking into our cousins’ faces and seeing glimmers of the common ancestors we share. Even if our physical appearances differ, even if our customs of dress differ, even if our languages of prayer differ — we’re part of the same family.
Making these connections can be a challenge in northern Berkshire, where the Muslim community is small and mostly collegiate. But during the coming Jewish year I’m going to bring one of my Muslim colleagues and friends to speak at CBI and to share her wisdom with you. That will be an opportunity to learn about Islam and to teach about Judaism face to face, with open hearts, as I was blessed to be able to do on my retreat this past summer.
For a different kind of learning, on your way out today you can pick up a curated reading list of good books, designed to introduce Muslims to Judaism and to introduce Jews to Islam. (Here it is for those who are reading online:Jewish-Muslim-Reading-List. I welcome other suggestions from readers in comments, too.)
This work of learning and connection is happening in Israel, too. There are courageous Arab and Jewish peacemakers who learn together, visit each others’ communities, celebrate each others’ lifecycle events and mourn each others’ losses. Organizations like the Sulha Peace Project and the Jerusalem Peacemakers draw on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prophetic voices to bring Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, together in the service of building peace.
Building peace together was also the impetus for Choose Life, a joint Jewish-Muslim fast for peace on July 15th of this year. In our tradition, that day was the minor fast day of 17th Tamuz, when we remember the breach in Jerusalem’s walls in 586 BCE which led to the Babylonian destruction of the first Temple. In their tradition, that day fell during the fasting month of Ramadan. This Fast for Peace originated with a Jewish settler and a Palestinian activist in the West Bank, and quickly spread to communities around the world.
All that’s required is openness… and the willingness to make a connection. It’s like how we make hamotzi here on Shabbat mornings: everyone helping to hold up the challah, or touching someone who’s helping to hold up the challah, or touching someone who’s touching someone, until we’re all connected.
Because we are all connected. This summer I was invited into pre-dawn prayer by my Muslim sisters. A new friend offered the Sufi teaching that one should seek with every breath to say a prayer asserting that there is nothing else but God. And I thought of the line from Psalm 150, כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ, “let every breath praise You.” And I thought of the kabbalistic teaching that אֵין עוֹד מִלבַדוֹ, “there is nothing else but God.” I thought: wow, our traditions have this in common. And then we sat together in our pyjamas, singing names of God until the sun had risen.
A few hours later the Jews reciprocated, opening up our prayer space so our Muslim sisters could join us for shacharit, daily morning prayer. Afterward, a friend said to me that while our melodies were unfamiliar, the meanings behind the words made perfect sense, because what we’re saying exists in their tradition too.
There’s more that connects us than divides us. I believe this is true not only between Jews and Muslims but across almost any difference on this beautiful earth. Across nationalities, across cultures, across borders: there’s more that connects us than divides us. Imagine if we all woke up in the morning with the intention of strengthening what connects us, instead of digging in behind what divides us.
I’m not saying we’re all the same. Thank God, we’re not! Thank God, our world is full of difference and diversity. And Torah teaches that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. In my understanding, that means that it takes every human being who was, is, and ever will be to make up the reflection of our infinite God. Our differences are essential. And, when you put us all together, we’re part of a greater whole, a Unity of which each of us is an integral part.
Our sages teach that today, on Rosh Hashanah, the world is born anew. Or, in another translation, today the world is pregnant with possibility. Today anything is possible.
What different future do we want to dream for the children of Sarah and Hagar, the spiritual descendants of Abraham / Ibrahim?
The opportunity to learn about each other — to build and strengthen our connections — to change the shape of humanity — to see and celebrate how we are connected — is in our hands.
The angel tells Hagar, “don’t be afraid.” As I chanted earlier this morning: וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם וַתֵּ֜לֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּ֤א אֶת־הַחֵ֨מֶת֙ מַ֔יִם וַתַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּֽעַר:
“And God opened her eyes and she saw a well full of water. She went and filled her container and gave it to the boy to drink.”
This Rosh Hashanah I want to say to you: Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. There’s a wellspring of life-giving water right here, within our grasp. And it can sustain not only us, but also our children — with the promise of a different future, a world of interconnection between the children of Hagar and the children of Sarah.
כֵן יְהִי רַצוֹן: may it be so.