Religious Life

Our Better Angels – Rosh Hashanah – Rabbi Alexander Davis

Our Better Angels
Rosh Hashana 5779
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Sometimes, late at night, I check on my boys after they fall asleep.  I pull up their covers, turn off their radio. And then I just stand there and stare. In the dark of their room lit only by a night light, I could just stare for hours. After homework battles are over, after they’ve showered and brushed and put on pjs, after all the “but I am not tireds” and “can I watch another episode ofs,” finally, finally they are asleep and at peace. And I just stare.  I marvel at how they’ve grown. They used to barely fill a corner of the crib. And now they stretch the length of a bed. I give thanks for the gift of their lives and the privilege of being their father. And in the quiet of the night, my heart swelling with love and pride, another feeling arises: worry, fear, guilt. I worry about the kind of world they are growing up in. I fear for their future. I feel guilty that under my watch, the challenges they will face have only grown.

Like all parents, I want better future for my kids, for all children, a better future for the world. This year though that better world feels farther away than ever. 

Back in June, I was sitting on the kikar at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin just watching life go by- kids splashing in the lake, playing frisbee, working on art projects, practicing Israeli dance. And I found myself emotional looking at these campers because this ordinary, carefree camp day stood in stark contrast to the question that plagues my heart and mind.

What is happening to our nation? I am not referring to the real threats from outside but rather the internal threats. Sure, it’s easy to point the finger at this politician or that party. And they should be held accountable at the polls. But they reflect us. When I say nation, I mean you and me. What is happening to us? We can’t talk to each other. We don’t trust each other. We can’t stand each other. We don’t know each other. We view each other as misguided at best, dangerous at worst. Sometimes we even kill each other.

The ramifications of this national breakdown are staggering and chilling. I worry about the impact on people and on the planet, at home and abroad. And I worry about the effect on our own Jewish community where division and divisiveness whether around domestic or Israel issues are no less real.

The problems feel enormous and we are increasingly paralyzed in our response. It’s not just that we can’t agree on a solution, we can’t even agree on the problem. We can’t even agree on what is real and what is fake. Is there a way back? How can we fashion a more perfect union?

Now I don’t mean to start the new year off on a downer only talking about everything that is wrong. The truth is, there is a whole other sermon about the things that are right. And so tomorrow, we will explore gratitude during our Musaf service.

When my kids were younger, I sang them a lullaby as I put them to sleep: “B’shem hashem elokei yisrael…” In this traditional bedtime prayer, I imagine angels surrounding their bed. On the right is Mikhal, the angel who is like God. On the left is Gavriel, the angel of strength. In front is Uriel, the one who lights the way. From behind is Raphael, the angel of healing. V’al roshi shekhinat el, above their head, God’s divine presence.

We could talk for an hour about the idea of angels in Jewish tradition. But here are the cliff notes. The word malakh angel is related to the word malakha, task. In the Torah, an angel is an agent of God who appears on earth to perform a specific task. These angels appear in the form of human beings, so we are not even aware that there are angels all around us (Bekhor Shor, Gen 21:17).

I like to think that when you and I fulfill God’s will, we are those angels. When a care-giver heals, she is embodying the angel Raphael. When a parent, a teacher, a coach guides another, they are acting as Uriel, the one who lights the way. And on and on. You are an angel in the guise of a human.

We encounter an angel in this morning’s Torah reading. Alone in the wilderness, with the sun beating down, Hagar and her 17-year-old son, Yishmael had given up hope. They were refugees fleeing their homeland and seeking a new life. Now, out of time and out of water, Hagar placed the boy down to die and began to cry. Just then, “God heard the cry of the boy and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven saying, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand for I will make of him a great nation. Vayishma elohim et kol hanaar. Vayikra malakh elohim et hagar min hashamayiim yavomer la, ‘ma lakh hagar, al tiri, ki shama elohim el kol hanaar basher hu sham. Kumi s’i et hanaar v’hachaziki et yadekh bo ki l’goy gadol asimenu’” (Gen 21:17-18.)

There is much to unpack in this verse. And I draw it to our attention because I see in it lessons we must learn. To address the enormous challenges and crises that lay before us, the world requires and God desires that we become each other’s better angels.

The verse begins: “vayishma elohim. God heard.” And the angel repeats, “shama elohim No, God really did hear.” We begin with listening, with hearing the cry of the broken-hearted, the lost, the oppressed, the worried, the cry of the refugee, the cry of one whose world has been shattered by gun violence, the cry of a victim of racism. We must hear the voice of those who sit on the other side of the isle, those with whom we disagree.

Now, you’d think that as Jews, we’d have this one down. After all, we are the people that call out twice a day, “Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel.” And indeed because of our history, we are conditioned to hear the cry of the downtrodden. But then again, sometimes our listening is selective. When it comes to listening to each other, when it comes to listening and really hearing those who have a different opinion, we still have plenty of work to do.

Notice that the verse begins with God listening, “vayishma Elohim.” It continues with the angel telling Hagar that God is listening. In this way, the angel reassures Hagar by letting her know she is not alone. She has been heard. Listening: this is the first step to living up to our better angels.

The verse continues, “ma lakh hagar?” “What troubles you, Hagar?” The angel takes an interest in Hagar. The angel wants to hear from Hagar directly thus poses an open ended, non-judgmental question. Notice the word play. The question, “what troubles you ma lakh” sounds a lot like the word for angel, “malakh.” That is to say, asking questions, taking an interest, trying to understand the pain another’s face, trying to understand another’s perspective is the next step to living up to our better angels.

The passage continues, “vayishma basher hu sham.” Here we have another reference to hearing. God heard the cry from its source, from the boy where he is. It wasn’t reported to God by the angel. It wasn’t refracted and redacted through talking heads. There was a one-on-one encounter. This is difficult to do in our day. We don’t know the other personally. We only know them indirectly through news reports and social media posts. To become a better angel, we have to know the other for who they are, encounter them where they are.

After listening, really hearing, the angel responds to Hagar with words of encouragement and hope: “Do not fear, I will make of him a great nation al tiri ki lagoy gadol asimenu.” Do not despair. Do not lose hope. Just when Hagar felt most desperate, depressed, dejected, the angel lifted her with words of comfort. This gave her strength and reassurance that things would get better. Her child would have a bright future. We are constantly bombarded with language that is degrading, demeaning, demonizing. It is demoralizing. To live up to our better angels, we too must lift each other with words of encouragement.

But words alone are not enough. The angel gave instructions and demanded action: “Get up, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand: “Kumi s’i et hanaar v’hachaziki et yadekh bo.” Get up. There is work to do. Stop wallowing in your sorrow. “Kumi s’i.” Get up. Then, lift up. Hagar, you’re the parent. Your child needs you to guarantee the future. Hold him in your hand and you will find the strength because when it comes to ensuring your children’s future, you’re much stronger than you ever thought possible. To become our better angels, we must support those who have fallen, lift those who are low.

Listen. Question. Encounter. Encourage. Lift up with words. Lift up with action. This is how the angel gave life to Hagar and ensured that Yishmael would father a nation. And while not an exhaustive prescription, this is how we can renew our nation- by living up to our better angels.

Of course, it is easier to talk about listening, questioning, encountering, etc. than it is to do them. To do these things well requires training and practice. Our on-going Musar classes teach some of these skills. And we will have an opportunity to learn additional skills in November with UM professor, Bill Dohtery who is a frequent speaker for an organization appropriately called, Better Angels. Better Angels is a non-partisan citizen’s movement seeking to unify our divided nation. Read about these opportunities and others in publicity for The Well.

Better Angels. The phrase was first coined by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 when our nation stood on the brink of civil war. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln spoke directly to the divide: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This was not the original version of the speech. William Seward who would become Lincoln’s Secretary of State had suggested that Lincoln close his remarks by calling upon the “the guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln changed it to “the better angels of our nature.” In Seward’s version, what was needed would come from outside us. In Lincoln’s version, it would come from within us. (see We are to be, each other’s better angels.

It is not lost on me that in Lincoln’s day, this call to live up to our better angels went unheeded. The Civil War broke out just month later. Indeed, there will be failures and backsliding. There always has been. America is not perfect. No place is. But in America, the arc of history bends toward justice.

This is the message of Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. With a sweeping view of American history, Meachem reminds us that progress in American life has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. For every advancement, there has been some retreat. So, for example, in the years after Lincoln, the America that emancipated its slaves endured an uneven Reconstruction. Under Wilson, the America that was rapidly industrializing and embracing many progressive reforms was plagued by theories of racial superiority. In the age of Roosevelt, the America that defeated fascism fell victim to racial hysteria including the establishment of Japanese internment camps. In Eisenhower’s era, America began to make progress on civil rights in roughly the same years that the country was riled by McCarthyism (p. 258-59).

But our better angels have prevailed just often enough to keep us moving forward. And the same can be true for us.  “If the men and women of the past,” Meacham writes, “with all their flaws and limitations…could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.”

Let me be clear. This is not simply a message about political polarization. The Yamim Noraim, challenge each of to live up to the better angels of our nature. We seek to purify our soul, to cleanse our heart, to repair our relationships with our relatives, our co-workers, our friends and neighbors, our fellow citizens. It is no wonder that in this entire week of introspection, the high point comes when we become like the angels proclaiming, “kadosh kadosh kadosh.” When we do so, we lift ourselves upward on our tip toes expressing our aspiration to become better angels long after the final shofar has sounded.

Better Angles. For the sake of our family and our nation, the work begins with you and me. And it begins now. Listening. Questioning. Encountering. Encouraging. Lifting up.

Living up to our better angels we can overcome fear and division. Living up to our better angels, we can chart a prosperous future for our nation. Living up to our better angles, we can “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Living up to our better angels, we will we will sleep more soundly as we turn our dreams into reality.

I still dream.

I dream of a nation dwelling securely where freedoms are prized, and rights protected.

I dream of a people where vision and values are shared, where civility is cherished, and compromise is not viewed as giving in but giving to the greater good.

I dream of a country where leaders are people of principle, where children can admire the moral mettle of those who govern.

I dream of a people where even when we disagree, we give each other the benefit of the doubt that we all love our country. Because we all love our country.

I dream these dreams for our children and our children’s children. And I know we can make them come true if we want them badly enough, if we work hard enough, if we live up to the better angels of our nature (after Rabbi Shai Held).