Rabbi considers what’s within, and beyond, our control

Rabbi Aaron Alexander
Photo courtesy of Adas Israel Congregation

By Elisa Posner

One of the greetings on Rosh Hashanah is “shanah tovah,” or “good year.” But with so much uncertainty in the world, how does one even imagine a good year ahead, let alone wish it to someone else?

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, said Rosh Hashanah is the time to honestly assess oneself and society. What the High Holidays provide this year is an ancient template for coming to terms with where we are, personally and as part of society.

“More people are actually willing to look in the mirror now than before,” he said.


In the last six months, COVID-19 has given a new meaning to what’s within, and beyond, our control, Alexander said. The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah about the binding of Isaac deals with the struggle over control.

God commands Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. As the master of the world, God is beyond Abraham’s control, and it’s up to Abraham to decide how he’ll respond.

Alexander said that within the last six months, people have experienced the top-down process of power differently than they have before. Many people have given up parts of their lives because of decisions made by people in power.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael, which is also read on Rosh Hashanah, deals with balance of power. When Sarah was unable to bear a child for Abraham, he used the servant Hagar as a surrogate. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Sarah eventually gave birth to Isaac, but was jealous of Hagar and Ishmael. So she sent them into exile.

Alexander said that from Ishmael’s perspective, he was brought into this world because of the choices of other people, for reasons beyond his control. Once he was born, he had no say in what his status would be, and he wasn’t given a ladder to improve that status. He had a brother whom he loved, but because of the powers that be, their relationship was not allowed to continue. From Ishmael’s perspective, this was Abraham, Sarah and Isaac’s story, not his. His narrative was not allowed to continue.

From Hagar’s point of view, she was a servant — something beyond her control —and fulfilled her requirement of bearing a child for the family. Still, she was cast aside. From Hagar’s perspective, Sarah chose her son and her story at the expense of Hagar’s suffering.

While Jewish history has been one of struggle, oppression and persecution, America today has been the greatest time and place for Jews, Alexander said. He added that it’s hard for him to reconcile the fact that Jews are now accepted into a system that once oppressed them.

“The ways in which we have learned to feel safe in this society are now a part of our DNA in many ways. But the fear of knowing it could end in an instant is also there,” he said.

People are afraid to give up their comforts, he said. That fear makes it difficult for people to give up some of their opportunity so that another person can have opportunity.











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