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Erev Rosh Hashannah Sermon: Casting off negativity

The portion that is read during the first day of Rosh Hashannah comes from the book of Genesis. In this special parashat, Isaac is just born to Abraham and Sarah. This fulfills the promise HaShem made to the couple to have their own son.

Of course, Abraham already has a son through Hagger, his maidservant. Her son is Ishmael. Haggar is a pagan or Egyptian princess, depending on the commentary. Sarah knows that although Ishmael is the first born, he does not have the values fit to be the spiritual heir to Abraham.

The text of the portion state that Ishmael would play with Isaac when the latter was a baby. The word “play” here has different connotations. Some say that the word “play” is a euphemism for the way Ishmael would treat Isaac. He would taunt him and even pretend to shoot arrows at him. Sarah recognized that Isaac was really in danger from Ishmael and she knew as well that these two would only interfere with the new message of Monotheism and ethics that Abraham was spreading. She realized that her only course of action was to send them away.

Some people might this consider this course of action to be extreme. In this case, it made sense. There was a real physical danger to keeping these two pagans around. Perhaps we can see that Sarah was justified in her action because it would seem that Ishmael did not follow his father’s moral character, yet instead succumbed to his baser instincts.

As we start to take hold and own the message of the high holidays, let us consider a metaphor of this story. Right now our minds are on repentance and t’shuva/return. We are now getting ready to look critically at our behavior and be very honest and straightforward about what we need to change for this new spiritual year.

Doesn’t that involve also getting of certain unwanted behavior? Wouldn’t this mean that some things that we do are not in our best interest and we need to change them? Shouldn’t we work on banishing our negative traits?

But even beyond the obvious, aren’t there some other things we may want to banish from our lives? Aren’t there people or even situations with whom we associate that are more of a drain on us that prevent us from growing?

This can take a lot of discernment. Some people seem to have some character traits and are who they are. They mean well and probably benefit from our association. Sure they can be exhausting, but they’re at least sincere.

Others are just bad news. People drain us. They feed on us. They are spiritual and emotional vampires who just want to drag us down. Same with situations.

How many of us have or have had jobs that we absolutely dread? Oh, the job itself isn’t so bad. But the environment is crazy! People are in cliques, they gossip, the demean. And you’re either with them or against them. You can’t be neutral; you have to take sides. Choose carefully because the wrong choice and your life for 8 hours a day will be torture.

Or maybe you have friends or even family that drag you down. They always have problems. There is always conflict in their lives. Every time you see them they are always complaining about someone or something. You try your best to counsel them, listen intently, offer advice. They never take it. Their response is always, “yes, but….”

So here’s a novel idea: cast them off the same way Sarah, our wise matriarch, cast off two troublemakers who did not want to spiritually evolve. As if vindicating Sarah’s decision, once Hagger ran out of water, she set Ishmael away from her because she didn’t want to see him suffer and die because it was too much for her to handle. This instead of being a good mother and doing what she could to go find water for the both of them.

People like this don’t want to solve problems. They want to drag you in. Misery loves company. They’re addicted to it the same way other people are addicted to chemicals and you are their high. You will not change them.

So why bother? You tried being a friend, helping them with positive, constructive feedback and they don’t want it. It’s time to take your New Year’s resolution and gravitate towards more positive, uplifting situations. Same with your situation, be it a job or circle of friends, or maybe even certain family members (that’s a tough one and only you can decide).

Want proof? Take a week vacation away from the offending people or situation and see how you feel. You will know what to do. Realistically, most change doesn’t happen overnight, that’s true. But as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

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