Rosh Hashanah

“God [had] remembered Sarah as He had said; and God did for Sarah as He had spoken” Genesis 21:1

By Dr Leya Landau, September 17, 2009

The Torah reading for the day of Rosh Hashanah opens with a moment of connection. After years of being unable to bear children, God remembers Sarah. She conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Rashi’s comment on this verse draws attention to the ambivalent verb “remembered” in this context. If God remembers Sarah now, are we to infer that there was a lapse, an empty desolate interim, during which she had, indeed, been forgotten?

Focusing on the unusual word order of the Hebrew, Rashi reads the verb pokad as the uninterrupted pluperfect: “God had remembered Sarah”, rather than “God remembered Sarah”. This grammatical detail makes a powerful point: despite the seemingly unanswered prayers, Sarah had never been forgotten.

Immediately prior to this episode, Abraham has prayed on behalf of Abimelech and his wife and maids, who are subsequently able to conceive and give birth. Rashi suggests that we learn from here that if one prays for mercy on behalf of another when he himself needs the same thing, he himself is answered first. Sarah’s needs have not been forgotten — indeed, in this reading they have been remembered all along — but in these consecutive episodes her pain has been brought into relation to the suffering of others.

Rosh Hashanah has strong associations with the theme of remembering. In the liturgy of the day it is called Yom Hazikaron, “the Day of Remembrance”, and the mussaf service includes a section called Zichronot (“Remembrance”) in which we affirm that we have been “remembered” by God. This prayer refers both to the multitude, “You recall the whole universe, neither is all of creation hidden from you” — as well as to the individual — “You invoke a decreed time of remembrance for every spirit and soul”. Like Sarah, alone in her own painful situation but also aware with Abraham of those around her, we come together on Rosh Hashanah as a community, but also as individuals giving expression to our innermost and most personal prayers.

Last updated: 12:35pm, September 17 2009