Happy New Year

In a few hours I will be heading off to Budapest to co-lead the Erev Ros Hásáná service at Szim Salom. We have the unconventional tradition of reading Torah at the evening service, since we don’t hold a morning service for Rosh Hashanah (for Yom Kippur we do, but not this year, since we will be observing the holiday together with several congregations). So tonight I will also be leyning Genesis 21:1-21), a beloved and perplexing passage. (In another post I have explained, in very basic terms, what leyning is.) The High Holiday cantillation trop (melodic system) is especially beautiful, so this is one of the highlights for me.

The year is new for me in more ways than I can enumerate. I have so much happening this fall and so much to attend to in general. But my dear friend Joyce posted a quote the other day that set off some thoughts, so I will respond to it here.

“Forgiveness is not a matter of exonerating people who have hurt you. They may not deserve exoneration. Forgiveness means cleansing your soul of the bitterness of ‘what might have been,’ ‘what should have been,’ and ‘what didn’t have to happen.’ Someone has defined forgiveness as ‘giving up all hope of having had a better past.’ What’s past is past and there is little to be gained by dwelling on it. There are perhaps no sadder people then the men and women who have a grievance against the world because of something that happened years ago and have let that memory sour their view of life ever since.”

—Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

We often have it backwards. When we think we are waiting for forgiveness (or at least reconciliation, or acceptance, or kindness) from someone else, it is often we who are not forgiving them, not letting them take their own direction. In other words, forgiveness is primarily on us, not on the other people, and in some ways it’s also for us, not for them. Rabbi Kushner also points out, wisely, that forgiveness is not the same as exoneration. In some cases, you do not have to arrive at an acceptance of what they did. Still, you can go on with your life without having their actions hover over you forever.

I would add that in life we are given some people who understand us (up to a point), and others who do not, just as we understand some of the people in our lives, and others not. Being misunderstood and mistaken feels rotten, but it is simply going to happen. No one is understood by everyone, and no one understands anyone perfectly. Still, understanding of a certain kind does come.

I think again of Genesis 21:1-21. When Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away, Abraham does not understand at first; the request upsets him deeply. But God tells Abraham to listen to her, because there is a larger plan. “‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee.”

This is strange to the modern ear, because the modern mind would be likely to judge Sarah for her jealousy (even though we’d be at least as jealous and upset in her shoes). It might not even be jealousy as much as a sense of disorder. Casting Hagar and her child out seems cruel, especially since it was Sarah who first suggested that Hagar bear Abraham a child. But in the world of this text, the cruel act will allow Isaac to be the head of a great people, and Ishmael too. Staying together in the same home, they would not accomplish this.

As remote as the story and text are from our time, they have truth today too. The losses in our lives seem harsh, but they also make it possible for us to create new things. I think back on times when I have been “cast out” by someone—not kicked out of a house, but told, essentially, “we need to go our own ways.” At the time, I was dismayed. But the wonderful things that followed could not have happened if we had not made such a break. That does not mean everyone has to break with everyone; it is much better, when possible, to uphold relationships over time, let them deepen, and tackle problems that arise. But some breaks (not necesarily romantic, but also in friendships, associations, etc.) open up a world.

That is all, because I have a lot to do before heading off to the train station. Happy New Year!

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. I’m also leyning this Rosh Hashanah. Shana tova!

    Reply
  2. Yasher koach! Shana tova!

    Reply
  3. Happy New Year, Diana!

    Reply

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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