The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

In my preparation for Rosh HaShana I have been reflecting on the two primary narratives we read in the Torah reading for the first and second say of this holiday. The first day we read the story of Hagar and Yishmael going into exile in the desert. The second day we read the binding of Yitzhak. There is deep connection between these two stories of parents dealing with the near death experience of their children. While acting under divine command, interestingly both where caused by Avraham. He sent Hagar and Yishmael out of his house and he brought Yitzhak to Har Moriah to be sacrificed. The differences between these stories is also very interesting. While there is nothing natural about sacrificing you child, Hagar’s experience is natural and common to all parents. Her story reveals the risk that is always there. While we might not think about it all of the time, as parents we spend a lot of energy worrying about the threats our children face on a daily bases. What does it mean to be conscious of the peril our child are in all the time? And what does this awareness have to do with Rosh HaShana?

This reminds me of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Damocles - Wikipedia

The threat might always be there dangling above our heads, but we just do not see it. It is always ever present, but we need a King Dionysius to point it out to us.

In many ways the sounds of the Shofar serves the same function as Dionysius. In one opinion this sound evokes the wailing of  Sisera’s mother (Rosh HaShanah 33b). As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

This depiction of Sisera’s mother at the window watching her son die gives us a deeper appreciation for the dread of Hagar. This is what it means to parent. While we do not always think about it, the threat to our children is real, severe, and always ever present.

Reflecting on the myriad issues facing us in 5780, it might seem desirable to return to the world before the concerns and anxieties of this past year entered our consciousness. This might not seem possible, or even desirable. Rosh HaShana is trying to make us aware that we (or worse our children) live under the sword of Damocles. So where do we go from here? How do we move forward?

On Rosh HaShana we say- HaYom HaRa’at Olam– today is the day the world was conceived. In this way God models for us what it means to parent. God is conscious of the threats that we God’s children live all around us. And despite the horrible dangers, Rosh HaShana is a celebration. The sound of the shofar, the cry of Sisera’s mother, the fear of Hagar are all reminders of how vulnerable we all are. It is holiday of profound multi-directional empathy. It should inspire us all to be extra vigilant. Not just for ourselves or our children, we also need to look out for those marginalized by society who are in more obvious peril.

After becoming aware of the sword overhead Damocles loses his taste for the king’s food. To recover from this last year and move forward in 5781 we really need the apples in honey. We cannot pretend that the threads are not real and scary. We just need to remind ourselves that despite the treat of harm, life is worth living because the world is sweet.

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