Even our biblical ancestors sometimes got it wrong

On the face of it, the exile of Ishmael and the near-sacrifice of Isaac seem odd Torah readings to start the new year


Of all the stories available in the Torah that the sages of old could have chosen to read on Rosh Hashanah, the last one would have been the two chapters that they chose: the exile of Ishmael and Hagar and the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis chapters 21 and 22).

It is impossible to understand the binding of Isaac without understanding the previous narrative concerning Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael. The former could be seen as leading to the latter. There are striking parallels as well as significant differences between the two. The first difference, perhaps among the most important, is the force that moves the story forward:

“Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. She said to Abraham: ‘Cast out this maidservant and her son; for the son of this maidservant shall not be heir with my son, Isaac.’

“The thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son.

“But God said to Abraham: ‘Let it not grieve you, because of the youth, or because of your maidservant; everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you. As for the maidservant’s son, I will also make a nation, because he is your seed.’” (Genesis 21: 9-13).

Sarah feels frustrated and she lets it out on Hagar, whom she refers to as a maidservant. This contradicts a rabbinic tradition where Hagar is, in fact, a princess — the daughter of Pharaoh no less! — who came to Abraham as part of a package deal that Pharaoh presented to Abraham after having attempted to sleep with Sarah. Along with sheep and cattle Pharaoh gave him his daughter.

Hagar’s change of status from princess to servant must have had an impact on her, making her feel deeply offended, but she says nothing. God, in fact, repeats the definition of “maidservant” when talking to Abraham. After all, if He told Abraham to listen to Sarah, He could do no less!

By contrast it is God who tests Abraham regarding to binding of Isaac. Did He want to show the difference between husband and wife? Or did He want to see whether Abraham would react the same way if he was put in a similar situation as his wife and asked to kill his son?

In his book Jewish Renewal, Professor Michael Lerner recalls a famous midrash that tells of the young Abraham entering his father Terah’s  workshop and smashing all the idols except the biggest one, telling his angry father that the big one did it.

What nonsense, cries Terach, it’s an idol! So why do you worship it? asks the argumentative son. Terah’s response is to take Abraham to the king, the ferocious Nimrod, who promptly throws the rebellious son into a fiery furnace from which  the young, God-fearing Abraham emerges completely unscathed.

Now, says Lerner, this is what the Lord wanted to teach Abraham — just because he was maltreated and almost killed as a young son, there is no reason to repeat the action with his own son. He quotes Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion to support his novel approach to the Akedah (the binding of Isaac).

Unscathed he might be, but only externally. Inside, Abraham has passed through a traumatic experience, which he is unlikely to forget.

Sarah, too, was abandoned to her fate, by Abraham no less, and almost experienced the ignominy of rape twice — once by Pharaoh and once by Abimelech.

Of her it can be said the same thing as could be said of her husband. She did not have to repeat the experience of being mistreated by sending Hagar and her son to almost certain death. The difference here is that whereas the midrash is the source for Abraham’s experience, that of Sarah is plainly written in the Torah itself.

In both stories the parents make fatal mistakes. Not to read it this way is to do a radical disservice to the text. It is a repeat of a familiar process whereby the attempt to do an extreme good leads to the opposite.

Sarah initially welcomed Hagar as a substitute wife for her ageing, childless husband, but the reality of another woman proves to be too much for her. Abraham just wants to follow his God to the extreme, overcoming his humanity in order carry out what he supposed was the will of the divine.

In both stories God does not appear Himself to “solve” the problem. Perhaps He is embarrassed that His chosen, holy family had made such terrible errors? Instead  He sends his messengers, angels that will save the life of Hagar and Ishmael and, latterly, Isaac.

The question arises as to why the tradition uses these stories as the readings of Torah on Rosh Hashanah?  Surely a more uplifting narrative could have been used at the beginning of the new spiritual year?

One can only guess that the reason is a warning and an insight. The insight is that even great tzaddikim such as Sarah and Abraham can fail, and fail terribly, in their reading of their existential situation. In both cases, they have a choice and misunderstand it.

Abraham may not indeed reconcile himself with God’s compassion.  Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev avers that when he slaughters the ram tachat beno (“in place of his son”), Abraham feels that he is actually slaughtering his son!

Isaac does not return with his father. Abraham returns alone to his two companions waiting at the bottom of the mountain. According to the sages, Isaac is taken aloft by the angels to study Torah in the higher world for three years.

The worshipper is thus confronted with this paradox, to follow blindly one’s own instincts under the illusion that you are doing right. The warning is just as clear: don’t try to be an uber chacham, over-zealous in your desire to do an apparent good, even one that is divinely inspired. The Akedah is nothing if not against spiritual fanaticism.

What is the result of these two narratives? Sarah dies, according to another midrash, from heart failure when Satan, disguised as Isaac, tells her what Abraham is planning. This is too much for her to handle. Maybe this is a divine judgment (din) that parallels her own judgment with Hagar and Ishmael.

Taking the two stories together it becomes clear that Sarah’s jealousy and spite against trapped Hagar, is the starting point of this saga. It was Sarah’s uncalled-for altruism that created the painful reaction when she saw the results of Hagar’s pregnancy.

Abraham is shown compassion. He is after all the possessor of chesed par excellence. He is allowed to do teshuvah, marrying off his son, instead of slaughtering him and then returning to married life itself.  The sages insist that Keturah, his new wife, is none other than Hagar.

She is called Keturah (according to a later commentary) because she is like ketoret, a sweet-smelling incense. She is a spiritual being.  She has proven herself worthy of Abraham by remaining chaste even after being abandoned.  She, too, has married off her son Ishmael, though to an Egyptian lady. Abraham’s family was not an option.

So if the contemporary worshipper is burdened by the weight of his or her own sins, they have a model on which to base themselves.  You’ve made mistakes, but then so did your ancestors, the founders of your religious beliefs. God awaits your turning, as He did theirs.

Mordechai Beck is a Jerusalem-based teacher and artist

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