The Jerusalem Post

Rosh Hashanah: Torah readings warn that even the righteous can fail

 Hand-colored etching of Hagar, baby Ishmael and Abraham. (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
Hand-colored etching of Hagar, baby Ishmael and Abraham.
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)

The insight is that even great tzaddikim such as Sarah and Abraham can fail, and fail terribly, in their reading of their existential situation.

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).

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 Terach’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!”

'The Sacrifice' of Isaac’ by Caravaggio.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'The Sacrifice' of Isaac’ by Caravaggio. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“So why do you worship it?” asks the argumentative son. Terach’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. 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 Avimelech. 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 aging, 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 to 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. 

Why do we read these stories on Rosh Hashanah?

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. 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 tahat beno, 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 worshiper 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 chochom, overly 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 hessed par excellence. He is allowed to do teshuva – marrying off his son instead of slaughtering him, and then returning to married life himself. 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 woman. Abraham’s family was not an option!

So if contemporary worshipers are burdened by the weight of their 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. 

Two other points may be worthwhile mentioning. In Freud’s theories regarding families, he insists that the key element is the desire by the son to kill the father, a theory he calls the Oedipus Complex, which he claims to be universal. If so, then the story of Ishmael and Isaac runs decidedly against the norm. Here, the father is asked to offer up his son. To what purpose? We are not told. Neither does Abraham ask for an explanation. Perhaps this is part of his mistake. He does not protest as he once did with the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. But the fact that he is called upon to go against a universal impulse suggests perhaps that he was already living on another plane, where the normal rules are suspended, and new ones instituted. Either way, he appears to have gone beyond a normal human response. He is upbraided by an angel who tells him: “Do not stretch your hand against the young man, nor do him any injury.” He had gone beyond the human realm, and now he returns to Earth, to ground himself, to live the life of a normal human being, to bind himself to the real world. 

Another remarkable observation is made by the sages in a very suggestive way (i.e., not overtly but subtly, almost hidden), comparing the binding of Isaac with another story of someone who believes he has been told to do the will of this heavenly father by sacrificing himself. On the phrase “He took the wood for the offering” (Genesis 22: 6), the midrash comments “Like one who carries on his own shoulder the stake upon which he is to be executed” (Breshit Rabba 56:3). The obvious reference here is to Jesus carrying his cross to his crucifixion. The point the sages, who were faced with the emergence of Christianity, seem to be making is crucial. God does not desire the death of his righteous ones. He does not want Isaac sacrificed by his father. Abraham almost commits this dastardly act but is prevented from so doing by an angel of the Lord. The sages are learning a profound lesson from this incident. Two thousand years down the line, Jesus is going to do what he thinks God is asking him. He even uses the word “Father” innumerable times to describe his relationship with God (e.g., John 14) in the way that Isaac asks Abraham, “Father, where is the sacrifice for the burnt offering?” (ibid. 7) . This may be the hidden message behind the reading of these awesome stories on Rosh Hashanah, which emphasizes life in all its variety. 

Ultimately, these stories are to remind us that we are human beings and not angels. Our place is down here. Sarah and Abraham try to be higher than angels but ultimately are forced to return to the ground – terra firma. 

Perhaps this is why God does not intervene Himself but rather sends angels to prevent the disaster in both stories. It is as if God is telling Sarah and Abraham that these are “real angels” and that you are not like them.

Sarah returns tragically and dies. Abraham returns to a normal life as it says after the akedah “And Abraham returned to his young companions” (Genesis 22:19). He remarries, has children, no longer receives divine visitations, and no longer is tested.

Maybe this is what the sages wanted us to learn from these stories and, through them, to prepare ourselves for the year ahead. ■