By Rebbetzin Lauren Levin
Perhaps this year more than ever, we approach Rosh Hashana with a palpable sense of our own vulnerability. We stand before God on the day of judgement overwhelmed by how little we control in this world: “Who will live and who will die…on Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”.
Notwithstanding this feeling, the excerpts we read from the Torah tell a very different tale. We are presented with two sets of contrasting narratives. Two parents accompany their children to the brink of death, and two mothers send away children. Yet the protagonists act in such different ways that their similar circumstances pale into insignificance.
The Torah reading on the first day relates the difficult story of Ishmael and Hagar, being sent away into the desert. With a donkey and provisions they wander in the desert until there is no water left. Hagar cannot bear the thought of her child dying of dehydration, and so she casts him aside by one of the bushes and distances herself. She breaks down crying in despair, exclaiming, “Let me not see the child’s death.” The situation is saved by the voice of God, reassuring her that despite her fears, Ishmael will not die and will indeed become a great nation.
On the second day we read the binding of Isaac. As on the day when he sent Hagar and Ishmael away, Abraham arose early. Just as he gave Hagar a donkey, he prepares his donkey for journey. And just as Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the desert, Abraham and Isaac roam the Moriah range of mountains for three days before finding their destination.
However this is where the similarities end. Whilst the landscape of the stories are alike, the responses and outcomes are very different. Where Hagar turned away from her son, Abraham faced his son. Where we see no dialogue between Hagar and Ishmael whatsoever, Isaac questioned his father as to where they were going and why unusually there was no offering with them. Abraham’s response poignantly answered his son’s question: “God will seek out the offering – my son”. Whilst this could be perceived as elusive, Rashi reads the verse as a fragment. He is explaining that God will seek out the offering, which is, my son. Just prior to this dialogue we read that the two went together. We are told this again following the dialogue, to demonstrate that once Isaac was cognisant of what was going on, he still stood shoulder to shoulder with his father. They were both together physically and emotionally.
Turning to our second set of stories, in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashana we read about Sarah’s disgust in Ishmael and her prophetic decision to send him away. The haftarah also depicts a mother sending away her child: Hannah who had prayed so devotedly for a child then gave Samuel to the service of the mishkan once he was weaned. Both Hannah and Sarah were active in achieving their destiny of progeny. When God told Abraham that he would indeed be blessed with a son, Sarah presumed she was too old and so encouraged Abraham to see if he could generate offspring through Hagar. Sarah was essentially being realistic and proactive in helping the Divine blessing come to be. Hannah refused to accept her fate as being childless and implored God to grant her a child, vowing that she would dedicate the child to His service. Both Sarah and Hannah sent the children away for their own ultimate good. However the tone and relationships feel so different. We are told how Hagar had taunted Sarah before she gave birth to Isaac, and it is likely that this soured their relationship and her relationship with Ishmael. As such we never see any direct communication between them. When Hannah sends the little Samuel to live with the high priest Eli, it is in a context of motherly love, with details of visits and gifts.
These contrasting readings remind us of the scope of our autonomy. It may be that the year ahead is shrouded in uncertainty, but our response can make all the difference. The cards we are dealt will remain unchanged but the ways to play them are many. The centrality of communication in these narratives raises the question of how much we discuss trauma, hardship and challenges with those we love, and how much we tackle tension head on before it reaches a stalemate. Our natural instinct may be to ‘sugarcoat’ as a way of protecting those we hold dearest, but ultimately that may distance us. We are strongest together.
We pray that this coming year will be one of abundant blessings and sweetness. We also pray that we have the courage and resilience to react to every situation with honesty and the support of those we love. SHana Tova!