Tanya White

Between Divine command and ethical compassion: Understanding two difficult texts on Rosh Hashana

As a religious Jew living in Israel there are constantly questions arising that beg for reflection and introspection.  When we see the faces of the children in Gaza and Syria, when we hear the cries of the agunot (chained women), when we see the mamzer being cast out from within our nation, our hearts should be aching. And yet in all of these instances we must work from within the constraints of  national self-defence, halakha or Divine command. When our moral intuition and ethical compassion becomes threatened by other values or laws, where does the solution lie?

In my mind, this tension lies at the heart of our Rosh Hashana readings.  In Genesis 21 and 22 we read of two impossible situations. The first is the story of the banishing of Hagar and Yishmael, the second the sacrifice of Yitzchak. In the first a father is called upon, by his wife and God, to cast his beloved son into the desert with his mother. In the second a father is called upon to sacrifice his one remaining son, from whom he had been promised his seed would be blessed.  A father filled with a deep innate morality, a person who raison d’etre is love and compassion towards other human beings, is being asked in both situations to execute an impossible command.  The command is cold, pragmatic, harsh.  It contrasts dramatically with everything we know of the father until now.  And yet he fulfils what is being asked of him. Was he right to do so? Should he have trusted his own moral compass as opposed to that which the ‘Divine voice’ was telling him?  Avraham in both these narratives is being pulled between the Divine command and moral intuition.  He is being asked to sacrifice not just a son, but his own inner convictions.

The greatness of our forefather is that he refuses to do that.  He manages to live between the tension of that pull. In fulfilling the harshest and seemingly most immoral of Divine commands, he maintains a deep profound sensitivity and compassion.  This is the powerful lesson that we must internalize from these readings.

The thematic resemblance between the two narratives is clear- the sacrificing of two sons at the hand of a beloved father, a desert location, a near death experience as a result of a Divine command that culminates in a miraculous last minute rescue and a Divine promise of a legacy and progeny. Additionally we find textual similarities between the two. The phrase וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר – and Avraham arose early in the morning features in both; The location of Beer sheva is mentioned in both narratives and the term וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ and וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ – and Avraham ‘sent’ is the verb used in both narratives to describe the execution by Avraham of the divine command.

But the differences of the parallel messages are telling, the most glaring of which is the way in which Avraham and Hagar behave.

Hagar after being sent away wanders aimlessly and lifelessly through the desert as described through the words וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע, בְּמִדְבַּר. Avraham in both narratives is focused and fixed on the mission he has been given, even if his heart is swaying. I believe this is shown in the text through Hagar’s eyes having to be opened by God (21:19) and Avraham eyes always being open and looking upwards (22:4/13).  Even when reality beckons us to despair, closing our eyes and becoming apathetic is not an option. We must instead remain resolute in our commitment and responsibility to our fellow human and their suffering, eyes wide open embracing the Other through face to face encounter.

The second difference, is the stark contrast between the way in which Avraham and Hagar treat their offspring.   Having wandered the desert Hagar runs out of water.  The verse describes her actions as follows:

טז וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד, הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת, כִּי אָמְרָה, אַל-אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד; וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד , וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. (Bereshit 21:16)

There is a word that repeats itself twice here – mineged – against. Hagar could not bear to face her child in his death and hence turns her face away – against – his suffering and cries.  Her actions are on the one hand understandable; who wants to see their child die? Yet on the other hand totally startling; how can a mother possibly abandon her child at his time of need, how can she not hold him and comfort him at the moment he needs it the most?  God responds by ‘hearing the cry of Yishmael’, the very cry that Hagar herself should have heeded.  The angel calls upon Hagar to show the basic empathy of a mother, to lift her child, hold him by the hand, embrace him, wipe his tears.  In other words, the angel is attempting to awaken within Hagar the innate moral compassion of a mother to a child, to ensure she turns her face towards his suffering and not against him.  Often we are faced with the suffering of another and there is no solution we can offer.  Instead the Torah reminds us that our task is to ‘lift up the other, hold their hand and offer them comfort’. The face-to-face encounter should arouse a Divine call for moral compassion. As Emmanuel Levinas, the celebrated Jewish French philosopher declares ‘access to the face is straightaway ethical’. (Levinas: Ethics and Infinity p85-86).

Hagar’s reaction to her sons suffering stands in deep contrast to the actions of Avraham. If the Torah has emphasised the abandonment of Yishmael at the hands of his mother, it has shown us the compassion of the father – the sending off with bread and water, the small but significant difference in language between Sara’s call to legaresh- to expel and what Avraham does ve’yishlach- to send away.

The story of the Akeida provides an even more glaring contrast between Hagar and Avraham. A natural reaction to being called upon to sacrifice one’s son, would be to emotionally detach oneself.  To ensure there is no love or togetherness throughout the event so as to make the final act easier. We see however that the opposite ensues.  Twice we are told  וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו- the two of them went together. Even at the time of his unbearable pain and deep existential crisis, when cruelty was going to be the reality, Avraham never abandons  his son. What Avraham achieves is what Hagar could not – to look into the eyes and face of the ‘other’ even at a time of pain and suffering, to know that even if you cannot save them you can love and give them comfort.

God’s ways are destined to sometimes contradict themselves; Avraham was chosen by God to: ‘guard the path of Lord (Derech Hashem) to do Righteousness and Justice (Tzedakah U’Mishpat)’. (Bereshit 18:19) Sometimes there exists a tension between ‘derech Hashem’ and ‘tzedakah and mishpat‘. We address the reality of our existence through the categories we understand – righteousness, justice, compassion, mercy.  Sometimes these values contradict, but often we are able to reconcile them.  However, when derech Hashem – the Divine command-the way of God, contradicts our human understanding  of reality, our ethical intuition and our definitions of justice, it may be impossible to reconcile them. We often see that one or the other is abandoned. We see ‘religious Halachic’ Jews that do not possess an ounce of compassion nor humanist empathy.  We see Jewish Ethical humanists that due to despair and frustration with ‘archaic religious law’ have abandoned the Halachic system.  But the challenge is to cling to both ends. To learn to grapple with the tension that God has served us, to struggle with seemingly irreconcilable  dichotomies. When Avraham, argues with God over the destruction of Sodom, he is arguing from the perspective of a human being steeped in inherent ethical and moral compassion.  He cannot and will not be able to understand the ‘Derech Hashem’, but what he does learn at the end of the argument is that there exists a realm in which his human intuition is limited. There is a category of things that are ‘Derech Hashem’ and that in our eyes cannot be reconciled with any of our human values.  Our role is to work within the constraints of both these principles. We must strive continuously to maintain to the best of our abilities both the way of the Lord, often beyond our comprehension, and our own human moral understanding of reality.

When Avraham is called upon to sacrifice both his sons, he is reluctant (in one explicitly and in the other implicitly), yet he does so because he understands that this falls in the category of ‘Derech Hashem’.  His greatness is that even in the moment of fulfilling the incomprehensible Divine command, he has not forgotten the absolute values of compassion, mercy and empathy. His greatness is his ability to live and act between the two.

The Torah goes to lengths to ensure the reader understands this idea. It is clear in the first incident that the survival of Yitzchak is dependent on the sending away of Yishmael, there is a pragmatic reason for this seeming cruelty and yet the reader must still endure the cries of Hagar and Yishmael. Even though the action must be done, we must not become immune to the pain of the other.

In another fascinating textual parallel we find the exact same expression used when it comes to Eisav.  After having been robbed of the birthright by his brother Yaakov, an act that again, was necessary for the survival of the Israelite nation, we are described in exquisite and painful detail Eisav’s reaction:

When Eisav heard the words of his father he cried a great and bitter cry that endured, and he said to his father, please bless me too my father….And Eisav lifted up his voice, and wept. (Bereshit 27)

Any reader with an ounce of compassion cannot help but be moved by Eisav’s cry. The Torah is entreating us to feel his pain, it wants us to live the consequence of our father Yaakov’s actions as it forces us quite emphatically into a face to face encounter with Eisav – with the ‘other’ and his suffering.

Yaakov’s actions were done at a great moral cost, they leave a scar that haunts him for the rest of his life.  Nothing is clear cut- chalak– it is entangled (like the hair of Eisav), waiting to be made sense of.  Like the solution to the akeida – the ram – it is entangled in the thicket. To release it is painful and comes at a cost.

By reading these two narratives on Rosh Hashana we are reminded that unlike the childhood understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actions, the living reality is not so simple.  As human beings we have strong inherent moral values such that Levinas’s ethical imperative through the face to face encounter is something that speaks to us innately. If we could judge all action based simply on our compassion and responsibility to the Other, things would be simple.  If on the other hand, we could judge our actions simply through the צו ה” – Divine command, ignoring the plight of the Agunah, the Mamzer, the potential convert or our enemy, again life would be relatively simple.  But God requires something far greater from us.  He demands of us a task that is probably   almost impossible – to fulfil to the best of our ability His commands, but to simultaneously be compassionate, merciful, empathetic and listen to our moral intuition.  He demands of us to stand wrenched between the irreconcilable positions and to maintain them both.     He wants us to ‘send the son away’ and still feel his pain and hear his cry through the face to face encounter. To maintain our survival by building a wall between us and the ‘other’ and yet not become blinded or immune to their suffering.  To exclude the mamzer from our community but to comfort him in his sorrow.

On Rosh Hashana we undergo a difficult journey of self-introspection both as individuals and a nation, as we continue to strive in reconciling these often opposing values.  Can we maintain our commitment to both of them? Perhaps we need ask a more haunting question – are we even able to recognise the magnitude of what is being asked of us?

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

About the Author
Dr. Tanya White is a lecturer in Tanach and Philosophy and a Sacks Scholar. She is currently a senior lecturer at Matan, LSJS and Pardes and acts as scholar in residence for many communities in Israel and abroad. Tanya has published numerous articles in books and on social media. To contact her or read more of her ideas visit her webpage
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