Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Blended families in the parasha and at the protests (36)

All we need is love? A protester hands out hearts at the Supreme Court Demonstration, September 11. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

This is my 36th consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To receive e-mail notifications for future posts, write to me using the contact form on my banner (above right).

The two main readings from the Torah for the first and second days of Rosh HaShana (Genesis 21:1-34; Genesis 22:1-24) were chosen because they recount the miraculous birth, to a 90-year-old woman who had not previously conceived (Genesis 18:9-15), and the near-sacrifice, by his father, of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). Isaac is connected to Rosh HaShana primarily through the shofar, ram’s horn, that is blown at high points in the prayer services. Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of Isaac. Another connection is the hope, prominent in prayers and piyutim at this time of year, that God will forgive us on the merit of Isaac, who almost lost his life during the Akedah, and Abraham, who was willing to give up his beloved son.

But between the birth and near-death of Isaac is another story of near-death, which we also read on the first day of Rosh HaShana. It tells how, at the request of Sarah, Abraham expels Hagar, the handmaid Sarah had given him to bear a child in her name, and Ishmael, the son born to Hagar and Abraham (Genesis 21:9-21). Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert until their water runs out. Ishmael is about to die of thirst, but God hears his cry and opens Hagar’s eyes to reveal the well of water that saves her son.

The juxtaposition of the near-deaths of Ishmael and Isaac, both saved by divine intervention involving God and an angel, raises challenging questions about how we should read these narratives.

Are they two stories about how one man, Abraham, almost lost both his sons, one after the other, indirectly and directly because of divine commands? God instructs Abraham to listen to Sarah when she tells him to cast out Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:10), and he orders Abraham to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering (Genesis 22:2).

Or are they consecutive narratives about two parents, a mother and a father, who almost lost a beloved child, Hagar because her water ran out in the desert, and Abraham because he obeyed God and set out to sacrifice his son? To put it another way, do the opening words of Genesis 22, ‘After these things God tested Abraham’, mean, After all these other things that happened to Abraham, God tested him? Or do they mean, After God tested Hagar, then he tested Abraham?

Or are they stories about two mothers of sons born to the same man, one of whom used the other as a surrogate when she thought she couldn’t have a child of her own, and then, when she gave birth herself, forced the father to choose her son over her competitor’s? Sarah was proactive then but, in contrast to Hagar with Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-21), was completely sidelined when Isaac almost died. Rabbinic tradition links Sarah’s death (Genesis 23:1) to the Akedah; she died of a broken heart when she found out about it after the event. And in another plot twist, the rabbis speculate that Keturah, who married Abraham after Sarah died (Genesis 25:1), was actually Hagar.

Or do they tell us about two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, each of whom will be the ancestor of a great nation (Genesis 21:12-13)? After Isaac was weaned, the boys were separated, as Sarah had demanded. They reunited many years later to bury their father (Genesis 25:9). But what does it mean that, presumably after the death and burial of his mother in Hebron, Isaac settled in Be’er-lahai-roi (Genesis 24:62), the site of Hagar’s first encounter with God, just before Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:7-15)?

As we read them in the Torah, the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac are intertwined. At Rosh HaShana, they could have been separated by shortening the first reading to eliminate the story of Hagar and Ishmael. But whoever, long ago, selected the traditional Rosh HaShana readings chose to keep them together. We’re dealing with what we now call blended families, in all their complex glory. I haven’t yet watched Succession, but I’d be surprised if its twists and turns have anything on the Bible.

Starting on Tuesday morning, all fifteen Supreme Court judges sat together, for the first time in Israel’s history, to hear petitions against the Reasonableness Law, passed by the Knesset in July to limit the Court’s power to exercise judicial review over government decisions and appointments.

On Monday night, an estimated 50,000 pro-democracy protesters gathered to express their support for the Court. The powerful speakers included a Yom Kippur war veteran (the 50th anniversary of the war is imminent); Israel’s first female Navy SEAL; and a leader of the protest movement for the Druze community — a former high ranking officer in the IDF who spoke movingly about Druze soldiers who lost their lives in Israel’s wars. We are the ger, the resident aliens in your midst, he said, quoting the Torah. We are not Ashkenazi Jews or Sephardi Jews, but we are Israelis.

The ever broader and more inclusive range of speakers (not protesters — that’s a much bigger step) at the pro-democracy demonstrations underscores the extent to which this country is a blended family: Jews, Christians, and Muslims of all denominations, ethnicities, and levels of observance. Many people would like a more homogeneous state, preferably in their own image, but that’s not the way it is. Going forward, our strength, our survival, depend on finding ways to live with, even to love, people who are not like us, as challenging as that may be in the coming weeks.

Shana tova!

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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