Farther and Closer: Rosh Hashanah 5775

The shiurim of the last few weeks have had a similar motif: the importance of community. This week’s shiur continues the same theme. The Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah comes from Parashat Vayera. On the first day of Rosh HaShanah we read about the birth of Yitzchak and the ensuing clash between Yitzchak and his older half-brother, Yishmael, culminating with the expulsion of Yishmael and his mother, Hagar, from Avraham’s home. The reading for the second day of Rosh HaShanah is a direct continuation, and consists of episode of the Akeidah.

The connection between the Akeidah and Rosh HaShanah is clear – we blow the shofar to “remind” Hashem of the mercy He showed Avraham when He substituted a ram for Yitzchak. But what does the reading of the first day have to do with Rosh Hashanah? One possible answer is that while Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday, it was once a one-day holiday in Israel. Perhaps the reading of the Rosh Hashanah once consisted of the readings of both days amalgamated into one long reading that began with the birth of Yitzchak and ended with the Akeidah. A less avant-garde explanation is found in the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [10b], which teaches that Yitzchak was conceived on Rosh Hashanah. This week we’ll try to build on the Talmud’s answer.

Let’s zoom in to the scene in which Avraham throws Hagar and Yishmael out of his home. Hagar and Yishmael leave with a jug of water that soon runs out. They seem destined to die of thirst [Bereishit 21: “She went and sat down from afar, at about the distance of two bowshots, for she said, ‘Let me not see the child’s death.’ She sat from afar, she raised her voice and wept.” In the very next verse a miracle occurs: “Hashem heard the lad’s voice and an angel of Hashem called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for Hashem has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is.’” Notice that twice Hagar “sat from afar”. Rashi comments that Hagar distanced herself even further from her dying son. Now notice that while it is Hagar who is crying, Hashem hears Yishmael’s voice. Rashi comments that “the sick person’s prayer is more effective than the prayer of others on his behalf, and is the first to be accepted.” But nowhere does the Torah tell us that the boy was crying!

Returning to the verse in which Hagar twice distances herself from Yishmael, there is a slight difference in the wording between the first and second time she distances herself. The first time, the Torah says “va’teshev lah mi’neged”, literally “she sat herself from afar”, and the second time the Torah says “va’teshev mi’neged”, without the word “lah”, literally “she sat from afar”. What does the seemingly superfluous word “lah” come to add? When Hashem first tells Avraham to leave everything he has and to move to Israel, He tells Avraham “Lech Lecha” – “Go forth for yourself… to the land that I will show you”. Rashi, in one of his most famous comments, explains that “lecha” means “l’hana’at’cha ul’tovat’cha” – “For your own benefit and for your own good”. Reflecting this explanation back on Hagar, it could be understood that the first time she moved away from Yishmael, she did so for her own benefit and the second time she did so for the benefit of her son. The first time she moved because she should not bear to see the horror of her own son dying of thirst. But the second time was different. Indeed, the Netziv expands upon Rashi’s explanation, asserting that Hagar distanced herself even further from Yishmael so that he would not hear her crying. It is a known medical fact that a sick person is influenced by the demeanour of those surrounding him and that he can be adversely affected by the cries of another person. As soon as Hagar does something not for herself but for her son, Hashem listens. The question is: What does He hear?

Another question: When the Torah tells us “Hashem has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is (ba’asher hu sham)”, in which particular place was he? Rashi asks why Hashem would save Yishmael even though one day his descendants would commit horrible acts of aggression against Am Yisrael. Long before the Arab League, Hamas, or the Islamic State, when Am Yisrael were sentenced to exile after the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash, the Midrash tells how they passed by the descendants of Yishmael who resided along the way. They begged for food and water, and the Yishmaelites indulged them. After feeding them salty food they gave them empty jugs, and the Jews died on the spot. Why, then, should Hashem have any mercy on their patriarch? Rashi answers that at that point in time, as Yishmael was dying of thirst in the desert, he was not guilty of any crime, and so “where he stood” he deserved to be saved.

Rav Chaim Elazary[1], writing in “Mesillot Chaim”, has great trouble with Rashi’s explanation. Yishmael was anything but a saint. The reason that Avraham threw him out of the house at Sarah’s behest was because Yishmael would [Bereishit 21:9] “make merry”. According to Rashi this meant murder, idolatry, and illicit sexual acts, the three worst sins in the book. Yishmael was most definitely deserving of death. Why, then, did Hashem save him? Rav Elazary answers his own question by differentiating between the crimes of the individual and the crimes of the community. Yishmael was not simply the son of Avraham. Yishmael is the patriarch of a people who live alongside Am Yisrael until this very day. Rav Elazary differentiates between the sins of the individual and the sins of a community. Just as the community is not culpable for the sins of the individual, the individual is not culpable for the sins of the community.

Luleh Mistefineh, I’d like to propose an alternate explanation that, while drawing on Rashi and Rav Elazary, turns them inside-out. The Yishmael that Avraham throws out of his house is most deserving of death. He has committed the most heinous of crimes and it is decreed that he pay for his crimes by dying of thirst. But then his mother, Hagar, does something that completely changes the equation: When she first moves away from her son, she is the benefactor. She cannot bear to see him die. But the second time she moves away, she does so not for herself, but for her son, so that he should not have to see her cry. By moving away she actually draws closer, and the two of them metamorphose from two individuals into one community. When this happens, Yishmael cannot be judged on his own merits any more. He must be judged together with the community, and this community deserves to live. As soon as this change occurs, Hashem sees Yishmael in the place where he is. He and his mother have become something different, something new, something pure and innocent. And so they are granted life.

Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in “Al HeTeshuva”, teaches that while individuals will live or die on their own merit, Hashem has promised that Am Yisrael as a nation will live forever, as it says in the Torah [Devarim 31:21] “[The Torah] will never be forgotten by their descendants”. This idea paves the way for repentance and forgiveness. By joining the Jewish faith community we are granted life. But how does one “join the community”? Hagar shows that it is not enough to passively live together in one town, in one neighbourhood, or even under one roof. To join a community, we must actively become part of that community. It’s not enough to buy a house in Cote St. Luc or Broughton Park or Bondi. We must become active participants in the community. We must take part in its communal joy and sorrow. We must daven with a minyan. We must go to shiurim. We must make chessed – performing acts of kindness – a regular part of our lives: visiting the sick, cooking for people who have just given birth, and helping our neighbour take the groceries out of his car. This is a most worthy New Year’s resolution.

Shana Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775


[1] Rav Elazary learned at the Slobodka Yeshiva, first in Europe and then in Hebron. After the massacre of 1929 he moved to Jerusalem with the rest of the yeshiva. He emigrated to the Bronx in 1936 where he began his rabbinic career there. He succeeded his father-in-law as Rabbi in Canton, Ohio in 1938. In 1972, Rav Elazary returned to Israel, settling in Petach Tikva. Rav Elazary died in 1984.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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