Hope and Trust in the age of banishment

Rosh HaShannah

5781/2020

The rabbis assigned the twin stories of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and then the near-demise/expulsion of Yitzchak as the Torah readings for the two days of Rosh HaShannah. These two stories are actually very similar; mirror images of each other actually. One might even suggest that on the first day of Rosh Hashannah we read the Akedat Yishmael, the “expulsion/binding of Yishmael,” and on the second day, the Akedat Yitzchak, the “binding/expulsion of Yitzchak. These twin stories provide all of us with an opportunity to talk together about the values of judgment and compassion, faith, trust, loyalty, and grit. 

These are all Rosh Hashannah themes. One of Rav Sa’adya Gaon’s explanations of the “voices” of the shofar is the shofar as wake-up call to get us to look inward and evaluate and judge ourselves prior to standing before God. Teshuvah, repentance, is a profoundly psycho-dynamic process that requires courage, grit, and faith that people can genuinely change. The Rambam emphasizes the process-oriented dimension of teshuvah. Every step of the way requires us to be honest with ourselves, and then to take the even more difficult step of articulating faults out loud. The central Rosh Hashannah prayer, aleinu, is so powerful that we appropriated it for every day of the year as a concluding prayer.  Originally composed for Rosh Hashannah, aleinu describes the task of the Jewish people to become messengers to all humankind, that we all share the same Creator, with the hope for perfecting a broken world. Hagar’s and Avraham’s and Sarah’s and Yishmael’s and Yitzchak’s worlds have all been broken in different ways. These stories challenge us to see how faith, trust, resilience, courage, compassion and love can help them–and us–heal.

Look at this chart that compares salient details of each reading. What emerges clearly is that the Torah is telling the same tale twice, enabling us to see significant differences as well:

Story #1 on the First Day of Rosh Hashannah Story #2 on the Second Day of Rosh Hashannah
Hashem sends someone away 

(Hagar and Yishmael into the wilderness)

Hashem sends someone away (Avraham & Yitzchak to Har Moriah, Mt. Morah)
Hashem promises that Yishmael will become a great nation Hashem promises that Yitzchak will become a great nation
Avraham gets up early in the morning to do what Hashem commanded Avraham gets up early in the morning to do what Hashem commanded
Avraham loaded someone (Hagar) with supplies Avraham loaded someone (Yitzchak) with supplies
An angel/messenger from Hashem speaks (to Hagar) An angel/messenger from Hashem speaks (to Avraham)
A main character (Hagar) looks up and sees something important (a well) A main character (Avraham) looks up and sees something important (a ram)

 

Both stories are stories of banishment, signifying the loss of all hope for the future. Both stories require the characters to hold on to the truth of a promise, despite their immediate experiences. Both stories involve the breaking of a loving relationship. Indeed, Avraham has expressed his love for Yishmael, whereas it is God who declares that Yitzchak is the “beloved” son. The tragic sense of disappointment in both episodes is so unsettling, it casts a veritable pall over the reader. 

How can Avraham possibly sustain a vision for the future? Vision is precisely what is required, when the realities of our physical world and daily lives appear bleak. We are living under the siege of an epidemiological plague, uncontrolled violence as expressions of frustration and rage making it almost impossible to focus on society’s need for teshuva, and a media-mediated sense of reality with voices of people in positions of power with little or no dedication to the truth. What is required is the trust that humanity can project a vision for a better future, a future of safety, health, security, humility, justice, and truth. This is the way the Mei haShiloach, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, understands Avraham’s spiritual intuition. He wrote: “The Akedah exemplifies the power of Avraham’s sense of trust in God. For God has said contradictory statements. First, God said that Yitzchak will be Avraham’s future,” and then God told Avraham that God will establish an everlasting covenant with Yitzchak,” and now God has said, “Offer him as a burnt offering.” In the face of these contradictory statements, Avraham chose to focus on the earlier statements as reflecting the future, without ever wavering. This capacity for trust is ultimately non-rational. One’s analytic abilities cannot grasp this sense of trust or hope. Indeed, God purposely never commanded Avraham to slaughter his son explicitly, leaving Avraham in a state of cognitive ambiguity. The Zohar calls this, b’aspaqlaria la nehera, a condition of looking through a clouded glass.” 

This is what we learn from Avraham this Rosh Hashannah. With the banishment of both sons, Avraham has no future. Hagar, in fact, closes her eyes; she has given up all hope for the future. This could have been Avraham’s response as well. Instead, he holds steadfast to the necessity of hope, of the ability to cast a vision for the future. He never abandons his ability to see a future. That is what enables him, on his own, to raise his eyes and look up. Once he did that, he saw the ram in the thicket and with independence of mind and daring spiritual audacity, decided to offer God that ram in lieu of his son, and fulfill God’s command vicariously in his own way. Avraham shaped and created the future the world needed. He invented that vision, saw it with clarity, and acted. But he was able to do so only because he trusted God’s vision for and commitment to humanity. If God still believes in us, so too, must we. This is the spiritual strength we all need this year. The strength that comes from trusting and believing in a future in which truth will triumph over falsehood, humility over arrogance, righteousness over abuse, compassion over avarice, and courage over cowardice. Despite all we see, may this Rosh HaShannah compel us towards the love and commitment we all feel towards one another. The Torah commands us to love our fellow human beings; may this come true as we celebrate the creation of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom & Shannah Tova

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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