And we walked, the two of us together — my father and his littlest daughter — winding our way back from the Western Wall where we had just welcomed Shabbat. “Take a look at this,” he said out of nowhere, pointing to the open chumash (pentateuch) in his hand: “Vayashkem” — “vayashkem”; “Vayikra… malach” — “vayikra malach…,” showing me the many parallels between Genesis 21’s banishment of Ishmael and Genesis 22’s binding of Isaac. In each story, Abraham wakes up early (21:14, 22:3); in each he submits to God’s command to sacrifice, literally or figuratively, a beloved son (17:18, 21:10-11, 22:2 with Rashi); in each case God, through the proxy of an angel, ultimately spares the child from death (21:16-19, 22:11-12); in each, God promises that the son will become a great nation (21:18, 22:17-18.)
I have no idea why my father mentioned these stories that late-summer night. Perhaps he had begun, uncharacteristically early, to review the Torah portion which he leined every year in shul on Rosh Hashanah, which also happened to be his birthday. “What do you think it means?” he asked. I did not offer any brilliant insights, nor, to the best of my recollection, did he. But I remembered his question — the first time in my memory that someone asked me for my thoughts about a Torah story, rather than offering their own. And so every Rosh Hashanah, as I would listen to my father publicly read those stories in that beautiful, haunting melody, and wonder about the parallels and their significance, I would wander through the text, contemplating why we read them on that day. In retrospect, I realize that it was my father’s question that handed me a candle to explore dark, unclear passages, and illuminate them, find meaning, and make them my own. At times, I would explore accompanied by companions, upon whose shoulders I stood. Just as often, however, I’d head off to meander on my own, lantern in hand, and encounter others along the way with whom I could compare notes.
The stories, the walk, the question, the melody fermented in my mind for years, gaining flavor and depth. As my understanding deepened, so did the sweetness of the memory of that talk with my father. The fact that my father’s name was Avraham, and that I am named (albeit subtly) after a grandfather Yitzchak, and that we had discussed the Binding of Isaac while walking back from the very location where the story took place tickled my imagination with its poetic happenstance. The memory merged delightfully in my mind with the textual parallels. It was incorporated, almost without notice, adding texture to the mix; gently nurturing my love of Tanach, the Bible, which in turn nourished my soul.
Meanwhile, further, more mature study exposed even more parallels. The myriad similarities between chapters 21 and 22 draw our attention to the many ways in which the stories differ. The most glaring distinction, of course, being that while both sons survive, Ishmael remains banished, while Isaac returns home with his father. The ram which replaces Isaac, enabling him to avoid being sacrificed (22:13), has no corresponding element in the case of Ishmael, whose “sacrifice” is not reversed. Choosing of one son while sending away another echoes throughout Genesis, with each instance a stage in the formation of the covenantal nation (consider 25:5-6, 36:6-8, as well as 13:5-9; ponder as well potentially perplexing 25:5, 29:1, 37:14-15).
The parallel paths of the two stories not only lead the two sons to disparate destinies, but the paths themselves and the experiences of the two protagonists are also markedly different, representing distinct relationships with God. On one path walks Isaac’s father, Abraham, who, true to his character (e.g., 18:2-8, as well as, of course, 12:1-4), is active and eager to perform the will of God without delay (21:12, 14; 22:3). On the other path wanders Ishamel’s mother, Hagar, who is distinctly passive, acted upon, and entirely powerless (21:10, 16). When Abraham’s knife was poised to slaughter Isaac, the angel has to twice command him to stay his hand (22:12), as if extra effort was needed to stop the force of Abraham’s determination. When speaking to Hagar, in contrast, the angel cajoles her to take action, first telling her to pick up her son, and then to hold him in her arms (21:18). Abraham lifts his eyes, and sees the ram with which he redeems his son (22:13); God has to open Hagar’s eyes for her to see the water which is her son’s salvation (21:19.) Hagar and Ishmael’s story is one in which a voice cries out, and is heard by God (21:17); Abraham and Isaacs’s story is one in which God speaks and man hearkens to His voice (22:18) .
Rosh Hashanah is a fitting holiday for the themes of these stories. It is the days that we rededicate ourselves to our appointed task as a chosen covenantal family of declaring God as King. It is no coincidence that the shofar, whose voice we are commanded to hear, is described sometimes as the voice of God that we must heed (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4) and sometimes as our own voices, which we direct in anguish (Rosh Hashanah 73b) or in adulation (Psalms, 150:3), toward God’s listening ear.
Back in Jerusalem, years after that Friday night walk with my father, once again wondering and wandering through the passages of these stories, I was presented with yet another parallel. “Have you ever noticed,” my study partner said “that Isaac and Ishmael are parallel to the two goats of Yom Kippur — the one who is offered up on the altar, and the one who is sent out into the wilderness?” (Leviticus, 16:7-10). I hadn’t noticed (although others had; see e.g., M. Breuer, Pirkei Bereishit I, 242n8; note also Genesis Rabbah 65) and, once again, I offered no brilliant insights. Instead, I simply echoed my father’s question from long before: what do you think it means?
The twinned goat sacrifices of Yom Kippur, like their human predecessors, each have a different destiny and a different task and each represent a different relationship with God. One goat is offered up on the altar, to purify the Temple and enable the atonement of the people who serve God in that place (16:15-19). The other brings atonement to the people by different means, symbolically carrying their sins off into the desert (16:21-22). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes an interesting difference between these two conduits of atonement. The goat sacrificed on the altar is brought as a collective offering on behalf of each and every individual member of the nation. Since it essentially represents many personal offerings wrapped up in one, any given individual’s atonement is dependent upon his or her repentance. This sacrifice requires of us an active relationship with God. The second goat, sent out into the wilderness, is an offering of the community itself, as a singular collective entity. Since it is not the offering of individuals, the atonement it affords is not dependent upon an individual’s repentance, rather, upon simply being part of the nation of Israel. As such, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, unless someone has does an unforgivable sin — which cuts them off from the nation — he or she is granted atonement, even in the absence of individual repentance. In the case of this sacrifice, a more passive relationship to God is sufficient.
Paradoxically, this second goat, parallel to Ishmael’s banishment to the desert, is the one which allows those who might be considered outside of the camp to remain within it. It fills the role of the missing ram in the Ishmael story, by being sent into the wilderness in our stead.
And it is perhaps somewhere in that poignant moment of collective forgiveness — in those blank spaces between expectation and acceptance, between what is earned and what is granted, that one is gifted an opportunity explore. It is then that one can light a candle and wander through the passages in the wilderness, or up the windy passageways to Mount Moriah, to seek parallels and uncover meaning, and to find one’s place in the story. And in that way, at the end of the long day, we can all take the windy path home, and return — together.