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Naomi Graetz

Should Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar Do Teshuva?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a topic that is surfacing now in Israel with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Just last night we listened to the story of an Israeli POW, who was captured in the early days of the war, saying that every night he still has nightmares about the Egyptian officers who tortured him, both mentally and physically. A few years ago I wrote “Trauma and Recovery: Abraham’s Journey to the Akeidah” (here) .  I periodically visit this article, twice a year in fact, when we read the story of what I call the two sacrifices of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Now I can just hear the critical reader saying, why use the word sacrifice for Akedah, which means binding. However, whether Abraham actually sacrificed his son Isaac, which some medieval sources claim he did (here) or not, there is no way that he did not sacrifice his relationship with both sons.

Every year I practice reading the Rosh Hashana texts with its special trope. I really know it by heart after reading it for about forty-five years, but I love the special melody and each year I see something that I haven’t noticed before.  This year it was the expression על אודות בנו that caught my eye. By coincidence I had just finished reading Althea: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson by Sally H. Jacobs, at the same time that Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open in tennis. In the biography, the author depicts the horrendous physical abuse and privation that Gibson suffered as a child and how it affected her entire life. Gauff, who has a sense of history has paid homage to the Williams sisters and to Gibson.

I have thought a lot about how Abraham and Sarah both needed to do teshuvah because of the way they treated their children. It starts with Sarah’s telling Abraham גרש את האמה הזאת. She treats Hagar, her maid/servant/slave, as זאת—a thing, an object. Her reasoning is that the son of the “thing”  האמה הזאת should not inherit together with her son, with Isaac. The Hebrew is exquisite here.  Because in contrast to Sarah’s seeing Ishmael as a non-person with no rights, Abraham sees him as his SON: וירע הדבר מאד בעיני אברהם על אודות בנו. Obviously the “thing” דבר  is bad in his eyes concerning “his son”, presumably Ishmael, but it will leave scars on the other son, Isaac who no doubt loves and admires the big brother who plays with him. Unfortunately for Abraham (and obviously Hagar and Ishmael), any thoughts of acting upon these bad feelings concerning his son, are dispelled by God, who tells him to listen to Sarah, and even tells him not to feel bad about the expulsion. Banishment, displacement, and relocation are big themes in the bible-starting with Eden and ending with Exile. Rather than protest and put a stop to this, Abraham goes along with this sacrifice. We can only sense, like with all primal stories (think the Brothers Grimm), the horror of what is being done to the child. The Bible does not directly relate to it; perhaps it hints at it.

HINENI, HERE I AM READY TO DO GOD’S BIDING (here

And this of course, sets him up for the next chapter, when Abraham goes along, blindly without any protest to take his remaining son, Isaac to be slaughtered. There is no protest at all. It’s almost as if Abraham is TOO ready to do what God will ask him.

Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, “Here I am” (הנני). “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him (Gen 22: 1-2).

Whereas, when Sarah told him to send Hagar and Ishmael away, his reaction was “it was a very bad thing in Abraham’s eyes, concerning his son”, here we have total apathy. In fact, we even have eagerness, if we look at the word hineni—here I amat the beginning of the text. Is it blind obedience, or a numbness, a sense of inevitability on Abraham’s part?  But then he repeats hineni right before Isaac asks him about where the lamb is for the burnt-offering (22:7-8):

 Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Here I am, my son– הנני בני.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “It is God who will see to the sheep for this burnt offering, my son בני.” And the two of them walked on together.

At this point Abraham clearly recognizes that it is his son (notice בני is mentioned twice), and reassures him like a good father should. But this will also be the last time they walk together again—after the big betrayal that is to come.

The word hineni appears once more, right before the angel calls to him:

They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then a messenger of יהוה called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one (יחידך), from Me.”

Clearly Abraham has forgotten (or is in denial) about his other son, the banished one, both physically and it would seem mentally as well, for he does not comment on the angel’s words. It is interesting that JPS translates the word יחידך as “favored” son. Just imagine Isaac’s last glimpse of his father with knife upraised coming down on him and hearing his father say “here I am”. He thinks: Who is he here for? Certainly not for me, his son!

CHILDREN AS OBJECTS

For me, the modern reader, it is exquisitely painful to see how children are pawns in the story.

Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them and the child on her shoulder, and cast her out (וישלחה). And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

Perhaps had Hagar not gotten lost in the wilderness, she would have survived. But Abraham forgot to give her a compass–and he certainly lacks a moral compass!.  Perhaps there was some hope that they would both die. Sure enough the story continues:

When the water was gone from the skin, she cast the child (ותשלך את הילד) under a bush.

Notice how, just as Abraham cast her out (shelach), she casts (sha-laych) the child, not her son. In order to do this, she had to objectify him as well.  And then she:

went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

Even when she can no longer bear the sight of his suffering and burst into tears, far away from him, she refers to him as the child (הילד).  One wonders how she could possibly bear the thought of his dying alone without holding him. Even though she avoids hearing his suffering, God hears his voice and calls out to Hagar and points out where there is water and that he will be blessed in the future.

Both she and Abraham are rewarded for their passivity in the face of their children’s being sacrificed for a greater cause. But they both have much to answer to their children who in the future will never forget their trauma. Is Isaac still on the altar? No where in the text does it say that he was unbound! Perhaps he is not on the altar physically, but the psychic wounds are there for sure. He doesn’t go back to Beersheba—in fact the midrash has him going to live with Hagar and Ishmael in Beer-lahai-roi. I can just see the three victims (Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac) commiserating together, wondering how Abraham was able to sacrifice all three of them.  Does Ishmael still see himself as thrown behind the bushes, cast away with his mother in exile?  He becomes an expert bowman (רבה קשת) but does not return to civilization, staying in the wilderness.

CAN ABRAHAM, SARAH, AND HAGAR DO TESHUVAH?

The three parents are both victims and perpetrators (perhaps Hagar less so than the other two). Can they make it up to their blameless children? And will their children be able to let go of their own traumas and be willing to forgive them? And should they? I have always wondered why our sages have chosen these two texts for Rosh Hashanah. Why start the year off with such problematic texts? Namely: Child abuse, God’s unreasonable demand of loyalty, kicking a child out of his home, enmity and jealousy between two women!  All of these actions have lasting repercussions. Not only do they seem to be unforgivable, they are!  Yet ’tis the season of teshuvah, when we are expected to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven. Each and everyone of us has to deal with our own past and decide how to deal with it. With all the problems that plague us, why are we obligated to read about the most dysfunctional family in history? Perhaps the answer lies in that we are to understand that “there but for the grace of God, go I”. We should learn how NOT to behave from the past. The problem is when we mix up the past and the present. If we excuse our ancestors’ behavior, and say this is what should be done, that stops us with dealing with the present rationally. If we demonize Hagar and Ishmael, because we see them as a threat to ourselves, and view Abraham of the bible as a Tzadik, we are committing an egregious travesty.

If however, we demand of the Abrahams, Sarahs and Hagars among us to stop treating their children as objects, as pieces to be manipulated on the chess board, then we have the beginning of teshuvah. During this season, we are in a time of constant readiness, to answer God’s call (hineni). This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us. The feeling is that when we start a new year, we can leave all of our troubles behind. But it is neither possible nor desirable to forget the past. There is no such thing as just “being in the moment”. When I read about the planes unloading the 20,000 ecstatic worshippers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the founders of the Jewish Hasidic movement. in the war zone of Uman (here), I shudder. Do they think God will protect them from Russian bombardments? Don’t they have any sense of history? Actually to me they have no sense at all. They make me recall Abraham, who unthinkingly followed the directions of God on the path to Mt. Moriah.

To do genuine teshuvah, and move forward, we have to look back first; we have to take full responsibility for the damage we have caused. But there are some things that cannot be fixed and that is the lasting damage done to the psyche of the children.  PTSD is real. It means we cannot get away from our past. It is impossible to cleanse, to wipe out our memories, to reboot, as if were. It is unfair to demand of a victim that he forgive a perpetrator.

I will try and answer my question of why do we read these stories on Rosh Hashana. If we consider the primacy of our relationship to God, rather than our relationship between ourselves, we are making a big mistake. And the proof of the pudding is that after these stories, God doesn’t speak to Abraham again, nor does Isaac, Ishmael, Hagar and Sarah.  He is on his own completely. By choosing to worship and love God rather than defend and protect his two sons from the unreasonable demands of wife and God, he may have passed the test and proved to God that he loved Him, but he failed the real test—that of being a human being! In the past God may have demanded absolute loyalty and if you disobeyed, you were considered a sinner and punished. But if we are absolutely loyal or totally committed to anything, including God, we are lesser beings, in that we are willing to sacrifice our sons/daughters to a cause. It is a mistake to call these people heroes, to see them as role models for ourselves or for future generations.

In a very important book Arguing with God (here), Anson Laytner, points out that when we argue with God, we are standing with God—and that is the true message of what God wants from us.  We cannot demand of people with PTSD that they forgive and forget. At the most they can try and pick up the pieces—but if they cannot, no one is going to blame them. It would seem that of the Holy Triad, only Hagar succeeds. And perhaps that is why in the midrash, she is linked with Keturah, the new wife of Abraham (Genesis Rabbah 61:4). She is the one who was able to use the divine message, save her son and move on. Perhaps this was the marriage that was meant to be—perhaps this was Abraham’s doing teshuvah as well, to right the original wrong demanded by God.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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