Rosh Hashanah
For the week of September 23, 2006 / 1 Tishri 5767
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 21:1-34 &
Bemidbar / Numbers 29:1-6
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10


Isaac and Ishmael

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." (Bereshit / Genesis 21:1-34)

This week's Torah portion is special for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, also called the Festival of Trumpets, referring to the blowing of the shofar or ram's horn. It is a time to remember who God is and who we are before him. In ancient times, outside of the Land of Israel, it became customary to observe the major festival days twice due to the uncertainty over the accuracy of the calendar. This tradition continues in many Jewish communities today. Each Jewish holiday is allocated its own special Torah reading.

The reading from Bereshit (Genesis) for the first day of Rosh Hashanah includes the birth of Isaac. The reason why this was chosen appears to be due to its continuation that is read on the second day of the holiday. The story of Isaac is connected to Rosh Hashanah because of the reference to the horns of the ram that were caught in a thicket. The ram was the substitute for Isaac, when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing him. The symbol of the ram's horn in the Isaac story became associated with the blowing of the ram's horn at Rosh Hashanah.

Getting back to the earlier part of Isaac's life, we encounter a situation that is relevant to one of the hot topics of today's political scene - the relationship between Jews and Arabs. I understand that the Islamic version of this story is different from that of the Torah. But for the sake of what I would like to discuss today, I will focus on the Torah's version only.

Abraham and his wife Sarah knew that God was going to give Abraham his own son one day through whom God would bless the nations of the world. As they grew older and Sarah still did not get pregnant, she devised a scheme that Abraham agreed to. It seems that this was in keeping with a custom of their day, right or wrong. They decided that they would attempt to have a child through Sarah's servant Hagar. Thus Ishmael was born.

It would be years before God would speak to Abraham to let him know that this was not his plan. God had determined that the child through whom his promises would be fulfilled would be born through Sarah after all. Thus Isaac was born.

The coexistence of these two boys caused conflict in Abraham's household. Much to Abraham's distress, Sarah demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, because, in her words, "that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."

God instructed Abraham to do what Sarah demanded. And so Hagar and Ishmael were sent away. As it turned out God took care of them and blessed Ishmael and his descendents.

One might want to try to understand the current Arab/Israeli conflict via this story. Perhaps there is some merit in doing so, but I think that there is a more important lesson to be learned here. God loved and blessed Isaac. God loved and blessed Ishmael. God loves each one's descendants. God didn't direct Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away because he preferred one over the other. In fact he consoled Abraham in his distress over his son Ishmael (Bereshit / Genesis 21:11-13).

The real issue here has to do with Abraham's inheritance - an inheritance from God through which he would bless all people one day: the blessing in which people's alienation from God would be resolved; the blessing of salvation which would be offered to all people through the Messiah.

The difference between Isaac and Ishmael reveals to us how to receive Abraham's inheritance. Ishmael is the natural son born out of human wisdom and strategies. Isaac is the miraculous son of promise. He is received into the world by faith in God - a God who does the impossible - a God who calls us to rely on his directions and not on our own devices.

Similar to what Sarah said, that which is born out of our own efforts will never share in the inheritance of that which is born out of God's promises. Whatever is God's will concerning the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael - all of us need to learn this lesson. In order to truly participate in the blessings and inheritance of Abraham, we must live our lives relying on God and his word and not upon ourselves, our own plans and schemes.

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