Rosh HaShanah – the “head of the year” – celebrates the beginning of a new year and officially starts aseret y’mei t’shvuah, 10 days of return and repentance. It is a time of serious reflection and introspection about our lives (and about life itself); a time to ask for forgiveness for missing the mark in our actions with others, ourselves, and the Divine.
Rosh HaShanah also rejoices in the creation, or birth, of the world itself. We sound theto alert all to the coming of the new year, and we sing “hayom harat olam” or “today, the world was conceived.”
In the Torah passages we traditionally read on this holiday, the imagery of conception extends to the human level. We meet Sarah who, after finally giving birth to her long-awaited child, Isaac, bows to fear and jealousy and uses her power to have Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham, who had bargained with the Almighty to save the lives of strangers in an earlier chapter, makes no attempt to dissuade Sarah (Gen. 21:11-13), and he nearly sacrifices Isaac atop of a mountain (Gen. 22:1-24).
Jewish tradition provides many rationalizations and justifications for Sarah and Abraham’s behavior, but these questions ring in my ears: How could our spiritual forebears act in such terribly hurtful ways? What role did God play? What can we learn from their mistakes about how to respond to the pain of others?
The Torah tells us that after Sarah demands that Abraham throw out Hagar and Ishmael, God gives Abraham the go-ahead.
“This grieved Abraham greatly, on account of his son [Ishmael]. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be grieved over the boy or your slave. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be called yours. Yet I will also make a nation out of the children of the slave’s son, for he, too, is your offspring” (Gen. 21:11-13).
How could God condone such an act? Hagar may be a “slave,” but she has been a part of the family for years. Moreover, Sarah had explicitly suggested that Abraham procreate with her to ensure God’s promise of descendants (Gen. 16).
As the painful story continues, we see a powerful interaction between God and Hagar:
“Early next morning, Abraham got up and took bread and a waterskin and handed them to Hagar, placing them and the boy on her shoulder. Then he cast her out; trudging away, she wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was all gone, she cast the child away under a bush. She walked away and sat down on the other side at a remove of about a bowshot, thinking, “Let me not see the child’s death.”
There, on the other side, she sat and wept in a loud voice. God heard the boy’s cry, and from heaven an angel of God called to Hagar and said, “What is troubling you, Hagar? Have no fear, for God has heard the cry of the lad where he is. Get up, lift the boy, and hold him with your hand, for I am going to make of him a great nation.” God then opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy to drink” (Gen. 21:14-19).
Divine intervention in this moment of fear and crisis heralds a new beginning – a kind of Rosh HaShanah for Hagar and Ishmael.
Abraham and Sarah’s unconscionable acts in this narrative leads to God’s sheltering presence, opening Hagar’s eyes to a well that can sustain her and Ishmael as they journey forth. Here, God can be a model for us, even if Abraham and Sarah’s actions may be regarded as cautionary tales.
In this time of renewed protest against racial injustice, we are beginning to see a society “lift up its voice and weep” for the countless victims of vigilantism and police brutality. Millions of Americans and Canadians took to the streets after watching police officers refuse to “hear the cry” of George Floyd. As we enter this new year, may the God who heard the cries of Hagar and Ishmael be our guide during this time of crisis.
May we listen and hear the voices all who cry out for racial justice.
May we meet one another “where we are” and uplift one another with our words and deeds of solidarity.
And may we do so without fear as we work together for a world filled with justice and love.