Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Rosh HaShana 5721: Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21)

Daniel JH Greenwood
Kane Street Synagogue-Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes, Rosh HaShana 5771-September , 2010

Welcome and may you all be written for a good year.

Our reading today runs from Sara's pregnancy and the birth of Isaac to the exile and wanderings of Hagar and Ishmael, with a coda involving Avimelekh, the local king whom both Abraham and Yitzhak nearly led into sin by misrepresenting their wife-cousin as sister.

So this is a story of repeating family relations

  • wifely and sibling rivalries,
  • ouster of the elder by the younger-- a motif that will repeat with Yitzhak's own boys, Jacob and Esav
  • brothers who become strangers,
  • and cousins called sisters,

and taken with its surrounding parashot, more repetitions still:

  • Sara twice exiles Hagar to the desert, foreshadowing the wanderings of her own descendants,
  • Ishmael leaves the land of his father, much as Abraham left his own, to lose his patrimony but found a new nation based on God's blessing alone,
  • Twice, Abraham symbolically sacrifices his sons by circumcision, the only story of father-son interaction in the youth of either child,and
  • Twice he interprets God's words as a command to kill them,
    • sending Ishmael into the desert like a goat sent to Azazael - an adolescent or youth so ill or drugged that he must be carried by his mother, behavior that so shocked the commentators that they compete with each other to invent sins for Yishmael that could justify it,
    • and then, in tomorrow's reading, raising his stone knife against his younger son on the top of Mt Moriah to sacrifice him to a still more bloodthirsty God of his imagination.

  • And twice the sacrifice is refused, by a God who demands we make bloody offerings of foreskins but does not, at least in these stories, accept the rest of our children's skins.

But today's reading begins with a more striking motif still: the names of the brothers and the repeated plays on their names, Yishmael - God will hear - and Yitzhak - he who shall laugh, but the root, importantly, also means mock, and play, and play act, and play the fool, and, as the commentators point out, can also be a euphemism for sinful sexual play or even murder.

Yitzhak, our tribal ancestor, is he who laughs, although the only time he plays or laughs in our stories is in Avimelekh's garden with his wife, thus betraying his misrepresentation of her as sister, and he isn't able to shep much nachus, nearly murdered by his father, driven out by an envious patron for being too successful, almost losing his wife to a difficult pregnancy and finally, old and blind, played for a fool by wife and younger child and tricked into betraying his own favorite son.

Instead, laughter - sardonic, mocking, joyful - marks his birth. Sara laughs, disbelieving, when her pregnancy, long post menopause, is prophesied. When he is born, she laughs again, apparently with joy, and predicts that others will laugh, but it is utterly unclear if she means they will laugh with her, sharing her joy or triumph, or at her, embarrassed at the inappropriateness of a ninety year old lady breast feeding an infant. Or in irony, knowing that with a husband like hers, her joy will not be long-lasting - tradition has it, after all, that she dies in shock, two parashot later, when Abraham returns from his sacrificial trip to Moria alone.

It is Hagar's laughter and Yishmael's playing - the same root, recall - that anger her to the point of demanding their exile, but God has the last laugh, hearing Yishmael's drugged cry in the desert and opening his mother's eyes to rescue her.

Yitzhak's stories prefigure our own. Our God laughs at us and we laugh back, sometimes in joy, sometimes in sadness, sometimes in irony. Our God, despite the promise of Yishmael's name, does not listen, or at least rarely seems to pay much attention, to us, anymore than to our great sibling nation that traces their ancestry to him.

In these days, when a Gainesville preacher seeks to revive the Inquisition's book burnings by substituting Korans for Talmuds, when the ADL has trouble seeing that calling for an Islamen-frei zone around the WTC is not only indecent and anti-American but anti-Semitic, even if it directed at different Semites, where our compatriots and leaders carefully evade the obligations of being our brothers' keepers not by making cousins into sisters but by making brothers into cousins and cousins into strangers, and forgetting that we too know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land -- laughter, bitter and sweet, remains our best tool.

We cry for justice and we pray and work for the day in which the rule of evil will dissolve like smoke from the land. Even if God does not hear, still we have the power to laugh.

--Daniel JH Greenwood, Rosh HaShana 5772 (Sept 29, 2011) Kane Street Synagogue, Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes