Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Rosh HaShana 5722: Child Sacrifice: Ishmael, Isaac & Samuel (Genesis 21 & 22, 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10)

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

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


On Rosh HaShana, we read stories of family love and heroism and dysfunction -- hints, in the style of Torah, of unwritten novels and commentaries on the nature of life, relationships and, of course, theodicy.

Today, three mothers:

  • one who loves the child of her old age so much that she wants to eliminate his half-sibling as a potential rival,
  • a second whose love leads her to despair in her moment of crisis, and
  • one who wants a child so badly that she vows to give him up if she has one.

Tomorrow, the focus shifts to a father - Abraham, whom we call our father Abraham. Three times in his life, we are told that "hu yashkaym," that is, that he got up with the dawn with alacrity and enthusiasm - to obey the word he has heard from God:

  • once to abandon his parents, the house of his fathers, his birthplace and his country;
  • once to send his first born child and his mother off to die in the desert; and
  • once, like Agamemnon, to sacrifice his most beloved child, to destroy what he loves the most.

And throughout, a God, who, in these stories, is the very opposite of Maimonides'

  • all-knowing, tzofeh v yodeah s'tareinu,
  • all-good, noten l'rasha ra k-rishato,
  • first mover beyond causation, bli rashit v bli tachlis,
but is, instead, Himself a model of the perverse parent. In the three stories here, He answers desperate prayers for children three times, yet each gift comes with a terrible price, as he demands each of the three children back
  • Ishmael sent off nameless to die wandering in the desert, like the Yom Kippur goat a sacrifice to Azazael,
  • Yitzhak to be slaughtered on Mt Moriah,
  • Samuel dedicated - sacrificed - to the Temple, taken from his parents barely weaned.

Yet, in the end, this God of child-sacrifice and these stories of family strife reject child murder. Our stories - born in a world that, like our own, was all too ready to rush into wars of choice, to cheer at executions, or to leave strangers and relatives to die unnecessarily when they could be saved - do not end in the conventional way.

Agamemnon actually killed Ipheginia, and some at least of the gods approved. The winds changed and the Greeks won the ten year war. He is punished by the fates, of course: Child killing is never fully acceptable even when it is done for the glory of god and nation. Still, the noble tragedy of his cruelty remains front and center.

Our stories are also ambivalent. Neither the author nor most readers of Abraham's double dalliance with filicide condemn his behavior with the rigor of their condemnations of King David's flirtations with another man's wife and murder of her husband. But still, they are critically different from the Greek - and American - versions.

Abraham's mark of greatness is his willingness to obey God, to wake up early to abandon family and kill his sons. But it is also his luck. His luck that his first attempt at human sacrifice failed and, most important, his belated discovery that God responds to the claims of human morality:

  • that child sacrifice is not demanded but forbidden and, then,
  • at Sodom, that God sometimes will respond to the demands of Justice if only we protest instead of silently acquiescing to power.

The Greek myth expresses the tragedy of the human condition. The hero is condemned both to commit absolute evil and be punished for it. The Jewish one demands, and achieves, change.

If we listen hard enough on the mountain, or open our eyes in the desert, the Jewish myths insist, we can hear God calling for an end to child sacrifice, and not only its continuance.

And if God doesn't speak in time, we still can demand that He, and we, change, even when the way of the world seems to require that even ten innocent men be destroyed for the sins of the city. Neither the human condition nor even God is beyond our influence.


The Jewish tradition of commentary depends on close reading and not just sensitivity to the larger story untold. So let me urge you to listen closely to the words in our reading.

Our reading today is built on two extended plays on words - puns on the names of the protagonists.

First, Hagar, who is the prototype of those whose eyes open to the possibility of change -- who see that we can choose to drink from the well of living waters instead of sending children into the desert to die for our sins.


  • "the ger" - whose name means the stranger,
  • the Egyptian living as a stranger in a strange land,
  • a slave to a master from another people who, after a time of welcome, comes to see her fertility as a threat,
  • and attempts to end it, and her,
  • by sending her into eternal exile,
  • to wander the desert not for 40 years but until thirst destroys them. Mere meters from Abraham's Well of Promise, Beer Sheva.

And Hagar, the ger,

  • the convert,
  • whose descendants will, contrary to God's promise to remember Abraham through Itzhak, become a great people
  • the greatest, in numbers at least, of the rememberers of Abraham's name,
  • through a religion that worships Abraham's God under the appropriately ambiguous name of Peace or Submission.
  • But whose child -- the eponym of the people with which we have the longest continuous history -- is rendered nameless throughout our passage, stripped to his status as the child and the sacrifice.

And Hagar, the ger, the first ger of whom we must think when we consider the most fundamental and most repeated of all the Torah's commandments: "Do not oppress Hagar, for you knew the spirit of the Ger. You were strangers, gers, in Egypt and I, your God, paid the ransom to free you."

Second, Itzhak (Isaac), whose name means "he who will laugh or play," but of course he won't -- our most passive of progenitors, who never seems to have a happy moment in a long and bitter life.

Sara explains his name by saying that God has made her laugh, according to the conventional commentaries. But the Biblical words more naturally mean that God has made her a laughingstock - that at her age, she looks like a fool raising a child, and people naturally will make fun of her for it.

Isaac never laughs. He will, instead, make his mother die of shock by allowing his father to take him up to the mountain to be sacrificed, at age 36, no less, a grown man still living at home, far too reluctant to make the Oedipal break his situation demands. Indeed, unlike his later imitator who became the namesake of a far larger religion, never even crying out, not even at the seeming end, with David's lament: Avi lama azavtani "my father why have you abandoned me?"

It is instead Ishmael who laughs. And it is his laughter or play than galvanizes Sara - and, after the fact, at least, Abraham's God - to determine that he and the Egyptian must be exiled, sent to Azazel.

Our commentators, seeking to ameliorate Sara's shocking failure to know the spirit of the ger, libel him, interpreting his laughter as shameful mockery of others, playing at adultery and idolatry, even shooting at people and laughing at their wounds. But in the plain meaning of the text, it is just the laugh and play of a child no longer (or not yet) burdened with world-historical importance.

Our people is born in this confluence of joyous and ironic and bitter laughter, of puns and word play and family troubles, laughter at and with a God who makes fools of us, demands indecent sacrifices, yet allows room for us to pursue Justice even if the Heavens fall and leaves some room, if only we can find it, for the simple pleasures so rarely described in our scriptures.



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