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Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה)

Saturday 19th September 2020 1st Tishrei 5780

Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה | Beginning of the Year)

Torah: Genesis 21; Haftarah: Jeremiah 31:1-19; Matthew 24:29-36; Luke 1:39-55

The Tale of Two Sons by Rabbi Russ Resnik

Now that my title got your attention, I’ll let you know this message isn’t about non-binary gender identity. Instead, it’s about looking beyond the usual binary reading of Isaac and Ishmael, in which Isaac is the chosen son, the beloved, the faithful, the son of destiny, and Ishmael is the rejected son, the unloved, the son of unbelief and perdition. There’s a lot to support that reading, for sure, but our non-binary reading is truer to the whole narrative of Genesis, and brings out a dimension of the story that’s of special importance to us, particularly as we approach the Days of Awe.

The Akedah, the account of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, traditionally read on the second day of Rosh Hashana, is so iconic that we’re liable to forget the preceding story, which we read on the first day. Genesis 21 opens with the birth of Isaac, the son promised to Abraham through his wife Sarah. Sarah soon begins to pressure Abraham to send away his first son, born through his union with Hagar, Sarah’s bondwoman. Abraham is not happy about this idea, but God instructs him to listen to Sarah, adding, “And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:13). Isaac is the chosen one, but God has a parallel purpose for Ishmael.

The parallel between the two sons becomes even more striking in the very next phrase: “So Abraham rose early in the morning . . .” (Gen 21:14). This phrase, just three words in Hebrew, Vayashkem Avraham baboker, is repeated verbatim in the Akedah, as Abraham’s response when God commands him to offer up Isaac. In both cases Abraham rises up early to obey the divine command, and both cases constitute a great trial of faith for Abraham.

After Hagar and Ishmael are sent away, Genesis 21 goes on to recount their story with great compassion, pointing beyond the binary of chosen/rejected to their shared humanity. Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod notes that this same compassion pervades the story of Esau, and draws a conclusion:

Surely non-election does not equal rejection. Ishmael and Esau, the sons of non-election, are suffused in the divine word with a compassion in some respects more powerful than the love of the sons of election. . . . Not to be the favorite son of a human father is a painful experience, but the non-election of God is never a finality, only one way of being touched by the finger of God. [1]

In contrast, Paul pictures Isaac and Ishmael in sharply binary terms in one of his letters. He’s writing to a group of Yeshua-followers who are being influenced to receive circumcision and become “obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3). In respo

nse, Paul says the story of Abraham’s two sons “may be interpreted allegorically,” as pointing to two covenants, one “from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery”—the bondage of trying to fulfill the law on our own power—and the other reflecting “the Jerusalem above which is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:22–24, 26). Paul continues:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” (Gal 4:28–30)

Paul builds on one element of the Isaac-Ishmael story to make a vital point to followers of Yeshua: we are children of Abraham not through self-effort, but through promise and by the Spirit, and this is how we are to live our lives in union with Messiah. But the wider implication of the original story that Wyschogrod identified remains: Ishmael too is “touched by the finger of God.” Beneath the level of his non-election, he shares profoundly in Abraham’s story in the end:

These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in t

he field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre. (Gen 25:7–9)

At Abraham’s death, the estranged brothers come together again. Then, immediately after noting God’s blessing on Isaac, the story continues with a list of the generations of Ishmael, who fathers twelve sons, which become twelve tribes, paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. Moreover, the text describes Ishmael’s death in 25:17 with the term vayigva, “he breathed his last” or “he expired,” a term, according to Rashi, which is usually applied only to the righteous (like Abraham at 25:8). And also like Abraham, Ishmael after breathing his last is “gathered to his people” (Gen 25:17). This wording—“breathed his last” and “gathered to his people”—appears only two more times in Genesis, at the death of Isaac (35:29) and the death of Jacob (49:33). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . and Ishmael as well.

Upon the death of Abraham, not only are Isaac and Ishmael reunited, at least briefly, but Ishmael regains his stature as a son, even if not as a chosen one.

During this season of repentance and humility, we might be tempted to remind God of our chosenness, of the favor he has already bestowed upon us. And we might wonder why we need to go through the litany of repentance and calling out for mercy, since we’ve surely been forgiven through the atoning work of Messiah Yeshua. But perhaps it’s a time to approach God in more basic, non-binary terms. We are simply human beings, loved by God but fallen and in need of his mercy—like all of humankind.

As we enter the Days of Awe, then, let’s not resort to the shallow refuge of labeling ourselves as the good son or daughter, the chosen, the righteous, the saved, but let’s stand instead with all those in need of mercy, ki ein banu ma’asim, because we have no good works of our own.

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:32–36) All Scripture references are from the ESV.

[1] Michael Wyschogrod, “Israel, the Church, and Election” in Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 186–187.


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