Rosh Hashanah 5771
This week’s commentary was written by Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS
Jews have prepared for the High Holiday season of repentance and renewal in 2010 with Muslims very much on our minds. Peace talks between Israel and (largely Muslim) Palestinians have just been renewed. The dispute about whether an Islamic cultural center should be built two blocks from Ground Zero has dominated headlines and fomented passion for weeks. The movable lunar month of Ramadan coincided exactly this year with the Jewish lunar month of Elul, meaning that Muslim fasting and Jewish soul-searching took place at the very same moment, toward the very same end.
And—as if the rabbis who long ago fixed the liturgy and Scriptural readings for the Days of Awe had anticipated our urgent need as Jews in 2010 for sustained reflection about what the conjunction of calendars, conflicts, interests, needs, faiths, perspectives, and passions joining us to Muslims might mean to the two traditions—the Torah portion that we read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah concerns the shared origins, covenant, and destiny of the two faith-communities. Examined through the new lens provided by recent events, the familiar stories of Ishmael and Isaac recounted in chapter 21 of Genesis prove startling and remarkably prescient.
The plotline, in brief, is this. God gives Abraham and Sarah the child of laughter who had been promised them. When Isaac is weaned, Sarah demands that her maidservant Hagar and the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham be banished from their sight. God tells Abraham to allow this to happen. “I will make a nation of him too,” God says of Ishmael, “for he is your seed.” Hagar flees to the wilderness, uses up all the water that Abraham had given her and her son to drink, and fears for their survival. An angel of God appears to Hagar, tells her that God has heard the cry of the boy, and shows her a well close at hand. “God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became skilled with a bow . . . ”
Three of the five sections that we chant from Genesis on Rosh Hashanah are devoted to this account about Abraham, the common ancestor of Jews and Muslims, and the two sons of Abraham who mark the split that will one day divide the two religions. We can say, without any exaggeration whatever, that the close kinship of the two faiths and the intertwining of their destinies are fixed at the very moment that the people Israel comes into existence and enters into covenant with God. We appreciate the complex linkage binding Judaism and Islam still more if we recall the background that a biblical reader is expected to have when reading this remarkable passage.
The first incident comes (Genesis 16:1–12) when Abram’s wife, then called Sarai, has borne no children to Abram despite God’s promise that his offspring shall be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. She asks Abram to conceive a child with her handmaiden Hagar. (The child will in some sense—legally and perhaps otherwise—be considered Sarai’s.) When Hagar becomes pregnant, “her mistress was lowered in her eyes.” Sarai responds by treating Hagar harshly, causing the maidservant to flee into the wilderness. An angel encounters Hagar by a spring or well of water and promises in God’s name that “I will greatly increase your offspring.” Hagar is told to call her son Ishmael [“God hears”]. “He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:1–12).
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The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.