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The sacrifice of Ishmael, the sacrifice of Isaac


Elhanan Miller ’19

In the midst of our Rosh Hashana prayers, as we mention lofty issues such as the kingdom of God and the judgment of all humanity, our Torah reading evokes the smallest, most intimate unit we are familiar with: the family.

On both days of Rosh Hashana we read about the family of Abraham, the first human to have discovered God and the father of our nation. He is also the father of Ishmael, traditionally considered the ancestor of our neighboring Arab nations.

Our reading begins with the delightful news of Sarah’s pregnancy. After decades of barrenness, Sarah is pregnant. She names her son Yitzhak, to eternalize the laughter of the general public (or earlier, her own laughter) upon hearing the news. But soon the optimism of Yitzhak’s birth turns to tragedy. Abraham’s 14 year-old-son Ishmael is seen by Sarah as a threat to Yitzhak’s supremacy, and she orders Abraham to send him away. What does one do when caught between his own moral conscience and the orders of his beloved wife? Abraham is torn between his wife and his son. God intervenes and tells Abraham to send away Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and Abraham obeys.

The conditions in the desert of Canaan are harsh. Realizing that Ishmael will soon die of thirst after their water runs out, Hagar leaves her son at a distance and weeps. But then, an angel of God calls out to Hagar and orders her to carry her son. He opens her eyes and shows her a well, from which she quenches her son’s thirst.

Dramatic as this story is, what is its connection to Rosh Hashana? Why did the rabbis choose this text to read on our sacred day of judgement?

The simplest answer would be to view this chapter, Genesis 21, as a preface to the reading on the second day from Genesis 22, where we recall a story much closer to our hearts: the sacrifice of Isaac. But such an answer would be too easy. Let us look at what the story of Hagar and Ishmael has to teach us.

Firstly, the parallels between the stories on both days are striking. In both narratives, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. In both, the difficulty and drama of the task are expressed in the words the Torah uses to describe the morning of the fateful day: וישכם אברהם בבוקר. In both stories, a moment before the child’s death, an angel calls out: “ויקרא מלאך אלוקים מן השמים”. Tragically, it seems like following the event, both Ishmael and Isaac terminate their relationship with their father and move away, to the desert. When Abraham buries Sarah in the next chapter, the Torah describes him doing so alone.

The tale of Hagar and Ishmael teaches us an important lesson. Rosh Hashana contains tension between God as the judge of the entire world, and God as judge of the Jewish people. Before we address God as protector of Isaac, we must view God as the savior of Ishmael, Abraham’s “other son”; viewed by many commentators as savage and traditionally viewed as the forebear of Israel’s enemies. In this story, we feel deep empathy for Ishmael as the victim. This is an important universalist message for Jews on Rosh Hashanah.

The second lesson relates to the voices that are normally absent from the Torah narrative; the voices of women. Often, Midrash fills such gaps in the Torah. In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the voice of his beloved mother Sarah is absent, but not so in Jewish legend. According to the Midrash, Abraham did not tell Sarah he was going to slaughter their son, fearing she would die of heartbreak.[1] After Isaac was spared by God, Satan went to Sarah and told her that Abraham had in fact slaughtered her son. The Midrash says that Sarah cried three cries to parallel the three sounds of the shofar known as tekiot (תקיעות), then wailed three wails (יבבות) to parallel the three wails of the shofar, then promptly died.[2]

Hagar giving Ishmael water from the Miraculous Well in the Desert. Charles Paul Landon (1760-1826). Oil on canvas, 75 x 103cm.

The Torah itself does not mention Sarah’s cries, but explicitly mentions Hagar’s. The single-mindedness of Abraham as he sends away his first-born son to the desert, and as he accompanies his second son to the slaughter, stands in stark contrast to the emotional outpouring of Hagar and Sarah. This emotional reaction is so meaningful, that it is tied to the sound of the shofar.

The contrast between Abraham who submissively accepts God’s commandment and Sarah who openly expresses her grief is dramatically portrayed in the following Midrash:

“Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him: ‘Where have you been my son? Said he to her: ‘my father took me up and led me up mountains and down hills,’ etc. ‘Alas,’ she said: ‘for the son of a helpless woman! Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain!’ ‘Yes,’ he said to her. Thereupon she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts. It has been said: She had scarcely finished speaking when she died.[3]

The silent commitment of Abraham stands out on the backdrop of Sarah’s emotional dismay. As she realizes that Abraham was willing to kill her only son, and that Isaac knowingly joined the terrifying voyage, Sarah dies of heartbreak.

The Talmud mentions another interpretation for the sound of the shofar, mimicking the cries of the mother of Sisra, the Canaanite general, upon learning of his death.[4] Like Ishmael, Sisra is associated with the avowed enemies of Israel. However, this is the same Sisra whose descendants “taught children in Jerusalem,” states the Talmud.[5] Today’s foe can become tomorrow’s friend and mentor, our sages teach us.

As we listen to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, let us remember the cries of all the mothers, Jewish and non-Jewish, over the tragedies facing their sons. May we have the wisdom and divine inspiration to make the right decisions in the coming year.


[1] Midrash Tanhuma 22

[2] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 72

[3] Vayikra Raba 20:2 (Soncino edition, vol. IV, p. 353-254)

[4] Rosh Hashana 33:

[5] Gittin 57:

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