This is the d’var delivered by David Roston on Rosh Hashanah.
©David C. Roston
The tradition of Conservative Judaism is to read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah the story of the birth of Isaac and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and to read on the second day the Akeda. To accommodate the pandemic and our almost unique joint affiliation, we followed the Reform practice of reading the Akeda yesterday and read about Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar today. The Isaac-Ishmael-Hagar story is in chapter 21 and the Akeda is in chapter 22. Rosh Hashanah offers the opportunity to study them together.
These stories have important similarities. Each describes Abraham’s relationship with his sons and their mothers. Each tells us Abraham acted in obedience to the word of God. In neither story did Abraham warn his son’s mother. In each case Abraham revealed his eagerness to proceed by arising early in the morning. An important contrast is that in the Hagar story Ishmael is called son of a slave woman, while Isaac in the Akeda is Abraham’s son, “your only son, the one whom you love.” Ishmael status is ignored; he’s either irrelevant or dead.
How we understand Abraham’s communication with God is crucial to the exegesis of these stories. Many of you will not be surprised that I prefer a Maimonidean approach to communication with God. Maimonides is known as Rambam, an acronym for Moses ben Maimon, his true name. He was a late 11th century theologian, philosopher, and judge and physician to the Muslim ruling family of Egypt and lower classes. His Mishnah Torah, a compilation of Jewish law is revered in our own time. His Guide of the Perplexed, has been much criticized, but widely read even today is a theological study of God and people in relation Him. The book was written for one student to explain why Judaism not inconsistent with Aristotelian philosophy.
A significant contribution in the Guide is Maimonides’s negative theory of the attributes of God. He insists that no trait or characteristic can be predicated of God. We must not say, “God is . . . .” We must confine ourselves to “God is not . . . .” We know that God is not two or multiple. Understanding or describing an attribute of God is beyond human ability. Languages developed to express human understanding. They do not have words for what is beyond human understanding. The sole exception to the rule is that God is one, a unity. He is unique. He is not infinitely divisible, as I s a statue of Zeus. One negative attribute is that God can neither speak nor listen. Those are human traits. Our words do not describe God’s mode of communication; we do not know what it is and have no words to describe whatever God does.
How then does God communicate? What happened when God spoke? For Maimonides, God can be nothing other than Active Intellect, with no physical trait. God intellectualizes and communicates with those who can access this Active Intellect. Maimonides explains that “among men [we cannot dismiss his misogynism as semantic] are found certain people so gifted and perfected that they can receive pure intellectual form.” Such people are prophets. Maimonides cautions that Guide of the Perplexed does not set forth the full truth and explanation for his ideas. The details, he says, are found the chapter titles. One source of modern confusion is that he and his contemporaries accepted Ptolemaic cosmology: Concentric spheres surround the Earth, like a Russian doll. Ptolemaic theory was as widely accepted the in the 12th Century as Newtonian physics was at the turn of the 20th Century. God’s Active Intellect was the outermost sphere and overflowed from the outer sphere through the concentric spheres, one by one. If we toss out the spheres and understand God as being everywhere, we are surrounded by Active Intellect. Perfected individuals absorb God’s wisdom as it overflows from the Active Intellect.
From this Maimonidean theory it follows that if God told Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar away and to sacrifice Isaac, God’s messages came to him from the Active Intellect. I do not find that Maimonides differentiates accessing the Active Intellect from ego-centric rationalization. If God is good, how could God tell Abraham to so mistreat his sons and their mothers? I propose that God did not and that Abraham mistook rationalization for the word of God. A hint at how that happened is seen in a comparison of our stories to the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Abraham did not hesitate to challenge God’s decision to destroy those cities. He argued that the presence of a few righteous people should suffice to save the entire populations. Finally, God agreed to relent if there were ten righteous people. There were not.
With Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham lacked the personal stake he had in Sarah and his two sons. He appears unconcerned about Hagar, an Egyptian. Her name means “the stranger or foreigner.” Midrash tell us that Abraham studied Torah in his spare time. He seems not to have learned, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” (Lev. 19:33-34) Abraham was distressed by Sarah’s demand he send Ishmael away, but did not argue with her. He did not argue when God told him, “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.” (Gen. 21:12) Similarly, Abraham did not argue with God when told to sacrifice Isaac. In Abraham’s telling, God had no regard for the love between father and son and the harm from mistreatment of his family.
I suggest that Abraham was a patsy and could not assert himself when faced with a personal dilemma. The patriarchs, for their greatness, had clay feet which repeatedly cracked under pressure. There are proof texts for my conclusion. Inserted between the Sarah-Isaac-Ishmael story and the Akeda is a peculiarly out of place story about Abraham and Abimelech. Abraham complains about stolen well water. Abimelech says he heard nothing about it. Abraham then gives Abimelech sheep and oxen to placate him, even before Abimelech displayed anger. Then Abraham gives him seven ewes “as proof that I dug this well.” (Gen. 21:30) Abraham’s personal interest is involved. Despite his military strength and the lack of any apparent dispute, he approached Abimelech as a supplicant unable to stand up for himself.
When Sarah demanded he expel Ishmael, we are told Abraham looks for direction about what to do. God’s answer, to accede to Sarah’s request, makes no sense for a man with Abrahams strength and wisdom. The Abraham who argued with God, the Abraham who broke his father’s idols, was nowhere to be found. He focused solely on finding the path of least resistance to shalom ha-bayit, peace within his marriage. I say God told him nothing. Abraham rationalized that acceding to Sarah would rid him of intra-household jealousy and reinforce his long marriage to Sarah. He mistook his rationalization for access to the Active Intellect. Abraham was in awe of God, he was a loving husband, and he rushed about to feed the three strangers who visited his tent. He followed God’s direction for a good life. He could not easily cast aside his love for his first-born son on the word of Sarah and God. Rather, he rationalized an unloving decision to expel Ishmael by attributing it to God’s advice. God told him nothing; Abraham used his faith in God to justify his bad behavior.
Similarly, God did not tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Such a command is inconsistent with God’s negative attributes. Ishmael was gone and Isaac was to be the father of a great people. Isaac’s life was to be God’s means to keep his covenant with Abraham. Moreover, there is no evidence God ever approved human sacrifice. The Akeda is often understood as a test to determine whether Abraham would disobey God’s harsh command and opt for preserving life or sacrifice his only son, the one he loved, to demonstrate his faith. Did God not know the depth of Abraham’s faith? Had he not left his father’s home with no destination, relying on only God’s promise to lead him to a land of God’s choosing.
At some point Abraham recognized his fault in expelling Ishmael and Hagar into the harsh wilderness of the Negev with only a piece of bread and a skin of water. Subsequently realized they had had little chance of survival. He sacrificed Ishmael to secure peace with Sarah. Once he recognized his transgression, he could not forget. He perseverated on his wicked act. Eventually, he needed relief from his regret, sorrow, and anger at himself. In his madness, sacrificing Isaac, some sort of effort to even the score, seemed the solution, despite the consequent losses to him and Sarah.
I now come to my ultimate question. Why read these two chapters on Rosh HaShanah. Today we reflect on our misdeeds, our bad behavior, our sins, our failures to love our neighbors as ourselves, and injury, physical and emotional, we have caused others. We must answer Hillel who asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I.” We must reflect on what it God will inscribe for us in his book of life. We have 10 days to take stock and make amends. Abraham’s failings in these stories remind us of the kinds of sins we must search out in ourselves and the danger that comes from putting off atonement:
- He abandoned Ishmael without protest when pressured by Sarah.
- He blamed his own decision on someone else, God.
- He did not try to protect Ishmael by working something out with Sarah.
- He did not allow Hagar time to prepare Ishmael for a new life and to find new living arrangements.
- He dismissed Ishmael from his life without trying to smooth a path for him. He was so eager to do so that he acted early the next morning following Sarah’s demand.
- “Some time afterward,” Abraham made his warped decision to even the score between Ishmael and Isaac by rationalizing his decision with a bizarre story that God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Murder would be his escape from anguish over sending Ishmael and Hagar to certain death.
- Again he gave his son’s mother of no opportunity to discuss the matter.
- He set out to assuage his mind and body, by making the same mistake with Isaac he had made with Ishmael.
- Again, he did not take personal responsibility for his thoughtlessness.
- He failed both Isaac and Sarah. Isaac never spoke to him again. Sarah died when she learned that Abraham had intended to kill their son, their only son, whom she loved.
Following the Akeda, Abraham had much for which to repent. Atonement would be difficult. He would need God’s mercy. He must have succeeded. God inscribed him in the book of life for many good years. He live another 50 years and died at age 175. We learn that even a person as good as Abraham with his strong faith in God, is not perfect. There was probably no year in which he was perfect. In this one year in particular his burden of sins might have killed a lesser man. We must learn from the example of Abraham that whatever our transgressions we must seek forgiveness and atonement. The gates of repentance are open. Let us all work to identify our own sins, seek forgiveness when possible, and beseech God to allow us to begin the year of 5781 with a clean slate. God, answer us now as you answered Abraham on Mount Moriah. Answer us.