In previous years, when the High Holy Days arrived, I would stop the series I was writing, in order to publish posts about the holidays. This year will be different, with my “Isaac and Ishmael” series: I can’t imagine a more fitting season to write about Isaac and Ishmael than during Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, “The Head [of] the Year”), our Jewish New Year, when we read Genesis 21 and 22 as part of the holiday Torah reading.
Ishmael was 13 or 14 years old when Isaac was born. Undoubtedly, from that time until the moment he was expelled, he must have had very mixed feelings in his heart. He probably loved his cute little brother; however, along with this love, envy and jealousy must have been welling up in his heart as the years passed. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if chapters 21 and 22 of the book of Genesis had been switched. What would have happened had Ishmael still been at home on that morning when Abraham saddled his donkey, cut the wood, took Isaac, and went to Mount Moriah?
If Ishmael could have seen just a glimpse of his chosen brother’s future; if he could have known somehow how much suffering Isaac’s destiny would hold; if he could have realized even vaguely that the chosen one’s path leads to an altar, his jealousy would probably have been less acute, his resentment less painful. Ishmael, however, saw nothing of this. The years he spent in Abraham’s house after the birth of Isaac were spent in envy: he would have been jealous of their father’s love, jealous of the status of Isaac’s mother, and jealous of God’s promises to Isaac and his chosen status. Again, if only he knew how much pain and suffering the chosen one must face, perhaps he would even have been glad that in the end, he wasn’t the Son of the Covenant. However, all that Ishmael saw was that Isaac’s life was smooth and easy, and this was his perspective when he had to leave his father’s house. This is how he remembered Isaac; this is the impression he took with him, along with bitterness and resentment. Ishmael doesn’t see his brother being led to Mount Moriah. Instead, he is cast out of the house while everything in his brother’s life is still comfortable and easy. Genesis 21 comes before Genesis 22.
THE SPECIAL TORAH READING
For years, I had thought of Genesis 22 as the most difficult, almost unbearable chapter of the Bible. Whenever I opened my Bible, “I would make every effort to skip as quickly as possible over these pages, afraid to be hurt anew by even the smallest glance at the terrifying story of how, in obedience to God, Abraham took his son and led him to Mount Moriah to present him there as a burnt offering.” It almost hurt physically to read it. Every time I did read the chapter, I felt as if I was seeing before me the mountain itself, as if the chapter itself was this scary peak of Akedat Yitzhak. For years, Genesis 22 had symbolized the Peak of the Sacrifice for me: a high and lonely Peak; a Peak of unprecedented and inimitable obedience; the center and the culmination of Abraham’s life. All the chapters around it seemed much less significant, less important, almost vague and foggy in comparison with this daunting peak, clearly visible against the backdrop of heaven, a sharp, craggy silhouette with its frighteningly clear request. That’s why my attention had always been drawn to the fact that Genesis 22 is read every Jewish New Year. “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year, this portion, Akedah, about the binding of Isaac is read. The people of Israel look at this story with mixed feelings of fear and wonder, understanding that it somehow bears significance to their fate, but are unable to discern the truth: that they are looking into a mirror.”
It was not until I began to write about Isaac and Ishmael, that I started to see, for the first time, that Abraham had to sacrifice both his sons. That there were actually not one, but two sacrifices in the old patriarch’s life. That Genesis 21 was just as much about sacrifice as Genesis 22 and that the sacrifice of Genesis 21—the banishment of Ishmael—was also extremely tortuous and painful for Abraham. All of a sudden, the lonely Peak of Genesis 22 was not so lonely anymore. The Peak of Genesis 21 grew up alongside it, almost as high and scary as the Peak of Genesis 22. And then I realized—though in my head I had known it all along—that every year, we also read Genesis 21 during our New Year. Genesis 21 comes before Genesis 22, and so on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before Isaac’s story is read, we read the preceding chapter: Genesis 21, the story of Ishmael’s banishment. The Rosh Hashanah holiday consists of two days, as some of my readers may know, and these two chapters are read side by side every year. As a matter of fact, this is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated for two days both in Israel and outside of Israel, as if it was cut out precisely for this reason: one day for each chapter! Today, in retrospect, I would reword the sentences I just quoted from my book: “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year these portions… are read.” Every year, our people look anew at those stories with renewed feelings of fear and wonder, “understanding that they somehow bear significance to their fate.”
We cannot compare these sacrifices: the two sons of Abraham were chosen for two completely different destinies, and therefore these two chapters—Genesis 21 and 22—are very different. Still, both chapters speak about sacrifice, and we will see that clearly next time, when we will speak about Yom Kippur and Leviticus 16.
JUDAISM 101: “THE HEAD [OF] THE YEAR”
Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, “The Head [of] the Year”), the Jewish New Year, is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei (usually falling in September). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im, literally “Days [of] Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23-32. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”, since Torah prescribes sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
In Judaism, the day we celebrate as Rosh Hashana – the first of Tishrei – is not actually considered the anniversary of Creation, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation, when Adam and Eve were created. The anniversary of the first day of Creation would be five days before, on the twenty-fifth day of Elul; however, according to Jewish understanding, it is only when man was created that the whole of creation became meaningful. The birth of humanity added to the universe the possibility for God to be proclaimed King. Therefore, God’s sovereignty and God’s Kingship are the main themes of Rosh Hashanah and the ten days of Judgment it opens. “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, our King) prayer is recited daily from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah customs include attending synagogue services, sounding the shofar, and reciting special liturgy—and of course, enjoying festive meals and eating symbolic foods, such as apples dipped in honey, hoping for and wishing everybody Shanah Metuka – שנה מתוקה – A Sweet New Year!
Rosh Hashanah presents a special opportunity to celebrate with our King and to grow in our efforts to remain close to Him throughout the coming year. I know this is the desire of your hearts, and I thank the Lord for each one of you. It has been a joy and a privilege to have such appreciative readers. So, as the people of Israel are about to be steeped in apples and honey and festive meals, in synagogues, prayers and shofars, I would like to wish you all a very blessed and sweet New Year – שנה מתוקה!
 If You Be the Son of God, Come Down From the Cross, . p. 27
 If You Be the Son of God, Come Down From the Cross, p.31
Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this article, so if you like this article, you might also enjoy the book. Click here to get free sample: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/