Entering the Mystery
Last time, I promised to talk about the special Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. But before we do that, I would like to say just a few words about the Torah Portion that precedes the Rosh Hashanah reading. We read this portion last Shabbat, and this portion is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah: Parashat Shavua Nitzavim. This Parashah is incredible, much can be said about it; for now, however, I would like to quote just a single verse from this very deep and important Parashah:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law”.
We all know these profound words – but they sounded even more profound to me once I realized that this was the last Scripture read before Rosh HaShanah. I have goosebumps as I think that, with these very words, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” we are entering that special Rosh Hashanah Torah reading and that profound mystery of God—the mystery of two sons of Abraham—that we are reminded of every Rosh Hashanah.
You might be wondering, how and why Rosh Hashanah reminds us of Abraham’s two sons. Rosh HaShanah is an essentially Jewish holiday, so what does it have to do with Ishmael, Abraham’s older son? I used to think the same, as in the past my attention had always been drawn to the fact that every Jewish New Year we read Genesis 22, a very “Jewish” chapter. Genesis 22 is all about Abraham and Isaac, it describes Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac and it is crucial for understanding God’s mystery with Israel. The book I wrote about Israel’s place in God’s plan, opened with reflections on this chapter: “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year, this portion, the 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.”
Years had to pass, however, before my heart was pierced with a sudden realization (though theoretically I had known it all along) that during Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 21 is also read. The Rosh Hashanah Festival lasts two days, and these two chapters are read side by side every year. Remarkably, 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!
Why do we read these two chapters on this Festival? There are some rabbinic explanations as to why we read Genesis 22, although personally I do not find them convincing or sufficient; however, I am yet to see a solid and coherent explanation of why we read Genesis 21 on Rosh HaShanah. Today, in retrospect, I would reword the sentences I wrote in my book along these lines: “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year these portions… are read.” Every year, our people look again at those stories with renewed feelings of fear and wonder, “understanding that they somehow bear significance to their fate.” I have no doubt that, indeed, both chapters and both stories bear significance to the fate of Israel—and today I invite you to ponder upon this mystery.
Seeking the Answers
If you don’t remember what happens in Genesis 21, please have a look at this chapter. A lot happens there, but the bottom line is this: Isaac is born, and Ishmael is banished. Genesis 21 is one of the most eventful and in my opinion also one of the most disturbing chapters in the Bible. It contains the troubling episode when Sarah demands that Abraham banish Hagar and her son Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son, from the camp. It’s definitely not the best vantage point for Sarah’s portrait –so why would we read this chapter every New Year?
Ishmael was 13 or 14 years old when Isaac was born, and if we look at what little we have in the Bible about these years, we find every possible error that parents can make, culminating in the act that today, would be called a crime, not just a mistake: the banishment of a 15-year-old teenager from his home! If that happened today, the family would be sent to therapy. However, the Lord not only allowed it, He affirmed it, even insisted on it. The main question in this story is not about Sarah’s or Abraham’s behavior; the main question, the question that haunted me the most, is about God: Why did God support Sarah? Why did God totally agree with what seemed to be a very extreme reaction of an infuriated and jealous mother?
I spent a long time seeking the answers. My book, “Abraham had two sons”, was an attempt to articulate some of them. However, I don’t think that it was God’s main purpose for this book—to give me the answers. If you know God as the God of healing, then you would know that the family and the hearts that were broken in Genesis 21 were certain to be healed at some point. God wants to heal the broken- and in His time, He will make this healing happen! We live in a broken world, full of broken families, broken hearts, and broken relationships – and God wants to heal these broken hearts, relationships and lives. Here, in the land of Israel, we feel this brokenness every day, at times every hour; therefore, I believe, this is the true reason why we read these two chapters entering each New Year: God wants to heal! There is a hidden promise of healing in these chapters – and next time, we will discover this hidden hint and we will witness the reconciliation and healing of the brothers in Scripture. And as the people of Israel listen to these crucial chapters during two days of Rosh Hashanah, I really hope that this hidden promise is valid for their descendants as well – and that one day, we will witness the reconciliation and the healing of both families.
 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, to get this and my other books, click here. Also, I would like to remind you, that we offer wonderful courses, and those interested in studying in-depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, or exploring the Jewish Background of the New Testament, are welcome to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information and for the discount for the new students.