Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading: God Wants To Heal!

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”[1].

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.”[2]

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.

 

[1] Deut.29:29

[2] 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  (juliab@eteachergroup.com) for more information and for the discount for the new students.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Dereje Sahile Woldemariam

    Thank you Julia; “Rosh Hashanah” interesting part to study and research about “Biblical Hebrew” studies…! In our local word: ‘Ras’ is head…!
    Sincerely, Dereje S.

    1. Julia Blum

      It is very interesting, indeed. What language are we talking about?

  2. Dorothy

    Your linking of the words from the previous Torah portion (“The secret things belong to the Lord our God.), to the two Rosh Hashanah readings from Genesis 21 & 22 is quite profound! And these two chapters that are read on Rosh Hashanah are, of course, very profound indeed, and I look forward to your next post in this regard.
    The Torah has many facets, as you know Julia, and I see something else in this – thanks to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he says that, symbolically, the two mothers (Hagar & Sarah) represent two Covenants. If Hagar represents the Sinai Covenant, then, I believe, Ishmael represents Israel under the Sinai Covenant. In Gen. 21, God ‘heard the voice of the lad’ and told Hagar to “Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” Since Isaac ultimately points to Yeshua and the New Covenant, I think this opens a very intriguing line of thought with regards to Rosh Hashanah!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your generous words, Dot. Regarding Ishmael – I agree, I also think he represents Israel. If you remember, I wrote about it in the last (Sod) part of my book: “Thus, Ishmael, the son who was sent into the wilderness, is a type of… Israel, the scapegoat!.. Certainly, neither Ishmael’s nor Isaac’s descendants are aware of this typology. But that doesn’t prove anything, does it? … Nobody was aware of the law of gravity before Newton discovered it, and yet gravity had been there all along, hadn’t it? Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws in the spiritual universe. Even though Ishmael’s and Isaac’s descendants are completely unaware of the spiritual laws governing their destinies, nevertheless, these laws still exist. Isaac’s descendants hate Yeshua, although (or perhaps because) Isaac is a type of Yeshua. Likewise, Ishmael’s descendants hate Israel, although (or perhaps because) Ishmael is a type of Israel. It’s possible that within this Ishmael-Israel typology, we can find the source and the explanation for everything: of the amazing closeness between Isaac and Ishmael, as well as the endless hostility and tension between them” (“Abraham had two sons”).

  3. Evelyn Tan

    Dear Sis Julia, I just read your article ‘ God wants to heal’. It is revelation knowledge for me. Thank you very much and may God bless you.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words Evelyn! I am really glad to hear that this article was important for you!

  4. Lanu

    Thank you prof. Julia Blum for sharing this great insight. Here the loving God seems not so loving and His righteousness appears to be not so righteous.But we might see that only sort of such heartbreaking and confusing story can project the awkwardness of judging between “man in bondage and man in liberty.” And regarding the brokeness being borne in the flesh, yes, I do believe God will heal it.

    1. Julia Blum

      You know, Lanu, for a long time this very thought: “Here the loving God seems not so loving and His righteousness appears to be not so righteous” had been hunting me – until I’ve realized something important that really helped me (and probably, at some point Ishmael had realized it as well). I write about it in my new post, it will be published after Yom Kippur, so – stay tuned!

  5. Gladys Fox

    Thank you Julia
    I firmly believe that Ishmael did not sexual molest Isaac .This was just sibling rivalry and Sarah just wanted to protect her baby . We readers must remember that a Hebrew word could have more than one meaning . There was a problem between Sarah and Hagar which I believe caused this problem and God knew that Ishmael would be better off out of that environment .
    I pray that all people can come to care and love each other . A Jewish Synagogue showed great love when a Muslim Mosque caught fire and was destroyed and the Rabbis opened the Synagogue and invited the people to come and pray there and a great many did . So Julia there is hope !

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Gladys, I believe you are right: “God knew that Ishmael would be better off out of that environment” – and what seemed to Ishmael as cruel, incomprehensible, and unjustified action, in fact, was done for his own sake. I believe that at some point, he also realized that – and then he became reconciled to where he was and who he was. I write about it in my new post, it will be published after Yom Kippur – but it’s wonderful to hear it from you even before it’s published!

  6. Leinani Aiono Le Tagaloa

    I so love your teaching and the depth of the wisdom that the Lord has given you Julia! May He continue to bless you richly and may the sweetness continue to overflow. Chag Sameach!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Leinani, I am very touched by your kind words! Chag Sameach to you too!

  7. Marge Schwartz

    Because the same Hebrew word is used to describe what Ishmael did to Issac, as when Abraham “sported” with his wife Sarah, (which caused Abimelich to realize that she was his wife), I believe that Ishmael may have sexually molested Issac.

    1. Julia Blum

      The Hebrew word metzahek has different meanings, and no one knows for sure what it means here. You are right, some commentaries suggest a sexual connotation since this is the same word that we find in Genesis 26, where it refers to Isaac and Rebecca, undoubtedly with a sexual meaning: Isaac was sporting (metzahek ) with Rebecca his wife. Was Ishmael sexually molesting Isaac? And was it because of this sexual abuse that Sarah was so infuriated? Personally, I don’t think the word has the same meaning here: while in Genesis 26, Rebecca is clearly in the sentence, Isaac metzahek  with Rebecca,- in our case the original text itself doesn’t even say that Ishmael was interacting with Isaac at the moment Sarah saw him: Isaac is not in this sentence at all. I believe that explanation is different, though indeed, it has to do with the root of the word metzahek; I wrote about it on this blog, if you are interested you can find it here: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/the-story-of-isa…ael-sarah-peshat/