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Rav Johnny's original thoughts on the weekly parsha
This weekend is Rosh Hashanah on which two different Torah readings are read in synagogue. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read from Bereishit Chapter 21 which describes the birth of Yitzchak to Sarah & Avraham and the expulsion of Hagar & Yishmael from their home, while the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is Bereishit Chapter 22 which tells the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Yitzchak.
In general we think of these stories as being highly related but, at the same time, conveying quite different lessons. The first about God hearing our prayers, and the second about God testing us. However, I believe that a closer look at these stories can reveal an important and overlooked principle which is central to Rosh Hashanah.
When we look back at the stories of Avraham, we find that he is always boundaried, principled and proactive. This is evident in how he parts ways with Lot (see Bereishit 13:7-9), and in his insistence, as explained by Chazal, that his visitors have their feet washed before they enter his tent (see Bereishit 18:4 with Rashi) so that they don’t bring the idolatrous dust which they worship inside. In fact, one of the reasons offered (see Bereishit Rabbah 42:8) for why Avraham is called an Ivri (Bereishit 14:13) is because he is so boundaried, principled and proactive and is therefore prepared to be countercultural. True, Avraham acts with chessed (kindness) towards others. But he does this all the while that he stands up for his principles without compromise, and in so doing, he balances midat hadin (treating people according to the measure of justice) and midat harachamim (treating people according to the measure of mercy). In contrast, our Sages deduce that Lot is less principled, that he prioritizes what others think above what should be done, and that in the case of his visitors, he let them into his tent without concern for the possibility that they might bring idolatrous dust with them (see Rashi on Bereishit 19:2).
With this in mind we come to the Torah reading for Day 1 and the question we should ask is why is it that Sarah is the one who tells Avraham to expel Hagar & Yishmael? Given his prior experience in boundary-setting with Lot, why doesn’t Avraham do this himself? Moreover, when Sarah suggests this, why is Avraham somewhat reluctant?
As previously mentioned, and up until the moment when he negotiates with God about the salvation of Sdom, Avraham seems to achieve a good balance between midat hadin (treating people according to the measure of justice) and midat harachamim (treating people according to the measure of mercy). Yes he shows kindness to others. But he is also prepared to part ways with family when he sees conflict on the horizon.
However, when Avraham argues for Sdom, he prioritizes mercy over justice. Moreover, we find in Chapter 20 of Sefer Bereishit, with the story of Avimelech, Avraham asks Sarah to say she is his sister. What this means is that Avraham’s moral universe undergoes a metamorphosis, and this is all the more the case when Yitzchak is born when Avraham mellows further. Rather than someone who balances justice and mercy, Avraham is someone who fights for mercy even when it is not justified on the basis of strict justice.
So when Avraham is told that Yishmael is now a bad influence in his home, he doesn’t step up as Sarah expects. Instead, as the HaKetav VeHakabalah explains, he seeks to educate Yishmael towards making better choice. But in this case, Hashem sides with Sarah and, in so doing, instructs Avraham to return to a better balance of midat hadin and midat harachamim. And the fact that, immediately after God’s pep-talk with Avraham (Bereishit 21:12-13), he gets up early in the morning to take Hagar & Yishmael out of his home (ibid. 21:14) is instructive that Avraham accepted what God told him to do. True, mercy is important. However, the lesson he needed to have learnt from the story of Sdom & Avimelech is that sometimes an excess of ‘midat harachamim’ can create a confused moral world.
Still, the question remained as to whether Avraham had truly understood and accepted this lesson, and I believe that this is why he is commanded about Akeidat Yitzchak. And how do we know that these stories are connected? It is because we are also told that he got up early in the morning (Bereishit 22:3) to take Yitzchak to Har HaMoriah.
As we know, Hashem subsequently sends an angel to stop Avraham, and this is because the Akeidah was a test. But what was the test? It was whether Avraham had learnt the lesson of being boundaried, principled and proactive where the situation calls on him to do so.
Having explained all this, the question we must ask is why do we read these stories on Rosh Hashanah? I believe that it is because Rosh Hashanah is the Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgement, on which we ask God for rachamim – mercy, and also because Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world which, we are told (see Rashi on Bereishit 1:1), was created with a balance of midat hadin and midat harachamim. In fact, all this is captured by the sign of the month of Tishrei which is a moznayim – a balancing scale.
Overall, we learn from these stories that we need to get the balance right, and that while we must be gracious and merciful, we must also know when we need to be boundaried, principled and proactive.
Shana Tova & Shabbat Shalom!
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