- There are many paths through the Days of Awe. In the first verse of this reading, we see Sarah providing the ultimate example of being held to account. In the first verse of this reading. Hashem pakads Sarah. This is often translated as ‘remembered,’ but it is closer to being selected or accounted for. Sarah was so great that when special attention was paid to her, it resulted in a positive miracle rather than a danger. This is the highest level we can achieve during Rosh Hashana – to be blessed because we deserve it.
- I’ve always had a hard time understanding this laughter – until this year. I heard a beautiful and funny story on the Moth podcast. The storyteller was explaining that her mother had died and she was adrift and got into writing fiction. She published over 10 books and is rather well known for her mystery series. After recounting this, she mentions that she wrote her first book when she was 80. The audience laughed, I laughed. And then she said, in a deadpan, “There’s hope for you all.” I think this is the lesson of those who laugh at Yitzchak’s birth. Through Hashem, there’s hope for us all.
- At the end of the second reading, we see Ishmael is fated to survive. But then Hashem hears his cry and rescues him from death. If he was promised life, why would the cry matter? This matters to the Jewish people – we’ve been promised life. But we are remembered when we cry. We see this first in Egypt. This cry is not a normal cry or a whine. It is a cry that says “we can go on no longer.” In Egypt the risk was that the Jewish people would stop having children – here it is that Yishmael will die from lack of water. We don’t want to fall so far that our rescue must come by way of this sort of cry. It is far better to return to Hashem and be pakad long before we give the cry of total desperation.
- One might ask why we should have this last bit about Abimelech tacked on to the reading. In fact, the Yitzchak and Yishmael story is stuck in the middle of the greater Abimelech interaction. Abimelech has a lesson for us. Initially, he makes amends to Avraham for his initial sin. But here, he recognizes that it isn’t about him – it is about future generations. We should approach Hashem the same way – we should repair the short-term. Ultimately, though, teshuva is about our children and grandchildren.
- This final reading is loaded with significance. There is a brit (covenant), eidah (witnesses) and sheva (oath) between Abimelech and Avraham concerning wells. The Jewish people have a brit with Hashem, as last week’s parsha discussed we have witnesses to that brit. But in the meantime we have a year-to-year and far more mundane relationship with Hashem. The sheva is about these – sheva is the basic unit of Jewish time (a week). On Rosh Hashana we are part of the long-term brit – but we also must remember to establish the foundation for our year-to-year relationship to Hashem.
Rosh Hashana kicks off with the concept of Kingship. This is not power (Saddam had power, Elizabeth doesn’t, but the 2nd is a monarch). I didn’t understand kingship until my wedding. I was king for a day. What did it mean? It meant it was better for me to ask somebody else to get my jacket than to get it myself. It was ajoy for them to do it. A King is one who it is a joy to serve. In making Hashem King, we must serve serve with joy. Otherwise he is simply a tyrant. We can see what occurs in the progression of musaf – from Kingship to Rememberance to the Shofar’s revelation. Perhaps this is why the Torah reading starts with the birth of a boy whose very name means mirth.