By Rebbetzen Lauren Levin, South Hampstead United Synagogue
Various suggestions are offered in the Talmud (Megilla 31a) as to which Torah passage we should read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We follow the custom of reading about Yitzchak’s birth, although no reason is given for this in the Talmud. Rashi (1040-1105) explains that the topic is chosen because God ‘remembered’ Sarah, Rachel and Chana on Rosh Hashanah and they all conceived at this time (see Talmud Rosh Hashanah 11a). It is logical to read the story of the birth of Sarah’s child for the Torah reading and match it with that of Chana in the haftarah.
However, this only explains the beginning of the reading. After the birth of Yitzchak, we continue to read of his older, wilder brother Yishmael’s fate and Avraham’s treaty with the neighbouring leader Avimelech. Why are these additional two stories relevant?
Reading about Yishmael being banished and his near death raises a difficult question. Perhaps the Yishmael story comes as an epilogue to Yitzchak’s birth. The miraculous nature of Yitzchak’s conception and birth seems to be a happy ending to the Avraham and Sarah story. However, there was significant ‘fall-out’ from this. By moving straight on from the euphoria to the more thorny issues at home with Yishmael, we are made cognisant that Sarah and Yitzchak were not in a vacuum. Their new destiny had to fit back into the bigger family picture.
The next story is about the treaty made between Avraham and Avimelech. When Avraham first encountered Avimelech he did not reveal that Sarah was actually his wife, out of fear that Avimelech would kill him and abduct her (Bereisihit 20:1-16). Avraham tried to remain insular and keep himself to himself. Yet Sarah was nevertheless taken away. Perhaps Avraham reflected that looking inwards was not the best approach. The way he conducted himself in this new encounter with Avimelech shows a dramatic change. Avraham proactively approached Avimelech and the section ends by describing Avraham “calling out to God” in the Land. Avraham can now share his love of God with the world.
As such, these three stories form concentric circles. The protagonists (Sarah and Yitzchak) and their dreams are in the middle, with Yishmael representing other family members around them, and Avimelech representing the wider society around that.
The Talmudic Sages’ choice of this narrative for Rosh Hashanah focuses our perspective as we enter the New Year. The intense introspection of the High Holydays is unique to every individual. We all have our dreams, ambitions, fears and challenges. These are the key to forming our vision for the coming year, but they alone are insufficient. The Yishmael narrative reminds us to align our own individual introspection alongside the broader framework of our family, friends and community. The Avimelech narrative reminds us that our visual field must go still beyond this, aiming to share and synchronise our talents and passions with the world at large.