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Torah Reading - First Day of Rosh Hashana, Genesis 21

The Expulsion of Hagar from Abraham’s House

Before we can begin to understand the Torah reading for today, we need to know that God tested Abraham 10 times. Like a Disney movie, today’s story begins auspiciously. Sarah, at age 90, bears a long-awaited child to Abraham, age 100! Abraham and Sarah celebrate the birth of Isaac (Yitzhak/יצחק) by circumcising him at eight days in fulfillment of God’s command, laughing (צחק) at the miracle of his birth at their old age (21:6, “all who hear of this will laugh at me”) and holding a great feast on the day he was weaned but things take an ominous turn when Sarah sees “the son (Yishmael, now 13 years old) that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, playing (מצחק)” (21:9). Sarah demands, “Throw this handmaiden and her son out. The son of this handmaid is not going to share in the inheritance with my son Isaac!” (21:10). What caused such a strong reaction?

Rashi and other sages draw from a variety of midrashim and translate the Hebrew word m’tzacheik (מצחק) as “playing” or “making fun of” or “mocking”. The rabbis say that Yismael (now age 15-17) worshiped idols, conducted himself immorally and even shot arrows “playfully” at Isaac/Yitzhak.  


While Abraham had “passed” eight previous tests of God, this test was the most difficult test (but wait until we get to number 10!). Abraham, who was known for his compassion and kindness, now had to expel his 2nd wife and his first-born son from his home. While this matter was very displeasing to Abraham (21:11), God, at night, appears to Abraham and tells him (21:12), “listen to the voice of your wife, Sarah”.


Walking away from her home with Yismael, Hagar loses her way and runs out of food and water. A midrash tells us that Yismael and his mother turn to God in prayer (21:16 – “she raised her voice and wept”). God provides the mother and son with water from a well that, until God opened Hagar’s eyes, she did not see. They are saved.


How could this be? A well in the desert and it goes unnoticed by Hagar! We are taught that even when our eyes may be open, we are blind. Even though the well had been near Hagar all the time, she only saw it when the angel called to her and opened eyes (21:19)


The story of Ishmael and Hagar offers a lesson about caring for others. The Torah tells us 36 times – indeed, the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah - that we are to care for the homeless, the orphan and the widow. Despite their central roles in the story, Rabbi Bruce Kadden, in his teaching of this chapter, cites that the name of Hagar is mentioned just once and Yismael is referred to only as “the boy” or “the teen” rather than by his name. For most of us, he adds, a homeless individual remains a nameless and anonymous individual even if we give them a coin as we pass by.


As we welcome the Hebrew year of 5781, Genesis 21 teaches us to open our eyes to those who are in need.

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