Abraham endured ten trials of his faith, according to Jewish tradition, and the last two involve Abraham’s two sons: he must cast Ishmael out of the camp, and offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. We read about both these trials on Rosh Hashanah; Ishmael on the first day and Isaac on the second. The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture, but we tend to overlook the sending away of Ishmael, even though it reflects one of the great themes of the High Holy Days.
The story opens with the birth and naming of Isaac, Yitzchak, whose name reflects the Hebrew root word for “laugh.” Sarah, who had laughed at the very idea of bearing a child as an old lady, now says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with [or at] me” (Gen. 21:7). Later she sees Ishmael laughing with, or at, Isaac, and demands that he be sent away with his mother, Hagar. Abraham is distressed, but Hashem tells him to do what Sarah says and reassures him that Ishmael, like Isaac, will become a great nation. Then, in words that will be repeated verbatim in the Akedah, the text says, “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 21:14) to do God’s will. As in the Akedah he gathers up provisions, and then he lays them on Hagar’s shoulder, just as he will lay the firewood on Isaac’s shoulder, and sends them both off.