The Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, is one of the highlights of our observance of Rosh Hashanah. It’s such a rich and compelling story, in fact, that we often forget that it’s preceded by the parallel story of the sending away of Ishmael in Genesis 21. The sages portray the binding of Isaac as the culmination of ten trials that Abraham must endure, and sending away Ishmael is the ninth. Like the Akeidah, this tale bears many lessons for us today, as we seek to serve the God of our ancestor Abraham.
A few years after Isaac’s birth, Sarah sees his half-brother Ishmael, son of the slave-girl Hagar, mocking or making fun or laughing at him—ironically the verb has the same Hebrew root as Isaac’s name, which means “he laughs.” Whatever Ishmael is doing, Sarah is outraged and demands, “Throw this slave-girl out! And her son! I will not have this slave-girl’s son as your heir along with my son Yitz’chak!” Abraham is distressed, and only agrees to Sarah’s demand after God tells him to, reassuring him that, “I will also make a nation from the son of the slave-girl, since he is descended from you” (Gen. 21:9–13, CJB).
There’s so much going on in this story that we might miss something really puzzling in the next verse: “Avraham got up early in the morning [exactly as he’ll do in the next chapter, when he sets out to offer up Isaac], took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child; then he sent her away.” This is Abraham the model of hospitality, who slaughtered a fat calf to feed three strangers who showed up at his door not long before (Gen. 18). This is Abraham who had said to God, “O that Ishmael might live before you!” (Gen. 17:18). And now he’s going to send Ishmael and his mother off into the wilderness with nothing more than some bread and a single water-skin?
Some commentators explain that Abraham must have assumed that Hagar would head back to Egypt, her homeland, and the well-supplied highway to Egypt wasn’t far off. But I see something else going on here—the set-up for a spiritual lesson that we can’t do without.
It turns out that Hagar doesn’t head toward Egypt but wanders into the wilderness. Soon enough she runs out of water, and begins to fill up with despair. She leaves Ishmael under a bush, goes off some distance so that she won’t have to watch him die, and “So she sat there, looking the other way, crying out and weeping” (21:14–16).
As Hagar’s story unfolds, it provides us with a picture of teshuvah, repentance, one of the main themes of the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
Like a lost soul, Hagar drifts off course, and only realizes it when she runs out of her man-made supply of water. Only then does she cry out. When she does, God hears, not her voice, but what’s even sweeter to a mother, the voice of her son. God reassures her with the same promise he’d given to Abraham, “‘I am going to make him [Ishmael] a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. So she went, filled the skin with water and gave the boy water to drink” (Gen. 21:18–19). We don’t know whether the well had been there all along, or was created just to meet Hagar’s need—but it was God who opened her eyes either way. Like a repentant soul, Hagar can only receive God’s abundant supply when she runs out of her own. She can only see God’s provision after her pathetic, man-made supply runs out, after her water-skin goes empty.
This isn’t the whole picture of teshuvah, but it’s the essential first step, the hinge on which the whole drama of repentance turns. We have to come to the end of ourselves before we can lay hold of what God supplies.
The first step of teshuvah, then, is “recognition”, the realization of how lost we are. It’s like the first of the 12 Steps of the recovery movement: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or drugs, gambling, pornography, sin itself)—that our lives had become unmanageable.” The great prophecy of teshuvah in Deuteronomy 30 speaks of this recognition as a turning of the heart: “And it shall come to pass when all these things come upon you, both the blessing and the curse which I have set before you; and you turn your heart . . . and return to the Lord and heed his voice . . .” It’s what happened to the prodigal in Messiah’s story when he caught himself envying the pigs’ food, and “came to his senses” at last, and set out to return to his father (Luke 15:16–20).
Our problem as human beings, made more acute by the high-tech, comfortable world in which most of us live, is that it’s easy to ignore the limitations of our own supply. We try to find comfort by surrounding ourselves with enough stuff that we can forget it’s all going to run out someday.
The prayers of Rosh Hashanah confront us with the emptiness of our water-skins.
They’re designed to open our eyes both to our own great limitations and, since we’re always inclined to deny those limitations, to the contrasting supremacy of God. The answer to human emptiness and need is simply God the Eternal King. In the famous prayer Un’taneh Tokef, the congregation recites:
Man is founded in dust / and ends in dust.
He lays down his soul to bring home bread. / He is like a broken shard,
like grass dried up, like a faded flower,
like a fleeting shadow, like a passing cloud,
like a breath of wind, like whirling dust, like a dream that slips away.
AND YOU ARE KING –
THE LIVING, EVERLASTING GOD. (Koren Siddur)
This is hardly the stuff of pop religion in the 21st century, but it is unavoidable truth. We’re not likely to give up on our own sources until they run out. But when we finally abandon our own water-skins, we discover the living waters foretold by the prophets and promised to us in Messiah Yeshua, the well in the wilderness provided by Hashem.