Of Dress Rehearsals and Rosh Hashanah (Ideas #72)


A New Look at the Expulsion of Yishmael



We rarely think about what it really means to have two days of Rosh Hashanah. When the rabbis extended Rosh Hashanah from one to two days, does that mean that G-d actually judges us on both days?



On a dry technical level, the second day is really a legal addition, originally meant to guard us from missing the real day of Rosh Hashanah. Still, it is hard to imagine that all our prayers on the second day are just a legal convention of acting “as if” Rosh Hashanah was also the second day. 



While perhaps not what the rabbis had in mind, a wonderful insight may be gained by looking to the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Much less famous than the second day reading of the Akeidat Yitzchak which immediately follows it, the first day's reading consists of a series of events, at the center of which is the expulsion of Yitzchak's half brother Yishmael.



At first glance, this reading fails to inspire us in a way commensurate to what may be the most important day of the year. Looking more carefully however, we can see remarkable parallels with the story that we read on the next day: In fact, the core narrative of both stories is almost identical: G-d asks Avraham to get rid of his son,  expecting Avraham to put his own beliefs and preferences aside – which Avraham faithfully does in carrying out this mission.



Indeed, if we see Yishmael's expulsion as a test of faith for Avraham, certain things become much clearer: Short of resorting to midrashic explanations that are most likely allegorical, it is hard to justify Yishmael's expulsion. Indeed, R. Shimon bar Yochai (Tosefta, Sota 6:3) objected to such explanations by pointing out the extreme unlikelihood of serious misbehavior by someone under the direct influence of Avraham, notably one of the most charismatic individuals presented in the Torah. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra goes even further by telling us that Yishmael actually did nothing to deserve being sent away. Thus, we easily understand Avraham's strong disagreement with Sarah's request that he expel Yishmael. Similarly, it is likely that Avraham had every reason to believe that G-d would back him up in his disagreement with Sarah. What is much harder to understand, then, is the fact that G-d sides with Sarah, telling Avraham to listen to her.



If we understand the expulsion of Yishmael as a test of faith however, our search for justification is tempered with the realization that G-d purposefully hid his reasons for this demand.   Indeed, had


G-d explained His reasoning to Avraham, the whole test would have been moot. In other words, even though G-d may have foreseen that Yishmael's expulsion was ultimately in everyone's interest, He wanted Avraham to accept it completely on faith.  As such, this may have been a perfect set-up to prepare Avraham for his final test with Yitzchak: Just as in the later test, here too G-d tells Avraham to act against his sense of Divine justice and love. And as with the binding of Yitzchak, Avraham was tested where he was most vulnerable – the same man who passionately pleaded for strangers in Sodom was told to ignore his powerful trait of loving-kindness when it came to his own son. In heroic fashion, however, Avraham shows his willingness to completely subordinate himself to the will of G-d. For when he hears the decree about Yishmael, as when he hears the decree about Yitzchak, Avraham sacrifices everything. More than getting rid of his sons, he is really being asked to get rid of everything he has become. Along with Yitzchak's body, then, Avraham is asked to place his own entire being on the altar.



If the parallels were not clear enough, Avraham's response in both cases is expressed with the same exact phrase of  Vayashkem Avraham baboker” (Avraham got up early in the morning), a phrase which according to Rashi indicates a person's  eagerness to do something. In other words, in both cases Avraham responds to the chilling test with almost superhuman eagerness to do G-d's bidding.



Now that we have established this pattern, we should inquire about the point of this dress rehearsal with Yishmael. Isn't it enough that G-d tested Avraham with one son? I believe that the answer is that without the dress rehearsal with Yishmael, Avraham would not have been able to pass his all-important test with Yitzchak. Indeed, the rabbis tell us that Avraham actually encountered ten tests. Here too one could ask, “Why so many tests?”  While not all of these tests are clearly elucidated, what is clear is that they seem to get progressively more difficult. It is reasonable that if


G-d wanted Avraham to go through a dress rehearsal with Yishmael before he could pass his epic final test, the only natural way for even this penultimate test to happen would be for G-d to prepare him with graduated tests, each of which would prepare Avraham for the next.



Thus, Avraham's trial with Yishmael is purposefully easier that his ultimate test in a number of ways. Most obvious is that he was not asked to kill Yishmael, only to send him away (even though Yishmael almost dies as a result, were it not for Divine intervention). Secondly, it is clear that for many reasons, Yitzchak was more precious to Avraham than Yishmael. Finally and very significantly, G-d responds to Avraham's feelings for Yishmael and consoles him, telling him that Yishmael will in fact flourish, even after his expulsion.




As with all great human accomplishments, the spiritual renewal of this holiday season cannot happen in a vacuum. If we have failed to properly prepare for Rosh Hashanah until we read about the story of Avraham and Yishmael, it should shake us to our very foundations. We should realize that even Avraham could not have passed his test without serious preparation.



Nonetheless, now that Rosh Hashanah has become two days (or in the language of the sages, “one extended day”), one message of the first day's Torah reading is that there is still time for preparation – that we should at least use the first day as a dress rehearsal for the next. A dress rehearsal is easier than the actual performance, as we may not be ready for complete teshuva on the first day. In other words, we should perhaps only aim at a partial teshuva on the first day and keep on going from there. Will we be ready the second day? Presumably that depends on how much preparation we have done for the dress rehearsal.



As we prepare in Elul to encounter this reading, we need to also remember that Avraham had already gone through eight other tests before he came to this most serious test with Yishmael. Thus, if this reading tells us we have another day to meet this year's ultimate test, neither is it saying we have all the time in the world. Let the rehearsals begin!