The Triumph of Mercy and Reason

During the High Holiday season, we are filled with an awesome sense of responsibility toward HaShem and toward our fellow human beings in general, and toward fellow Jews in particular. It is a time of righting wrongs, seeking forgiveness, and extending forgiveness to others. The Yamim Noraim are a special time for introspection and reexamination of our motives, goals, and agendas for our lives.
Everyone can benefit from an annual pause during which we take a fresh look at the things that really matter most in our lives and have enduring value. We should not rush headlong through life without regularly asking ourselves whether we are treating others as we would have them treat us. When everything is said and done, it is really about the positive difference that we can make in the lives of our immediate family, friends, and our extended family around the world.
Yom Teruah is an annual two-day festival, a kind of yoma arichta, during which we hear the sounding of the shofar. The ram’s horn, among other purposes, was used in ancient times to call people to action. Today the shofar calls us to teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, as we revere HaShem and extend lovingkindness to our fellow human beings.
Genesis 21 is the primary Torah portion for the first day and Genesis 22 is read on the second day. The two chapters are especially interesting in that they both involve the intervention of an angel to save a son of Abraham. The first occurrence involves Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn by his wife’s handmaid, and the second intervention involves his son, Isaac. The richness of the narrative goes beyond the domestic to touch on universal and timeless themes.
In response to Ishmael’s apparent lack of reverence during the feast celebrating the weaning of Isaac, Sarah seemingly overreacts and demands that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household. Abraham is grieved because of the possibility of losing his son. Elohim hints in Genesis 21:12 that Abraham has lingering feelings for Hagar when He tells him not to grieve because of Ishmael or Hagar. (אַל-יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל-הַנַּעַר וְעַל-אֲמָתֶךָ) Elohim also tells Abraham to do as Sarah has suggested.
Sarah must have been watching Abraham’s behavior closely and he, fearing further wrath from Sarah, seemingly was careful not to demonstrate any intimate emotions toward Hagar. He just put a bottle of water on Hagar’s shoulder, gave them some bread, and sent them into the wilderness. The way that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael alone into the wilderness was a death sentence, owing to the harsh conditions of the area. An angel’s appearance to save Ishmael and Hagar’s lives, in spite of Sarah and Abraham, was a triumph for mercy and reason.
Genesis 22:2 states that Elohim tried Abraham by telling him to engage in human sacrifice by slaying his son Isaac to prove his willingness to obey any divine commandment, regardless of the emotional pain or even if the act involved great cruelty. (קַח אֶת-יִצְחָק וְהַעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה) So Abraham took Isaac on a three-day journey away from home and of course didn’t tell his son about his intentions. Just as Abraham prepared the altar, firewood, and raised the knife to sacrifice his son, an angel again appeared and saved Isaac at the last moment. It was again a victory for mercy and reason.
The lesson for us should be obvious. Isaac's son, Jacob, would have never been born if the angel had not stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. In Genesis 32:11, Jacob recognized the divine gifts of truth and mercy. (קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת) We should also recognize the importance of reason, truth, and mercy in judging everyone’s behavior, whether prophet, priest, or king. The Haftarah for Devarim includes Isaiah 1:18, in which Hashem told us to reason with Him. (לְכוּ-נָא וְנִוָּכְחָה, יֹאמַר יְהוָה)
When Abraham thought that Elohim wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, he could have reasoned with God as he had done on behalf of Sodom in Genesis 18:23. (הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע)) Abraham went to great lengths to reason with God on behalf of Sodom, but he could not raise even one objection for his own son? Abraham obviously was intent on proving to Elohim that he was willing to do anything for Him even if it meant violating the standard of mercy.
Abraham could have provided Hagar and Ishmael an escort to make sure that they arrived safely at their destination. He could have taken other special precautions to guarantee their safety or help them on their way. His fear of his wife’s anger caused him to be reckless with their safety. Fortunately, God cared for them. According to Genesis 21:18-20, God was with Ishmael and promised to make him a great nation. (וַיְהִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הַנַּעַר)
Several times during my 30 years of regularly attending shul, I was able to serve as the reader of the Haftarah on Shabbat HaGadol, which included Malachi 3:6. It states that HaShem does not change. (כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה לֹא שָׁנִיתִי) He is not a dispensational God. He does not learn as He goes along. It doesn’t take him thousands of years to finally get it right. We may evolve in our understanding, but Hashem, by definition, knows the end from the beginning. If it is immoral to engage in human sacrifice today, then it would have been cruel and unacceptable for Abraham to have done it 4,000 years ago.
Elohim does not instruct people to do cruel things to others. No one is above being judged by reason, truth, and mercy – not even writers of ancient religious texts. Biblical stories can always serve as inspiration, even when they serve as bad examples. Biblical characters often were champions of truth and mercy and at other times failed in that they got caught up in the irrationality of the moment and committed cruel acts without HaShem’s real guidance. When people claim to do cruel things in God’s name, they are not acting on God’s behalf.
Self-defense and defense of others are acceptable, but we should never initiate violence toward other human beings. The two interventions by the angel to save a life represent the triumph of mercy and reason over cruelty and blind faith. When will the human race finally understand that HaShem primarily is expressed through mercy and truth? Verifiable truth and mercy are the standards by which all things and everybody are judged. We should tell those who say and do otherwise, "Stop the madness!"
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
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