Of all the stories available in the Torah that the sages of old could have chosen to read on Rosh Hashanah, the last one would have been the two chapters that they chose – the exile of Ishmael and Hagar, and the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis chapters 21 and 22). It is impossible to understand the binding of Isaac without understanding the previous narrative concerning Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. The former could be seen as leading to the latter. There are striking parallels, as well as significant differences between the two. The first difference, perhaps among the most important, is the force that moves the story forward.
“Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. She said to Abraham: ‘Cast out this maidservant and her son; for the son of this maidservant shall not be heir with my son, Isaac.’ The thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. But God said to Abraham: “Let it not grieve you, because of the youth, or because of your maidservant; everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you. As for the maidservant’s son, I will also make a nation, because he is your seed” (Genesis 21:9).
Sarah feels frustrated and she lets it out on Hagar, whom she refers to as a maidservant. This contradicts a rabbinic tradition where Hagar is in fact a princess – the daughter of Pharaoh no less! – who came to Abraham as part of a package deal that Pharaoh presented to Abraham after having attempted to sleep with Sarah. Along with sheep and cattle, Pharaoh gave him his daughter. Hagar’s change of status from princess to servant must have had an impact on her, making her feel deeply offended, but she says nothing. God, in fact, repeats the definition of “maidservant” when talking to Abraham. After all, if He told Abraham to listen to Sarah, He could do no less!