At dinner Thursday night we were batting around the question of why certain stories were chosen as Torah readings for Rosh Hashonah (First day we read about the exile of Hagar and Ishmael in Gen. 21, and second day we read the Akiedah, the story of the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22), and I made a connection that’s kinda interesting. This is not a fully fleshed-out d’var, I might note, just a few thoughts that seemed worth jotting down.

On Yom Kippur we read about how the High Priest selects lots to determine the fates of two goats. One is marked for “the LORD” and is slaughtered as a sacrifice (sin-offering, literally) and the other is designated “for Azazel” and is driven out into the wilderness. I realized Thursday that in fact, Rosh Hashonah tells the story of one child that is offered as sacrifice to God (Isaac) and one child who is driven out into the wilderness (Ishmael).

Right? You with me so far? Okay. So the purpose of the goat-sacrifice is to help cleanse the Tent of Meeting (and later the Temple), the Holy of Holies and the altar itself of ritual impurity (tumah). (See Lev. 16:15-19) The sacrifice helps purify a place. The goat for Azazel, on the other hand, is meant to help carry away the sins of the people (Lev 16:20-22). Aaron confesses them over the goat, thus “putting them on the head of the goat,” and the goat carries them away into the great wilderness beyond.

Now, the Akeidah–the binding of Isaac–happened on Mount Moriah. That is, according to Jewish tradition, the exact same spot on which the Temple was eventually built. So somehow, the profound individual/spiritual exchange between Abraham and God, perplexing and complex as the Akeidah is (there are numerous understandings and explanations of what the Akeidah is “about”, too many to address here), somehow served to prepare/clean/enact the holiness of space that was crucial for the erection of the Temple. “Take your son… to one of the heights that I will point out to you,” God says to Abraham. The location is not accidental.

Ishmael, like the goat of Azazel, on the other hand, is sent out to “the wilderness” (hamidbara, bimidbar, bamidbar). An unspecified, unnamed location. The location doesn’t matter. He, like Isaac, is told that he will be made into a great nation. As with the second goat, he also serves an important role in the Divine plan, even if it seems as though he’s merely being shunted away. If the parallel holds, though, the question remains: whose sins is Ishmael atoning? One obvious answer is, of course, Sarah, who kicks the child out to keep him from inheriting alongside her own son. But if he’s carrying the weight of the sins of a whole people, perhaps it would worthwhile to look to Abraham, as well. And, in fact, the chapter right before the one in which this appears is the second time–not even the first–that we see Abraham giving another man permission to sleep with his wife. In both Gen. 12 and 20, he tells powerful kings in two different lands that she is (only) his sister in order, ostensibly, to save his own hide. It’s worth noting here that there are 3 major categories of transgression that Jewish tradition suggests one ought die rather than commit, and doing sexual “don’t” is one of them. In fact, some commentators take great lengths to try to establish that Abimelech could not possibly be the father of Isaac, which would technically make him a mamzer, or bastard, a state which is passed on for many generations. The gravity of Abraham’s mistake has enduring consequences vis a vis Abraham’s sons. Perhaps one was sacrificed/sent away to somehow help preserve the other?

In any case, here we learn that through the sons of Abraham, the readings for Rosh Hashonah help effect a sort of atonement/cleansing on a smaller, more individual level, paving the way for the more established, communal atonement that takes place on Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashonah it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. What it is that we’re working towards this week has already been set in motion, has already been in motion for days or thousands of years, depending on how you slice it.

I’m sure I could push this further, but quite frankly right now I have a headache and need to go to bed. So perhaps I open the floor to others’ thoughts and drashot on the subject.

G’mar tov, one and all.

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