Looking to the future with hope

This Thursday Rosh Hashanah occurs, the first two days of the year according to the Jewish calendar (this year marking the beginning of the new year 5768). The observance celebrates a birthday’the birthday of the world. The creation of the world is a major theme in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah. But the appointed scriptural reading for the day is about another birthday, that of the first Jewish child: Isaac. He was later to become the second of the patriarchs, the successor to Abraham’the founding father of the people of God. The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (Genesis 21) is about the miraculous birth of Isaac, his childhood and the problems which appear as soon as he was weaned in the midst of a ‘great feast’ prepared by his father Abraham. A very unpleasant conflict emerges in the story at this point. It calls for a fateful and hard decision, which throws us into a disturbing moral dilemma. ‘And Sarah saw the son of Hagar (Ishmael), making sport’so she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son’and the thing was very displeasing to Abraham’but God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the lad’ whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.’ A strange confrontation: Sarah and God on the one side, Abraham representing the other. The fact that the Bible quotes God saying to Abraham ‘all that Sarah tells you’listen to her’ rules out any probability that Sarah was to be portrayed as the villain in the story. She was right in her judgment, which led her to what was most likely an unpopular decision. What was this ‘making sport’ that Sarah noticed that prompted her to adopt the severe measure of expulsion for the ‘son of the bond woman’ It was surely not provoked by Ishmael’s enthusiasm for games. Some English translations suggest the term ‘teasing’ or ‘mocking’ (instead of ‘making sport’) for the Hebrew word ‘mezahek.’ These terms do not, however, help us much in understanding Sarah’s uncompromising rage. What is clear is the fact that Ishmael acted in a way that convinced Sarah’the mother of God’s children’that the only way to save her child was to drive the other one away. Sarah, who unlike the father, was close at hand to watch both children during their early education, realized that they were not merely playing but were essentially and diametrically opposed to each other and could never be reconciled. Two brothers fighting over primacy or territory could find accommodation, but not such opposing world views and contradictory systems. The contradiction between the two is alluded to in the different conjugation of the verb ‘zhak.’ One boy is called Yitzhak, meaning (in the future tense), ‘He will laugh,’ he will work for a world where there will be laughing children and the elderly will be tranquil. The child believes in a future and is ready to work for it. The other, in contrast, is Mezahek, (in the present tense). Mezahek does not connote laughter, which springs out of joy and satisfaction. It does not indicate laughing with, but rather laughing at. For this reason there is no future to look forward to. When told to labor and suffer now for a better tomorrow, he would respond with a cynical sneer. Yitzhak and Mezahek are thus worlds apart. The cynic is a person who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we shall die. There is nothing to hope for. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which is the last day of this ten-day observance, represents a moment of truth, when one looks into themselves and reviews their past actions. Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, represents a moment of hope, the opening of a new page with the hope that many more days of blessing will follow. Our forefathers, the people of Israel, represented this hope with the name, ‘Yitzhak’, meaning future hope, given to the first child to become one of the fathers of the people of God. As long as there is a people who consider themselves inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition, our hope is not lost.

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