The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is a special one for Rosh HaShanah and is found in Genesis 21:1-34. In this parasha, God blesses Sarah even though she and Abraham are past child-bearing age and she gives birth to Isaac. When he was weaned, Sarah asked Abraham to send Hagar, the slave-woman and her son, Ishmael, away so that Ishmael would not share in Abraham’s inheritance. God promises to take care of Hagar and Ishmael, so Abraham sends bread and water with Hagar and sends her and the child on their way. Hagar runs out of water and despairs, but God provides a well for both the boy and Hagar to drink. Sometime afterward, God tests Abraham by asking him to take his son Isaac up to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him up as a sacrifice. Abraham follows God’s injunction and prepares to sacrifice his son, but an angel of the Lord stops Abraham and says that he has proven his loyalty to God. Abraham sees a ram and then sacrifices the ram instead. God reminds him that he will bless Abraham and that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves because of his descendants.
This parasha is a challenging one to contemplate. Abraham is faced with two difficult choices. The first causes him to nearly lose a son by abandonment. The second, to nearly lose a son by sacrifice. God spares both sons and makes them great. We certainly can debate many of the details and motives in these stories; however, in our daily lives and in our society, we encounter situations that require us to make decisions about what is just, what is merciful, and how to balance the two. The challenge is often difficult and there are no easy answers. The passage does not provide a solution to help us make those decisions. What it does do, is point us to the value in continuing to stay sensitive to issues of justice and mercy and to persevere to keep these balanced. As we approach the High Holy Days, may we use the time to reflect on the choices we have made this year, and what areas of our lives we would like to make better choices in. Let us also remember to be as forgiving of others and their choices as we expect God to be forgiving of us.