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Why are we switching around our Rosh Hashanah Readings this year?

Last week I wrote about Reform Judaism allowing the opportunity to celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah, even when the vast majority of world progressive congregations celebrate only one day of Chag for the pilgrimage festivals. The answer to this week’s question remains very much tied up in the column last week (so please go to our website and read it!) and the evolution of Reform liturgy and holiday practice.

 

Traditionally, the readings for Day 1 and 2 of Rosh Hashanah are the expulsion of Haggar and Ishmael and then the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yiztchach), respectively. Of the two, the one that has proven more central in Judaism over time is the Akeidah, with its themes of obedience and its underlying narrative of our transformation from pagan practices of human sacrifice to a more evolved sacrificial expression (which eventually leads to prayer today in the place of sacrifice.) Haggar/Ishmael, on the other hand, paints an ugly picture of jealousy and even reprehensible behaviour on the part of our ancestors. Quite simply, from a marketing perspective, the Akeidah (as problematic it also is!) turns out to be the “greatest hit” while Ishmael/Haggar doesn’t exactly cause a deep longing or nostalgia within us.

 

As a result, when Reform practice in the 19th century took us to one day of Rosh Hashanah, the more marketable reading was kept as the reading for Rosh Hashanah and hence the Akeidah became “the” Rosh Hashanah Torah portion. Predictably, as Reform communities began re-adding a second day of Rosh Hashanah, the original readings were reversed. As the Akeidat Yiztchach was now after generations seen as the Rosh Hashanah reading, Ishmael/Haggar was added back as the reading for the optional Day 2. Quite simply, if you are going to read only one, then it is the Akeidah, and hence the former reading for Day 1 was relegated in status.

 

Which brings us to today. More and more Reform communities are embracing a second day which gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate the placement of our Torah readings. The greatest argument for retaining the “traditional” Reform order is that more people attend Day 1 and hence the more popular reading should be on that day, that people are not disappointed my missing out on something so intrinsically tied to their memories of and relationship to Rosh Hashanah. My first response (that few will want to hear!) is to come to Day 2. But that is actually not my real answer.

 

First of all, after relegating Ishmael/Haggar to second place, it is time for them to take the spotlight. In the year 5780/2019 the dialogue between Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham’s children, is one of the most current and present underlying themes in the fabric of Jewish society. What is more needed to be at the forefront of our dialogue in this moment, obedience or relationship? Placing Ishmael and Haggar at the forefront may make us uncomfortable, but isn’t that what is expected when we are talking about one of the most resonant conflicts in the world today? If the primary theme of the High Holy Days is teshuvah, then shouldn’t we place front and centre the text that most forces us into the contemplation of how the children of Abraham find a place of peace and reconciliation?

 

Finally, I truly believe that the readings do not stand alone. The Akeidah starts with the statement from the Eternal to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, the son that you love.” This is written in the narrative mere moments after Haggar has been driven away with her 13-year-old son and then promised by the Eternal that they would as well be progenitors of a great nation. How can we read about Isaac as the beloved only son with Ishmael struggling in the desert? The stories cannot be isolated and my sermon for the Akeidah will make no sense unless I have first addressed Ishmael/Haggar.

 

What this really comes down to are the very difficult decisions of setting priorities between comfort/familiarity and impact. Sometimes I will indeed choose comfort, but in the case of the children of Abraham, I believe it is time for us to come face to face more profoundly every year with Ishmael and Haggar.

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