Rosh Hashanah Morning – 5778

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778

September 21, 2017


At New York’s Frick Museum this summer there was a small Rembrandt exhibit.  The exhibit featured a single small oil painting and several sketches illustrating various stories about Abraham. The two Torah portions about Abraham that are traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah figured prominently in the exhibit:  The story of Abraham banishing Hagar and Ishmael that we heard this morning, and The Akedah, The Binding of Isaac, that we have read most often over the years.  In addition, the exhibit featured the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the messengers or angels who came to tell them that they would have a son, Isaac.  

This Rosh Hashanah morning, I want to focus on the troubled relationships in this complicated family constellation. These stories will serve as a mirror to help us look critically at our roles within our own families.   

Scenes from Abraham, Sarah and Hagar’s story and the characters in them, as Rembrandt imagined them, are found in the sketches you have before you.  These sketches serve as a kind of midrash on the biblical text.  We will use them to consider what they can teach us about family relationships and how we might set goals to improve our own in the coming year.   The Rembrandt drawings can help us to reflect upon how we can be leaders in our families and thereby influence the constellation of relationships toward a hayim tovim, a good life.  

To begin, let’s go back a bit to review the family history behind the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael:  Abraham and Sarah were barren, and, in her frustration over not conceiving, Sarah gave her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham so that Abraham’s lineage would not be lost.  This was common practice in ancient Israel, and we see this situation repeated in the Jacob stories as well.  In a sense, the child born of such a union becomes just as much the matriarch’s child as the handmaiden’s.

Hagar conceives, and then proceeds to show disrespect to Sarah, so Sarah treats Hagar harshly in return.  Hagar runs away, but God convinces her to go back and submit to Sarah’s abuse.  She returns, and Ishmael is born. Soon after this, Sarah and Abraham are promised that they, too, will have a son and that both Isaac and Ishmael will be the progenitors of great nations.  When Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.  Isaac’s birth sets up a difficult family dynamic–to put it mildly.  Ishmael teases and taunts Isaac.  Sarah no longer needs or wants Hagar and Ishmael around, and she asks Abraham to banish them.  With God’s consent, Abraham reluctantly complies.

Here, I just want to stop and share an interesting aside about the world in which Rembrandt lived.  Rembrandt lived among Jews and had every day relationships with them in 17th century Amsterdam. He painted portraits of some of his Jewish neighbors or used them as models for his art, especially his biblical art.  (Steven Nadler, Rembrandt’s Jews, 2004)  

The Dutch Reformed Church, influenced heavily by theologian John Calvin, held sway in the Netherlands at the time. The Calvinists had an allegorical interpretation of this story. According to Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, co-curator of the Frick exhibit, to the Calvinists, Hagar and Ishmael represented Judaism that had been superseded by Christianity and, therefore, ought to be banished.  Against this backdrop, it is interesting that Rembrandt chose to depict this story not as a theological allegory of the Calvinist world that he belonged to, as most of his artist contemporaries did.  Instead he drew a very human family.  Hagar and Ishmael are portrayed sympathetically; and Sarah not so much, so it also reverses the Calvinist view of the characters.   (Divine Encounters, Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, 2017, p. 20)

So, what do these sketches show us about families and the problems we unwittingly create in an effort to find Hayim Tovim, a good life, in our most cherished relationships?

Let us begin with drawing #1, depicting Abraham with some guests sitting at a table.   Interestingly, Abraham is not the central figure at the table, but the lowly, bent over figure holding the pitcher, serving his guests.  This is a rendition of Gen 18 where Abraham shows hospitality to three wayfaring strangers.  If you look carefully, you will note that at least one of his guests has wings.  The Torah tells us that these figures were messengers of God, or angels.  In Hebrew, the word mal-ach means both messenger and angel.  The central figure at the table is God, announcing that Sarah will conceive and bear a child.  Look above the seated figures in the center of the drawing, and you will see a child with bow and arrow.  This is Ishmael.  And Sarah is in the background, listening in the doorway.  

What potential family issues are portrayed in this first image?  There could be several, but I want to suggest just one:  The portrayal of Ishmael as a rather undomesticated figure who only wants to hunt and who is oblivious to standards of hospitality when distinguished guests arrived.  In fact, he turns his back to these Divine visitors. This portrayal of Ishmael reflects the Torah’s unflattering description at his conception that he will grow up to be “a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone….”  (Gen. 16:12)  

How often do family members speak of a child’s entire future based on his or her childhood traits and interests?  Parents or grandparents, even siblings, will sometimes attach a label or in our day, a diagnosis, to a child at a young age, and this label sticks with them throughout their lives, for better or for worse, even once they have grown and changed in manifold ways.  

Rembrandt portrays this attitude, which is actually quite typical in Torah narratives, very well.   Having a definition hung on you at a young age is often detrimental to personal growth and to family health and happiness.  We see this repeated over and over in Torah stories as a self fulfilling prophecy where the designated “problem child” indeed causes problems for the entire family, even to the next generation.  This is definitely true of Ishmael who actually is treated not only as Isaac’s nemesis throughout his life, but as the progenitor of an entire enemy nation.

Is there some way that Abraham or Sarah could have taken the lead in the family to mitigate this situation either at this early stage or at some later point in the family’s life?  One wonders if it would have changed the dynamic if one of the parents, or both, could have chosen to see Ishmael not as a problem child, but as a self-differentiated child, who had a natural ability to be true to his own inner needs and identity and not allow family expectations to define him.  They could have spoken of his unique choices and style in a positive way instead criticizing him for not fitting into the accepted and expected family model.  Instead of being troubled by his eccentricities, they could have embraced them and perhaps kept him in the family fold.   

Drawing #2 depicts Abraham banishing Hagar and Ishmael and looking quite hopeless and sad about it. Hagar is anguished. Though, again, we cannot see Ishmael’s face, he appears to be resolute, looking out toward his destiny.  (Seidenstein, p. 23)  Sarah, meanwhile, stands in the window gloating, and Isaac’s little face, hidden in the shadow of the archway near the crack, is pretty satisfied as well. He appears to be rubbing his hands in glee.

What potential family issues rise to the fore in this drawing?   The lines of division and resentment have been cast:  Sarah is pitted against Hagar; Isaac against Ishmael, and Abraham is caught in the middle of all of this, his arms outstretched in a kind of “what can I do?” shrug.  And that matches the look on his face. His feet are straddling the two worlds between which he has to choose. He is hopelessly entangled in several relational triangles.  Rembrandt seems to have been ahead of his time in understanding the concept of family triangles, which modern psychology often points to as the source of generational family strife.  

The biblical text makes it very clear that Abraham is troubled at this juncture, in contrast to the Akedah story, where he seems totally on board with God asking him to sacrifice his son.  But here, the separation of father and son is explained as the outcome of family strife.  And “God must mediate between failed relationships.” (David Fine, p. 115 ff in RH Readings) Indeed, according to the Torah, Abraham basically sent Hagar and Ishmael to their deaths, and, had it not been for God’s intervention, neither would have survived.  

But there is another way to look at Abraham’s actions.  What if Abraham became helpless on purpose?  In other words, what if he consciously chose to not go after Hagar and Ishmael, not to bring them more supplies or set them up in an encampment where they could survive.  Some might interpret Abraham’s behavior as sending them to their deaths.  But what he actually did was save their lives by handing the anxiety to them and causing them to realize that they had the ability to solve their own problems and not be so dependent on him.  

Maybe that is what Rembrandt was trying to portray in Abraham’s expression:  “Really, I wish I could do more for you, but I can’t.  You are going to have to figure it out yourselves.”  Abraham may have been over-functioning in his family up to this point, taking care of everyone and everything so well that other family members had become helpless.   Finally, he realized that for his family to achieve hayim tovim, a good life, he had to become less helpful.  

The denouement of this story, shows that Abraham was exactly right in taking that approach:  In fact, Ishmael already seems ready to take on more responsibility in Rembrandt’s depiction, but the Torah goes on to tell us that Ishmael saves himself and his mother, who has given him up for dead, by crying out in the wilderness to God, who answers by showing them a well. (Gen 21: 17-19)

The final Rembrandt illustration that you have before you is not connected to any particular text in the Torah, but rather a peek into Rembrandt’s imagination of a poignant moment between Abraham and Isaac.  We don’t actually know when this moment takes place. Isaac seems too old to have been just weaned, which implies that this happened well after the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. This sketch captures so beautifully life before tragedy strikes.  We don’t know how much time is left, but we do know what comes next: These two walking up Mt. Moriah with the full expectation that

Abraham will sacrifice Isaac.  

As in the previous illustrations, what is so remarkable about Rembrandt’s work is the emotion he is able to convey in his subjects. Here we have a totally delighted Isaac, to have this time alone with his father.  And we have Abraham staring off into the future, as if he knows, and don’t all parents know, that this moment will not last forever.  

In his novel Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer,  the author does a great deal of reflecting on parenting.  A theme he repeats is that you never know when it is the last time you do something with a child:  “No mother knows she is hearing the word Mama for the last time. No father knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story he will read.” (p. 93) Yes, on some level we all know that tragedy can strike, as was true for this biblical family.  But for most of us, while we can foresee maturity and separation from our children, we never do know when our child will outgrow those sweet moments of closeness like the one shown here between Abraham and Isaac.  And so we make a promise to ourselves:  To enjoy each moment while we can; while there is still time.  Cultivating a culture of cherishing such moments is another way to lead a family to hayim tovim, a good life.

As author Deborah Lipstadt wrote:  “When God rescues Hagar, the text says that ‘God opened Hagar’s eyes.’  So too may our eyes be opened so that we can see what we must do to make our lives a blessing for ourselves and others.”   (Deborah Lipstadt, p. 114 in RH Readings, Elkins.) During this season of repentance, there is a paragraph added to the Birkat Shalom, the prayer for peace.  In this liturgical addition, we ask God to write us in the book of life, blessing, peace, and sustenance –l’hayim tovim ul’shalom, for good life and for peace.  

For ourselves and our loved ones, let us open our eyes and find hayim tovim in the year to come.