From Heart of Jerusalem

Yitzchak & Yishmael: Living now for tomorrow


Every year on Rosh Hashana, we read of the expulsion of Yishmael (Avraham’s first son with his handmaiden Hagar), and the binding of Yitzchak. Both are stories of the sons of Avraham, and both involved Abraham’s ability to be willing to sacrifice — or let go of —a son.

These stories are very different. In that of Yishmael, Avraham sends his son away, whereas in the story of Yitzchak, they come together.

From a Jewish perspective, Yishmael seems to be a failure, ultimately departing from Jewish tradition and establishing the Arab dynasty. Yitzchak on the other hand, is one of our forefathers, and the ultimate progenitor of the Jewish people. Why do these two vastly disparate stories comprise the Torah readings in our Rosh Hashana service, and what common theme is the message of their connection?

Avraham, against his natural instincts of loving-kindness, is forced by G-d to listen to his wife Sarah and send Yishmael and Hagar away. The Torah tells us that this is because Yishmael is me’tzachek (literally, laughing) at or with Yitzchak. And while the midrashim and commentators differ as to the exact meaning of this phrase, varying from lewd behavior to the taunting of Yitzchak, one thing is clear: Yitzchak, meaning “he will laugh,” is juxtaposed with Yishmael, the me’tzachek, or one who laughs now. Yitzchak’s life is about the future, while Yishmael is all about the here and now.

Later, when Yishmael is cast beneath the bushes dying of thirst and calling out for water, G-d hears him ba’asher hu’sham (where he is). The midrash, noting this unique phrase, has the angels in an uproar over G-d’s decision to save Yishmael. After all, they say, the descendants of this lad will one day slaughter G-d’s Jewish children, so how can G-d spare him now?

G-d’s response? “I hear his honest remorse and pain now, and if now he is repentant, then he should be saved, whatever might come later on.”

The message, fitting for Rosh Hashana, is that whatever mistakes we may have made in the past, this moment is the beginning of the rest of our lives, and changing the now changes everything.

When G-d first “approaches” Avraham, the Torah tells us, “Vayehi achar hadevarim ha’eleh’, ve’HaElokim nisah et Avraham. Vayomer lo Avraham, vayomer lo Hineni (And it was after these things that G-d tested Avraham. And He said to him, ‘Avraham,’ and Avraham said: ‘Here I am”) (Bereishit 22).”

The word hineni (here I am), used sparingly, is Moshe’s response to G-d’s calling at the Burning Bush, as well as the response by Yaakov to Yitzchak’s calling for a blessing. Whenever this word is used in the Torah, it is indicative of an individual responding to a calling. Hineni means I am here, ready to serve. It is a moment of pure potential, in which a person rises to the challenge of becoming all they could ever be.

It is in this moment of hineni that Avraham says to G-d, “I exist because You created me, because You love me; whatever You ask of me, I live to do.” This is the kernel of what life is about. If Hashem created me, then I must have a purpose, and if Hashem loves me enough to have decided the world is better off with me still in it for at least another day, then all I want is to know is what Hashem wants of me. How can my being here, today, make the world better?

It is within the context of hineni that we respond to life’s greatest challenges.

When Israeli reserve soldiers stop what they are doing and answer a call to battle, however painful that may be, they are saying “Hineni.” When we stop what we are doing to do a mitzvah, helping refugees from an earthquake in Japan or rebuilding homes for the poor in Haiti, we are saying, “Hineni.”

At the binding of Isaac, Avraham’s “Hineni” aspires to a new level. Avraham says “Hineni” without having even an inkling of what is coming. Avraham is responding to G-d before G-d has even told him what he wants.

This hineni is all about the future: Whatever You ask of me, “Hineni.”

This sets the theme of the story of the binding of Isaac: It is about what lies ahead. Where Yishmael is the one who laughs now, Yitzchak literally means “he will laugh” in the future. Yishmael is about being in the present and Yitzchak is about seeing and being ready to accept and to live up to the moment that is yet to come.

This is, in fact, one of the most essential ingredients of a loving relationship.

Imagine your daughter calls you up from school and you can hear the quiver in her voice, sense the tears that are on the verge of bursting forth, and you instantly know, “Hineni”— here I am, whatever you need.

Or when your wife calls down from upstairs, the ability to be in that hineni mode is all about how much trust and love already exists in that moment. If my wife asks something of me, then it must be important, even before I know what it is.

And this is the essence of our relationship with Hashem — If I could only know what it is Hashem wants of me, then all I would want is to live up to that challenge.

These two ideas, the being in the moment of Yishmael and the readiness to serve in the future of Yitzchak, are what Rosh Hashana is all about.

On Rosh Hashana, we have the chance to start over. We need to learn to balance our ability to live in the present and be in the moment, while at the same time, be accepting of and open to whatever life’s next moment has to bring.

As we begin the New Year, may we all be blessed to appreciate the beauty inherent in every moment, alongside the challenges, and may we be blessed as well with the strength to change the future — so that the world as it is, becomes the world as it could be.

Wishing you all a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year, Shanah Tovah.

Originally published in 2013.