Sermonette: Why Genesis 21 and 22

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 September 2014

There is a question that I get asked every year, to which I always give a pitifully weak answer.

Why are these the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah? Why Genesis 21 and 22?  Classically, remember, they are read in that order, not the way we (to my irritation) choose to read them (though that is another dvar torah).

But why these at all?

If today is HaYom Harat Olam, the anniversary of the Creation of the world – which, on a very minor level it is, why not Genesis 1? If it is about beginnings, why not Genesis 12, the start of the Abraham story?  And, seeing as on every other festival we read the instructions for that festival, why not the section on Rosh Hashanah – though not yet called that – found in Leviticus 23?

In fact, the latter was the earliest attested reading for Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah tells us to read Lev 23: 23-25 on the morning of the first of Tishrei.  The slightly later Tosefta, and the Jerusalem Talmud are the first places in which we discover a reference to Genesis 21 – though as a variant tradition.  And it is the Babylonian Talmud which, while retaining the majority custom of Leviticus 23, first mentions the possibility of Genesis 21 on Day 1 and Genesis 22 on Day 2.

But why these passages?
In truth, we do not know.

The most commonly given explanation is that they reflect Rosh Hashanah’s role as Yom HaZikaron – the day of remembering.   They tell of the events surrounding God’s remembering of Sarah with a child.  V’Adonai Pakad et Sarah as we’ll read in a moment.  The only problem with this explanation is that it is very weak.  Though pakad kind-of means remember, it is not the same word as Zachar…  and, if this is the case, why not use a more appropriate example of divine remembering – va’yizkor elohim et rachel.

One, convincing, if spiritually disappointing explanation, is that the Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah are actually polemical.  In the early Christian tradition – and remember Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism grew up intertwined with one another – the birth of Isaac was linked with the miracle birth of Jesus.  V’Adonai Pakad et Sarah as foreshadowing a visiting of Mary.  Genesis 21 was a scriptural reading for the days which were associated with Jesus’ birth in the early Christian calendar, before December 25th became the day.  Similarly, the Akedah – the binding of Isaac – is known in early Christianity tradition as the Sacrifice of Isaac, and a direct link is made to the death of Jesus – another sacrifice of a son.

So, by selecting these passages for Rosh Hashanah, the early Rabbis claimed them as their own.
God’s special relationship is with the Jews, it says – a piece of determined particularism in the midst of universal ideas of creation and judgement.

Why then do they survive as our readings beyond that historical context?
The best answer I can give is that they are interesting.

Unlike the original reading of Leviticus 23, these two passages provoke us; they are human narratives, ones that force us to address issues of divine command, family relationships, obedience and ethics.
They are good, challenging stories, in which no-one comes out well, least of all God.

Whatever the original reasons, we have ended up with readings for Rosh Hashanah that work – they do the job we need. They force us to think.
What better passages for these days, when we are asked to examine ourselves?