This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the text of the D’var Torah shared by Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader on Rosh Hashanah morning, October 3, 2016 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to share comments and questions below, and share a link to this post on Facebook, Twitter, or email so as to continue to engender dialogue about the topics raised in this teaching.
We often teach our children and grandchild about the importance of apologies. We want them to learn these practices at a young age to understand that they can make mistakes and when they do they need to apologize. They also need to be open to forgiving people who apologize to them. It sounds like a simple concept to explain, but it can be difficult for them but even more challenging for adults to do.
In order to sincerely apologize we need to admit that we were wrong and that our words or actions hurt someone else. During the High Holy Days, we are not only supposed to admit our wrong doings to ourselves, but we are supposed to make amends with the people we hurt. The Mishnah states: “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
A few years ago, just before the High Holy Days my Facebook feed was filled with status updates like “If I hurt anyone you in the past year, I’m sorry. If you hurt me in the past year, I forgive you.” To me this always seems like an inadequate way to fulfill this command. How can anyone earnestly apologize to all of their friends in one sentence. While perhaps it complies with the letter of the law of the Mishnah text, I do not believe it intention of it.
The High Holy Days remind us about the critical importance of apologizing and forgiveness. In the parasha we are about to read, there are moments when an apology, some compassion and forgiveness could have changed the character’s fate. In this Torah portion we read about the birth of Isaac. Sarah was so surprised to learn she was going to have a child that she laughed and when Isaac is born Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter.” Her joy his birth is evident throughout the text and even written into his name. We do not know much about Sarah as a mother, but it is clear that she is joyful at birth.
After the joy, we see another side of Sarah who is fiercely protective of her child. So much so that when Sarah sees Ishmael mocking him and she insists that Hagar and Ishmael be kicked out of her house.
These sparse lines are filled with critical moments when mistakes were made with drastic consequences. We do not know exactly what Ishmael says when he is mocking. The Hebrew for mocking shares the root with the word for laughter. Here the connection is drawn with Isaac’s name emphasizing Ishmael laughter came at Isaac’s expense. We do not know what Ishmael said, or why he mocked Isaac. It is unclear what he is trying to accomplish with his behavior or what his motivations were.
Ishmael’s mockery of Isaac is the first missed opportunity of the text. If Ishmael had apologized to Sarah, perhaps he would have been allowed to stay in their house. Perhaps if Hagar had taken responsibility on Ishmael’s behalf, they would have been allowed to remain in their home. Maybe if they had an honest conversation about this incident and the reasons behind they could have worked out their issues. Perhaps if Ishmael or Hagar had acknowledged the hurt that Ishmael caused they could have reversed the terrible course they were on.
Sarah’s reaction to Ishmael’s words was severe. She insisted Hagar and Ishmael be kicked out of the house and Ishmael be cut off from Abraham’s inheritance. This caused great distress for Abraham and Hagar thought Ishmael was going to die. Sarah’s actions caused pain too and she too could have apologized and handled her hurt differently.
Our text is filled with missed opportunities for reconciliation. If any of the problems had been faced directly perhaps they could have been dealt with. If the tensions had been discussed maybe they could have been worked through. If the characters had apologized or forgiven each other they might have lived together peacefully.
Given the state of the relationships of the characters in this Torah portion, our text is reminding us not to allow the opportunity for reconciliation to pass. I believe our text is cautioning us not to make the same mistake. It is encouraging us not to let a small disagreement or misunderstanding fester to come an enormous gap. It is reminding us that not dealing with a conflict can lead to bigger problems often damaging the relationship. It is highlighting of the fragility, centrality and preciousness of the important relationships in our lives.