G‑d remembered Sarah (Genesis 21:1)

“Remembrance” is one of the three primary themes of Rosh Hashanah (the other two being “Kingship” and “Shofarot”). For it is the day on which “the remembrance of all of existence comes before You.” In the words of the Unesaneh Tokef prayer:

“On this day . . . You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Memory—it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it . . . and all mankind will pass before You like sheep. Like a shepherd inspecting his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so shall You run by, count, calculate and consider the soul of all the living; You will apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures, and inscribe their verdict.

“On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed: How many shall pass on and how many shall be born; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water, who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning; who will rest and who will wander; who will live in harmony and who will be harried; who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer; who will be impoverished and who will be enriched; who will be degraded and who will be exalted . . .”

Sarah said: “G‑d has made laughter for me, so that all that hear will laugh (yitzchak) with me” (21:6)

The concept of Rosh Hashanah as the day of G‑d’s “coronation” as king of the universe explains a most puzzling paradox in the nature of the day. On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is when we stand before the Supreme King and tremulously accept the “yoke of His sovereignty.” On the other hand, it is a festival (yom tov), celebrated amidst much feasting and rejoicing—a day on which we are enjoined to “eat sumptuous foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for the day is holy to our L‑rd; do not be distressed, for the joy of the L‑rd is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

But such is the nature of a coronation: it is an event that combines trepidation and joy, awe and celebration. For true kingship, as opposed to mere rulership, derives from the willful submission of a people to their sovereign. So the coronation of a king includes a display of reverence and awe on the part of the people, conveying their submission to the king; as well as the joy that affirms that their submission is willful and desirous.

(From the Chassidic Masters)

In all that Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice (21:12)

This teaches us that Sarah was superior to Abraham in prophecy.


G‑d heard the voice of the lad (21:17)

This teaches us that a person’s prayer for himself is preferable to others praying for him, and is sooner to be accepted. (For though the verse speaks of Hagar’s weeping, it tells us that it was Ishmael’s cry which G‑d heard.)

(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)

For G‑d has heard the voice of the lad where he is (21:17)

The ministering angels hastened to indict him, exclaiming: “Sovereign of the Universe! Would You bring up a well for one who will one day slay Your children with thirst?” “What is he now?” asked G‑d. “Righteous,” said the angels. Said G‑d: “I judge man only as he is at the moment.”

(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)

His mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt (21:21)

Said Rabbi Yitzchak: Throw a stick into the air, and it will fall back to its place of origin (the ground). It is written, “She had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar” (Genesis 16:1); therefore, “his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.”

(Midrash Rabbah)

Abraham established an eshel at Be’er Sheva; there he called the name of the L‑rd, G‑d of the world (21:33)

When Abraham’s guests wished to bless him for his generosity, he would say to them: “Has the food you have eaten been provided by myself? You should thank, praise and bless He who spoke the world into being!”

If they refused, Abraham would demand payment for the food they had eaten. “How much do I owe you?” they would ask. “A jug of wine is ten folarin,” Abraham would say; “a pound of meat, ten folarin; a loaf of bread, ten folarin.” When the guest would protest these exorbitant prices, Abraham would counter: “Who supplies you with wine in the middle of the desert? Who supplies you with meat in the desert? Who supplies you with bread in the desert?” When the guest would realize the predicament he was in he would relent and proclaim: “Blessed be the G‑d of the world, from whose providence we have eaten.”

(Midrash Rabbah; Tosefot Shantz on Sotah 10b)

What value, we might ask, was there in such an unwilling proclamation, extracted under duress? Was this not a mere mouthing of words, devoid of any conviction as to the truth of the One G‑d or any desire to thank Him for His providence?

But Abraham had a vision of humanity which convinced him that every positive deed, word or thought does have value, no matter how “superficial” or “hypocritical” it might seem to a less discerning eye. When Abraham looked at his guests, he did not see pagans and idolaters; he saw creatures of G‑d, men and women who had been created in the divine image and possessed a potential, inherent to the very essence of their being, to recognize their Creator and serve His will.

Most often, a kind word and a helping hand will bring to light this inner potential. At times, however, a soul might be so encrusted by negative influences and a corrupted character that a certain degree of “pressure” must be applied to quell its resistance to a G‑dly deed. (Of course, any use of such “pressure” must conform to the dictates of G‑d’s Torah, whose “ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its pathways are peace”—as in the case of Abraham’s fully legitimate demand for payment.)

Abraham understood that no human acknowledgment of G‑d can ever be “hypocritical.” On the contrary: a denial of G‑d is the ultimate hypocrisy, for it is at variance with the person’s quintessential being. When a creature of G‑d proclaims “Blessed be the G‑d of the world from whose providence we have eaten,” nothing can be more consistent with his or her innermost self.

(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

It came to pass after these things that G‑d tested Abraham (22:1)

Said Rabbi Jonathan: A potter does not examine defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, tests not the wicked but the righteous.

(Midrash Rabbah)

Isaac and Ishmael were engaged in a controversy. Said Ishmael to Isaac: “I am more beloved to G‑d than you, since I was circumcised at the age of thirteen, but you were circumcised as a baby and could not refuse.” Isaac retorted: “All that you gave up to G‑d was three drops of blood. But I am now thirty-seven years old, yet if G‑d desired of me that I be slaughtered, I would not refuse.” Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “This is the moment!”

(Midrash Rabbah)

Jewishness is not a matter of historical conscious, outlook, ethics, or even behavior; it is a state of being. This is the deeper significance of the debate between Ishmael and Isaac. When the Jew is circumcised on the eighth day of life, he is completely unaware of the significance of what has occurred. But this “non-experience” is precisely what circumcision means. With circumcision the Jew says: I define my relationship with G‑d not by what I think, feel or do, but by the fact of my Jewishness—a fact which equally applies to an infant of eight days and a sage of eighty years.

(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

He saddled his donkey (22:3)

This is the very same donkey which Moses rode to Egypt (cf. Exodus 4:20); and this is the very same donkey upon which the Messiah will arrive (cf. Zechariah 9:9).

(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 25)

He bound Isaac his son (22:9)

Can one bind a man thirty-seven years old without his consent?

But when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, Isaac said to him: Father, I am a young man, and I am afraid that my body may tremble through fear of the knife and I will grieve you, and thereby the slaughter may be rendered unfit and this will not count as a real sacrifice; therefore bind me very firmly.”

(Midrash Rabbah)

Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh (22:14)

Shem (the son of Noah) called it Salem, as it is written “Melchizedek king of Salem” (Genesis 14:18). Said the Holy One, blessed be He: If I call it Yireh as did Abraham, then Shem, a righteous man, will resent it; while if I call it Salem as did Shem, then Abraham, the righteous man, will resent it. Hence I will call it Jerusalem, including both names, Yireh Salem.

(Midrash Rabbah)