Same Time, Next Year
We are familiar with the story of Jews and Egyptian oppression: The suffering slaves flee their bondage and escape to the desert where God speaks to them and makes them a great nation.
This story also appears in the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah, and in a most surprising way.
In the leining, the slaves are Abraham’s Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael. Having been harshly treated by their slave-mistress, Sarah, they make their way to the wilderness. There, God reveals Himself to the weary pair and promises them that they, the Ishmaelites, will become a mighty people.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael and the story of Israel in Egypt are parallel in both their broad outline and in the details as well: Before they leave their house of bondage, Hagar and Ishmael grab bread, just as the Israelites hastily take (unleavened) bread before their journey; once in the desert, both the Israelites and Hagar have nothing to drink and fear that they will die of thirst, and in both stories God miraculously provides water in the wilderness; God hears the cry of the distraught Hagar and is thereby moved to save her and her son just as, later, God will hear the cry of the Israelites and rescue them from slavery. When we read the story of Passover six months from now, we will sense that we have seen this play before. Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Ramban, was the first to recognize that the Jewish narrative is a recurring pattern; his observation is stylized as ma’asei avot siman l’vanim—the stories of the parents are a paradigm for the children. This is not the only instance of repetition in Judaism.
As an educator, when I teach about the Jewish holidays, a complaint I hear often is, “We learned this already!” I must confess that my students are right in their remonstrance, for the calendar of the Jewish festivals is, by its nature, cyclical, and year after year we find ourselves back where we started: Every Nisan we leave Egypt yet again, and every Shavuot we receive the Torah once more. For school children who watch their secular subjects progressing ineluctably forward, with history advancing from one era to the next and mathematics moving from arithmetic to algebra to calculus—Judaism seems stuck in a Groundhog Day of recurring ideas and events.
If this eternal return presents a pedagogical problem for the all the biblical festivals, when it comes to the Yamim Nora’im, it offers a theological challenge as well. Each Tishrei we pick up the identical machzor and ask forgiveness for the same sins, knowing full well that we will commit these very transgressions in the following months and ask penance for them in synagogue a year hence.
By choosing the story of Hagar and Ishmael as the scriptural reading for the first day of the High Holidays, our rabbis force us to acknowledge the iterative nature of Jewish life: The same series of events that befell Abraham’s Egyptian slaves would befall the descendants of Abraham as slaves in Egypt. At the very season when we pledge to change our ways, the selection of this biblical lection makes us painfully aware that history repeats itself and we are practically predestined to relive both our own shortcomings and those of our ancestors.
The stories are, of course, not exactly alike, and we may seek wisdom by noting the differences. The story of Sarah and Hagar is a personal tale of a relationship strained by jealousy and envy, of Sarah, a wealthy woman, who resents that her poor slave has the one thing she desires most, a child of her own. In contrast, the chronicle of the Israelites in Egypt is a national narrative of a power struggle between two peoples. All Israelites and Egyptians are swept up in their collective destinies, either as oppressors or oppressed. From here we learn that sin is both a personal and communal matter. During these Days of Repentance we consider both our individual misdeeds that stem from grievances, greed and grudges as well as the responsibility we share by being part of greater groups that are unkind or corrupt.
Strikingly, in the two stories, the roles are reversed. In Genesis, the people in power, who own the slaves, and who send them away, are the Jews; in Exodus, they are the Egyptians. Comparing the narratives compels us to consider that, in life, dynamics change both in time and circumstance. It can be comforting to label ourselves and others as victims or perpetrators, but in reality these stances are constantly in flux, and we easily slip from one to the other, and even use our innocence in one context to justify our offences in another.
The differences between the stories should not surprise us because, while history repeats itself, it never does so exactly. And while the players always change in human history, human nature does not. This is why we see the same dynamics at play in both the Genesis and Exodus narratives, though the time and setting has changed. It is also why, thousands of years after Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael, the complex relationships between brothers, stepmothers, fathers, and sons are still with us, and the morals of their stories are still relevant as we seek reconciliation in this season of forgiveness.
Educational psychology teaches us that young children enjoy hearing the same story read to them repeatedly (think of fairy tales and bedtime books) because they are reassured knowing that all will turn out well in the end and everyone will live happily ever after. Both the story of Hagar and the story of the Israelites end with God hearing their cries, redeeming them, and elevating them to a life of greatness. Reading this same story on these High Holidays, we are assured that if we, too, cry to God in our prayers, He will forgive us our shortcomings, redeem us from our sins, and lead us through His grace into a new year of goodness. Even if we will need to return to the same stories this time next year.
Rabbi Eric Grossman