Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Torah on the Frist Day of Rosh Hashanah
The first day of Rosh Hashanah, we traditionally read all of Genesis 21. In only 34 verses, we encounter the miraculous conception and birth of Isaac, the complicated tension between his mother Sarah and her rival Hagar, Hagar’s subsequent expulsion into the desert with her son Ishmael, and Abraham’s covenant with the king Avimelekh.
Early in the narrative of today’s Torah reading, Sarah expresses laughter of disbelief—and even sarcasm—at the notion of giving birth in her old age. Have you ever experienced a blessing so great or audacious you could not believe it? How did you express yourself in that moment?
Every member of the complicated Abrahamic family bears a name that reflects deep significance—for example, Hagar’s name is rooted in “strangerhood” or otherness, and Yitzhak’s rings with his mother’s laughter. What is the significance of your own name? Who chose it for you (perhaps you chose it yourself)? How has the meaning of your name resonated in your life?
In Genesis 21:12, God counsels Abraham to do “whatever Sarah tells you,” even to the point of putting his other family members at risk. Who, in your opinion, bears responsibility for the treatment of Ishmael and Hagar: Abraham, Sarah, or God? All three?
The complex and interdependent family dynamics of this reading often bring to mind the complications that exist in our own families of origin. Journal: Have you been able to find healing in a family dynamic this year? Have you experienced rupture in those relationships? Where in your own close connections are you seeking reconciliation?
Both Hagar’s experience in the desert and Abraham’s negotiation with Avimelekh speak to the importance of water. Spend some time near a water source close to you: a river, a pond, perhaps even your own kitchen sink. What unexpected holiness can you discover there today, perhaps that you had not previously noticed? What in you is nourished by this water source?
Hagar’s exile is not due to her own actions but rather is a reflection of the lack of power and stability afforded to her place within her household. When have you experienced a lack of power or stability that left you feeling vulnerable? In that period, what spiritual and emotional resources helped you to access rootedness and strength?
Our reading closes today with the planting of a tree and the assertion that Abraham “dwelled in the land of the Philistines many days” (Genesis 21:34). What new choices or habits have you cultivated this year that you hope to continue to nurture and encourage to take root?
Sometimes, even in the closest of relationships, we can feel ourselves to be in competition with someone we love. Have you ever experienced this feeling? What happened?
Have you, or your parents or friends, ever felt jealous or different after a new baby is born in your family? Why do you think you felt that way?
Two characters in this reading, Hagar and Ishmael, are cast out into the wilderness but end up living their lives in the place that, at first, made them afraid. Share about a time when you were scared to go somewhere new but learned to feel at home there.