Published Works:
Public Speaking:
Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.
Copyright 2011 Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.. All rights reserved.
The following sermons were preached at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles,
Louisiana, during the High Holy Days of 2009:

 Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
       Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning

Rosh ha-Shanah Morning
September 19, 2009

   Last year, I began the Rosh ha-Shanah morning sermon with the following
introduction: “Well here we are again. Another Rosh ha-Shanah morning,
and one more time we sit silently and listen to the stunning story of an
elderly father dragging his son up a mountain. Once again we wonder what
must have swirled in the mind of Abraham, what Isaac was thinking, and
maybe we even wonder what Sarah knew and when she knew it. Last year
[now two years ago] we established the fact that Abraham had
misunderstood the intention of God. The story was not about Isaac dying, it
was about Abraham trusting his future to the God who had led him from
Mesopotamia to Canaan, into Egypt, and finally back to Canaan. But is there
anything else we need to know?”

   Each year it becomes more difficult to say anything new about this
passage that the rabbis chose for us to read on the second day of Rosh ha-
Shanah. So today, I want to examine the portion chosen for day one of Rosh
ha-Shanah, the story preceding the “binding of Isaac.” It is the sad story of
how Abraham lost his first son, Ishmael. As it now reads, the narrative in
Genesis 21.14-21 seems to recount a simple narrative of a father who
expelled his own son at the insistence of a jealous first wife. Ishmael was a
true biological son of Abraham. And Sarah had been the one to insist on the
liaison with Hagar, anticipating that she would claim the child as her own
(16.2). But after she bore her own son and watched the two boys growing
older together, she became overly concerned about the inheritance that
she coveted for Isaac. So she demanded that Abraham take action.  

   We know from several ancient Near Eastern codes of law, like the famous
Code of Hammurabi, that a son who had been acknowledged by his father
was expected to share in the paternal inheritance, and there is no doubt
that Ishmael was legally entitled to at least a portion of Abraham’s estate.
Otherwise, Sarah would not have been so worried. But these ancient legal
codes make another provision that may furnish a clue to the familiar biblical
narrative. If a father granted freedom to a slave woman and the children she
had born to him, they forfeited their share of the inheritance, but gained
status as full citizens in exchange. This change in social status opened up
numerous paths to economic success simply unavailable to a slave. Sarah
apparently demands that Abraham exercise this legal option.

   Still, the biblical story about Ishmael is almost as shocking as the one
about Isaac. A mother and her young son are sent away into the wilderness
with only a small amount of food and a single container of water. When the
water ran out, poor Hagar was so distraught that she left the boy alone to
die, and the narrator explained that she was psychologically unable to
witness the horrible death of her only son.

   The Torah places this story alongside the picture of hapless Isaac lying
bound on top of a stack of wood that he himself had carried up the
mountain, waiting helplessly for his father to plunge a knife into his heart,
bringing certain death. So the narrator is telling us that two equally horrible
types of death awaited the sons of Abraham: death by starvation and thirst
for Ishmael, death at the hand of his own father for Isaac. In both cases,
there seemed to be no way to avoid great tragedy.

   Although I cannot relate to either story exactly, I don’t find it difficult to
imagine the terror that each boy faced. Some of us have heard an
oncologist say one of the most horrible sentences in the English language:
“You have cancer!” Many of us have lost or been deprived of jobs or
promotions that were critical to our psyches and the futures of our families.
We have all received news that someone we loved and upon whom we have
depended for years has left us forever. Add to these critical moments the
countless little setbacks we face daily and we learn that life can be cruel. In
particular, situations over which we have no control are a major component
of that cruelty. And in the most difficult times, it often seems as if there is no
possible way for us to go on.

      In the stories of the two sons of Abraham, a miraculous solution was
provided just when things seemed utterly hopeless. Hagar found a well of
water that saved her precious son, and Abraham spied a ram that he could
sacrifice in place of his son. We are told that God opened Hagar’s eyes,
enabling her to see what had presumably been there all along, but which
her grief had prevented her from seeing. And God had to tell Abraham to
turn around and look in a totally different direction to see the way out for

   I think these two stories have a lot to teach us. Life is replete with
miracles. But many times we fail to look in the right place. Hagar was
convinced that there was only one possible ending to her distress, and so
she gave in to her despair. Abraham was convinced that there was only one
way for him to prove his loyalty to God, and so he embarked on a plan that is
unimaginable to a normal parent. The miracle in each case was not that the
two parents were able to shield themselves and their boys from trouble,
fear, or stark terror. It was rather that just when Hagar and Abraham reached
the end of their own resources, they both received insight from a source
outside themselves. We call that Source God.

   We often believe we know just how our lives should progress. And so we
attempt to use God as a consultant. “Here’s what needs to happen, O Lord. I
don’t have the ability to make it happen, so You must work a miracle.”
Because we cannot see any other option, it often seems that God doesn’t
come through for us as we believe He should. But could it be that our own
plans are not the best ones? Is it possible that out of the ashes of failure we
can discover new possibilities that we never considered earlier? Often the
miracles of life come just when we think everything is lost, that our strength
to struggle on has been exhausted. It is in moments like these that from
somewhere, if we look, we may see possibilities to which we had previously
been blind. From somewhere we find the wisdom to continue to live, not
just somehow, but triumphantly.

   I believe in miracles, and I believe the coming year will bring many
miraculous moments into our lives. God may not do things the way we would
choose, but I believe we can open our eyes to new possibilities, and
thereby find new and exciting ways to develop ourselves in harmony with
God, with other people, and with the wonderful world He has given us.

       Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
       Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning
Louisiana State University
Department of Religious Studies, 107 Coates Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-3901