In the introduction to the Flood story, the Torah introduces Noach as the righteous man of his day. This is famously taught to be an ambiguous description – that Noach was the greatest in his generation; or that his generation was so awful that being the best of the lot isn’t saying much.

This is the introduction to the hero of an important story. Noach is quite clearly a significant figure – why would we want to interpret him negatively at all?

In isolation, it might seem a little harsh. But in the context of the bigger picture the Torah wants us to learn; it matters that we notice Noach’s mistake. The Rambam notes that the Torah is leading us through the trajectory of human history; how people just couldn’t get it right, until eventually, someone did – Avraham.

The Midrash teaches that after God told Noach to start prepping for the Flood, Noach would tell everyone what he was doing and preach to them to abandon their corruption and lawlessness to embrace ethics and morality. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

In a sense, this reinforces the question. All we can do as humans is try, in the hope that God helps. Why do we hold Noach’s failure against him?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that Noach’s failing wasn’t in his efforts; it was his methods.

Noach didn’t attempt to understand his society; he separated himself from it. He insulated his family to the extent he couldn’t understand the people around him, and he couldn’t get through. The word “Noach” literally means “easy” – the easy way out.

We need to ask how we could consider ourselves righteous if we completely detach from humanity and society. How strong is our belief system truly if we don’t think it could withstand the slightest scrutiny?

The issues of Noach’s day weren’t ideological or philosophical because paganism isn’t a philosophy – it’s ad hoc. The issues of that day were lust, desire, greed, and selfishness.

The tragedy of Noach was that for all his efforts and personal righteousness, he didn’t put in the effort to understand the people around him.

Arguing with people rarely succeeds – and it rarely matters if you’re right.

In stark contrast, Avraham is lauded as someone who was very in tune with how to win hearts and minds. He fed people and washed them, caring for all people with genuine love and kindness. Pagans were not a threat to him because his beliefs and practices were strong enough to survive contact with them. The Raavad notes how Shem, Ever, and others are heralded as righteous, yet they don’t feature in our pantheon of greats because they never went out into the world.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by living out the Torah’s teachings – בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.

Noach, the best man his generation could muster, failed:

וַיִשָּׁאֶר אַךְ־נֹחַ – Only Noach was left… (7:23)

Instead of saying that Noach survived – וַיִשָּׁאֶר נֹחַ, the Torah emphasizes that “only” Noach survived, underscoring the utter devastation and loss in the story. R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that this is the moment Noach understood the cost of his failure, abandoning his peers to their fates without doing all he humanly could.

R’ Josh Joseph notes that we highlight Noach’s failure despite his efforts because the image of Noach alone is terrifying, which leads to the rest of his life with alcoholism and misery. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes how that Noach defining feature was that there was nothing wrong with him – תמים – which is to say that Noach was perfectly adequate, and yet that wasn’t enough.

R’ Jonathan Sacks contrasts this broken figure of Noach, who couldn’t save anyone, with the bold and staunch figure of Avraham, who tried to save everybody – when God informed Avraham that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham passionately advocated for their survival – these people who stood for everything he stood against!

Whereas Noach walked with God – אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ – we see Avrohom as someone who goes above and beyond – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי.

We need to dig very deep to have a shot at saving others, lifting as we climb. So it resonates with us that Noach could have done more because perhaps we recognize that’s what it takes in order to live with ourselves.

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true!

Let’s recap. God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targetted by a despotic leader with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of the children and the land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems so trivial – it’s about his business ventures, his travels, and his family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

Yet, R’ Berkowitz teaches, if we had a story about mighty heroes riding flying unicorns to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil, it couldn’t be more silly, and it couldn’t be less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s great mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our hero because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God can promise, but humans have to act. God may promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God may promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

Avraham had taken those first steps. He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God, but because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

It was enough for Abraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. We believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, yet we see evil all around us. It’s not just for philosophers; it’s a question we all ask ourselves:

Why do bad things happen to good people?

The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is somehow actually good, or that God is simply beyond understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have “the” answer to almost any philosophical question is undoubtedly obnoxious, and is probably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either have no single resolution or no resolution at all. The best we can say is that different approaches work for different people.

We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the response to the question is how we live in reaction to the existence of the problem. We ought to respond in kind when we see something is wrong and try to make it better. While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; at best, it can only spur a practical response in us.

After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had formed quite a clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight for everything he has; yet his brother seems to get everything from life easily.

But Avraham does not complain that God has been unfair. Because sometimes we just need to get on with it.

Imagine a world where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer?

Everyone would be good all the time.

The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important, or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes, but also the struggles they faced in their day to day lives.

Sometimes it just isn’t fair, and sometimes there is no answer good enough. All we can do is respond in the way we choose to live; we just have to get on with it and do the right thing.

One of Judaism’s treasured traditions is entertaining guests. We praise altruism and aspire to emulate role models who practiced it, Avraham foremost among them.

As Avraham recovers from circumcision, the mark on his body that symbolizes his family’s covenant with God, he receives a remarkable visitor – no less than God Himself:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה’, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַחהָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם – Hashem appeared to him on the plains of Mamre, as he sat by the tent door in the heat of the day. (18:1)

More remarkable still is that no sooner has God just begun Avraham, that Avraham interrupts his visitor to welcome more guests!

 וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה –  He lifted his eyes and looked, and, saw three men standing nearby; and when he noticed them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (18:2)

The Midrash imagines that Avraham quite literally interrupted Hashem, and asked that He wait. The Gemara learns from this episode that hospitality is even better than welcoming God.

This teaching might seem remarkable. How can something be more important than God?

The Maharal explains that when we welcome guests, we are embracing the image of God in other people. In which case, loving human and loving God aren’t so different.

The Malbim explains that it is precisely by loving others that demonstrates how much we love God, which is why hospitality is subordinate to welcoming God. Avraham calls the men his masters, and ask them not to leave – אֲדֹנָי, אִםנָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָאַלנָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ. But this is also a name of God,  implying the moment Avraham asked Hashem to wait!

R’ Jonathan Sacks this story, God is happy to wait, to teach us the essential lesson that we don’t show our love of God by fasting, retreating into the mountains, vowing silence, or abstaining from earthly things; we show our love of God in our interaction with other humans.

The epitome of what Judaism teaches us is that holiness is not some abstract thing that transcends the trifles of mundane living. It is precisely in our day to day lives that we can encounter and create holiness.

God Himself teaches us that nothing is holier than making space in your life and home for others, and we honor God most by honoring those on His image, humankind.

The Binding of Isaac, known as the Akeida, is one of the most challenging stories in the Jewish tradition. Our sages and philosophers have grappled with it since time immemorial, and with good reason.

The Torah is part of the source code for our morality, so when God asks Avraham to murder his son, the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question – can God ask us to do something that is wrong?

The story concludes with a retraction of the instruction, and that God would never ask us to do something wrong. Hashem is amazed by Avraham, but rejects the notion that Avraham might actually kill his son in God’s name.

But how we unpack the message until that point matters too. The story only makes sense if Avraham’s dilemma was a clash between his commitment to God and commitment to life.

To be sure, there is a diverse range of legitimate interpretations within our tradition, but we should consider their relative reasonableness regarding the values they teach. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormous, so it’s important to understand the story correctly.

If we state that instead of struggling to come to terms with an immoral instruction that clashed with his commitment to life; and that Avraham truly wished to sacrifice his son, or that he regretted not being able to, then Avraham is a very problematic role model.

Of course, this interpretation makes no sense in the broader context of the story and the Torah. The Torah condemns explicitly people who sacrifice their children and warns against it many times. If Avraham had no issue murdering his son; there was no test for him, and more importantly, he does not deserve our respect. Aside from poor morals, this teaches, the story makes numerous references to Avraham’s difficulty coming to terms with the command. The story only makes sense if Avraham’s dilemma was a clash between his commitment to God and commitment to life.

How we think about God’s instruction matters too. If we explain that up until the final moment, God meant it, then it destroys our conceptualization of morality, and people who kill in God’s name might be doing something that could be considered sacred!

But this makes no sense either. The entire moral of the story is that this God is different – this God doesn’t want human sacrifice! By stopping Avraham from forcing himself to do something terrible, God drives home the point that there is no glory in human or child sacrifice. The God of life is committed to life absolutely.

To be sure, there are different methods of interpretation; surface; symbolic; similar; and secret – know as PaRDeS – פְּשָׁט / רֶמֶז / דְּרַשׁ / סוֹד.

There is an even more outlandish interpretation; that not only did Avraham have the requisite intent to murder his son, but that he actually did, and then Yitzchak was resurrected. It is not for us to say that this view is not legitimate; it is. There are some extremely esoteric explanations of what that could mean, but we must never confuse the surface explanation with the secretive.

The surface level of the story only makes sense if Avraham didn’t want to kill his son, and God never meant it.

We lose a lot by saying otherwise.

The Torah emphasis repeatedly that Avraham had to force himself to go through the simple motions of the story –  וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶתיָדוֹוַיִּקַּח אֶתהַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.

We believe that on some level, our righteous men have a predisposition to do not only the right thing but in a certain sense, what God wants – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.

The Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his predisposition was facing a resistance he wasn’t familiar with because God didn’t want him to murder his son!

There are many ways to understand the story. But the story is very problematic if we entertain the possibility that God could ask us to ignore our moral instincts, and most problematic if we think we ever should.

When Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared, he speculates that perhaps fifty righteous people would make the city worth saving.

Hashem agrees:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם – Hashem said: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that the repetition of “in Sodom” and “in the city,” implies that these people are righteous in public – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people live among and interact with other people, leading by example and inspiring their communities, like Avraham himself. A righteous man is not hidden away with books but is part of a community -including its sinners – as a teacher and a neighbor.

This remarkable point teaches a tremendously portable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; Sodom was not doomed because of its evil, but because no one was willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had been working with the public to improve the moral state of the community, the city might have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Jeremiah mentions the same theme:

שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ – Run through the squares of Jerusalem and search its streets; if you can find just one single man who practices justice and seeks the truth, I will forgive her! (5:1)

The Radak explains that no righteous men could be found in the streets of Jerusalem because they were too afraid to stand up for what they believed in publicly.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that our souls are candles God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is ideally positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but outside as well. He famously dispatched followers to the ends of the earth based on the understanding that part and parcel of wholesome observance is seeking others out to help them find their own religious expression. The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates how much we care about other people – if we abandon those who are wandering or lost, do we care about others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; because while empathy requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach – Avraham had no-one to help, so he stood outside his home to find someone to take care of.

The few can save the many, so long as they care enough about their communities to get involved – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם / בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ.

A single candle can dispel a lot of darkness.

Our ancestor Avraham was counter-cultural, resisting the religious and social trends of his day, earning the blessing of being a father of multitudes:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּטנָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִיםאִםתּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – And He took him outside, and said: ‘Look at the heavens, and count the stars if you could even count them’; and He said to him: ‘So will your children be.’

Because he was different, he was treated to a different fate, outside and beyond the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

What made Avraham different was that his belief in one God was that he expressed that belief by dedicating his life to kindness, justice, and education. On this basis, before destroying Sodom, something remarkably unusual happens. God has a soliloquy, where the Torah narrates God’s thoughts:

 וַה אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. וְאַבְרָהָםהָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּבוֹכֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּטלְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה עַלאַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר, עָלָיו  Hashem said to Himself: “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. I know him; he will command his children and his house after him, that they may observe the way of Hashem, to do what is right and just; so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (18:17-19)

This incident takes place because, remarkably, God feels obligated to tell Avraham. The story implies that otherwise, Avraham would wake up the next morning and find two smoldering cities blown off the horizon, and, believing that any innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer be able to teach that Hashem is just, which is precisely his line of questioning when he, again, remarkably, challenges God:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע – Avraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?!” (18:23)

Avraham continues:

 חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְהֲשֹׁפֵט כָּלהָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. – “It profanes You to do such a thing – to slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should exactly be the same as the wicked – it profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?!” (18:25)

Hashem accepts Avraham’s fundamental premise that collective punishment is unjust, and it would be wrong to destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has shown Avraham that this principle is correct, Avraham negotiates how many innocents are worth saving:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַלנָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְהַפַּעַםאוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. – And he said: “Please, don’t be angry, Hashem, and I will speak just once more. Perhaps ten innocents can be found there?” And Hashem said: “I will not destroy the city for the ten’s sake.” (18:32)

Of course, God did rescue the innocents, in the form of Lot and his family, and then God destroys the city anyway, as God was always going to.

The seed for this entire highly unusual dialogue is for the stated reason that Avraham is going to teach his descendants about justice and integrity – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Unlike Noah, who accepts God’s condemnation of his world, Avraham establishes a precedent followed by Moshe, Jonah, and many others of brazenness towards Heaven, for Heaven’s sake – חוצפה כלפי שמיא. And we must not think this is sacrilege – it’s the exact opposite! Hashem very literally invites and prompts Avraham into the argument. There is a reason Avraham is known as the Hebrew, the stranger standing alone on the other side – אברהם העברי.

Avraham was loyal to God and committed to justice, but his loyalties were at odds in this conversation. The test is that God would appear unjust to see whether Avraham swayed towards justice or to God. By appearing to lose the staged argument, God demonstrates a commitment to justice, paradoxically validating Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Avraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Avraham’s commitment to justice.

But he cannot teach what he does not yet know! R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God orchestrates the whole conversation simply so that Avraham and his descendants – we the readers – can learn that there is nothing sacred about accepting suffering or wrongdoing.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that there is no satisfactory answer to injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. When there is something you can do to make it right, do not close your eyes and turn away.

Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is, and with good reason considering how personal it is.

While there are diverse philosophical schools of thought about precisely how prayer works and what it does, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that – at least on the surface level – when we pray, God listens.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

The story of Yitzchak’s childhood recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on Yitzchak and sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away.

They eventually got lost in the desert and ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. No mother could bear to watch her child slowly die, and she cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And Hagar had a vision of a nearby oasis and was able to save her son.

This probably seems to conform with a conventional understanding of prayer, yet the story does not credit her prayer as the reason Yishmael was saved:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her. What moved Hashem was the voice of the dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר.

The story never attributes an action to Yishmael; his suffering is entirely passive. Perhaps he cried or groaned in anguish, but whatever he did is not significant enough for the story to record as an action he took.

Yet that invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the story, and probably ought to shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit.

But the Torah tells us that God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this.

Our daily prayers affirm that Hashem is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.

Hashem loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we specify righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילת צדיקים / תפילתן של צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formal rote. Maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Because Hagar’s “proper” prayers weren’t enough; just a single real moment of pain from a sad boy mattered a whole lot more.

As Avraham enters into the covenant, he circumcises himself in his old age. The first we learn of him afterwards, the first act by the first religious person, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he looked for guests:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)

They were no ordinary guests. It turns out that they were angels, on a mission, who anticipated the birth of Yitzchak. Avraham then has an encounter with God, in which God tells him a secret:

וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְהֹוָה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him, the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)

Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sdom! The setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, he actively looks for tired travellers to feed, bathe, and take care of – the anathema of Sdom. So why warn him if he was above it?

Rav Hirsch explains that parsing Hashem’s thoughts carefully, Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham at all.

Hashem shared His plan with Avraham because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing. The conversation stands forever, for בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, to draw a stark contrast.

An old, sick, haggard, and weary Avraham, at his lowest and worst, is the benchmark of humanity, compared to Sdom, a vibrant, wealthy and successful commercial hub.

Rav Hirsch emphasises how this contrast is the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself, entering the covenant that could set him apart, did not. He was in Mamre, land belonging to his old friends and allies. Yet he was out looking for pagan idolators to entertain; there was no-one else he could expect! He gave his mysterious guests incredible luxury, freshly prepared.

That is the first encounter the world has with people of the covenant.

Avraham himself was overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His relationship with greater mankind was only enhanced.

Our role model was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on spirituality and mystical holiness. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions. The descendants of Avraham are charged with being the most humane of men – to show a better way to be; with open hearts, and open hands.

One of the most prominent and enigmatic stories in the entire Jewish tradition is the Binding of Isaac – the Akeida. It is held up as a textbook example for discussions of right and wrong and cemented Avraham from wandering nomad into the pantheon of Jewish Patriarchs.

Reasonable people have disagreed for thousands of years about precisely which part of the story constituted the test, but what’s interesting is the way the Torah subtly describes Avraham’s struggle to comply:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son whom you love – Yitzchak – and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice… (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – קַח-נָא.

Framing it as a request colors the turmoil Avraham faced – we can conceivably imagine Avraham exercising his choice and refusing – which some commentators argue he should have.

As Avraham approached the mountain, he found his task getting harder:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw the place from a distance. (22:4)

The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of Hashem’s names, describing the attribute of immanent omnipresence, that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם.

Something did not feel right. He’d opposed human sacrifice his whole life, and yet here he was; about to destroy his life’s work and his family legacy, so he felt alienated – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.

At the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah doesn’t simply record that Avraham attempted to murder his son. He has to force his hand to pick up the knife – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.

The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham wanted to resist what he was doing. The Kotzker explains that this description of Avraham’s cumbersome muscle movements truly reflected God’s desire, unkown to Avraham still, which was that Yitzchak would remain unharmed.

After this gut-wrenching struggle, an angel comes to stop him, and the test is thankfully over.

This story is held in the highest esteem, which is one of the reasons we read it on Rosh Hashana.

Not because it is a story about blind obedience and faith, but quite possibly, the exact opposite.

We can take strength from the fact that for every single one of us – even the greatest among us – the lines between right and wrong were not so clear cut.