Ritualwell

Tradition & Innovation

Reading Ishmael & Isaac on Yom Kippur

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman

We recommend lifting up this passage about Ishmael & Isaac on Yom Kippur as an example of peace-making

Especially for those of us who use the Torah passages on the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the Binding of Isaac for Rosh Hashanah, we want to recommend that you read from the Sefer Torah the passage in Gen 25: 7–11 on the reconciliation of the two brothers as they come together to bury their dangerous father Avraham/Ibrahim/Abraham.

We say “reconciliation” because the passage ends with Isaac going to live at the wellspring that saved Hagar’s and Ishmael’s lives, the one that Hagar named Be’er Lakhai Ro’i, Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. This is the passage, from Everett Fox’s translation in The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1995):

Genesis 25:7 Now these are the days and years of the life of Avraham, which he lived:
Genesis 25:8 A hundred years and seventy years and five years, then he expired. Avraham died at a good
ripe-age, old and satisfied (in days), and was gathered to his kinspeople.
Genesis 25:9 Yitzhak and Yishmael his sons buried him, in the cave of Makhpela, in the field of Efron son
of Tzohar the Hittite, that faces Mamre,
Genesis 25:10 the field that Avraham had acquired from the Sons of Het. There were buried Avraham and
Sara his wife.
Genesis 25:11 Now it was after Avraham's death, that God blessed Yitzhak his son. And Yitzhak settled by
the Well of the Living-one Who-Sees-Me.

It seems to us that the point of Yom Kippur is to make teshuvah and tikkun from mis-deeds of our lives. The reconciliation of the two brothers may be an example that should be lifted up for Yom Kippur, and treated with the importance of a formal Torah reading on that day.

That is pshat. On a more midrashic level, we might say that the ritual of the two goats echoes the  dangers faced by the two brothers – one goat offered up precisely where tradition says Isaac was bound, almost to be offered; and  the other goat is sent away into the wilderness, as Ishmael was. We might see this as “We do not do this to humans any more – God forbid, God forbade! – only to goats.” And then this becomes only a story-telling, not a physical act even toward goats – as if to say, “We don’t do this to animals, either: we only tell the story.”

But perhaps then we have grown enough in our awareness to say, “But even that is not enough. At this time of year we must lift up a positive act of peace-making, and let it find its way into our hearts and even our hands, as we seek to lift up a truer end of the story to affect ourselves in our own generation.”


Rabbi Arthur Waskow is an 87-year-old activist who regularly gets arrested for protesting. In 2014, he received T'ruah's first Lifetime Achievement Award as a "Human Rights Hero." He founded and directs the Shalom Center for justice, peace, and healing of the Earth. He lives in Philadelphia. Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman has co-authored Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World; The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Peace and Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Freedom Journeys: Tales of Exodus & Wilderness across Millennia, as well as articles on new ceremonies for women and new midrash. She lives in Philadelphia.

Found in: Pursuing Justice, Yom Kippur


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