FROM A VERY young age, sitting dutifully through Rosh Hashanah services and sermons, I pondered the sages’ decision to focus on the complex narratives found in the holiday Torah readings. In recent years I have experimented with dramatizing and exploring the deeply relevant themes of these tales — the miraculous conception of 90-year-old Sarah in the first day’s reading and the ancestral-archetypical myth of Abraham and Isaac’s pilgrimage to Mount Moriah on the second day — as we mark the holiday known as Yom Harat Olam, The Day On Which the World Was Born.
One story fascinates me to this day; it is a nugget both theologically and theatrically compelling, the often overlooked and relatively insignificant description of the weaning feast: “…And Abraham made a big feast on the day that Isaac was weaned…” (Genesis 21:8)
The reason for the feast is a riddle and an anomaly, and it is the first and only weaning celebration recorded in the Bible. Rabbinic midrash explains that the feast was called to dispel rumors that the baby was not really born to Abraham and Sarah — two senior citizens past their prime. At the celebration, Abraham asked Sarah to publicly breastfeed their son for the last time. Just after Sarah marked the letting go of Isaac, off her breast and into the world, she sees him playing with, and some say being abused by, his older half-brother, Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Sarah’s rage is relentless and, with God’s approval, she convinces the reluctant Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the compound, ensuring Isaac becomes the one true heir to Abraham’s fortunes and spiritual legacy.
Delving into this tale raises many questions: Why is this the only weaning feast in the Bible, and why has this tradition vanished? How old was Isaac when he was weaned? And what really happened between Isaac and Ishmael that provoked such wrath? Rereading this tale demands that we ask ethical questions as well: Now aware of the painful political repercussions of Sarah’s decision to deport a mother and her child, how are we to respond? What lesson do we teach a modern-day Isaac, sitting in the synagogue on his mother’s lap?
Perhaps this Torah story is included in our liturgy because Rosh Hashanah is a first page in a new book, full of promise, change, and opportunity. But can we evolve, that is, wean ourselves away from old habits and grow into more mature and responsible beings?
What if we are to also wean ourselves from the myths, beliefs, and doctrines that once served us, but now no longer do? Can we wean ourselves from Sarah’s anger, from her maternal zeal, from behaviors that alienate the others, and mark a new page in our storybook of hope and family co-existence? Can this birthday of the world help us celebrate the joy of all those who walk this earth? This year on Rosh Hashanah, can we retell the weaning feast and transcend its tragic elements?
As the New Year approaches, I hear the words of Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a Sufi poet, son of Ishmael, gently reminding me: “Wean yourself, little by little wean yourself, this is the gist of what I have to say.”