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Four Immortal Lessons from the High Holy Days

Immortal stories fill our heads and souls on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin encourages us to read these stories and think about how to approach the challenges life presents within our families, our communities, and our world. Rosh Hashanah represents an opportunity to offer forgiveness and to reflect on God.


A passage found in the tractate of Megillah 31a specifies the Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I would like to focus on three of those readings:

  1. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read in Genesis 21 about the birth of Isaac. Sarah demands that Avraham banish Hagar and Yishmael from their camp and he reluctantly complies. Isaac becomes the second of our Avot, while Yishmael also becomes the head of a great nation.
  2. In the Haftarah of the first day (I Samuel 1-2), Chana is barren. She prays to God for a son and promises to dedicate him to the Lord all the days of his life. God grants her wish. She gives birth to Samuel, dedicates him to the Tabernacle in Shilo and he grows up to become the Prophet Samuel.
  3. On the second day, we read the story of the Akedah (Genesis 22). After Avraham waited for 100 years for a son to inherit him – for Isaac – God tells him to sacrifice his beloved son on Mount Moriah. At the last moment, an Angel stays his hand and he sacrifices a ram instead of his son.

The question is WHY? Rosh Hashanah is called היום הרת עולם – “This day the world was called into being”. It’s the birthday of the world – so why don’t we read the Creation story from Genesis, Chapter 1?! Why, instead, do we read these complicated family sagas about a few specific fathers and mothers and children? I would like to present four replies:

  1. One classic reply is that Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, “the Day of Remembrance”, and one third of Musaf is dedicated to Zikhronot, verses of Remembrance. Indeed, we learn in the tractate of Rosh Hashanah fol. 10b תניא: ר’ אליעזר… בראש השנה נפקדה שרה, רחל וחנה… – “Rabbi Eliezer said: Sarah and Rachel and Chana were remembered, i.e., conceived a child, on Rosh Hashanah”. Genesis 21 begins: וה’ פקד את שרה כאשר אמר  —  “and God remembered Sarah as he had promised”. Chana says (v. 11): אם ראה תראה בעני אמתך וזכרתני ולא תשכח את אמתיך… — “If you will look upon the suffering of your maidservant and will remember me and not forget your maidservant.” And later on (v. 19): וידע אלקנה את חנה אשתו ויזכריה ה’  — “and Elkana knew his wife Chana and the Lord remembered her”.


  1. A second classic reply is that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we repeatedly ask God to forgive us for the sake of our ancestors, which is called Zekhut Avot or, in our day many would say, Zekhut Avot v’Imahot. And thus, for example, we pray at the conclusion of the Zikhronot section of Musaf: “and there is no forgetfulness before the Throne of Your Glory; and the binding of Isaac — for the sake of his descendants — may You remember it today with mercy”.


  1. The third explanation is connected to the famous Mishnah in Yoma (8:9) where we are told that on Yom Kippur we must atone for sins Bein adam lamakom, between a person and God; and Bein adam lahaveiro, between one person and another. Genesis 21 is about the challenges of Bein adam lahaveiro, the complicated family dynamics of Avraham, Sarah and Hagar; Isaac and Yishmael. I Samuel 1-2 is about the rivalry between Chana and Penina and about Bein adam lamakom — Chana’s vow to dedicate Samuel to God. And Genesis 22, the Akedah, is about Bein adam lamakom – Avraham’s test of faith in God.


  1. Finally, as Rabbi Sidney Greenberg and others have pointed out, these three readings focus on three young boys: Isaac, Yishmael, Samuel. This reminds us of the classic teaching in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:

שכל המאבד נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא,

וכל המקיים נפש אחת, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא.

“For whoever destroys one life is considered by Scripture as if he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever sustains one life is considered by Scripture as if he had sustained the entire world.”

We must treat each child and each human being as if he/she is equal in value in the entire world.


As we listen to these immortal stories on Rosh Hashanah, let us dwell upon these four lessons:

  • God remembers;
  • May God forgive us for the merit of our Ancestors;
  • May we ask forgiveness from God and from our families and friends;
  • And may we remember — as wars continue to rage in Ukraine and elsewhere – שכל המקיים נפש אחת, כאילו קיים עולם מלא, that whoever sustains one life is considered as if he had sustained the entire world!

Shanah Tovah from Schechter!

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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