One of the most emotionally difficult lines of Jewish liturgy is found towards the end of Psalm 27, which we read throughout the high holy day season. The poet — who had praised God for being his fortress against enemies and then begged God not to abandon him — suddenly blurts out, “Though my father and my mother forsake me, God will take me in.” This one verse of poetry which moves with such brutal agility between despair and faith brings together two very complex ideas: that a person’s parents could abandon her and that even in the midst of this most primal abandonment experience, God would pick that person up and take her in. How could or would any parent abandon his or her child? What does it mean to say that anyone so utterly abandoned by family and society could ever find sufficient love in the arms of God to be able to keep living?
I asked myself both of these questions repeatedly this summer after reading Leah Vincent’s memoir, Cut Me Loose. Vincent was born into a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbinic family, yet early on in her life she was at odds with her community’s rigid intellectual, social and sexual restrictions for girls. From the age of sixteen, Vincent found herself, for all practical purposes, abandoned by her parents. Their response to her emerging nonconformity was to send her far away from home into the world of women’s yeshivot, denying her money and communication and treating her as an outcast, as she slowly left her community, then barely existed on the edges of society. The God of her upbringing, the very authoritarian One she was taught to believe in, exploded as an anchor of her faith. As self-destructive as she became in her desperate search for love and acceptance, Vincent survived her isolated teen years, went to college and graduate school, and is now a successful writer and activist with a family of her own. As she came to accept that she was not evil or detestable and that she was worthy of unconditional love, Vincent gave up on the God she was taught to rely upon, as well as the Judaism of her youth.
Leah Vincent’s very dark portrayal of her life within and outside of ultra-Orthodoxy is her particular story, and should not be generalized to every ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl at odds with her community. Still, it is a frightening narrative that reminds us of how vulnerable to abuse and abandonment children in any society can be, especially when they are different from those around them. What saddened me almost as much as her story is how she rejected the childhood relationship with God that she had, in order to survive. She never tells us if, as she matured, she grew into a different relationship with the God of Psalms who would take her in even as her former world forsook her for not bending to its will.
Similarly, I am always troubled by what it means to have a relationship with the God we encounter in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. God simultaneously commands Abraham to cast off his wife and son, Hagar and Yishmael, then saves them as they are dying in the desert. God tells Abraham to accede to his wife, Sarah’s demand that he kick mother and child out of the household, to strengthen her son Isaac’s control over Abraham’s estate. This is the cruel calculus of family politics, and God’s reassurances of Yishmael’s future success are scant comfort for Abraham as he throws his family members into the wilderness. However, when Hagar casts her son under a bush to avoid seeing him die, then cries out in agony, God personally attends to her pain, providing her with water and comfort. Yishmael, who merits not even a mention of his name in this story, survives and becomes the founder of a new nation. It is a truly unfathomable God who would marginalize a woman and her child for the sake of family inheritance politics, then swoop down on that woman and save her life.
Without extending the analogy too far, I suggest that, like Leah Vincent, our memoirist, Hagar our heroine first experiences God as society tells her to experience God. She encounters a distorted image of God Who reflects and inspires divisive hierarchies of insiders and outsiders, the powerful and the powerless. This is the God who Abraham hears and obeys even though the Torah tells us that he is deeply disturbed by the divine command. Abraham’s society, from parents in families to heads of state, has taught its citizens to hear God in that way.
Yet in the silence of the blistering desert, Hagar hears an entirely different voice of God, a voice filled with compassion and reassurance that she and her son will not die because they matter, no matter their status or who in the establishment they threaten. Far away from power politics and ruthless traditions, with nothing left and nothing left to lose, Hagar throws herself completely open to the God of desperate last resorts. God tells her, “Even if your family should abandon you, I will not. I will give you love. I will show you the path to life.”
Hagar, Yishmael and Leah Vincent are wandering the deserts and the deserted streets of the world right now. The family of nations is watching their desperate mass migration from the most vicious places on earth, and is doing little, if anything to help them. I understand very well that at times realpolitik demands that we behave with collective self interest. However, legitimate concerns about international terrorism and demographic upheaval should not be parleyed into pseudo-diplomatic and self serving excuses as children are dying in their attempts to escape from hell. Have we really learned nothing from the Shoah? Shame and more shame on us. The Hagars, Yishmaels and Leahs of the world are running out of time in the desert and on their life rafts. We best learn quickly from the God of desperate last resorts and do something fast.