Learning from God, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael about Immigration and Refugees

I’ve always been bothered by the behavior of Sarah and Abraham in this week’s Torah reading.  And curious why this story of the expulsion of Abraham’s second wife Hagar and his first child Ishmael is read not only as part of Parashat Vayera, but also read on Rosh Hashanah.  Adding to the mystery, the mishnah lists a different Torah reading for today, one which mentions the calendar cycle including the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.  The rabbis believed there were critical messages we needed to hear from these stories as we begin and celebrate our new year, a holiday dedicated to the celebration of the birth of the world and humanity, as well as in our yearly cycle of reading the Torah.  What messages and lessons should we learn from this cautionary tale?

Let us focus in on a part of our Torah portion, Genesis 21: 9-21, paying .  to some details, linguistic choices and selected rabbinic commentary which have contemporary resonance, challenges and warnings for today’s reality.

A few notes of introduction.  Our story begins with a blended family after Sarah instructed Abraham to take her longtime handmaid Hagar as a second wife and have a child with her.  Hagar is from Egypt and her name has the same Hebrew spelling as the word ha-ger, the stranger or foreigner or the Other.

As a side note, there is a foreshadowing of the Jewish experience of being a foreigner in connection to Hagar.  It is no coincidence that Hagar, the Other, is from Egypt.  The Torah frequently tells us to remember our experience of being gerim in Egypt and to learn from that experience how we must treat others:

וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And you must lovingly treat the ger for you were gerim in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19).  This week’s Torah reading shows some of the ways we can easily fail in the fulfilling of this commandment.

We learn in last week’s parashat Lech Lecha that Ishmael, Hagar’s son, is given his name by an angel of God, with the meaning of his name explained that God has heard Hagar’s suffering.  Our morning’s story subtly dehumanizes Hagar and Ishmael with Ishmael becoming nameless, referred to as simply the boy or Hagar’s son.  With the disappearance of his name, we hear a hint of the deafening of the ears to her suffering.  Hagar too has a shift in names which signal a diminishing of her status.  Previously she was called the shifcha, handmaid, and was connected to Sarah, or ha-isha, the woman, now she gets called the amah – a slave or servant with no indication of a relationship with Sarah.

Something happens that upsets Sarah.  We don’t know what.  And Sarah demands that Hagar and her son, be banished from their joint household.   All we are told is that Sarah saw the son of Hagar mezahek – playing or laughing or doing something related to Yizhak, whose name is derived from the same root, lezahek, which means to laugh.  A number of midrashim and commentators, perhaps out of a desire to justify Sarah’s actions and blame Ishmael, choose to explain this verb mezahek in deeply negative terms suggesting he was involved in sexual abuse, shooting arrows at Isaac, killing and idolatry.  This is a familiar trope.  When you want to diminish someone’s worth, convict or expel, it is common practice to label or accuse that person of being a criminal or dangerous.

But the word mezahek suggests something more innocent, perhaps Ishmael being Yitzhaq like, or copying Isaac.

Sarah feels threatened by Ishmael doing something too familiar to her son, something which might indicate him as equal.  Sarah’s solution is to demand their expulsion, without referring to them by name, and proclaim that the son of that slave woman will not inherit his father’s resources alongside his half-brother Isaac.   Another familiar trope – there is not enough resources to go around.  She will ensure he does not take from Isaac what she believes is HIS inheritance, what belongs to HIM and him alone.

Perhaps as a correction to Sarah’s demand, before Abraham’s death, in a later story in Genesis, we learn that Abraham personally gives Ishmael and his additional sons by concubines, gifts, making sure they are not left with nothing (25:6).  And both Ishmael and Isaac, show up as equal sons at the moment of their father’s death, burying their father together (25:9).

Sarah, in her demand to get rid of Hagar and her son uses a rare and strong verb.

גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ    Expel this slave woman and her son.

This verb is used only one other place in the Torah.  It is used in the 10th plague (Exodus 11:1) describing that the Jews will be forcibly removed and driven out of Egypt, permanently ending their ties with their former home.

Sarah’s order is clear – permanent expulsion.  Deportation.  To make this order happen, Sarah turns to her husband Abraham, and gives him instructions in no uncertain terms.  With this order, we are given a rare peek into Abraham’s emotions:

וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃

The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.

It is not clear what distressed Abraham and about which son he is concerned.  Rashi suggests that there are two very different ways to understand his distress.  Abraham might be distressed by Sarah’s demands to banish his son Ishmael. OR Abraham might be distressed by hearing Ishmael had taken to negative behavior.

Responding to his distress, God tells Abraham not to be distressed about the boy or your slave woman, and that his offspring shall be through Isaac and that God will also make Ishmael into a nation as he too is Abraham’s seed.  God counsels Abraham to hear Sarah’s voice concerning what she had spoken.

כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ

It is striking that God doesn’t instruct Abraham to do what Sarah has asked, rather to hear her voice.  What does it mean to hear someone’s voice? Is it possible that God is instructing Abraham to hear Sarah’s pain, listening to the fears in her voice, and finding a way to addressing those worries, instead of heeding her orders?

With this message from God, Abraham does indeed execute her order.  Rising early in the morning, he sends away his own son and foreign born wife.  They are expelled with no warning, no second chances, no goodbyes and almost no resources to survive.

Abraham, at this point in his life, has ample financial resources (13:2).  He easily could have set up Hagar and Ishmael up with food, shelter, and whatever was needed for them to establish a comfortable new life and the rabbis notice and comment on this unusual and problematic behavior of sending them away with almost nothing (Exodus Rabba 1:1).  Abraham sends away mother and son with only a loaf of bread and skin of water.  The verb used here for sending away, וַֽיְשַׁלְּחֶ֑הָ is the same verb used in Pharoah’s edict to cast the baby boys in the Nile (Exodus 1:22) with the implication that this sending away is meant to cause certain death.

With almost no resources, they quickly finish their water.  Hagar becomes despondent and sends her son away and lifts up her voice to God and cries.  Ishmael, already having been abandoned by his father, is now separated and distanced from his mother.  Though we don’t hear his voice, the Torah tells us God hears the voice of the youth, where he is.

וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֮ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּעַר֒ בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם

The verb choice shema, to hear is a theme and reminds us of the etymology of Ishmael’s name, with God hearing the agony of his mother (Genesis 16).  Along with hearing, the Torah points out God is with him, where he is, as he is.  It is noteworthy, that this is the only time in the Torah where we have this expression of God being unconditionally with someone.

Upon hearing the cries, God instructs Hagar what to do.  Her trauma or perhaps her starvation, is so great, that on her own, she has forgotten how to mother and needs guidance.  She is told to get up, lift up the boy and strengthen her hand on him.  And God reassures her that Ishmael will become a great nation.

Then God opens her eyes and she sees a previously unseen well, a source of vitality, sustenance and possibility.  She fills up her skin of water and lets the boy drink.

Where did the well come from?  Was it there all along and Hagar couldn’t see it until God opened her eyes, expanding her vision OR is she seeing a new well and new possibilities?

Hagar is not the only one in our story who is blinded to different options and resources.  She is fortunate to have her eyes opened by God.  Who else needs this metaphor and action of eyes being opened to new wells, possibilities, and solutions?

Our story ends with learning God is with Ishmael and he grows up in the desert to become a bowsman and his mother finds him a wife.

Our Torah reading is the last time we hear from Sarah and Hagar.  Their only additional mentions are learning of Sarah’s death and burial and Hagar’s name appearing in her son’s genealogy.  Many midrashim associate the binding of Isaac with Sarah’s death, suggesting the trauma of this near sacrifice of her son leads to her death.  However, she actually disappears earlier from the text.  She never reappears alive after giving her order to banish Hagar and her son.

As Hagar and Ishmael are exiled from Sarah’s presence, so too is Sarah exiled from the narrative.  What happens to our fierce mama bear after this demand to banish others?   We don’t know and we don’t hear.  She disappears from the story and has no more agency, presence or voice.  This is Sarah’s final act.   Is the Torah suggesting that causing harm to another and trying to ostracize and banish them is dangerous to your own selfhood and can possibly cause your own demise?

Hagar’s final action is strikingly different from Sarah’s.  Hagar’s act is a redeeming, motherly one.  We learn she gets her son a wife, and with it the beginning of the fulfilment of the divine promise of him fathering a nation.   Hagar is the only biblical woman who is promised her descendants will be too numerous to count (16:10) and is the only woman to find a spouse for her son.  While Sarah seeks to diminish her, the Torah augments her by ascribing to her a number of unique and noteworthy roles and blessings.  Earlier in Genesis, she is the first person to whom an angel of God appears and calls by name and she merits giving a name to God.  This is our foreigner and our Other.  What could the Torah be hoping we learn from this?  Are we being challenged to not undervalue anyone, particularly the foreigner and outsider, as who knows the unique potential of each and every human being.

Sarah’s death and burial are recorded at length in the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah while Hagar’s death is not mentioned.  Is this a commentary by our text desiring to bury the course of action Sarah has chosen?  Or perhaps Hagar’s death is not mentioned because her story, the story of the foreigner, continues to live on?  Or, alternatively, because she represents the other and the foreigner, her death is not deemed sufficiently significant to get a mention?

Where is Isaac in this story?  We don’t know and can only speculate how he is affected when he wakes up the next morning to find his older half-brother and step-mom permanently gone.  Many commentators note how complacent he is when he next appears in the Torah when his father takes him up mount Moriah to be offered as a sacrifice.  And strikingly Abraham descends the mountain without Isaac.  Isaac is absent at the time of his mother’s death and burial and for some time afterwards, returning only as Rebeccah is brought to Abraham’s home (24:62).  And when Isaac next appears, he is coming from Beer Lehai Roi – the place which Hagar named upon being told by an angel of God that she was pregnant with Ishmael.  What is the Torah suggesting about how Isaac might have been impacted by the expulsion and the lengths he travelled to be reunited with Hagar and Ishmael?

The Torah is not just a book of answers, but also a book of questions, challenges and warnings. Today’s reading is an old story, one that we, as Jews, who were gerim in Egypt, and immigrants and a persecuted people know only too well.  But this is not just our particular story as Jews, it is a universal story that is taking place now under our very own watch. This is the story of loved ones, families, torn asunder, expelled from their homes and lands which turned and become hostile to them.  Running and sent away without resources, desperate to find safe passage, even at risk of endangering themselves and their children in that pursuit.

At each turn in our story, I want to scream stop – it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Torah is challenging us to pay attention to our words and actions and remember that our obligation is to make sure to fulfill

וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And you must lovingly treat the ger for you were gerim in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19).

I’m waiting for someone to say – you can’t expel another person – it’s wrong.  And all the more so, you have responsibility for protecting ha-ger – the stranger, and need to love them and take care of them, for we too were gerim in the land of Egypt and are commanded to love the ger.

We are being asked to hear this story and to know it is not a story of yesterday or of history.  It is a story of TODAY and we are challenged to make manifest God’s compassion. We’re reminded of the damage we cause ourselves when we wish harm of others and the wells of possibilities that exist if we only allow our eyes to be opened to them. And we are reminded that God cares about all of God’s children.

About the Author
Rabbi Jill Borodin is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, Washington. Rabbi Borodin and the congregation have been working on issues connected to immigration, refugees and asylum seekers.
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