Listening to the Hagars of Today: On Sanctuary and Immigration

Our sacred texts are filled with disturbing narratives, and this week is no different.

We revisit the story of Hagar this Shabbat as we read parashat Vayera in the book of Genesis. It is a familiar story to us as we just read it a month ago as part of the High Holidays. Our ancient ancestors Abraham and Sarah find themselves childless, and in order to produce the next generation in order to fulfill the covenant they have made with God, Sarah gives Abraham her handmaid Hagar as a concubine. Hagar conceives and gives birth to a son, Ishmael.

Later, Sarah does have a child, Isaac. And from the beginning this leads to tension, until Sarah demands that Abraham cast Hagar out into the wilderness:

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.  But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.  As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.  When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes,  and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.  God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

The story is disturbing because of the actions of our ancestors. Our focus when we read these verses should be on Hagar, for it is through the actions of Abraham at Sarah’s behest that she and her child become refugees. They are cast out from the home that they know, given little provisions and perhaps even less hope, and sent out into the wilderness.

When all seems lost, and Hagar resigns herself to the death of her son and maybe even herself, she cries out. And it is God who hears her cry, responds favorably, and directs her to the water that will save their lives.

We are surrounded by the cries of those in need all around us. To this day there are those like Hagar who have been cast off, sent out of their land to an uncertain and dangerous future. We are also surrounded by the cries of those who left their land of origin of their own accord hoping to make of themselves a “great nation” in a new place of opportunity, only to have their very presence and existence threatened.

Indeed, this is the story of Abraham and Sarah, who, as we read in last week’s portion of Lech Lecha, are called forth by God to leave their land of origin to a new place in order to make a better future and start a new narrative for themselves and their descendants. It being Abraham and Sarah, immigrants to this new land of Canaan, casting off another immigrant back towards the place from where she came as a means to ensure their own security, is a form of tragic irony.

And sadly it is a story that continues today. In our own country of refuge, of opportunity, of equality, there are those who seek to build walls rather than bridges, close doors rather than open them. There are those who are under threat of expulsion, of deportation, of being cast off into the wilderness.

As Jews, we need to be like God and listen to these cries. The paradigmatic spiritual narrative of our tradition is the Exodus, the story of migration, of leaving a place of oppression and moving towards a place of freedom. Indeed based on this story the Torah instructs us almost three dozen times that we should no oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And in addition to our sacred texts, our own Jewish history is one of immigration, sometimes chosen, and sometimes forced.

For these reasons and more, we as Jews need to be concerned with the plight of the immigrant and refugee.

There is a renewed call in our time to rise up to meet this challenge. The New Sanctuary Movement is one that seeks to combine the energy and resources of faith communities across denominational lines to provide aid for those who are under threat. This can range from providing education to support services and necessities all the way to physical sanctuary. Different congregations make different decisions of what they can do based on their capacity, and synagogues across the country are investigating how they can be a part of this movement.

Our congregation is no different, and Temple Beth Hatfiloh, alongside our neighboring faith communities, is in conversation about what it would mean to be a sanctuary congregation and how we can continue to support immigrants and refugees. [A congregational meeting to discuss this will be held this Sunday, November 5 at 2:30. I hope you will join me.]

As we read the story of Hagar we again are reminded of the importance of listening to those who are powerless, displaced and in need. Let us hear her cry, and respond to the Hagars of our time.

Our sacred texts are filled with disturbing narratives. And that is what makes them sacred, for it is those narratives that force us to listen and learn, transcend our selves and transform our communities.

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I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

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