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.

Enough

rabin mural

One of the most moving parts of my trip to Israel a few months ago wasn’t even a part of my official itinerary. Once my program of Interfaith Partners for Peace ended, I spend a few days on my own which included a visit to Yohanna’s uncle Eli and his family in Ramat Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is a place I haven’t spent much time, so I was glad to be able to spend a “Tel Aviv Shabbat,” which, since it is the capital of secular Israel, does not involve synagogue and prayer but beaches and socializing. Eli said he would take me on a bike ride, and so we got in the car and drove to a park close to the beach. There we rented two public bikes, much like they have in Seattle or New York, and we set off on a trip into the city.

We rode to the beach and along a promenade, dodging the masses of people walking along the boardwalk or sitting in cafes. We rode along hotels, down city streets along the beach and into Yafo. We then turned and rode deeper into the city, through historic neighborhoods, past landmarks like Independence Hall, where the State of Israel was declared by David Ben Gurion, and the Habimah theater.

It was then I realized that we would be passing Rabin Square, and my heart started to swell. Rabin Square is the large open public square where, following a speech given at a peace rally (it was then called Kings of Israel Square, Kikar Malche Yisrael), Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. That was November 4, 1995—20 years ago this coming Wednesday.

Rabin’s murder is one of those events that I remember where I was when I heard the news. Still buoyed by the hope of the Oslo Accords, the handshake on the White House lawn, the promise of mutual recognition and peace, Rabin’s killing was a shattering blow. To know that it was perpetrated by a Jewish extremist who was against the peace process made it even worse.

Since that time, while I had visited Rabin’s grave in Jerusalem, I had never had the chance to travel to Tel Aviv to be at that spot. When Eli and I rode our bikes, we drew closer to the square and approached from the southern end. We then rode the length of the (large) square to the northern end, under the balcony where Rabin spoke to the steps he descended where he was shot and where a memorial stands today. rabin site

The place where he died is a memorial of misshapen stones. Small bronze circles mark the position of Rabin and the shooter and others at the time of the events. A bust of Rabin overlooks the site, and a memorial wall is just to the north on an adjacent building. It was very moving.

Rabin’s assassination is all the more tragic because in the 20 years since, we have not seen the realization of peace. We have seen increasing cycles of violence, including a rise in attacks very recently.

Every year around the anniversary, I turn back to Rabin’s words. The former military general turned statesman had the power to inspire not just because of who he was, but also because of what he said. On the lawn of the White House in 1993 the day he and Yasir Arafat signed the Statement of Principles, he said in his gravelly voice:

Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians – We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough

It is impossible to tell what would have happened had Rabin lived. Historians and commentators can debate whether or not we would have seen the realization of a lasting peace if he had lived. But we can continue to grasp onto the spirit of his words, a spirit that focused not on the past, but on the future. Not on what was but what could be. Not on hatreds but on hopes.

This week’s Torah portion includes the famous story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son on the top of a mountain as a sign of devotion to God. At the last minute, after the altar has been built, after Isaac has been tied down, after Abraham raises the knife to do the deed, an angel calls out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” (Genesis 22:12) The killing is averted, a ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.

In other words, the angel calls out: “Enough!”

Let us remember, on this the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, this one word: Enough.

Enough of hatred and violence.

Enough of injustice and dehumanization.

Enough of fear and terror.

Enough of the sacrifice of children.

Enough.

God Tested Abraham. And Abraham Returned the Favor.

This week in our Torah reading cycle we come to parashat Vayera. While in the first couple of portions we have discrete stories being told each week-first about creation, then about Noah-and later in Genesis we will tell the Joseph saga over several weeks, this week’s portion is packed with several very dense and powerful stories about our ancient ancestors.

This week’s Torah portion also takes us back a few weeks to the High Holidays, for these are the stories we read as part of our Rosh Hashanah services. These stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac are told and retold, and are some of the most familiar in the Torah. We recently wrestled with them, and we will wrestle with them again.

One of those stories is the Akedah, Hebrew for “binding,” which is chapter 22 of Genesis. It is in this story that God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah where he is to be offered up as a sacrifice to God. Abraham takes his son and the wood necessary to build an altar and sets off on the three day journey to the location. Upon climbing the mountain, Isaac asks his father about the animal for sacrifice, and Abraham replies that “God will provide.” Once they get to the summit, Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac to it. Raising his knife to kill his son, an angel calls out and tells Abraham to stop, that he is not to do it. Abraham sees a ram in the thicket and sacrifices it instead, and the angel blesses Abraham for heeding God.akedah

[In a happy interfaith coincidence, we are reading this story this week soon after our Muslim brothers and sisters celebrated Eid al-Adha, the holiday which marks the story in the Koran of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son Ismail. The sharing of these stories, albeit in different forms, is a powerful spiritual link between our two faiths.]

This is a troubling story, and a puzzling story. A conventional understanding is that God is “testing” Abraham’s loyalty, and that Abraham, in going through the steps to sacrifice his son, passes the test. God doesn’t want human blood, but God wants obedience.

But as we know, being Jews who wrestle with text and create oceans of commentary, the conventional understanding is only one understanding. When we confront the story year after year, both on the High Holidays and as part of the weekly Torah reading cycle, we do so with fresh eyes, with a new perspective, with another year of life and experience under our belts.

Indeed, one of the blessings of our community is the fact that Howard Schwartz, a TBH member, wrestles with this story year after year on our behalf, presenting new insight and understandings of the story on Rosh Hashanah. Whether speaking from the bimah or leading a discussion on the second day, Howard always has probing questions and challenges for thought.

This year during the discussion I could not shake the idea that Abraham was not as passive as we portray him to be. The person who challenged God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, arguing with God to save the cities if 10 righteous people could be found within (Genesis 18); and the person who brought his distress to God in response to Sarah’s request to banish Hagar (Genesis 21); now silently and obediently goes to do what many would consider a terrible act?

But maybe, Abraham is not being passive and obedient. Maybe Abraham is being just as rebellious as ever, demonstrating some of the “holy chutzpah” which has defined his being up until this point. For Abraham is a party to this covenant with God, and knows a few things about the terms of the agreement. Abraham knows that covenant is meant to continue through his descendants, and that his descendants are meant to be numerous. So by allowing Abraham to kill his son, God is either planning to provide a new heir at a later date (probably not likely), or else God will be violating the terms of this sacred agreement. Abraham is betting that God won’t go back on God’s word.

So the story is about God testing Abraham. But Abraham then tests God. What is the nature of the tests?

The story starts out:

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.”  And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.”

God tests Abraham, as the text says, by asking him to take his son to Moriah to be sacrificed. But what if, in order to pass the test, Abraham is not supposed to say, “OK,” but he is supposed to say, “no way!” That refusing was not disobedience, but rather in order to pass the test, Abraham was supposed to refuse. God wanted to see if Abraham would abide by the covenant, understanding the need for an heir, especially after Ishmael was banished. Would Abraham uphold the covenant?, God is testing. But by carrying out the request, Abraham is actually calling God’s bluff and thus testing God, to see if God will let Abraham carry out what it is God requested.

In other words, God’s test is verses 1-2. At verse 3 the tables are turned and Abraham is testing God.

The story plays out, and God blinks. Though God told Abraham to do it, God didn’t really mean it, and had to come clean and stop him from doing it. God then has to cover God’s tracks by claiming that is what was meant to happen all along. Or, on a deeper level, by not “withholding his son” Abraham validated and redefined the covenant by proving that the ability to challenge God is a hallmark of what it means to be in relationship with God.

Thus the implications for us reading this story is that the Torah teaches we are not meant to comply with an unquestioning obedience to God. On the other hand we are meant to challenge and to question. We are meant to challenge and question God, tradition, authority and convention.

For isn’t this what has defined us as a people?

From ancient times to now we question and challenge. A recent Pew study of the American Jewish landscape portrays an ever changing people willing to confront the conventions of what it means to be Jewish. It demonstrates that the definition of Jewishness is dynamic. What is static is the connection to Judaism itself. Similarly our own personal relationships with God may change over time. What doesn’t change is the idea of God itself.

Our ancients understood this in terms of covenant. We are in covenant with the divine and we are in covenant with each other. That does not change. But as Abraham demonstrated, what does change is how we understand and define that covenant.