וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙
בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק׃
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.”
וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃
The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. (Gen. 21:10-11)
It would be hard to accuse Avraham of not having guts. Courageous he was when he picked up and left his father’s house, for an unknown land. He didn’t flinch in the face of adult circumcision and did not hesitate for a moment to stand up and welcome strangers into his tent. He dared to confront God by pushing back against the destruction of Sdom and Amorrah (despite losing that battle), and always seemed like he acted with bravery and courage.
We often look at the story of the Akedah, when God tells Avraham: “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,” as a failure of courage (think Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling). If he stood up and advocated for one righteous person in Sdom, why then not argue on behalf of his beloved son???
In hindsight, he was saved by a messenger of God, which turned out alright in the end (despite the trauma incurred), but the real test, and subsequent failure, of courage, came not with God but with his wife Sarah. Twice Avraham cowered under the pressure. First, (Ch. 20) when he had Sarah pose as his sister during his sojourn in Egypt, and a second time when Sarah commands him to banish Hagar, the mother of his son Ishmael. Without fail, Avraham did as he was told. God, of course, stepped him to comfort and console, telling Avraham not to worry and that Hagar and Ishmael will be taken care of, however, the family dynamic must never have been the same.
Sarah plays a peculiar role here. The obedience and subservience of the ancient Near East wife, as was on clear display in Ch. 18 – as Sarah prepared a spontaneous feast for her unexpected guests – was quickly overturned as jealousy set in, and Sarah found her voice. She who was exiled shortly after arriving in the Land now became the one to banish and exile her rival, Hagar.
There is no greater punishment than exile. Banishment, ex-communication, and cutting off from one’s community is designed to leave one with irreconcilable vulnerability, often a fate worse than death. The irony of Sarah’s banishment of Hagar and Ishmael is that no one people has been infatuated as we have with the notion and experience of exile. Hagar’s fate might have been pre-determined as she may have been as her namesake “the-stranger,” but aren’t we told to love the stranger? Wasn’t Sarah herself the stranger just about a minute ago?
We know that despite Sarah’s inability to not feel threatened by her rival Hagar, Ishmael indeed grows to be a great nation unto himself, one that we see today more our rival rather that our relative. She is preoccupied by the eventual exclusive success of Yitzhak and concludes that there is only room for one son here in this Land.
We are a people who have known exile more than we have known sovereignty. As Prof. Arnold Eisen explains, in his book Galut : modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming, that “the loss and leaving home stamp all the narratives of Genesis – from Cain the perpetual wanderer, through Abraham’s departures for Canaan and beyond, to the final descent into Egypt.” Our entire narrative is about the relationship between Exile and Home. We were formed in exile, and even after the establishment of the State of Israel, we still maintained an exilic mentality.
In this short glimpse of historical role reversal, Sarah reminds us that we, the exiled, can in turn also become the ones who exile. Our Torah narrative strengthens this concept as later in the book of Deuteronomy we must annihilate the seven indigenous Canaanite nations before we can inherit the Land.
Today, we must ask the question about our place in the Land. Is our place and hold of our Land not threatened by the place and presence of the other? Did Hagar and Ishmael actually pose a threat to Sarah’s progeny? There are those who claim that any presence of non-Jews as citizens of Israel would threaten the Jewish majority of the State. There are then others who would say that our very Jewishness should be measured by how we treat the Hagars and Ishmaels in our midst, and if we don’t welcome the stranger we cannot, in fact, be Jewish.
Our tradition tells us that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – What occurred to the ancestors, is a sign for the children.” As we reflect upon Sarah’s actions is this a case of “מעשה אמהות…” – that what our mothers did, we are also destined to do? If so, how do we escape our pre-destined fate and understand that with power can also come
Without spoiling the ending, we know that Isaac and Ishmael reconcile over the death of their father. It is unlikely that Ishmael forgot that he was banished but managed to find a way to reconcile.
There are in fact signs of making significant inroads. We probably couldn’t be further from any negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, but it should be noted that the Netanyahu government has gone to great lengths to foster support for the Palestinian-Israeli (Arab citizens of Israel). What is commonly known as ‘Government Resolution 922’, and recently reported here, has resulted in more investment in the Israeli-Arab sector, specifically in infrastructure, than in any previous administration, which breaks a stereotype and goes against popular belief.
Parshat VaYeira gives us a glimpse of what it feels to speak up on behalf of the powerless and also to look back when we have created greater vulnerability and homelessness. May we find those spaces to welcome and make room for Hagar and Ishmael as we are firmly rooted in our own place.