Hearing the Cries of Mothers and Children

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Dr. Edwin C. Goldberg

Pack your loads on my back. / Force me to your destination. / I will go the mile you demand, and even a mile further. / With your guns and your authority / you can force me to do your will, / but never can you take way my freedom, / for that lies deep within my soul / where your bullets and harsh words / can never reach. / No load is as heavy / as submitting to slavery, / and that load I will never bear.

(Nyein Chan, resident of a refugee camp in Myanmar [Burma])

Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform High Holiday prayer book introduced this year, offers some Torah passages that previously were not chanted in most Reform temples on Rosh HaShanah. These include Genesis 21 (part of this week's Torah portion, Vayeira), which also appears in traditional prayer books. This passage is sure to launch a lot of sermons and provoke some controversy. After all, its main subject is the expulsion of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaiden to Sarah and mother to Abraham's son, Ishmael. Ishmael is also expelled. They almost die.

These words from Mother Teresa resonate with this week's text:

Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. . . . Loneliness . . . is the most terrible poverty.

We also need not be speaking of harsh wilderness conditions. The civilized world is harsh enough.

Think about the "Ishmaels" in many countries and their forced exile from the world they know. While many American students go abroad to study for a semester or two (our son was in Spain last spring), many more students come to the United States from other countries to take advantage of the wider range of educational opportunities offered here than in their own country. Every year, for example, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students study abroad. Given the Chinese government's one-child-per-family laws, many families are sending off their one and only son or daughter to a foreign country for several years, not just a semester.

The anxiety of being so far away from their children must eat away at the mothers.

Of course, the worry that mothers feel for their children is not the only emotion that drives the story of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 21. Initially, it is understandable for us to see Sarah's actions as harsh and Hagar's plight to be a grave injustice. Still, the writer of Genesis doesn't seem to see it that way.

By the time we get to chapter 21, we know that Isaac, Abraham's son through Sarah, is going to be the child through whom God's covenant promise would be realized (Genesis 17:21). Sarah had impatiently tried to circumvent any delay by having Abraham sleep with Hagar in hopes of finally having an heir.

When Hagar conceived, though, the slave girl treated her mistress with contempt (16:4). Even though Hagar was a slave and a subordinate wife to Abraham, her pregnancy gave her status over Sarah in her barrenness. Sarah responds harshly and Hagar runs away into the desert, returning only after God has made a covenant with her about her son. The anxiety level here is sky high, even as it is clear throughout the text that both women want to do right by their children (16:5-15).

When Isaac at last is born to Sarah, the conflict between the mothers reaches its climax. Sarah will tolerate no competition for her son's rightful inheritance, and Abraham could not bring himself to disagree. Though Ishmael was, indeed, the firstborn son of Abraham, the preferential order of rank was given to the firstborn son of the primary wife (21:10-11). Sarah's demand that Hagar be expelled distresses Abraham, but God reminds him that this is part of the covenant plan (21:12). God will fulfill a covenant through Ishmael as well, making a nation of him too (21:13).

And yet, one can't help but feel the pain in the story. As Sarah's nest goes from empty to full, from barrenness to abundance, from cold to hot, Hagar's nest has gone from hot to cold. Death seems to await Hagar and Ishmael.

Walking the desert with her son on her shoulder, Hagar reminds us of the news reports of refugee mothers fleeing war-torn countries, clutching their frightened children. We see Hagar when thinking of single mothers trying to eke out a living in the inner city, or when we read of a young pregnant runaway, lost and alone. We know the stories of women who have had to raise their children in a world that—regardless of its prosperity—still does not know how to care for the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the people at the margins.

Fortunately, the God of Genesis does not forget Hagar. She wandered the desert with her son, rationing the water that was left and giving most—if not all—of it to her son. When it was all gone, she laid him under a bush, hoping for just a little shade, a little comfort before he died of thirst (21:15). She separated herself a good way off from the boy because she could not bear to watch him die, could not stand to hear him calling for her while having nothing to give him.

We then read "God heard the boy's cry" and God's messenger speaks to Hagar. "Have no fear, . . . Get up, lift the boy, and hold him with your hand, for I am going to make of him a great nation" (21:17-18). God then puts a well of water in the middle of a desert and puts hope for abundance in the midst of desperate circumstances. The boy and his mother are both revived and God's promises are kept.

The cries of these mothers are well known to God. The question is, are they heard by us?

As Mother Teresa observed:

Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. . . . Loneliness . . . is the most terrible poverty.

Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (published by CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (published by URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (published by Jewish Lights).

Protecting the Divine Image ‒ In Everyone

Daver Acher By: Rabbi David Segal

Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg reminds us that the story of Hagar's expulsion with her child is not just an ancient tale. We live in a world that "still does not know how to care for the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the people at the margins."

Jewish tradition contains contradictions around this theme. Some texts tell us to decimate our enemies, blot out their memories, shun their descendants. Other sources call us to love the stranger, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to uphold the cause of the widow and orphan.

Theologically, too, there is an apparent contradiction. We read repeatedly of God's special love for B'nai Yisrael (the Children of Israel), our unique covenant and election to receive God's word. But we also read about God's revelation to others outside the community of Israel. Noah precedes Abraham and receives both blessing and law. Hagar, in this week's portion, receives God's direct blessing and protection after her expulsion.

It is striking that our tradition would preserve stories of God's special revelation to outsiders. These examples remind us that we have no monopoly on God's blessing, no exclusive claim on God's word. We have our special sacred text; others have theirs. Remembering that pluralistic truth should lead us to humility, for God transcends religion. It should also call us to responsibility, to respect and protect the divine word in every tradition and the divine image in every person—our fellow Jews, our neighbors, and the strangers in our midst.

Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

Reference Materials

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110

Originally published: