2015-10-28 / Religion Column

Hagar is Us!—Her experience mirrors our own

Temple Beth Sholom

Parashat Vayeyra Gen. 18:1-22:24

Parashat Vayeyra is the source of our readings from Torah on Rosh Hashanah. Whether we read this at the beginning of the New Year or in our regular cycle of Torah, as we do now, there are some troubling stories here. Chapter 21 of Genesis begins benignly enough: “V’Adonai Pakad Et Sarah—The Lord took note of Sarah.” As previously promised, Sarah finally gives birth to a child, Isaac, whose name means laughter. It’s happy, there’s a feast, “let’s party.”

Not so fast. Suddenly, it all turns sour. We are reminded that Abraham has another son by the Egyptian concubine and servant, Hagar. Sarah doesn’t like the way the boys are playing, so she demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham sends them out into the desert where they nearly die of thirst, until God intervenes. Very troubling! And it gets worse when we recall that there’s a back story. Five chapters before this, when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah was jealous and treated Hagar so harshly that she ran away, fled into the desert. There, too, God intervened but sent her back with the promise that she would bear a son. Now, Sarah has sent her away again, this time with her child.

So, with whom do you identify in this story, Hagar or Sarah? With whom do you empathize? With whom do you sympathize?

I think that there is a natural tendency for us to sympathize with Hagar because she suffers as a slave and is forced to flee. Indeed, Professor Nahum Sarna, who wrote a book called “Understanding Genesis,” notes that the name Hagar suggests an association with the Arabic Hajara, “to flee” or “fugitive.” Does that sound familiar? Make you think of anything else? Another association: Read without vowels, the name Hagar could be pronounced differently—HaGeyr, the stranger. Ring any bells? Put it together—Egypt, Stranger, Slave, Fugitive, Fleeing. Sound familiar? Passover, of course.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, who was professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School, before she passed away far too young, wrote an essay about this story of Hagar, in which she notes all the elements that ring bells. “We were slaves in the land of Egypt and God took us out of there.” This mantra from Deuteronomy and the Haggadah lies deep within Israel’s psyche. The story’s identification of Hagar as an “Egyptian slave” is a direct allusion to the central story of Israel’s origin. Another detail: Sarah treats Hagar harshly—that is precisely the Israelite experience as slaves. “My father was a wandering Aramean. We went down to Egypt and they made us into slaves and oppressed us…and God brought us out of there.” (Deuteronomy 26).

All of this leads Professor Frymer- Kensky to conclude: The story of Hagar is the story of Israel. Hagar is an archetype. Hagar is us.

That’s why we sympathize so with her. It is actually more than sympathy. It is empathy. We truly feel her pain, because it is our own. And it has been the experience of our people many times over, to be the stranger, to be oppressed, to flee, to wander, to find refuge not only in another place, but in God.

The plight of immigrants is very much in the news these days. We have all seen the images and heard the stories. People are fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa, not into the desert, but often from desert countries, on boats that founder. Bodies, babies, wash up on the shore. Truckloads are found on highways. Literally, there are millions of refugees from the fighting in Syria— four million have fled the country and seven million are displaced internally. Hundreds of thousands are trying to get to Europe, tens of thousands making their way across the continent seeking refuge. And now…winter is coming.

At a recent JCRC program on the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Rebecca Kirzner, from the Philadelphia office of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), explained that only 1,907 Syrians have been granted refugee status in the U.S., so far. HIAS is advocating for increasing the number to 100,000. Citing the HIAS philosophy and mission, she noted that Torah commands the support of the “stranger” 36 times, reminding us again and again to “remember that you were strangers in Egypt.” That has led HIAS, which was founded to help the millions of Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, to now refocus its efforts on other refugee groups. Ms. Kirzner put it this way: “We no longer help refugees because they are Jewish; we help them because we are Jewish.”

That sensitivity seems to even precede Exodus. It is already there in the book of Genesis, in the story of Hagar. In tone and in terminology, Torah is telling us to recognize that Hagar reflects our own historical experience. Hagar is us. .

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