בראש השנה, בראש השנה…
On Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year) 5766/2005 I had the honor of delivering a d’var Torah at Ohr Shalom Synagogue here in San Diego. I first met Rabbi Scott Meltzer in 1998, and our relationship has evolved and progressed quite a bit in the near decade since. I am proud to consider him a friend as well as a teacher, and I’m grateful for the repeated opportunities I’ve had to address his congregation.
Shana Tovah! First, I want to thank Rabbi Meltzer for this opportunity to speak about our Torah reading today. Several years ago, Rabbi Meltzer taught me that a good Dvar Torah should be brief, it should be personal, and, of course, it should teach some Torah. I hope I fulfill these conditions today with my 18-page thesis.
The story we read each Rosh Hashana, about the expulsion of Hagar & Ishmael from Avraham’s house, is a difficult one. I thought long and hard about how to spin the story positively. I considered the “new beginnings” and new home Hagar & Ishmael were forced to find and the connection to the new year, but I believe that would have been disingenuous and evasive. The bottom line is, this is a distressing, intensely disturbing story, and I wanted to tackle it head-on. (Incidentally, if you find it hard to believe that the Torah treats us to challenging tales at seemingly inopportune times, you should come to shul more often (wink & nudge to Rabbi).)
Seriously, though… If we take this time of year – well, seriously – it shouldn’t come as such a shock that each year on Rosh Hashana we’re forced to read a story that compels thorough introspection and self-reflection. Let’s recap: Avraham and Sarah failed to conceive children; Sarah gave Avraham permission to sleep with her handmaiden Hagar; the resultant offspring was Ishmael. In the portion we will read today, it is years later. Husband and wife are well into their golden years, and God tell Sarah that she will, in fact, have a child of her own. She laughs this silliness off, but then carries and gives birth to Isaac. She then experiences what is arguably one of the most severe bouts of post-partum depression in human history, and orders Avraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. The father of the Jewish people initially protests, but then none other than God the Almighty tells him to listen to Sarah and accede to her wishes, whatever she says. Of course, as we know from reading ahead (or recalling from last year), Avraham tends to be the “follow God’s orders first, ask questions later (or not at all)” kind of guy, so the forced evacuation of Hagar & Ishmael is carried out. They are sent out into the desert with some bread and a skin of water.
Here’s the thing: Hagar, as previously mentioned, is a “handmaiden” – essentially a slave. So this expulsion is explained by some commentators, based on the laws of slavery at that time, as her being granted her freedom. What could be better than freeing slaves?! They live happily ever after, end of story, right? We now return to Avraham, Sarah, and Isaac, already in progress.
That doesn’t sit well with me. Hagar was an integral, even intimate member of Avraham and Sarah’s household for a very long time. Her relationship with the ancestor of our people was clearly more than slave and master, so the whole “you’re free now!” argument holds about as much water as the skin Avraham gave her and their son when he sent them out to the middle of the desert.
There are many possible moral lessons hidden in this tale. Many commentators view Ishmael unfavorably. With or without this prejudice, he is considered the father of the Arabs, with whom the Israelites of course have a long and, er, shall we say complicated history (I’ll refrain from getting into political or historical details here; maybe I’ll tackle those next year, if I get invited back).
Rather, I want to stay with Hagar & Ishmael on their journey. One particular turn of phrase, highlighted in the Etz Chayim chumash commentary on page 115, struck me this year.
After wandering in the desert for some time, their provisions run out, and Hagar leaves her son under a tree and goes to sit at some distance so as not to see him suffer and die. In chapter 21, verse 8, God speaks to her, saying,
קומי שאי את הנער והחזיקי את ידך בו – Get up, lift up the boy, and (as the translation has it) hold him by the hand.
But my familiarity with modern Hebrew (and, conveniently, the Etz Chayim commentary, as well) tells us that the literal meaning of “hachaziki et yadech bo” is “make your hand strong in his” – that is, draw strength from him! In contemporary Hebrew, we still use this phrase, although almost exclusively in parent-child relationships. In Hebrew-speaking households, “tachzik li et ha-yad” – hold my hand, or make my hand strong in yours – is the phrase invoked by parents and children for protection when crossing the street or walking in a crowded, potentially threatening place.
Hand-holding is relegated mostly to parents and children, and additionally to couples in love who aren’t afraid of “public displays of affection.” When we hold each others’ hands, literally or figuratively, we are capable of acts of courage or strength we wouldn’t be able to accomplish on our own. Thus the sense of protection and safety we feel crossing the street. But this strengthening extends beyond the personal realm, to the communal and the global levels. Our Jewish community organizations serve as financial, social, and spiritual hand-holds for needy individuals in our midst. And, at times, our entire community together can extend its hands in aid to other communities in need, as we just did in gathering aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and in response to previous disasters.
It is powerful indeed for me, as an Israeli-American Jew living in the 21st century, following centuries of conflict and bloodshed, to take such a potent lesson for strength and cooperation from the mother and son whose descendants we are trying to make peace with today. I pray that this year and always, we will be empowered by the example of Hagar & Ishmael, and remember that it is with our hands held that we strengthen each other and are able to accomplish the greatest acts of chesed and tzedek – lovingkindness and justice.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. Shana tovah u’metukah – a sweet, healthy, and happy new year.