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Hagar the Stranger

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it, Ben Bag Bag taught about studying the Torah. Reflect on it, pore over it, grow old and gray with it, for there is no better reward than this. Well, I’m not gray yet, but I sure am getting older, and bald already happened. And with age maybe I’m starting to repeat myself more, but I’ll tell you again: Ben Bag Bag, the ancient sage with the best alliterative name, was a wise man. The Torah continues to reveal its deep wisdom to me, and ever-greater connecting patterns of meaning unfold before me. It turns out that the Torah’s major themes, its central messages, reverberate throughout the text, like themes and variations in a symphony. The more attuned I become to a great symphony, the more awed I become by the genius of the composer, and ever more uplifted. So it is that as I embrace the genius of the Torah, its great moral themes resound and reverberate in unanticipated and compelling ways.

In the special Torah reading assigned for the first day of Rosh Hashanah we are thrust into the drama of the life of Abraham and Sarah and their family, Hagar the Egyptian maidservant and her son Ishmael, and Sarah’s miracle baby Isaac. Every year we return to these 21 verses, and to our “first family.” This year I find myself drawn to Hagar, for I noticed something that I am sure many have noticed before me, but I only saw it for the first time. All names are meaningful and symbolic in the Torah, although some of the meanings have become lost to us across the millennia. Because the Torah is written without vowels, it is possible to pronounce the words in multiple ways, and this is a key to finding implied meanings. So, the name Hagar can also be read ha-ger, the stranger, the foreigner, the Other. Then, instead of “Hagar hamitzrit,” Hagar the Egyptian, we read “Ha-ger hamitzrit,” the stranger from Egypt. Hagar is now no longer merely an individual character, she is the first appearance of perhaps the key archetype of the Torah: the stranger. And she becomes the first example of one of the Torah’s great questions: How do we treat the stranger?

The Torah is an ongoing call to moral responsibility. When Cain kills his brother Abel, and then asks defiantly, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” his question resounds to this day. But for me what raises the Torah to the sublime is that it is not satisfied with the imperative of caring for one’s kin. The Torah insists that the well being of the stranger is our responsibility, too. The well being of the stranger is a much more difficult assignment to grasp, let alone to care about. There is an obvious self-interest in caring about our kin: we need them to also care about us. But the stranger? What possible interest might we have in the stranger? Yet our Torah insists that we regard the stranger with as much concern as we regard our own. It begins with the fundamental premise of Genesis, that every human is created in the image of the divine, and builds its moral case from there. Then, the Torah places as its central narrative our own experience as strangers, oppressed in the land of Egypt. We cry out, and the Creator hears our cry, the cry of the powerless. And because we are created in the divine image, we are forever after called upon to emulate our Creator, and therefore to hear the cry of the powerless. The Torah repeats the instruction to care for the stranger at least 33 times, far more than any other commandment in the Torah. It seems to me that when a rule is repeated over and over and over again, it is not only because it is important, it is because people are having trouble following the instruction! We are terrible at following the instruction of caring for the stranger. Again, what’s in it for us? And so, God calls upon us repeatedly to develop empathy: do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

How do we develop empathy? How do we identify with the powerless, whom the Torah typically refers to as the stranger, the slave, the orphan, and the widow?

Which brings us back to Hagar. She is the first stranger in the Torah. She is also a maidservant, a slave. And she is an Egyptian. In the worldview of the Torah, the harmful actions we perpetrate upon others invariably redound back upon us. Many readers have wondered about the cruelty of this story: after Sarah’s son Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar’s son, laughing or playing with Isaac, and she says to Abraham, “Get rid of this servant and her son!” Sarah seems petty, Abraham passive, and worst of all, God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says! But this is more than an ancient family drama with an inscrutable deity making capricious demands. The treatment that Abraham and Sarah perpetrate upon Hagar the Egyptian and her son Ishmael sets into motion the events that will eventually lead the descendants of Abraham’s other son Isaac to become strangers and slaves themselves in the land of Egypt. And without our sojourn in Egypt, our people’s deepest wisdom, our mature empathy, could never have been formed.

Remember, the Torah is about each of us. That is why we are still studying it. And when I examine my life, I am always faced with the fact that whatever wisdom I have distilled from this roller coaster of life is a result of lessons learned from my suffering. We look back on our lives, and sometimes we are able to say, you know if I hadn’t had to get clean, or been through that illness, or had to deal with my crazy parent, I might never have learned compassion, or understood humility, or found my voice… Or, as the Torah puts it, “remember the long road on which YHVH, Life Unfolding, led you these 40 years in the wilderness, in order to test you, to find out what was in your hearts.” Recently I was complimenting a friend who had given me good advice. I said, “How did you get so wise?” She hesitated and laughed, and then I answered for her and said: “Oh, I know: the hard way!” Or as the Torah puts it, we were forged in the blast furnace of Egypt, the hard way. We pray for the strength, courage, faith, and plain old luck not to be crushed by our struggles, but to learn and grow from them.

Our story also introduces the central element of the Jewish understanding of God. It is not an assertion that can be proven, yet the Torah assumes it is so: YHVH, the Creator, hears the cry of the oppressed and the powerless, and is with them. When Moses first encounters YHVH at the burning bush, and asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Children of Israel from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11) God does not exhort Moses that Moses is up to the job. Rather God promises to be with Moses: “And God said, ‘I will be with you – ehyeh imach – that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.” (Ex. 3:12) In the next verse Moses asks what is God’s name, in case the people ask Moses who sent him. God reveals the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (I will be that I will be), and then adds “Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel: ‘Ehyeh sent me to you!’ (Ex. 3:14) So, one of God’s names is Ehyeh, “I Will Be,” and it echoes the previous verse, “I will be with you!” We might say that one of God’s names, and certainly one God’s attributes, is I Will Be With You.

When Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness, and the lad is dying of thirst and crying, Hagar goes and sits a bowshot away so that she will not have to listen to the cries of the child as he perishes, and she weeps. “And God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said: What troubles you Hagar? Do not fear! For God has heard the cry of the boy in the place where he is.” In the Torah, the stranger is usually included in a grouping with the widow and the orphan. In the ancient agricultural and patriarchal clan society of Israel, these were the truly powerless: the stranger had no land holding, and no protector, and neither did the widow or the orphan (referring here to a child without a father). The stranger, the orphan, and the widow, and also the slave, had no political power or legal recourse. They were truly at the mercy of others. In our story, Hagar and Ishmael embody all aspects of this powerless condition: Hagar is a stranger, a slave, and effectively a widow, her son an orphan. And God hears their cry. Ishmael’s name means “God hears,” just as God’s name means “I will be with you.”

If we are created in the Divine image, then we must find in ourselves the capacity for mercy, the capacity to hear the cry of the powerless and to respond with care.

Throughout the Torah, whenever we are called upon to care for the disenfranchised and the stranger, there is no direct consequence that is threatened if we do not. For what can the powerless do to us? Instead the Torah can only assert relentlessly that God hears the cries of the powerless, that we should revere and be in awe of God, and that therefore we should also have mercy upon them, for we were once powerless in the land of Egypt. Does God hear their cry? I honestly don’t know. But I cherish my tradition that insists that in order to fulfill our destiny as human beings we need to hear and respond to the cry of the weak. Perhaps, as many before me have suggested, the God of righteousness and justice exists, but only in potential. Perhaps it is only through our own righteous and compassionate actions that the glory of God becomes manifest in the world.

This teaching reaches its pinnacle in the very center of the Torah, Parshat Kedoshim in the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus. The parshah begins with the familiar call to emulate the divine “You shall be holy, for I YHVH your God am holy.” The instructions then climax with verse 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the Golden Rule, the heart of the Torah. But remember the saying I began with: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it”? I have always focused on verse 19, for what could be more central to our quest? But one day, I turned the Torah a bit and verse 33 lit up before me: “When a stranger dwells with you in your land, do not oppress him. Treat the stranger like a fellow citizen; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHVH your God.”

V’ahavta et ha-ger kamocha. Love the stranger as yourself. Our Torah gives us two explicit commands: Love your neighbor as yourself, and love the stranger as yourself. The Torah’s grasp of human nature is complete. We know intuitively that loving our neighbor as ourselves, difficult as that might be, is in our own interest. Any social group thrives when its members take each other’s interests to heart, when we curb selfishness in favor of a common good. But the injunction to love the stranger as yourself asks us to rise to an even higher level: there is no consequence to us if the stranger is ignored. We turn our eyes toward them simply because they are God’s children. To love the stranger represents an outrageous leap out of the typical moral economy, in which we do kindnesses and expect to be repaid in kind. In loving the stranger, we transcend self-interest.

This is the demand of Judaism: to rise above our nature and create a new way of being. In an earlier time, when communities were smaller and self-contained, this holy task was more limited, for the stranger was by definition someone who had wandered into your community. The law did not pertain to an unknown soul in another land. That task of inclusion was difficult enough, which is perhaps why the Torah repeats the command three dozen times. Today the challenge is multiplied exponentially. We live in a world in which we can call a technical help line and find ourselves speaking with someone in India – or Mauritius, as happened to me recently! We live in a world in which it becomes clearer, shall I say starker, almost daily that our individual fates are intertwined, whether we would like them to be or not. We live in a nation that was built on the premise that a society could be built of strangers, each given inalienable rights. A songwriter named Betsy Rose wrote the lyric: “We may have come here in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Never has the commandment to treat the stranger as one of your own been more pressing. But that doesn’t make it any easier, only more urgent.

There is, as we know, only one place to practice this radical demand of empathy. Right here, right now, in the place where you are. Our high-minded ideas of the unity of the planet are not worth the paper we write them on if we do not enact our principles where we live. So rather than drawing a tight circle that includes the people we know and leaves others on the outside, let’s draw as big a circle as we can around us that includes not just Sarah and Isaac, but Hagar and Ishmael, the stranger, the weak, the newcomer, the odd, the gentile, the Jew who doesn’t think he or she belongs, the people we just plain disagree with, the other. Even if it makes us uncomfortable some of the time. Even if we’re not very good at it. For in so doing we will be fulfilling the highest aspiration of our tradition – we will be realizing our divine nature.

Julia Boylan shared a famous verse with me when I was discussing these questions a few weeks ago. I’ll close with it. It is called “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

May we all draw that big circle in our lives this year, drawing others into it with love. And remember, whenever you draw a circle around you, you are at the center. That is where change begins. You have my love, support, and total encouragement to draw your circle wide, and to know that you are a vessel for making the divine promise of empathy manifest in the world. L’Shana tova tikateivu.

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