Culture, Justice, Religion

Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, and Repairing their Unresolved Brokenness

Editor’s Note: This Shabbat we will read VaYera, including the birth of Isaac, expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and binding of Isaac.  These are also the readings from Rosh HaShana and provide us an opportunity to revisit ideas that might have inspired, goaded, soothed, or chastised us during the holiday, now, a month later, when we are just back into our regular routine and may need those ideas the most.  Here is a piece for Rosh HaShana submitted for this purpose by Jewschool friend Sarra Alpert, shared originally with the Kolot Chayeinu community in Brooklyn. –aryehbernstein
by Sarra Alpert
In approaching Rosh Hashanah this year, I have found myself particularly aware of its unique type of split personality.   On the one hand, this is a celebratory holiday — a happy-birthday party for the world, days whose customs mirror those of all of our joyful holidays, only with added sweetness.  On the other hand, these are supposed to be days that open a particularly solemn chapter as we enter the Ten Days of Repentance.  In our prayers today, we ask to be written in the Book of Life for a year of health, peace and blessing.  We recite the tragedies that may befall us this year, asking to whom they will occur.  And we are urged to reverse the potentially harsh judgments awaiting us by turning to prayer, repentance and justice, with the idea hanging there that our fates will be sealed in ten days, on Yom Kippur.  These are difficult ideas for a modern person to relate to, and particularly odd ones to couple with a birthday party and honey-dipped apples. 
And in some ways, the assigned Torah readings do not help us make any further sense of this.  We do not read about laws of repentance or restitution; we read instead stories about people.  And not stories neatly wrapped in the lessons of the day — we do not see our ancestors making responsible choices after which we can model our own, or even going through the steps of making something right after hurting someone else.  These are messy stories: stories of jealousy and longing and cowardice, of possibly deliberately hurtful choices, ones where we do not necessarily get to see the consequences.  Today’s reading begins with ancestors Abraham and Sarah at a particularly joyful moment: after years of not being able to have children, they finally have a son.  And in this spirit of joy, they name him Isaac, after Sarah’s laughter — first skeptical, then happy — at the idea that she could still bear a child in her old age.  However, immediately following this moment of joy, we see Sarah turn towards a place of fear and suspicion.  Earlier in the narrative, during the years that Sarah thought herself unable to have children, she had told her husband to have a child with her handmaiden Hagar.  Now that Sarah has her own son, however, she becomes unhappy with this situation and tells Abraham to cast Hagar and their son Ishmael out of the household.  In the text, her reasons for this are not entirely clear — it says that she sees Ishmael m’tzahek, a word with the same root as her son’s name, the word for laughter, which the text translates as “playing.”  And upon seeing this, she tells Abraham that she does not want Ishmael to share in Isaac’s inheritance.  Many commentators, understandably wanting to find some worthy explanation for Sarah’s actions, have interpreted the word “playing” to mean some sort of dangerous or mean-spirited interaction with Isaac, but the text itself gives no further explanation.
Throughout this story, each of the parties involved — Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, God — take different approaches to the conflict, but no one attempts to actively resolve it.  Sarah’s reaction to her own fear and concern is to send the problem away.  Though Abraham is described as distressed, we do not see him attempt to talk Sarah into a solution.  Hagar is sent out and believes she and her son will die in the wilderness.  And God simply reassures Abraham that all will be okay, and then sends an angel to Hagar to show her water and to promise a blessing to her son.  God takes the most active role towards a positive outcome, but even God’s approach does not expect much from the humans involved and is generally neutral in tone.  For example, there is no chastising of Sarah, so it does not seem that we are supposed to see anything inherently wrong with her reaction and desires.  But we also see that God does step in to protect Hagar and Ishmael, indicating that we are on their side as well.  It is a “separate corners” kind of approach, an avoid-the-conflict path to achieving peace.
And yet, we are already today in the period of ten days in which we are expected to be anything but avoidant, everything but passive.  We are expected to actively engage with those choices we have made that were hurtful or immoral and to do everything we can to make those things right.  In his book Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), Maimonides, a Jewish legal scholar and philosopher of the 10th century, wrote that there are five steps in the process of repentance.  The first four steps involve recognition of the sin, renunciation, confession and some form of reconciliation.  These are the opposite of being let off the hook; rather, these are four distinct ways of owning up to our shortcomings.  We must face our mistakes quite starkly, acknowledging our wrongs, confessing to them fully, recognizing the ways that they have hurt others, and finally attempting to do what we can to make those things right.  The fifth step is tricky – Maimonides writes that our repentance is complete only once we have found ourselves in the same situation in which we originally sinned, and are this time able to act differently.  The first four steps are about accounting for past mistakes; the fifth one is about changing the potential for future mistakes.  And so presumably at the end of the ten days, on Yom Kippur, no matter how sincere our prayer, how unflinching our self-assessment, it is likely that we stand in the limbo between the fourth and fifth step – in order to seek atonement, we have sought forgiveness from others and from God, but it is not assumed that (unless you were planning way in advance) we would have already faced that fifth and definitive mark of change.  Yet the sincerity of our repentance is unquestioned.  We are allowed to atone fully, predicated on the belief that this fifth step is to come, that our commitment is real and will lead to change.  We place our faith in our future selves, in passing the tests that have not yet come but, someday, undoubtedly will.
And so maybe we read these stories of confusion and misstep today to ground us firmly in the messiness that is the start of this process.  Even though we are at a moment of renewal — the moment that we celebrate a new year together — we are starting that year by looking back at the past one, by grappling with our choices and considering who we want to be as we move forward.  In order to do that, we have to somehow believe that change is possible — and perhaps the way to believe that is not to hear stories from the far side of repentance and hindsight, but to consider how we have felt in our most conflicted moments.  The emotions motivating all of the characters in this story are painful and real — protectiveness, loneliness, the desire to keep the peace, the experience of being torn between two conflicting sets of needs, the search for compromise even if that means separation.  We see a live version of today’s U’netaneh tokef prayer here — some wander, some are degraded, some are tormented, some are brought low.  We have all been at these places of pain and difficulty before, we have felt how hard it is to make the right decisions, and we will likely be there again.  We have probably made the wrong decisions before and we may do so again.  And if we cannot acknowledge that honestly, then we cannot do the work to consider what it would take to do better in the future, to know how to work through those feelings when they come up and to get to a better and more generous version of ourselves.
One way that we are able to get to that place is through community, by holding ourselves accountable to and allowing ourselves to be supported by a larger group.  Reading through this text, it struck me that we never see more than two characters interact at a time — we do not see either Abraham or God attempt to bring the household together.  We see instead a chain of communication that keeps the two main parties in conflict — Sarah and Hagar — distant from each other, never pushed to face the other, consider her as a full person and attempt to find common ground.  And what is most tragic to me in that is the idea that Sarah sees the world in that moment as a zero-sum game, one in which Ishmael’s existence automatically takes away from what is available to her son.  And I believe it is only through building community that we can remind ourselves that it doesn’t have to be that way — that we can learn to depend on each other, to trust that others are looking out for us, to genuinely believe that we can work together.  And perhaps that is one of the other reasons we read this story today, to show us the lonely consequences that result when we are not working towards that goal.  These ten days are an intensely personal time — but much of that time is spent in community, praying together with words that take responsibility as a community for each others’ sins and acknowledge together the terrible fear of not knowing what is to come in the year ahead.  And doing so because remembering that we all feel those same fears makes their burden just a little bit lighter.
Thinking about Sarah, it occurs to me that it is hard to know whether she ever came to regret this choice and would have wanted to make it better.  We now have so many ways of reaching out to those we have wronged, so many ways of finding those we have grown distant from.  But Sarah’s world was, of course, a very different one, one where she had no way of knowing after these events whether Hagar and Ishmael were still alive or where they could have settled if they were.  The commentaries where scholars try and find rational reasons for her decision in the first place do not sit well with me — I find it more likely that Sarah, as a woman who had experienced very little stability in her life, gave in to the selfishness of fear and lashed out.  But I also believe it is entirely possible that she would have come to wonder later about what had become of Hagar and Ishmael, of whether they could have formed a family together, and to wish that perhaps she could make things right.
And that, of course, is the incredible gift of this time of year for us: the chance to step back, consider ourselves honestly, and work to make ourselves better.  And while that is a serious and often painful process, the fact that we get to do so is pretty amazing.  And it can even be joyful.  The best version of who we are walks with us always, just across the line dividing what is from what may be.  Just reaching towards it blurs that line, requires the two worlds to meld, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in transformative ones.  One of the things that stands between who we are and who we seek to be is the understandable fear of stepping over that line, of holding ourselves to that standard — the fear of all the mistakes we will continue to make on our way.  During these ten days, we stand in recognition of those mistakes, those we have made as individuals and those we have made as a community, those which have hurt others and those which have hurt only ourselves, those where we did not try to do enough and those where we tried to do too much, those of false belief and those of lack of belief.  We admit weakness, we seek strength, we ask for help.  We hope that when we are confronted with Maimonides’ final test of repentance in the year to come, we will not make the same mistakes again.  But, knowing that sometimes we will, perhaps we may better understand them and how to make them right.  We make that much more progress towards dissolving the boundary between what we feel limits us and what we believe could be possible.  A space both uncomfortable and expansive, where we stand as who we are, transforming every moment into who we may be.
Sarra Alpert lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is the National Program Director of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps

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