On the first day of Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year), 17 September 2012, I gave the following talk at Minyan Masorti, at Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. The passages from Women’s Torah Commentary, Sisters in the Wilderness and the New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh have been condensed and adapted.
When I was growing up, it was traditional that on the first day of Rosh Hashannah, my extended family would get together after services.
The first question asked was “What time did your services let out?” Then followed a critique as my father and each of his four brothers evaluated the rabbis and cantors at their respective synagogues.
One thing they never talked about was Hagar, the subject of today’s Torah reading.
The story of Hagar gives us the opportunity to see God from a different perspective.
For the most part, the Hebrew scriptures offer the model of authoritarian religion. Decisions are made from above and the Israelites are expected to comply.
Exodus 19 (Yitro)
Moses summons the elders and tells them all that ADONAI had commanded. All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the ADONAI has spoken we will do. And Moses brought back the people’s words to ADONAI.”
Exodus 24 (Mishpatim)
Moses repeated to the people all of God’s commands and rules. “[A]nd all the people answered with one voice, saying, All the things that ADONAI has commanded we will do.”
Deuteronomy 17 (Shoftim)
Moses tells the people to bring disputes they cannot settle to the Levitical priests who will act as judges. Moses tells the people to carry out the verdicts, instructions and rulings of the priests.
“You must not deviate from the right or from the left,” Moses says.
God, however, is not an autocrat. Individuals can approach God and are heard.
Ashrei Psalm 145
ADONAI supports all who stumble, and makes all who are bent stand straight . . . . He fulfills the wishes of those who fear Him. He hears their cry and delivers them.“
"I turned to ADONAI, and He answered me. He saved me from all my terrors.”
You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.“
God is also democratic. God includes everybody.
Deuteronomy 29 (Netzavim)
Moses tells the people that they stand before God to enter into the covenant—
"your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from chopper of wood to drawer of water. “
At Deuteronomy 31 (Vayelech):
Moses directs the priests to gather the people—the men, women, children, and the strangers in our communities—every seventh year—the Sabbatical year– on Sukkot at the Temple.
Moses says, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of ALL Israel,so that they may learn to revere God and observe every word of this Teaching.
Can this democratic aspect of God be more evident than in the story of Hagar and what theologian Delores S. Willams calls Hagar’s “radical encounters with God?”
Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham by Pieter Paul Rubens
Hagar appears twice in Genesis.
In Chapter 16 she flees Sarah. In Chapter 18, which we read today, she is expelled by Abraham and Sarah.
Writing in the Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Michal Shekel writes that Hagar sets off on a journey and finds a holy place that others will find only later. She is met by Divine messengers. She is told she will have a child, and that her offspring will be too many to count. The Divine messenger names her child. In response, Hagar names the Divine.
Hagar is no stranger to God. She is comfortable with God’s presence in a way that is less formal and more personal than God’s relationship with Abraham or Sarah. Hagar’s relationship with God is symbolized by the Divine letter hey, which is part of her name from the moment we first meet her.
[By contrast to Abraham and Sarah the “hey”s in their names are given later in their lives.–my comment]
For surely, Hagar fulfills the destiny of her name, "hey gar”—Adonai dwells" with her.“
[Hagar is unique among Biblical personalities. She alone names God.–my comment]
Rabbi Shekel writes that Hagar names God, "God who sees me." She names God in response to God naming her child “God hears.” In naming God, Hagar affirms that God sees as well as hears. The God of Seeing will open her eyes to see the well. She names the well, "Well of the Living One Who Sees Me."
Of Chapter 18, which we read today, Rabbi Shekel says that God heard the boy crying. God’s messenger asks her what is wrong. Then God opens her eyes to see a spring, and renews the covenant that Ishmael will be father of a great nation”
I thank Rabbi Annie Lewis for directing me to Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores S. Williams. Dr. Williams is Paul Tillich Professor Emerita of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. The book was published in 1993.
Professor Williams is an exponent of Womanist Theology—which focuses on Black Women’s theology, as opposed to Feminist Theology which relates to white women, and Liberation Theology which relates to Black men.
Professor Williams defines Hagar’s plight: “Slavery, poverty, ethnicity, sexual and economic exploitation, surrogacy, rape, domestic violence, homelessness, motherhood, single parenting and radical encounters with God.”
God’s response to Hagar is not liberation, but survival. When Hagar was a runaway slave, God met her in the wilderness and told her to resubmit herself to her oppressor Sarah—to return to bondage. Hagar could not give birth in the wilderness. The child could not survive in the wilderness.
When Hagar and her child were finally cast out of the house of her oppressors Abraham and Sarah, and not given proper resources for survival, God provided a resource. God gave her new vision to see the spring which she had not seen before.
Professor Williams says, Liberation in the Hagar stories is not given by God. Liberation finds its source in human initiative.
The text suggests that God will be instrumental in developing the quality of life for Hagar and Ishmael. The text says that God was with the boy. He grew up and made his home in the wilderness, and he became an archer. God gave Ishmael the skills to survive in the desert.
Hagar is not a prophet, nor a Hebrew. She is bit player in the epic of our people.
However, Professor Williams says Hagar has been a role model for survival and faith in Black religion during slavery and since the Civil War.
She says that even today, most of Hagar’s situation is congruent with the plight of many African-American women: “poverty, sexual and economic exploitation, surrogacy, domestic violence, homelessness, rape, motherhood, single-parenting, ethnicity and meetings with God.”
Many Black women have testified that “God had helped them make a way out of no way.” They believe that God is involved not only in their struggle to survive, but that God also supports their struggle for quality of life, which “making a way” suggests.
I suggest that Hagar should play an increased role in the Jewish world. She is proof that God is democratic and accessible. No matter how low you are in society—a slave, a surrogate, an outcast, a refugee—God will listen and protect. That is the message of today’s reading.
May God listen and protect us as we enter the new year.