It is almost impossible to not have some reaction as we watch the news and see thousands of people, fleeing Guatemala, seeking refuge as they head for the US border. Some may feel uneasy, others may respond to the anguished looks on the faces of the parents holding tired children.
As we read this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, we may also experience some controversy. Its main subject is the expulsion of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaiden to Sarah and mother to Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Ishmael is also expelled. They both almost die.
These words from Mother Teresa resonate with this week’s text, as well as the situation in today’s news: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat…Loneliness…is the most terrible poverty.”
We need not be speaking only of the harsh wilderness conditions in the desert of biblical times. Our civilized world is harsh enough.
Think about the “Ishmaels” in many countries and their forced exile from the world they know. While many American students go abroad to study for a semester or year, as many of you or your children have done, considerably more students come to the United States from other countries to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered here. Many families are sending off a son or daughter to, what is for them, a foreign country, for several years, not just a semester. The anxiety of being so far away from their children must create such stress for the parents.
Oh, we, mothers and fathers, worry for our children, we who are reading this article and those who are holding their hungry children; this level of worry drives the story of Hagar and Sarah. Initially, we may see Sarah’s actions as harsh and Hagar’s plight to be a grave injustice, but it is not clearly depicted that way in Torah.
We learned earlier that Isaac, Abraham’s son through Sarah, is going to be the child through whom God’s covenant promise will be realized (Gen.17:21). But we also know from last week’s parasha, that Sarah, impatiently wanting on an heir for Abraham, requests that he sleep with Hagar in hopes of finally having a child. As the story continued, Hagar, after conceiving, treats Sarah with contempt (16:4), her pregnancy giving her status over Sarah in her barrenness. Sarah responds harshly and Hagar runs away into the desert, returning only after God has made a covenant with her about her son. The anxiety level here is intense, even as it is clear throughout the text that both women want to do right by their children (16:5-15).
When Isaac at last is born to Sarah, the conflict between the mothers reaches its climax. Sarah will tolerate no competition for her son’s rightful inheritance, and Abraham could not bring himself to disagree. Though Ishmael was, indeed, the firstborn son of Abraham, the preferential order of rank was given to the firstborn son of the primary wife (21:10-11). Sarah’s demand that Hagar be expelled distresses Abraham, but God reminds him that this is part of the covenant plan (21:12). God will fulfill a covenant through Ishmael as well, making a nation of him, too (21:13).
And yet, one can’t help but feel the pain in the story. While Sarah is living her role as a mom, death seems to await Hagar and Ishmael.
Rabbi Eddie Goldberg, senior rabbi at Temple Sholom, shared the following in a beautiful commentary that pulls it all together: “Walking the desert with her son on her shoulder, Hagar reminds us of the news reports of refugee mothers fleeing war-torn countries, clutching their frightened children. We see Hagar when thinking of single mothers trying to eke out a living in the inner city, or when we read of a young pregnant runaway, lost and alone. We know the stories of women who have had to raise their children in a world that—regardless of its prosperity—still does not know how to care for the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the people who are marginalized.” And we see Hagar once again, when we see the mothers fleeing Guatemala, clutching their frightened children.
Fortunately, God does not forget Hagar. She wandered the desert with her son, rationing the water that was left and giving most, if not all of it, to Ishmael. When it was all gone, she laid him under a bush, hoping for just a little shade, a little comfort before he died of thirst (21:15). She separated herself a good way off from her son because she could not bear to watch him die, could not stand to hear him calling for her while having nothing to give him.
We then read “God heard the boy’s cry” and God’s messenger speaks to Hagar. “Have no fear…Get up, lift the boy, and hold him with your hand, for I am going to make of him a great nation” (21:17-18). God then puts a well of water in the middle of the desert and puts hope in the midst of frantic circumstances. The boy and his mother are both revived, and God’s promises are kept.
The cries of these mothers are well known to God. The question is, are they heard by us?
I am a mom with a fierce love for my daughters and now, grandchildren. Like you, I would give my life for them. I see those same refugee moms, and I try to imagine myself in those horrific situations. My heart aches, but I feel helpless, unsure of what I could do that would be impactful and make a difference. And that is the heartbreak…
For as Mother Teresa observed: Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, …Loneliness…is the most terrible poverty.
May we all be inspired to do more, to support the organizations that support those in desperate situations, to vote for those in congress who share our values, to stand up and speak out against the injustices in this world. And we pray for the children:
A Prayer for the Responsibility of Children
We pray for children who put chocolate fingers everywhere, who like to be tickled, who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants, who sneak popsicles before supper, who erase holes in math workbooks, who can never find their shoes.
And we pray, for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
who can’t bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers,
who never “counted potatoes,”
who are born in places where we wouldn’t be caught dead,
who never go to the circus,
who live in an X-rated world.
We pray for children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
who sleep with the cat and bury goldfish,
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,
who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink,
who slurp their soup.
And we pray for those
who never get dessert,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who can’t find any bread to steal,
who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
and never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
and whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.
We pray for children
who want to be carried
and for those who must,
for those we never give up on
and for those who don’t get a second chance.
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody
kind enough to offer it.
Hear our cries, Adonai, and listen to our prayers. Amen.
By Ina Hughes