It is almost impossible to not have had some reaction as we watched the news and saw hundreds of people, fleeing countries south of the U.S. border, seeking refuge and a better life for their children. We were heartsick as we viewed the anguished looks on the faces of the parents holding tired children. These children were eventually separated from their parents; over 500 now live without them.
As we read this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, we may also experience feelings of angst – 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 our current world, “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, sometimes 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 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 cannot help but feel the pain in the story. While Sarah is living her role as a mom, death seems to await Hagar and Ishmael.
Walking the desert with her son on her shoulder, Hagar reminds us of our own news reports of refugee mothers fleeing war-torn countries, clutching their frightened children, as they seek a better, safer life for their families. We see Hagar when thinking of single mothers trying to eke out a living in the inner city and in our suburbs 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.
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 have seen images of the 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 rally around those in congress who share our values, to stand up and speak out against the injustices in this world.
I want to share a prayer, written by Ina Jones that, no matter how often I read it, it takes my breath away, not because of its beauty, but because of its truth.
We Pray For 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 can never find their shoes.
We pray for those who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire, who cannot bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers, who never ‘counted pennies’, who were born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead in, 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 dog and bury goldfish, who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money, who cover themselves with Band-aids and sing off-key, 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 rooms to clean up, whose pictures aren’t on anyone’s dresser.
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 on the phone, whose tears we sometimes laugh at, and whose smiles can make us cry.
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 anyone, who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, who live and move and 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.
For those we smother with love… and for those who will grab the hand of anyone kind enough to offer it.