A few years ago my step-mother, who at the time was the West Coast editor for Mademoiselle, attended an after party for the Oscars. In the sparse early-arriving crowd she spied Charlize Theron across the room, and smiled, remembering that she had interviewed her for a story a few months earlier. But seeing as Charlize Threon is an international movie star and my step-mom is a relative nobody, she thought nothing of it and continued to hang towards the buffet table.
After a few minutes, my step-mother Jamie felt a tap on her shoulder. She spun around, and there stood Charlize Theron. “Jamie Diamond, right?” she said. “I don’t mean to bother you. You interviewed me a few months ago, remember? Well, I was wondering if you could do me a favor. You see, I don’t really know anybody here, and I was hoping I could hang out with you for a little while. Is that alright?”
We have all, even world-famous Hollywood actors, been in situations where we have felt alone.
Our annual reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of Sarah’s sending out of Hagar in Genesis 21; or to be more precise, Sarah demanding Abraham cast out Hagar. Hagar and her son Ishmael flee to the wilderness, where she collapses in hopelessness and despair. But God, through an angel opens her eyes to a well, and there’s a mini-coda to the story that Ishmael grows up to be a great huntsman and that his mother gets him a wife from Egypt.
This text has a few classic interpretations and drashes that you probably have heard at some point in a Rosh Hashanah of the past. There’s the take that God opened Hagar’s eyes to something present in the world rather than actually creating a well from thin air, teaching us that we need to take notice of all the wonderful miracles that are already present in our lives. There’s the message of faith: since Abraham is unsure of the right thing to do, God reassures him that Hagar will be just fine. Hagar doesn’t believe either, but in the end it all works out and Hagar is fine, teaches us that we ought to have faith in God that in the end it will all work out. There’s also a reverse take, or an in-depth take if you will, where, rather than accept the takes of the traditional commentators like Rashi that Sarah and Abraham and God are all doing the right thing in casting out Hagar, we should read the text with unbiased eyes and just tell it like it is - Sarah is selfish and cruel; Abraham is spineless; and God is mysterious in this story of a woman done wrong. This type of teaching tells us that rather than read the text as our instruction of what *to* do, we should instead read it as potentially what *not* to do. And that can work too.
I’m not doing any of that this year. I want to start with a broader problem, which is the problem of the existence of a thin and unsubstantial personage in the Torah like Hagar. She’s treated in the text as a minor character, a slave woman with little agency, a bit player in the text. When Jews look at this story each year, we invariably identify with Abraham and Sarah and God and Isaac, and explore those people and those plotlines extensively.
At least in my lifetime, I have never spent more than a cursory effort at understanding the story from the perspective of Hagar. But just as Tom Stoppard explored two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his 1966 play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’, we will take the person of Hagar and magnify her using Midrash, the rabbinic imagination of the 2nd to 4th century, as well as my own thoughts and imagination, to figure out the true motives and meaning of a seemingly uncomplex woman. So strap in for the ride, folks, because that’s what we’re going to do. And, of course, in doing so, her narrative will have aspects which will resonate deeply with the moral state of America today.
The first place to start is her name. Hagar, very simply, means ‘dweller’, ‘sojourner’, or ‘stranger’. In biblical context it often appears in texts alongside two other protected classes of people in endangered situations - the yatom or ‘orphan’, and the almanah or ‘widow’. Strangers, orphans and widows get special laws in the Torah on multiple occasions that protect them from abuse or mistreatment, since they are regarded as in a precarious state with no one to provide for them. Later in the Bible, the term ‘Ger’ is used for someone that either lives with Jews but is not Jewish, or converts to Judaism. That last connotation really doesn’t take hold until much later. The Jewish tradition understands Hagar as a servant and a non-Jew, and also because the root meaning of her name, as someone transient - a foreigner.
We are introduced to Hagar in Genesis 16. The Torah tells us in verse 1:
וְשָׂרַי֙ אֵ֣שֶׁת אַבְרָ֔ם לֹ֥א יָלְדָ֖ה ל֑וֹ וְלָ֛הּ שִׁפְחָ֥ה מִצְרִ֖ית וּשְׁמָ֥הּ הָגָֽר׃
Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.
To conclude that thought about Hagar as a foreigner - take a moment and think - How did an Egyptian woman end up in Canaan as the servant to a couple that originally come from Ur in Babylonia - or modern day Iraq? Hagar is a foreigner, the servant to foreigners. Her situation is exceedingly precarious - a foreigner who entrusts her life and livelihood to other foreigners, not unlike a migrant passing through a neutral country. But more on that later.
Even in the verse in which she first appears, Hagar’s very existence is set up the explanation for another plot problem - and that is, Sarah’s infertility. We know where this is headed - Hagar will serve as the surrogate for Abraham’s offspring. In her first appearance in the story, Hagar is not a person of her own - she’s barely a Downton Abbey-level downstairs maid. Instead, we’ve gone full-on Margaret Atwood ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, as Hagar’s role to bear a child for somebody else. At least at the outset, she is barely a person. Instead, she is regarded as almost an object, a womb, and nothing more. None of our commentators - not the ancient ones like Rashi or Ramban or the modern ones Aviva Zornberg or Nechama Leibowitz stop to consider her at all. She is bit player or even a prop in the larger and more important narrative of the story of Sarah’s barrenness. The story continues:
And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the LORD has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” And Abram heeded Sarai’s request.
So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian—after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years—and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine.
He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem.
Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.” Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.
So Hagar is abused, either physically or verbally, and runs away in Genesis 16. In Genesis 21, our Torah reading from yesterday, we get almost the same story, except this time, instead of Hagar fleeing, Sarah explicitly casts her out, saying to Abraham
גרש האמה הזות ואת בנה
‘Cast out that slave woman and her son.’ I find it very notable that she refuses to use Hagar’s name or Ishmael’s name here. Again, Hagar is made into an object. She is depersonalized and made into a capital O ‘Other’, so that we can ignore her pain and suffering; so that we can say this is other people. This is not ‘my problem’.
This is what Alex Haley describes in Roots when he writes of Kunta Kinte being brutally whipped and told by his slavers ‘Your name is Toby.’
You grant a person their essential humanity by using their name. Conversely, you objectify a person by ignoring their name, and take away their power and their human significance by calling them ‘servant’ or ‘boy’ or ‘that one’ or ‘it’. Sarah has done something dehumanizing here, and the text acknowledges it.
Abraham is disturbed and turns to God, and God says - don’t worry, do what Sarah says’. Abraham packs them some bread and water - God finds them a well. But ultimately, Hagar and Ishmael are left to fend for themselves. I’ll return to this a little bit later, but Hagar and Ishmael call to mind every person in our society that is mistreated and left to fend for themselves on the margins - the poor, the elderly, the hungry, the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and the immigrant. Hold that thought.
This concept of the ‘Other’ and our relationship to them is a philosophical one that originates with Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. Put simply everyone outside of ourselves is ‘Other’, and how we relate to them is an expression of how much or little God is present in our lives. All people are ‘other’, but sometimes, when we marginalize one person or an entire group of vulnerable people, like minorities or women, we elevate the concept of otherness to a whole ‘nother level.
The story of Hagar isn’t the only story of a woman on the precarious fringes. In the book of Ruth, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, loses her husband and her sons. Naomi tells Ruth to return to her people - giving her the option to be cast out. But Ruth refuses to leave, saying famously “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Perhaps these two stories are instructive contrasts about being forceful about advocating for your own rights as a woman. Hagar is mistreated by Sarah and cast out, but makes no move at being more integrated into the Jewish people by trying to find her place in Abraham and Sarah’s family the way Ruth does with Naomi. Ruth wants to become a Jew, and wants to be faithful to Naomi. Hagar wants neither of these things. But also, Sarah doesn’t seem to be open to bringing Hagar and Ishmael into the family. To that degree, this story becomes not about self-advocacy, but instead about being inviting to others when we are in a position of power. We can either be like Naomi - creating connection and allowing another person freedom, and then supporting them on their own journey. Or we can be like Sarah - judging and shunning, pushing away, saying ‘it’s not my problem.’
Another way to frame this story is also about inside-out and outside-in. Ruth is on the outside, but ultimately comes in to the Jewish people; Hagar is on the inside of the first Jewish family, but ends up leaving or being pushed out.
For the High Holidays, this is a great point for personal introspection. Who do we push away, and who do we bring close? Do we cultivate relationships with people that are like us or different from us? Do we make snap judgments about people that ultimately demonstrate us to be unwelcoming, or are we open-minded and willing to stand with open arms?
This thought gives us a chance to think of another odd contrast that the text of Hagar brings up for us, and that is the weird reversal of the character that Abraham plays in this story. Here, Abraham takes a backseat to the wishes of his wife - and ejects the foreigner Hagar from his house. But in Genesis 18, Abraham is famous for welcoming in three (male) strangers, while he is recovering from his own circumcision. There we learn that Abraham keeps his tent open on all four sides in order that he can see nomads from all sides and welcome them into his tent. Abraham is welcoming in one story, unwelcoming in another. Hospitable and inhospitable. We call to mind two mitzvot from the story of Abraham and the tent - the first is the mitzvah of Hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests - and the second is the mitzvah of the sukkah, an open place to bring acquaintances. The story of Hagar, by comparison, is not one our tradition utilizes to instruct our behavior. As we enter 5780, we can ask ourselves once more - which Abraham are we? The one that pushes away, or the one that brings close?
That’s in regards to personal responsibility. There is also the question of collective responsibility - which is to say, to what degree do we have societal responsibilities to people on the margins? Abraham and Sarah’s disregard for Hagar creates a very self-oriented paradigm of human responsibility - everybody is out for themselves - it’s not my problem. Had the Torah just given us this story without others in contrast, we might learn the importance of self-reliance and the ‘up-by-your-bootstraps’ mentality. America is big on concepts of the self-made man, the Horatio Alger I did it by myself narrative. Judaism is not, though.
13 times in the Tanakh we are told to care for and not oppress the stranger, the widow, and the orphan - of which Hagar and Ishmael suit all three categories. 422 times in the Torah we see mention of the stranger. The most straightforward and all encompassing line might be in Deuteronomy 10, when we learn:
“For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe,
but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.--
וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת־הַגֵּר כִּי־גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃
You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah tells us that last bit - to care for strangers, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt - either 21 times or 36 times, depending on who you ask.
The Torah wants us to create a society of mutual responsibility in which we endeavor to be more responsible for each other, not less; that we ought to care more about each other, not less. We do not stand idly by; we are not bystanders, we are upstanders.
To that point, the Torah itself essentially evolves from these early chapters in Genesis, which are full of imperfect people like our patriarchs and matriarchs and their family squabbles like Laban cheating Jacob or Joseph being thrown in a pit by his brothers. By the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, the Torah is beginning not only to expect a deeper level of human compassion, but even codifies it into law in a strange ritual called the Eglah Arufah - breaking the neck of a calf:
In Deuteronomy 21, we get this text which is the polar opposite of the dual stories Hagar’s expulsions. There we find the Torah says this:
“If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known,
your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns.
The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke;
and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck.”
The Torah continues and explains that the Levites should come and pronounce a declaration absolving the people of the bloodguilt for this person.
What’s happening here is this: the Torah is essentially saying that a stranger that is killed near to a town is a societal failure of the town itself for failing to police, protect, and escort the victim. A valuable animal must be sacrificed as a form of punitive compensation for failure to care for a vulnerable stranger. Moreover, the Talmud in Tractate Sotah adds that there is an obligation for the townspeople to provide levaya - accompaniment - to travellers to and from towns on dangerous roads. They must also provide the traveller food, lest a poor traveller become a robber themselves to survive.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen, in his book Justice in the City, adds this note to this story of the Eglah Arufah: “If people can fall into a place which is beyond anybody’s responsibility, this is a reflection on the justness of a city (or a society) itself. In our daily lives, the practice of reaching out beyond ourselves is also a performance of accompaniment. In the life of a city, the response to the stranger has to be the center of the discussion.” To a later Torah understanding, Sarah and Abraham were wrong to cast out Hagar. Yes, Hagar would ultimately turn out to be fine, but if she hadn’t the bloodguilt would be upon them.
There are lots of capital O Others in society today, as we have mentioned. The elderly, the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the mentally ill are all marginalized and left insufficiently protected by the rest of society.
But nobody is more literally a sojourning stranger like Hagar in our society today than undocumented immigrants. Our country has approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the US. Some have been here more than 30 years. The overwhelming majority have been productive members of society, filling roles large and small in our economy, often for low wages, and often in jobs that other Americans refuse to do. In order to get those jobs, they very often furnish their employer with a fake Social Security number - a number that means that the US government will take out taxes each month from their paychecks, but our undocumented workers will never be able to collect any social security. In other words, most work hard, and most pay lots of taxes. You probably know already know this, but in addition, immigrants are overwhelmingly law-abiding residents in the US, and commit crimes at a far lower rate than native-born Americans. According to a 2015 study by the Cato Institution, "The criminal conviction and arrest rates for immigrants is well below those of native-born Americans," The rate per 100,000 residents was 899 for undocumented immigrants, 611 for legal immigrants and 1,797 for native-born Americans.
And yet many people in our country speak ill of them and denigrates them publicly. They scapegoat them for the problems of our society ranging from crime to low education rates to trying to import a foreign culture to the US. Our country has offered no legal path to citizenship for these 11 million. Even more, our country, rather than open a tent door or find a way to provide asylum for poor people fleeing conflict or violence or poverty plans nothing more than to build higher walls and more dangerous crossings into the US. The modern-day Hagars and Ishmaels are drowning in the Rio Grande, or being held in indefinite detention waiting for an asylum hearing, while our society collectively replies ‘Cast out that slave woman and her son.’ They are Other, capital O.
Which is why the Torah has these laws about escorting the wayfarer in Deuteronomy. And that is why the Torah has these laws about remembering that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Hagar was once other. We were once other. The totality of Judaism, one of it’s most central principles, is not to make everyone else feel ‘Other’. We instead must engage the humanity within them - to see everyone as a whole person, to love them and to uplift them.
In a year marked with much antisemitism and violence against Jews, it is easy to be hyperaware of ourselves being regarded by bigots and racists as ‘the other’ while simultaneously forgetting that folks, like undocumented immigrants, are experiencing dangerous and acute Otherness themselves. When we are threatened, it is easy to turn our concerns inward. This is the wrong response. We must watch out for ourselves while striving to protect other threatened groups as well. To quote psalm 89, we must build a world of lovingkindness. The message of the Hagar story - the story of a person treated as a foreigner - must ultimately be to discard and cast out the very notion of foreignness and otherness completely.
We must commit ourselves to the protection of all our fellow humans, especially the vulnerable, especially the stranger, especially the immigrant. We each can do that in how we vote, in how we give tzedakah, and how we speak to others about immigrants, and how we allow others to speak about immigrants. Remember to put money aside for organizations like RAICES and HIAS that do legal advocacy. And if a person denegrates the stranger in from of you, find a respectful and kind way to ask them where their ancestors come from. Because all of us, at some point, came from somehwhere else - and we all hope to be received in new places with eyes of Naomi’s eyes of compassion, and not Sarah’s eyes of contempt.
We must inculcate in ourselves a radical notion of compassion for the stranger. It is my prayer for 5780, that we live out the words of Dr Martin Luther King, who said “The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" Rather we should say "If I do not stop to help my fellow man, what will happen to them?" That's the question.