Parashat Vayera: Compassionate identification with the other

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is a Community Chaplain at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and teaches at Kol Rinah, B’nai Amoona, and Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. 

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

In Parashat Vayera, we encounter a disturbing moment in the life of our first matriarch and patriarch: the story of Abraham and Sarah’s casting out of Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with just a bit of bread and water. Rather than hide this shameful story, our sages gave it a central place in our communal consciousness by making it a Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. 

This is the second time Hagar finds herself in the desert. The first time is after she treated Sarah with disdain when she became pregnant with Abraham’s child. With permission from Abraham, Sarah abuses Hagar. The verb is i-nui, a shocking word because it is the same verb used for Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelite slaves. If we switch around vowels, Hagar’s name becomes “ha-ger” — “the stranger,” calling to mind our formerly enslaved ancestors and the Torah’s frequent reminder that we are not to oppress the stranger (the same verb as what Sarah does to Hagar). (Exodus 22:20) 

Hagar’s life becomes a paradigm for our story- the Israelites’ journey from servitude and oppression to the wilderness and revelation. Hagar, the Egyptian slave, fled into the desert on her way to Shur, and there a Divine messenger speaks to her by a well of water. When the Israelites later find themselves in the wilderness of Shur, they will at first lack water but find it with Divine guidance. In the wilderness, God responds to Hagar and her cries, much as God will later respond to the cries of our ancestors. 

We are asked to identify with Hagar’s story. And yet, Sarah and Abraham are the mother and father of our Jewish nation. Their story is also our story. We are not permitted only to see ourselves as victims but rather to understand the ways in which we exploit and oppress others. The Torah pushes us to look honestly at our ancestors, and in this way we are trained to look honestly at ourselves. 

Perhaps more importantly, the Torah compels us to feel compassion for Hagar and Ishmael. God also chooses them, and they have their own narrative of degradation and redemption. In this way, we are trained to nurture our compassion for others with whom we find ourselves in conflict or competition.

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This is the foundation for the Parent’s Circle-Families Forum, an organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis promoting reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. Rami Elchanan, a member of the Forum, has family roots in Jerusalem that date back seven generations. His father is an Auschwitz survivor who was wounded in the 1948 War of Independence, and his mother, born in the Old City of Jerusalem, was the nurse who cared for him. Embittered by his own experience of fighting in three wars, he distanced himself from politics. And then, in 1997, his 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a terrorist on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

He could barely get out of bed for a year, but when he was invited to a Forum meeting, he went. He writes, “I encountered Palestinians as normal human beings, very much like me, with the same pain, the same tears, and the same dreams. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the story, the pain, and the anger, and also to the nobility and the humanity of what is called ’the other side.’”

Bassam Aramin spent seven years in an Israeli prison for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers. He tells of experiencing the cruelty of Israelis but also learning about the Holocaust, which opened his eyes to Jewish suffering, and where he began an ongoing dialogue with an Israeli guard. In 2005, Aramin co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants committed to a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Since then, he has not picked up a weapon — not even when, two years later, his 10-year-old daughter, Abir was killed by an Israeli soldier. 

He writes, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.” 

Each of their heartbreaking stories, seems to me a desperate and courageous attempt to bring Ishmael back from the desert and unbind Isaac from the altar. As difficult as this sentiment is right now in this current wave of terror, hatred, and violence in Israel, hope for me comes from hearing that the Parents’ Circle has a tent open in Jaffa for people to talk to one another. And from hearing from Israeli friends that last week, they and their children sat together with Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and Christians in Jerusalem to listen to each other talk about how the current situation is impacting their lives, through the organization Kids4Peace. It seems all believe that the possibility of a different future begins with connecting with one another, despite the tension, anger, and fear. 

Our Torah challenges us to make room for the reality and narratives of others. This is a vision for how we might begin to clear a path to peace — by forming a compassionate identification with the other through the difficult but holy work of listening.