Whose Covenant?

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

America has had a choice to make about its future. We have been casting our votes, and the results are in, and they are painful. No, I don’t mean the presidential election that took place Nov. 8 with all of the scapegoating, threats, anger and fear that it brought. That is merely a byproduct. I mean the choice, fundamentally, about what kind of country we want to be. Who will we be “great” for, who benefits, who sacrifices, and who, if anyone, will feel left behind? 

There is a dynamic that has become part of our national politics that I find deeply disturbing. It is the notion that in order for any of us to succeed, someone else has to lose; the notion that our country can be for only one subset of “us.” 

In many ways, this notion is the driving theme of our Torah readings throughout the book of Bereishit. This week, we continue to read about the painful conflict that tears apart our original family. Abraham and Sarah are faced with the question of how and by whom their covenant with God will be continued. After being childless for many years, there are now two potential heirs. Ishmael is Abraham’s oldest son through Hagar, Sarah’s servant who served as a surrogate parent. Isaac is Abraham’s youngest son, born to Sarah, Abraham’s wife of many years. Seemingly, only one of them can inherit the covenant. The other must lose.

Every year, it brings tears to my eyes when I read these stories, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. These are two women struggling to survive in a world that allows for their bodies to be bought and sold, traded and used by others. 

Both of them have firsthand experience of this: Sarah is twice handed over to a powerful king in exchange for Abraham’s protection and wealth. Hagar is traded to Sarah as a servant (according to Midrash, as a direct consequence of Sarah’s trade to Pharaoh), and then ordered to offer her body as a surrogate. 


They suffer as a result of the same forces. And somehow they get trapped in the notion that only one of them can survive. Sarah abuses Hagar. Hagar taunts Sarah. Sarah evicts both Hagar and Ishmael from the home, saying explicitly that “the son of this servant must not inherit with my son.” 

It is at this moment that I always want to jump into the text and yell at them, “Can’t you see that you are on the same side here!? Can’t you see how much you could do if you stood with each other?” 

What seems clear in Sarah’s words is that she is afraid. She is afraid that any success for Hagar and Ishmael means less success and safety for herself and Isaac. She is afraid that if Ishmael remains a part of the family and the covenant, she will be left behind. 

This is the fear that has been growing in American politics in the past decades. Too many of us see the prospect of well-being and safety slipping away, or have never felt that America offered it. 

Too many leaders ask us to think in terms of “us against them,” to prevent “those people” from taking away “our” jobs, taking away “our” hard-won civil rights, “our” path to success, taking away our ability to live out “our” personal or religious values. 

And too often we have accepted those narratives. The level of blame, fear-mongering and outright anger leading up to and culminating in this election cycle has been truly disastrous. Many in this country are genuinely afraid of what this election means for their safety and their families. Many others have felt ignored and abandoned by economic and trade policies that have not helped their lives improve. 

I will confess that I too am afraid of what will come next. But I want us to imagine another path. 

What if Sarah and Hagar had refused to be duped into the winner-take-all competition? 

What if they had acknowledged each other’s pain and understood that neither of them could become any safer by harming or diminishing the other? 

What if Isaac and Ishmael had decided that there was enough — enough wealth, enough room in the covenant, enough power — and insisted that it be shared? What if they had told their parents “we stay or we leave together”? 

What if Abraham had done more than stand there bemused by the hurt and fear inside his home? What if he had listened? How much pain and suffering would never have happened if the cycle had stopped right there?

This week, I want to imagine a politics of possibility. I want to know what it will look like when we can finally reject the notion that for any of us to get ahead, someone else has to get left behind. 

I want to know what our country will look like when we truly realize that we can only be free when all of us are free, we can only succeed when all of us succeed. 

The truth is, the election of one presidential candidate or another is only one part in the choice that America has to make. Hundreds of small and large policy choices will affect our day-to-day lives. 

We can each still choose to join that process, to reject policies that scapegoat or marginalize others, to insist that no one is an acceptable casualty on the way to our own well-being. There is much that we can do right now to ensure that no one has to lose in order for us all to thrive.