Sarah and Hagar: How Reimagining the Torah Story That Jews Around the World Read on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah Can Empower All of Us to Action
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS to read and interpret Torah and then to share that with others. We can read it literally and stop there. We can see what Torah commentators wrote about these texts over the past two thousand years of conversation among the generations of Jews who treasured these texts even as they re-read them in light of their own developing understanding. And we can look at it from the perspective of what lessons we can take from it—what we can extract from its meaning for how to live and understand life today—undoubtedly placing our own spin on it. It is in this latter way that I am engaging with the story of Sarah and Hagar.
I see the Torah as a visionary document that provides us a way to critique and challenge the society and culture of the time—in the tradition of the prophets. At the time of its writing, the Torah pushed the boundaries and limits on women’s rights, on how to treat slaves and strangers in one’s land, and how to care for the land. While it did not go far enough for most of us who wrestle with its stories and laws, for its time it was a radical vision. It is a critique of empire, of power, of the destruction of the environment, of treating the stranger/the other unjustly, of not caring for your neighbor, the needy, the vulnerable, of the status quo, and of being realistic. It puts forth a vision for how to live differently. So when I read this story of Sarah and Hagar, I read it based on that tradition and through my lenses as a feminist, a social critic, and an activist.
The struggles of the past remain relevant because so many of them touch on issues that fuel the struggles of the present. And yet, until we grieve, mourn, repent, learn, and transform, we will repeat the struggles—the only difference being the times, the clothes, the degree—but the issues don’t change very much. And that is the tradition and purpose of the High Holy Days—to do t’shuvah (returning to our highest self) so we can learn, grow, and transform as individuals and as a society.
Othering, scarcity, fear, domination, hierarchy, patriarchy, racism—these are the underlying issues reflected in many of the struggles that are written about in Torah and they remain the struggles today. The Torah shows us the efforts our spiritual ancestors made to grapple with these issues, to try to push the boundaries, to stand up to the Empire and cultural norms of the time—how we succeeded, how we failed—and and stimulates us to ask what we might do differently in the future.
It is hard to open a newspaper and not collapse in horror, disgust, sorrow, and shock. Children are washing up on the shores in Europe; Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump uses racist and misogynist tropes to mobilize hatred that could turn into voter support; Black men, women, and transgender people are being openly murdered with only a transparently vacuous gesture at accountability; people are living on lesser wages while the cost of living rises; the separation between the haves and have-nots widens and it seems that a sense of care, generosity, love, and kindness is lost.
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Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 4: 17-21