D’var Torah: Ishmael and Hagar – Remembering our Values in the Face of Suffering

Ishmael (Avraham’s son) and Hagar (Sarah’s slave and Avraham’s concubine) were sent away by Sarah’s demand and Avraham’s reluctant agreement. They were in the wilderness and dying of thirst under the hot sun. I imagine they experienced terrible suffering and that it was doubly awful for Hagar to see her little boy suffer. This first day Torah reading seems almost like the forgotten parsha of Rosh Hashanah in contrast to the more famous Akedah Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac) that we read on the second day.

The Torah and its commentators have devoted many pages trying to understand and rationalize this incident. Did Sarah have legitimate concerns about Ishmael’s influence on Yitzhak, or was she just worried about Yitzhak’s inheritance? The Torah states that the matter troubled Avraham, but he did it anyway when God told him to listen to his wife.

I don’t buy any of this. The lesson of this story is simple: we should not do this. Hagar is a foreigner, a slave and a concubine with very little legal status or power. Her son also is in a precarious position. These are people at the fringes of society who are treated poorly. It goes against the values repeatedly expressed by the Torah. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry.” (Exodus 22:20-22)

Yet it did happen and continues to happen. All of them – Sarah, Avraham and God – allow this injustice to happen despite the values they should uphold.

One of our main roles at Camp Ramah is to partner with our families to teach our children shared values and how to make good decisions, even when it is hard or there are forces trying to convince them otherwise. It is important to think back to the foundational beliefs and values we hold and apply them. In this way moral clarity can be a little easier to gain. We can make the right decisions even when they might not be exactly the decisions that we prefer.

Ishmael and Hagar were suffering. At that moment, God remembered our values. As the Torah says, “God heard the cry of the boy” and an angel showed them a well and announced that Ishmael would be the father of a great people. We need to hear the cries of those who are suffering and take action. Sometimes that can be a little scary and perhaps not in our immediate interest. Still, it is what we do. In this new year, it is something we should be talking about with our families. Shana tova!