A Holiday D’Var Torah for Syria

On Thursday morning I attended Rosh Hashana services at a Conservative synagogue in Dewitt, NY, neighbor to my new home of Syracuse. While it was odd to attend a new synagogue by myself, I appreciated this congregation’s open services policy and far preferred it to the option of visiting the Hillel on the University campus where I am a graduate student.

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a still from Emad Burnat and Guy David’s “5 Broken Cameras”

Before the Torah reading, the woman who would be reading gave a short d’var Torah, or commentary, on that morning’s reading: Genesis 21 through—27? 28?–, which covered the birth and binding of Isaac. In her short speech, the woman reflected on the moment when the matriarch Sarah, finally a mother, tells her husband Abraham to cast out his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael. She compared this moment to those columns in magazines which proclaim, “Stars: They’re just like us!” According to this shul’s Torah reader, it was reassuring to see the stars of the Torah behaving in imperfect ways. As a mother, this woman said, she understood Sarah’s selfish desire to save all her husband’s wealth for her own son, and send her husband’s first son and son’s mother, their slave, packing into an unforgiving desert.

As the woman chanted this fundamental story from the Torah, I read through the passage in English. And I was struck, not by Sarah’s relatability, but to her cruelty at a time of family celebration.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry. And Sarah said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.”

Abraham wasn’t happy about this, for Ishmael was his son; but God told him to do “whatever Sarah tells you…for in Isaac will be called your seed. But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed.”

So in the morning, Abraham gave Hagar some water and food, and turned her out. After their food was gone, Hagar “went and sat down from afar, at about the distance of two bowshots, for she said, ‘Let me not see the child’s death.’ And she sat from afar, and she raised her voice and wept.”

As I read this, and sat listening to the woman chanting and the women whispering behind me, I felt increasingly agitated. Hagar’s story seemed so much more relatable, more touching—heart-wrenching, even—than Sarah’s. Both women had to send others away to die. But Sarah’s was a decision of privilege—the mistress of her house, she cast out a slave and her husband’s son. Hagar’s was a decision of despair—her son was dying, and she could not save him. She could not even bear to watch.

Reading this parsha, I felt the shul I sat in had missed a great opportunity to reflect on privilege and selfishness in the person of one of our matriarchs. In this sense I agreed with our Torah reader–Sarah: she’s just like us. She didn’t want to share. She preferred to obliquely commit murder in the name of her and her son’s interests.

Why include this story on Rosh Hashana? It is an opportunity to reflect on privilege, and on how a people sacrifices broad humanity in the interest of establishing its nation. As I sat in that shul, where no one talked seriously about what was happening in the world, I wondered how many American rabbis had taken this opportunity to preach about AIPAC’s involvement in pressing Washington to bomb Syria. As my thoughts turned toward AIPAC, American Jewry’s most powerful political lobby, I quickly became disgusted. Now Rosh Hashana has passed, and we have entered the Days of Atonement, when we are called to atone for our sins before Yom Kippur, and a great lobby of American Jews was raising the call for war. We are taught that on Yom Kippur, Jews are held accountable for each other’s sins, for the sins of a whole community. And in a moment when we should be reflecting and asking forgiveness, the most politically powerful group of American Jews are, instead, calling for more bloodshed and more war.

We can learn from the Rosh Hashana portion without seeking to emulate it. In my eyes, Sarah committed a clear wrong. She acted out of cruelty and petty self-interest, almost condemning a woman of inferior social status to death. Even God judged Sarah’s actions harshly, because he heard “the lad [Ishmael’s] voice in the place where he is.” God send Hagar water and made Ishmael “into a great nation.”

Later in the portion, Abraham chastizes the Philistine Abimelech whose servants seized Abraham’s well. Abimelech insists he knew nothing about it. Nevertheless the two men make a covenant, and Abraham lives peacably there for some time. This, too, seems an indictment of the settlements. Abimelech’s appeal to ignorance reminds us of the Israeli government, at times, and of the American Jews who defend its actions: “I do not know who did this thing, neither did you tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.”

But American rabbis were not preaching against the settlements on Thursday, they were not preaching against AIPAC’s war mongering. And American Jews were left to go home to their festival tables and wonder amongst themselves, without guidance from their leadership, what the right thing to do is where Israel is concerned.

Our crisis of conscience is a small inconvenience compared to the disasters unfolding in Syria and in Palestine. And I am ashamed to watch fellow American Jews call loudly for more war while we pithily utter Shalom, empty pleas for peace.

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