We’re Right Here
In considering what might be the fuller story of today’s Torah reading, the Rabbis say Sarah didn’t like the way Ishmael was turning out. In traditional readings, Ishmael is made out to be insolent – metzachek – on the face of it “laughing” but with a layer of judgment, “laughing at.” She found his teen-age laughter was disrespectful.
I’m reminded of a story my teacher Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells, which she prefaces, saying: “We do violence in many ways…”
She tells of a rabbi who, in the moment of his Kol Nidre sermon, walks out into the kahal and takes his adorable year-old from his wife’s arms and brings her up onto the bima. The baby smiles at the congregation and every heart melts. But then, as the rabbi begins to speak, she starts seeking attention – putting her father’s tie in her mouth, grabbing for his glasses. And the congregation laughs lovingly.
Retrieving his glasses, the rabbi laughs too. Still smiling, he waits for silence. When it comes, he asks, “And when does this stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”
I wonder: when did Ishmael lose his charm? When did Sarah become afraid of his tzchok – the laughter of a young teen that had, previously, been innocuous? When did she forget that he was a child of her family?
Instead of working through her vulnerability in sharing a husband and sharing legacy between the half-siblings, Sarah did violence.
Our story of the differentiation between Isaac and Ishmael initiates all the differentiations a tribal, triumphal view of Jewish identity are based upon. Here, in this morning’s reading we see an ancient manifestation of the slow violence of systemic imbalance that should not surprise us as it erupts in our moment.
With all we’ve suffered throughout Jewish history, it’s hard to accept that “othering” is part of our ethos, but here it is – the advantaged wife, casts out the “other” and the suffering that ensues is “for the best.” Ismael will become great if he survives, and if he takes his human messiness and, whatever anxiety his presence triggers, elsewhere – where it will not be seen or considered.
At least not by the patriarchal family.
But there’s a catch that makes all the difference.
Ishmael is God’s child, and Torah lets us see that.
So, should we not do the teshuvah of re-educating ourselves to the truth that everyone’s a child of God?
I can’t wrap my head around a higher good in the present suffering of God’s children and God’s planet. I admit that I’ve allowed that we are living a nightmare, and when I hear people say, “it’s the end of the world,” it doesn’t feel like a metaphor.
So, what sustains me?
What sustains me is evidence of new life.
The bulbs that came up in my garden early in our self-isolation. A baby born to an Or Shalom mom who had suffered fertility problems. Wild blue asters I saw blooming on the prairie in the Interior where I was told they’d not been seen in over ten years. A litter of 14 baby boa constrictors, glistening in their birth fluids.
The hope-monger, author Ann Lamott, in response to such simple good news in hard times, famously asks: “That’s all you’ve got?” And I have to say, “Yes, right now – it’s what I’ve got.” Bulbs, babies, and a sense that the way through is going to be our continual choosing of love over fear.
Babies and blubs might not seem like much to go on, but they help me remember that I am born of this same beautiful life force. For me, they’re small glimpses of hope, and my contentment in the moments of encountering blossoms, summer breezes, stars on the prairie, are small glimpses of freedom from fear, freedom to experience radical amazement even in a terrible circumstance.
At the end of today’s Torah narrative, we’re offered a denouement: Hagar finds Ishmael a wife. New life! Joy after starvation. The promise of future.
Our encounters with small miracles are incidents of contentment within our lives exactly as they are, touchstones of fulfillment. They return my attention to finding connections and acceptance and love and compassion right here and now.
So what is the real work?
I think the real work is to do our very best to feel blessed and chosen, soul-nourished, so that we are whole enough, spiritually healthy enough, to offer love as never before.
I think the real work is to face our personal stories of hurt, estrangement, disconnection and blame, now, when every old story, every vulnerability is legitimately triggered. The real work is to commit to a path of incremental steps toward acceptance of other people, toward intimacy, toward compassion, toward service – in other words toward a love that will free us from fearing one another.
The real and radical work is to see and respect one person at a time, naming it as our collective challenge, upholding one another in this work, emulating what it means to be a humane human. Just as we have learned, here in BC, that we have individual agency to affect the public health, let’s believe in our personal power to reverse the slow violence of xenophobia that complicates our ability to withstand this biological crisis, and stands in the way of healing our crisis of values.
The real redemption is altruism.
Every good action, every decent response, rebuilds and renews. We can raise children; we can reach out to the sick; we can empower the elderly and the poor. We can attend to the dead and to mourners; we can celebrate one another’s milestones. We can promote peace; we can offer grace. We can befriend those who are alone, particularly when many are separated from family; we can listen without judgment; we can treat others as they would like to be treated.
And when we, ourselves, receive gifts of chesed – loving kindness – we can make a practice of channeling that love to others who will, we hope, broaden, and intensify the flow.
Yes, I’m speaking from a privileged perspective. Surely there’s been no self-isolation for the homeless, children whose daily meal was the school lunch have eaten less, and hourly paid workers are not experiencing the inspiration of virtual meditation retreats. That is why it’s not enough to appreciate our beloveds, rendered more precious by our fear for their safety. The tikkun, the teshuvah is to make a ripple of our love that will flow like God’s own flow of vitality, irrigating all corners. The tikkun and the teshuvah is to work toward ensuring that joy and blessing are universal phenomena.
History hasn’t changed, of a sudden. We’ve been awakened by the lightning-flash of Corona, what Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls “the 11th Plague,” but the circumstances that have given rise to this plague have been in place for a long time. It’s just that, now, we can’t pretend it’s not our calamity. We can’t exile this Ishmael to a place where his pain isn’t seen.
A final plague is meant to be too much to bear, meant to break us open. Meant to move us to call out, weep a wellspring of tears, call God’s attention to those on the margins, alchemize our distress into acts of love.
In a recent Atlantic article, George Packer quoted the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem: “There are in history what you could call ‘plastic hours.’ Namely, crucial moments when it is possible to act. If you move then, something happens.” In such moments, an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable, prolonged stasis gives way to motion, and people dare to hope.
Moments of malleability are rare in history, but Scholem’s words resonate because it feels that we are living in such an hour.
What’s going to get us through? Actions of love.
Friedrich Nietzsche is known to have said: “I was in darkness, but I took three steps and found myself in paradise. The first step was a good thought, the second, a good word, and the third, a good deed.”
To enact the love that’s needed right now we’ll have to un-learn the “othering” and fear ingrained in our DNA. To love in the way that’s going to get us through requires that we be self-critical and make one conscious effort after another to confront whatever stories separate me from you, and us from them.
Our world depends on it, so I ask you to join hands with me in spiritual intimacy, join hands with one another, no exceptions, and keep extending whatever intimacy we can cultivate, pushing our love into more and more un-expected realms, touching the most unlikely people.
Let’s commit to the radical work of exchanging fear for love, and let’s be infectious in our own right, countering Covid with lovingkindness gone viral.
Rabbi Hannah Dresner