THE BLOG
09/04/2013 07:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

Why We Read Sarah and Hagar at Rosh Hashana: On the Abuse of Power

Every year on Rosh Hashana, Jews worldwide read about Abraham and Sarah's casting out of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. And every year, I have felt profoundly uncomfortable with it.

Hagar was an Egyptian woman whose name literally means "the stranger." She was Sarah's handmaiden and, eventually, Abraham's concubine and the mother of his elder son. In the story that gets read on the birthday of the world, the first day of the new year, Sarah sees Ishmael doing something -- "playing" is the most reasonable translation -- with her son, Isaac. So Sarah says to Abraham, "Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share an inheritance with my son Isaac." Abraham balks, but God tells him to heed her and Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the ruthless desert.

Some Jewish commentators try to justify Sarah's sending-away of a vulnerable woman and child by suggesting that Ishmael was doing something horrible to Isaac. But the word used in the text shares a root with Isaac's name, laughter, and in the Bible, those sorts of things don't tend to be accidents. The plain meaning of the text indicates that the two boys were merely having fun, or, if you want to push the literary angle, "Isaacing with Isaac." Other Jewish commentators work hard to find some other explanation for Sarah's actions, but at the end of the day, I'm not sure it's appropriate of us to justify the ways in which a woman with geographic and ethnic privilege and a higher class status disenfranchises a woman who is, literally, a stranger without resources because the woman with power doesn't want to share her son's inheritance with the son she had, earlier, encouraged her husband to sire. Can we perhaps just admit that this is not Sarah's finest hour?

Abraham wasn't sure at first if this expulsion was a good move, but God tells him to heed Sarah's word -- which is pretty theologically troubling if you're troubled by the way this whole scene goes down. Leonard Fein, from what I understand, reads God, here, as being sarcastic -- like, this is so obviously a terrible idea, what kind of idiot would heed her word and go along with it?

If we accept this reading, though, it opens up a lot of interpretive space. For example, it might illuminate the story immediately following this one, the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana -- the binding of Isaac. What if the horror of being asked to tie your beloved son to the altar and slaughter him is really a punishment for Abraham's complicity and Sarah's heartlessness? What if it's a test to see if Abraham is, in a second situation, able to prioritize his son's well-being over everything else? (If it is, he failed it.) Traditional commentaries note that the thing that happens right after the binding of Isaac is that Sarah dies -- and postulate that she was not able to continue living after she learned what had happened to her child. I wonder if part of the blow might have included understanding, finally, once her own son was at risk, what she had actually done to Hagar. It may have taken the shoe being on the other foot for her to become capable of empathy for her former handmaiden, and to be able to fully feel the weight of responsibility for her actions.

With this reading, it becomes entirely clear why this is our Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashana, the time of accounting our soul, looking harshly at our mistakes and seeking forgiveness and atonement -- this is the story of being so attached to our own needs and wants that we forget who else we might hurt along the way. This is the story of us being oblivious to the ways in which we wield our influence. Sarah is wrong, here. But she's the Jews' ancestor, and we're meant to identify with her -- and it's not meant to be a comfortable identification. This story reminds us to scrutinize our actions, to think of the ways in which we have been blind to the power we have abused, unthinking in the ways in which our privilege has caused us to bring suffering to others, to people we don't fully see. This Torah reading is meant to be an uncomfortable mirror, a call to empathy and accountability. And if the work hasn't started yet, it needs to start with Rosh Hashana.