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Honoring our Ancestor Hagar

This has been a year of increasing violence, terror and systematized and legalized oppression of Palestinian people who are living under the authority of the Israeli government. The most recent Israeli elections brought people to power who are overtly and vehemently calling for, and carrying out the further violent dehumanization of Palestinian people, destruction of Palestinian homes and communities, and expulsion of Palestinian people from their land in order to expand Jewish settlements.

As a way of keeping before our eyes what is befalling  the Palestinian people, and to remind ourselves of our common humanity and shared ancestors, we’re making a change to our liturgy – to the first blessing of the Amidah, which goes back at least 2,000 years. We are adding the name of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, to this blessing.

The Amidah begins with a blessing that names our ancestors, and acknowledges the crucial role they play in establishing our own relationship to the Source of Life. Traditionally, the first blessing is called “Avot” or fathers, and in a traditional siddur, or prayerbook, you’ll see only three ancestors named: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The formula is interesting too: we say Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, Elohei Ya’akov – the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the G-d of Jacob – affirming that this G-d is present for each ancestor, in each generation, each experiencing G-d in their own way.

Starting about half a century ago, feminist Jews in progressive communities added the names of the mothers/matriarchs/imahot: Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rachel. In some communities, like Kehilla, the matriarchs are listed alongside their male partners: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rivka, etc. In other communities, like the queer-founded Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, to avoid listing a series  of heterosexual couples, the order is Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, etc.

At Kehilla, we also include Bilhah and Zilpah, the two lower-status wives of Jacob whose sons, along with the sons of Leah and Rachel, became the patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes. At Kehilla, we call this blessing “dorot” – the generations, rather than “avot” – the fathers.

To deepen our commitment to caring for our Palestinian siblings, and to refresh our awareness of their struggle every time we engage in our spiritual practice, the Kehilla Spiritual Leadership Team decided to add Hagar among our named ancestors.

Hagar was the Egyptian servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah. You can read her story in chapters 16 and 21 of the book of Genesis / Bereshit. In the Torah, when Sarah is getting older but hasn’t become pregnant, she suggests that Abraham sleep with Hagar in order to have an heir. Once he did, Sarah turned against Hagar, and sent her to the wilderness to die. There, Hagar is visited by YHVH/G-d. Not just that, Hagar actually names G-d, the first human in the Torah to do so, and calls Them “el ro’i” – G-d of seeing. 

G-d tells Hagar that she is pregnant, and that she should call her son Ishmael. In Islam, Ishmael (not Isaac) is the son of Abraham who is nearly sacrificed, and who is ultimately recognized as the ancestor of Mohammad.

For many years, Kehilla has added Ishmael’s name at the end of the Kaddish, asking that peace come upon us, upon all of the descendants of Jacob (who are called the children of Israel) and upon all of the descendants of Ishmael – v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol Yishmael, etc.

Adding Hagar to our named ancestors in the Amidah expands our practice of affirming the ancestral kinship among the branches of this family.  The Amidah is actually much older than the Kaddish, and for the Rabbis, it was the most important prayer. They called it “Ha’tefillah” – The Prayer, and they established it as the practice that would stand in place of the three daily offerings after the Temple was destroyed. The Amidah became our way of orienting ourselves to the truth of our lives – to where we come from, to what matters to us, and to what is being asked of us.

Naming Hagar here can deepen our practice in many ways:

  • By saying “Elohei Hagar” / G-d of Hagar, we recognize the significance of Hagar’s personal encounter with YHVH, and her intimate experience of G-d’s Presence. YHVH, the G-d of our ancestors, is unmistakably Elohei Hagar.
  • We recognize that the descendants of Hagar and the descendants of Sarah are one family; that we don’t stop being family when people follow different spiritual paths.
  • We remind ourselves of, and we bind ourselves to the children of Hagar alongside the children of Sarah, in the very moment when we are orienting our hearts to prayer, openness and truth. 

This small act of naming can’t heal the wounds of decades of injustice. It doesn’t take the place of the many ways we can act to support Palestinian movements for justice and liberation. But we hope it will support us to pray with integrity and to act from a stronger spiritual foundation. Please share how this goes for you!

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