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Introduction to Hagar & Ishmael Torah Excerpt (Genesis 21:9-21) by Rabbi David Cooper

This morning we are reading from the traditional Torah segment for the first day of Rosh Hashanah which you’ll find on your handout. It is a story of the banishment of Hagar and her son Ishmael into the desert.

Why read this segment on Rosh Hashanah? There are many explanations & theories but I leave them aside – because I want to consider this story in regard to our theme about Immigrants and Refugees.

“Previously in the Book of Genesis”: Sarah had been barren and so appointed her Egyptian servant Hagar to be a second wife to Abraham to bare him a child. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Later Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. As our reading begins today, Sarah tells a Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. The text says:

Awaking the next morning, Abraham took bread and a skin of water, gave them to Hagar setting these on her shoulder along with the child, and sent her away. She wandered into the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she left the boy under one of the bushes. She went and sat herself a bowshot distance away, because, as she said, “I cannot watch the boy die.” She sat away; she wailed as she cried.

Elohim heard the cry of the youngster. Elohim’s angel called to Hagar from the heavens saying to her, “What bothers you, Hagar? Do not be afraid. For Elohim has heard the cry of the youngster there where he is. BAASHER HU SHAM – ‘here where he is’ Arise, pick up the youngster and hold him steady in your arm, because I am going to make him into a great nation.” Elohim opened her eyes and she saw a well of water and she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy to drink.  (Tr. Rabbi David J. Cooper)

This is a mythic story. What makes it a myth is not that it is false or a fiction. Rather it is a myth because it is eternally true. What do I mean? Myths are not supposed to be historical events and that is also true of stories of the bible no matter what fundamentalists might tell you. The power of a myth is that it tells us about something in the human condition at all times. There are Miriams today dancing celebrating freedom with a timbrel in her hand. All of us, not just Sisyphus, push a heavy boulder uphill on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, the mythic story of Hagar and Ishmael is still true today. If their story is biblical, then there are hundreds of biblical stories going on right now in the Sonoran desert and in the border between Syria and Turkey. Refugees flee so that their children can live and survive and maybe even become a great nation.

But where are the angels that will save them? Where are the miraculous wells that can quench the fatal thirst of the child lying under a creosote bush in the Arizona desert? There are real Ishmaels out there right now and often the ending of their story is not so sweet. So if you are relieved by the happy ending of this story, and if you are distressed by the alternative ending of death, then forget about whether our Hagars today have proper documentation. Instead, it is up to us to consider in what ways we can be the angels to help the Ishmaels here where they are today, BAASHER HU SHAM.

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