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Parashat VaYera

November 2, 2012

By Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of several crisis points in the life of one ancient family. As the parashah opens, the family constellation includes husband Abraham, first wife- Sarah, surrogate mother-Hagar and the firstborn son of Hagar and Abraham-Ishmael. The text begins with the annunciation of Isaac’s birth. As foretold, Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac at the age of 90. It is difficult to imagine the complicated dynamics in this unusual family situation. As the story unravels before us, so too do these relationships that have been tenuously held together by the need to ensure the future lineage of Abraham.

For thirteen years Ishmael was the treasured firstborn. Though his mother was first a servant in the household, one might wonder what has become of her status over these years. As the mother of Abraham’s firstborn, what kind of relationship do she and Abraham have? What is the nature of the relationship between the two women? Now that Sarah has finally given Abraham the son they had hoped for, how will the inheritance be determined? The text does not answer these questions, but the family conflict that arises alludes to shifting and painful dynamics.

Three years after Isaac’s birth, Abraham makes a celebration for Isaac’s weaning. At the feast, Sarah becomes angry with Ishmael. She demands that Abraham banish Hagar, “the maidservant, and her son” as well. Sarah adds, that it is her son, Isaac, who is Abraham’s rightful heir.

Abraham is deeply distressed over this request. He turns to God for help. God responds, telling Abraham to do as Sarah says, stating, “sh’ma b’kolah– listen to her voice.” The text does not say: listen to her words or listen to what she is saying, or even listen to her. Rather, it says listen to her voice. Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that this refers to the quality of her voice. Listen to her emotions. Listen to her distress.

So often in family life we come into conflict with one another over words and ideas that are misunderstood or poorly communicated, especially in times of crisis. Our text points to another way of listening. Listen to her voice. Listen to the quality of what she is saying, not simply the content. What is really being communicated? For what may look like anger or confusion may likely be a need for more loving attention and support.

The story proceeds with the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Hagar cannot bear to see her child suffer and die and so she places him far from her and leaves him there alone . She cries out in grief. But then the text surprises us as it says, “vayishma Elohim et kol hana’ar– and God heard the voice of the boy- ba’asher hu sham– that he was there.” Yet, we are never told that the boy cries out. In fact, it is his mother who cries, but God hears his voice nevertheless. Listen, the text tells us. Listen to those in distress even if they themselves don’t have the ability to cry out. Listen, ba’asher hu sham– for he is there.

The ones who have been separated from their homes and communities, the ones who are outside of our view; they are there. And even if we may want to close our eyes to their distress, Torah teaches that he is still there-ba’asher hu sham– and we must listen to his voice, even if that one cannot cry out himself.

Hagar cannot bear to see his pain for she sees only one inevitable and painful outcome. But an angel comes to her and tells her to lift up the boy and hold him by the hand- heheziqi et yadeikh bo. Reach out to the one who is suffering for you will strengthen (h-z-q) him by your hand, by your mere presence. Even if you know not what to say, just being with someone who is in distress will strengthen them.

The narrative continues, “vayifkah Elohim et eineha vayeireh be’air mayim-And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” The text implies that the water was there all along but Hagar had closed her eyes to the possibility. She had, in her despair, moved away, given up and closed her eyes to the suffering near her and to the possibility for redemption that was lying in her midst. The Torah states that God opened her eyes for her and then she sees a well of water; her salvation and the salvation of her son.

We too must keep our eyes and ears open to the possibilities for renewal. Even when things seem impossibly difficult, Torah teaches us to open our eyes to the resources that are lying just within reach. Often, the thing we need most is right near us but we can’t see it because we have shut ourselves off from possibilities. We see only one outcome and so we stop listening and stop seeing.

We are especially challenged at this time, in the aftermath of the storm, to open our ears to one another and listen deeply to each others’ voices. Let us reach out our hands – ba’asher hu sham– because he is there; because there is suffering in our communities and in our families right now. And we do indeed have the ability to strengthen and comfort one another, and even to find the hidden and not so hidden wells that can bring renewed life.


Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman is the Founder and Director of Rimon: Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality in Great Barrington, MA www.rimonberkshires.org. She is also a Co-Founder and Co-Leader of The Berkshire Minyan- a trad/egal minyan that meets every Shabbat morning in Great Barrington.