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TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a Verse from the Weekly Parsha

Parsha Vayera, Genesis 21:10-13:

“And Sarah said to Abraham, ‘Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.’ But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son. And God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed. But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed.’”

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Temple Israel of Hollywood

“Drive out this handmaid and her son … ” makes me squirm. I’m ashamed to admit that
although my closest dear friends are women, at times we women can be cruel to one another. As young girls, we compete with our friends for popularity by making alliances with girls who hold power because of their good looks or social capital, and sometimes engage in unwise or unhealthy actions to increase our social influence. As pregnant women, and then new mothers, we compare notes about who breastfeeds successfully, who stays home to parent (or returns to the workplace) and whose baby sleeps through the night — all the while making subtle judgments about the “right” approach to being there for our kids.

In the business world, we strive against fellow women as we climb the corporate ladder, sometimes intentionally stepping on other women instead of collaborating. At home, we battle with our daughters while vying for limited attention from our spouses.

It’s embarrassing to admit that at times women compare, undermine and undercut one another. When it gets really bad, sometimes our closest allies become our most destructive nemeses. We can turn on one another rather than turning toward one another. We may criticize others in order to raise ourselves in our own esteem, yet wind up eventually alone or isolated.

Sarah did this to Hagar. She used the threat of inheritance as a reason to throw out the woman who she used and then abused. This story is a warning to all women: We need to unite rather than divide.

David Sacks, Producer who podcasts at

Ask yourself …

When I’m being “religious,” who am I really serving?

God or myself?

This is an important question, because …

What if … The Master of the Universe asks me to do something that’s out of my comfort zone?

Would I still do it?

What if there were 10 tests, each one greater than the last? And what if the destiny of the entire Jewish people was on the line with every choice I made?

Welcome to the life of Avraham, the first Jew.

Mystically speaking, the quality that most exemplifies Avraham is kindness. And yet when God tests Avraham, He consistently asks Avraham to exhibit the very opposite quality that Avraham is known for. The binding of Issac, and in our verse, exiling his son, to give two examples.

The Kotzker Rebbe explains how tests work. If we pass one, we get a bigger one. If we fail that, we get a smaller one … and on and on through life.

But if Avraham was great in kindness, why test him in this way? Because God wanted to know how much of Avraham’s righteousness was because he’s good by nature, and how much was because Avraham was completely given over to the will of God?

God tests all of us. It’s challenging, but that’s by design, because serving God is deep.

And really serving God is really deep.

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat, Vice president of community engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Abraham kicked out one son and nearly killed the other! How could Sarah propose expelling Hagar and Ishmael? How could God and Abraham agree?

In “Beginning Anew,” Marsha Mirkin noted that God told Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice, not to follow her plan. A child might tell his or her parents, “I don’t want my brother anymore! Take him back!” Parents should comfort the child who complains — but not return the baby to the hospital!

What if Abraham had heard Sarah’s pain and formulated a different solution with her? How might the family and history have unfolded? Recently, the Board of Rabbis — a program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that gathers rabbis of all denominations for learning — hosted a workshop with Rabbi Melissa Weintraub of Resetting the Table. The program addressed charged political issues. Each person listened to someone with opposing views, without interruption, and then summarized back the remarks. The process was then repeated by the other partner.

This deep listening transformed the discussion into the most civilized conversation I have witnessed about explosive topics. Sh’ma B’kolah. Listen to her voice. Those two Hebrew words are desperately needed today. Women are speaking up about sexual harassment and discrimination. We must hear their pain to achieve equality. To become one nation, we must listen to those with whom we fiercely disagree. Can we hear the pain of people even if we reject their solutions to our country’s problems?

Abraham’s story holds the key to a better future. Sh’ma B’kolah.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Abraham was an incorrigible universalist. He loved all people, sought their friendship (witness the biblical references to his covenants with Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Abimelech), and welcomed all comers into his and Sarah’s tent. When God promised that Sarah would bear a child, Abraham laughed and replied to God that he is fully content with Ishmael, though Ishmael was born of a maidservant.

There can be no doubt that Abraham’s universalistic love was one of the qualities that led God to choose him to be the father of the new nation that would champion righteousness and justice.

Sarah understood something important that Abraham failed to understand. Love must be drawn in concentric circles. No one can — or should — love everyone with equal intensity. A family that loves its own members no more than it loves the outsider will not endure for long.Concentric circles of love are the only viable model for one who aspires to practice universal love. A nation whose commitment to righteousness and justice for its own is no greater than its commitment to righteousness and justice for others will never attain the internal strength and soundness it needs to effectively extend itself to others. Sarah believed that Abraham needed to begin drawing concentric circles if the enterprise were to succeed. And God agreed.

That does not detract at all from the searing painfulness of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion. We are not surprised that God has compassion upon them, or that God then subjects Abraham and Sarah to the most harrowing test of all, the Akedah.

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits, Southern California Director of New Israel Fund

In these few verses, we are granted a window into Abraham’s distress at the possibility of banishing Ishmael from his home. And yet he never speaks up. Instead, Abraham is encouraged by a Divine voice to “listen” to Sarah, and to ignore his distress.

So, in the verses that follow, Abraham rises early in the morning — just as he will in the next chapter of Genesis, when he follows God’s command to bind his second child, Isaac, as a sacrificial offering — and sends Hagar and Ishmael out to the wilderness.

According to Mishnah Avot 5:3, Abraham faced 10 tests in his lifetime. In the first test, Abraham held up his faith in the face of a fiery furnace. In the second test, Abraham left his original home, at God’s command, in search of a place unknown. Has Abraham, in these final two tests, exhausted his will to stand up for compassion in the face of cruelty?

Perhaps we are meant to read these verses as a warning against moral exhaustion. We — like Abraham — face a world of myriad threats to goodness and love. These verses, and the story that will follow in Genesis 22, command us to stay alert and attentive — to the abuse of women and children as well as migrants and other marginal members of our society, and to keep insisting on all of these outsiders’ rights to the protections of our tent, even when the voices of the powerful are telling us to look out for our own, and not be “displeased or concerned” about suffering.

Rabin’s Funeral

Given the atmosphere in the Middle East today, it is hard to believe that just seven years ago, on Nov. 6, 1995, a Jewish funeral took place where the deceased was surrounded and eulogized by Jews and Arabs. Yes, this week marks the seventh anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral. Rabin was publicly eulogized (in this order) by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, King Hussein of Jordan, acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A Jew, followed by an Arab, followed by a Jew, followed by an Arab, all standing together at one graveside in Israel, eulogizing one Jewish leader. Children born that year in the Middle East probably have a hard time understanding how such an integrated funeral was really possible, given the Middle East they have witnessed since they were born.

Was Rabin’s funeral, which brought together Jews and Arabs for one brief moment, the first of its nature in the history of the Middle East?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Hayei Sarah, the Torah describes the death and burial of the first biblical patriarch, Abraham. A "father of a multitude of nations," Abraham, indeed, fathered two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, whose offspring were unfortunately destined to struggle with one another for thousands of years. Having one common father in Abraham, each son’s offspring were poised to become "great nations." The Jewish people trace their lineage through Isaac, for God told Abraham "it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you." The Arabs, and later the Muslims, trace their heritage to Ishmael, of whom God said to Abraham, "I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed." Each son was destined to be a leader of his people.

After growing up together briefly, the two half brothers were separated: Isaac’s family going one way and Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, going in another direction. They were separated from one another for some 70 years. During that time, according to the Midrash, Isaac actually had gone to visit Hagar. We do not really know the purpose of the visit, but perhaps it was Isaac’s overture at reconciliation between the half brothers.

Then Abraham dies. "And Abraham was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah." The Talmud describes Ishmael’s attendance at his father’s funeral as an act of teshuvah. To do teshuvah means to return. Ishmael returned to his father and to his half brother, Isaac. Was Ishmael’s teshuvah a response to his Isaac’s earlier visit to his home? We will never know.

All we know is that Isaac and Ishmael, Jew and Arab, stood together at their father’s graveside, tending to Abraham’s burial needs together, each probably having delivered moving eulogies for all of "Abraham’s kin" to hear at the funeral.

It is an unfortunate fact of history that the momentum of Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father’s graveside was not carried into the future of their respective people’s history.

Similarly, it is unfortunate that when a funeral similar to Abraham’s took place just seven years ago, the momentum of that event was not carried forward equally by both sides beyond Rabin’s graveside.

Rosh Hashana 5761

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana always strikesme as odd. For starters, the section focuses primarily on Hagar and Ishmael,characters that are ultimately marginal in Jewish historical terms. On topof that, the story that the section deals with is arguably the leastflattering episode in the lives of our forefather and foremother, Abrahamand Sara. It is the story of their expelling Hagar and Ishmael from theirhome to face a highly uncertain future in the wilderness. Why did our sagesselect this story to be read on this day?

A great variety of responses to this question have been offered, many ofwhich require that we shift our focus away from the Hagar-Ishmael expulsionepisode, and concentrate instead on the passage that opens the reading,namely God's remembering the promise of motherhood that He had made to Sara.(Divine remembering is, after all, one of Rosh Hashana's major themes.) I'dlike to join with the other school though, in suggesting that our sages wereactually intending for us to glean the message from the reading's centralepisode, and to leave for another time an analysis of Abraham and Sara'srole in this troubling narrative.

Picking up the central part of the story then as it approaches its climax,we find Hagar and Ishmael wandering in the desert, out of water. Ishmael istoo weak to continue walking. Hagar places him beneath a bush, and sits downsome distance away not wanting to behold her son's demise. An angel of Godthen appears to Hagar, informing her that she should not fear, for God hasheard her son's voice “in the place that he is.” What does this final phraseof the angel's utterance mean? To the sages, it sounded extraneous. It is inthe sages' consequent reinterpretation of that phrase that I believe theRosh Hashana message may lie.

Instead of reading the phrase as “in the place that he is,” the sages renderit “in accordance with his status at the present moment.” That is, althoughat a future time (as the Jews would be leaving Israel following thedestruction of the first Temple) Ishmael's descendants would act withcruelty toward God's nation, Ishmael himself would be judged at the presentjuncture in accordance with his present status. Since at the present time heis an innocent lad, free of sin, God would intervene on his behalf,providing a well in the desert from which he and his mother would drink. Thepresent moment is the relevant moment. It alone will determine the outcomeof the story.

Generally speaking, we rarely occupy ourselves with the present moment. Weare always either planning for the future, or reminiscing about the past.The present is merely the point in time at which we are engaging in one orthe other of those activities. We consider the present moment to essentiallybe a disposable unit of time, too insignificant to ponder. But from RoshHashana on through to Yom Kippur, we need to alter this perception.The Talmud teaches that Isaiah's words, “Seek God when He can be found” arereferring to these first 10 days of the New Year. According to thisteaching, we are now presented with 10 days — 14,400 minutes — that are likeno others during the year. These are minutes and days during which we arepromised by Isaiah that self-examination will be easier to accomplish, andthat the obstacles that ordinarily stand in the way of our ability toconnect with God will be removed. They are unique days and minutes, which wecan only capitalize on if we deeply enhance our appreciation of theoft-dismissed, oft-discounted present moment. The special opportunity isonly now.

This is the message of the first day's Torah reading. Sometimes the presentmoment really is like no other. There are times in life when neitheryesterday nor tomorrow can produce the same outcome as today can. There ismagic in the air these ten days. Forget the future for a while. The presentis calling.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.