November 20, 2019

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.