What do you feel when you hear about a child who died of Ebola in Liberia? Or when you watch a video about a woman living in poverty who survives domestic violence in Nicaragua against incredible odds? There are moments when I am able to open myself up to feelings of empathy and to grapple with such suffering. Other times, my reaction is to feel grateful for my own life and recognize what a privilege it is that these stories feel so distant. I say, “I can’t possibly imagine what that must be like” and, “I am so blessed.” While both of those statements are true, I also recognize that they enable me to feel disconnected and removed, to go on with my life as though nothing happened.
What are the consequences of disconnecting ourselves from the pain of strangers in the world? This weeks’ parashah offers some insight into this question.
Lech Lecha is bracketed by key moments in the Jewish narrative. It begins with God telling Abraham to leave his homeland to “Go forth…to the land that I will show you” and concludes with the sacred covenant of circumcision that unites the Jewish people. Within this core story, we encounter for the first time in the Torah a prototypical figure—the stranger. The stranger arrives in the body of Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, whose name comes from the Hebrew word “ger,” or “stranger.”
Sarah treats Hagar harshly. When Sarah is unable to conceive, she gives Hagar to Abraham to bear a child for him. Hagar becomes pregnant and Sarah, feeling threatened, shuns Hagar to such a degree that Hagar flees to the desert. Sarah’s behavior is so egregious that Ramban claims, “Our Matriarch sinned through this oppression, and so did Abraham, allowing her to do so. God paid heed to Hagar’s suffering and gave her a son who would be a wild ass of a man to oppress the descendants of Abraham and Sarah with all forms of harsh treatment.” In other words, Sarah’s behavior is so bad that the punishment befitting her crime is played out over the course of generations.
While Hagar is represented in the Torah as a stranger and Sarah is represented as the matriarch of the Jewish people, their lives are deeply interconnected. Each one suffers because of the other. Each one rises up through the degradation of the other. When Hagar is first mentioned in the Torah, Sarah says to Abraham, “Please come to my handmaid; perhaps I will be built up from her.” According to Rashi, “This teaches that whoever has no children is not built up but demolished.” In other words, without a child, Sarah has no status or power in society. Sarah hopes that she will gain status through Hagar. Ultimately, she realizes that Hagar’s pregnancy increases Hagar’s power and diminishes her own. Sarah says, “She saw that she had become pregnant, and I became unimportant in her (Hagar’s) eyes.” It is likely that Sarah was motivated by jealousy and insecurity. As a marginalized woman, she acted to protect the small amount of power and security she had.
Seen this way, Sarah’s behavior is not abhorrent. It is quintessentially human. As we build our lives and our communities—as Sarah and Abraham set out to do in Lech Lecha—we tend to focus on building up ourselves. We often disentangle ourselves from the lives of the other, or worse, cast aside those who threaten our sense of security and power. We are not willing to see our lives as interconnected or to see ourselves as implicated in one another’s pain.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Through the story of Hagar and Sarah, the Torah teaches us that when we deny our interconnectedness we risk inadvertently causing more suffering when we actually have the power to help heal. The spread of Ebola shows us just how critical it is that we take on the responsibilities of mutual care. In our globalized world, the stranger’s problems are also our own. As the pastor Rob Bell writes,
How we eat is connected to how we care for the planet
which is connected to how we use our resources
which is connected to how many people in the world go to bed hungry every night
which is connected to how food is distributed
which is connected to the massive inequalities in our world between those who have and those who don’t
which is connected to how our justice system treats people who use their power and position to
make hundreds of millions of dollars while others struggle just to buy groceries
which is connected to how we treat those who don’t have what we have
which is connected to the sanctity and holiness and mystery of our human life and their human
life and his little human life
which is why we hold up that baby’s hand and say to the parents, ‘it’s just so small.”
When we see images of pain and suffering in the world, in addition to responding with, “I can’t possibly imagine,” or “I am so grateful,” may we also find the courage to ask ourselves, “What are my responsibilities?” and to take action.