While the month of Cheshvan has no holidays, it is rich with stories. Each year, after the intensity of the feasts and fasts of Tishrei, we may think that we've earned a break from synagogue. But then we begin again, reading stories of our ancestors that wrap themselves around our hearts and help us learn how to live in our world.
Parashat Vayera contains a collection of ancestral stories that challenge our modern sensibilities. In Chapter 18, we read that Sarah lies to God when asked why she laughs at the suggestion that she will become pregnant and bear Abraham's child. In the next chapter, Lot offers his daughters to a rapacious mob to save the strangers who have taken refuge in his home.
In Chapter 20, Abraham lies to King Abimelech of Gerar, claiming that Sarah is his sister, not his wife. In Chapter 22, when God calls to Abraham, Abraham takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah, ready to sacrifice him. How do these stories help us to make moral choices?
One of the most troubling stories is a section of 11 verses that comes three chapters into the portion. After years of waiting to become parents, Abraham and Sarah learn that they will be blessed with a child. After Isaac's birth, Sarah observes Abraham's two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, playing together. Our commentators make much of the ambiguity of the verb that is employed, mitzacheik. Is Ishmael "playing" with Isaac, "taunting" him, or is the interaction between the two young boys something more sinister?
A Connection Disappears
Sarah sees the brothers as rivals for their father's love and for their futures. In a single sentence, she instructs her husband to banish "that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." With those words, Sarah erases a connection she had initiated.
In last week's portion, in Chapter 16, Sarah – her name was Sarai then – encouraged her husband to consort with her handmaiden and conceive an heir. Now Sarah, to protect her son, blots out the names Hagar and Ishmael. Their names respectively mean "the stranger" and "may God hear," indicating that Sarah's fear makes her deaf to the moral imperatives imbedded in their very names.
How many of us have been deafened or blinded by jealousy or anger, and blotted out the names of those who had been our friends or intimates? One of the reasons that our text continuously pulls at our hearts is that our ancestors are portrayed as human beings with the same shortcomings with which we, their heirs, struggle every day.
The Torah reminds us that the stranger is always with us, and that we must take her into account. So too does God hear the cries of all children, regardless of parentage.
The text continues with moving language: Hagar and Ishmael, a homeless woman and her child, become iconic and remind us of pictures that are too familiar to readers of our daily papers. Overwhelmed by the insecurity of their plight, they look at us with pleading eyes as we walk briskly by their open hands and their broken hearts.
God's compassionate response provides a contrast to the human anger and confusion that sends them into the wilderness. In our world, so many wander in places with insufficient sustenance. We must be God's partners and provide assistance to those for whom God has become bread and water.
In this month of rich stories, may we restore dignity to those whose names have been erased and voices to those who have not been heard. Mindful of our ancestors' journeys, may we chart paths distinguished by acts of justice, compassion and care.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the director of the Pennsylvania Council/Federation of Reform Synagogues, Union for Reform Judaism.