R. Noa Kushner // Lech Lecha, 5779
The beginning of this parasha is very popular with the bar mitzvah crowd.
Abraham is called by God to “Lech Lecha”
To go out, to take himself out
To leave everything behind, to be a blessing
We remember the midrash of Abraham smashing all the idols in his father’s shop
Leaving for good
Such a clean break, so brave.
But it seems to me that real leaving
The real learning when one becomes a blessing
Is very rarely the moment when the ship leaves the proverbial harbor
But rather more when we are so far out at sea we cannot turn back.
Right? Because that is when the challenge and the messiness of trying to leave or figuring what it means to be a blessing kicks in.
Pretty much anyone can be a blessing for the thirty minutes of an airport goodbye
But what happens much later, after we’ve left, when doubts creep in
When our intentions are challenged not once, but many times
When there is no proof of a new destination in sight?
Or how about even before we leave, when we don’t even know if we are supposed to leave or not?
Maybe some of us are in this very situation tonight.
And it turns out that Hagar, a few verses later in our same parasha, finds herself in just such a position
That is: She has to leave but no one tells her to go.
See Hagar is a slave, a maid-servant, a concubine
Who is able to conceive with her master Abraham when his wife Sarah cannot for many years
And this upending of the order of the house
Hagar instantly gaining in status
With Hagar’s pregnancy
Hagar becomes a threat
And in retaliation, she is mistreated by her masters.
Usually, in readings of this Torah, Sarah, the matriarch of the house gets all the blame.
There are lots of texts about competition between women, written of course by all men.
Sarah vs. Hagar, Hagar vs. Sarah
But let’s be honest,
Vacant Abraham tells jealous Sarah to do whatever she wants to Hagar
So the oppression comes from every source, every direction.
This is important.
It is important to understand that everyone is in on Hagar’s affliction
It is not that she has some enemies and some friends, some allies and some who can’t be trusted
Rather, everyone takes part in her degradation
There is simply no safe place for Hagar to rest.
And I was thinking of this text because I think there are many of us now
Who for many reasons
also feel we are fighting forces of oppression from many more directions, there are fewer places to rest.
I was drawn to Hagar who just runs away
Later in Torah she will become a matriarch herself
But now, she doesn’t know that
She just knows she is powerless and maligned
And so she runs away, pregnant, into the wilderness
Now remember, at the beginning of the parasha, I told you, Abraham runs away too.
God says to him: “Lech lecha / Take yourself out, away from everything you know”
But, unlike Hagar, he is seen as a hero
Because, see, he has an invitation from God
He doesn’t know where he is going and believe me,
you don’t have to look deep in the text to see he has his own lapses of confidence and moments of fear
But I have to think that at least in those moments he can go into his pockets and pull out the “lech lecha” / “take yourself out,” that divine invitation,
And I imagine how comforting that command must be in those destabilizing moments,
I imagine him saying to himself, “God said, ‘Go to a place I will show you!’
‘Be a blessing!’”
That must be comforting, right?
Or maybe Abraham can even count on God reaching out, that happens a lot for Abraham
But notice, even with all that scaffolding and support, Abraham our father is still paralyzed with fear.
He has moments that are close to full on patriarchal trantrums!
And we don’t blame him
Because we know: Even if you have God checking in on you directly, leaving everything and smashing idols is still not easy.
Now imagine Hagar
Slave girl Hagar
Pregnant slave girl Hagar
She has no invitation from God
She has no invitation from anyone
She has no command
She has no opening scene to remember, no journal entry to re-read, no dream to recall, no angels in disguise walking towards her from a distant horizon, no ladder, no rainbow --
She just has oppression
She just has the intimate oppression of living in a house or a place
Where your lack of worth is not only assumed
Every look from another person reaffirms your lack of worth
Where your affliction takes place without recourse, without justice, without even awareness
Where the injustice is part of a closed, seemingly impenetrable, inevitable system,
That is what Hagar has.
See, Hagar has to write her own invitation
She has to command herself
Like Abraham, she also doesn’t know where she is going, that will be explicit in a moment
She also doesn’t know where she is going, that’s a given
But that’s the least of her worries
Not only does she not have any one to show her where to go
She also has no one to tell her to leave
And in this moment
When I consider Abraham and Hagar, two stories that mirror each other in many other ways, it could be a whole class
I want us to consider this week the courage of Hagar
The courage it takes to leave without an invitation
To upset things indefinitely
In order to answer to a God that is not calling you
Or maybe it is just you are unsure if it is God who is calling you or not.
In this moment in our country’s history, in the history of the world
When I consider the courage of Dr. Blasey Ford that will inspire me the rest of my days
Or the stalwart strength of activists in #Blacklivesmatter who refuse to accept the inevitable destruction of black and brown people
Or the resolute stance of members of the Israeli Soldiers of Breaking the Silence who speak out about the effects of the Israeli Occupation
Or the ultimate risk of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, his memory is our blessing, who was murdered this week
When I consider the courage of those who tell the truth in all kinds of ways
Who risk their reputations and even their lives to bring justice for the many
I am thinking also now about Hagar
And how she had to invite herself to go
That everything began to change but only once she ran away.
I think Hagar is our heroine for this moment
Because we live in a time without divine invitation or direction or reward
We have to create our own invitations
We have to know what the real rewards are.
We have to be clear what the real rewards are first because, let’s face it,
Hagar’s running away could be, would be perceived at that time or ours as selfish or ungrateful or overly controversial or unnecessarily combative or attention seeking or needlessly provocative
(Just as so many other activists are slandered and maligned and silenced and even killed in their moment
Just for insisting
With their words or actions
Just for highlighting in one way or another
that systemic and unending abuse is not what God wants
Not for one person
Not for a group
Not for a place)
And we have to be clear what the real rewards are second because running away or making change takes unbelievable mettle (faith!).
In fact, in considering Hagar and her courage
I think about how her lack of status must have made the very idea of inviting herself into a divine mission laughable, practically inconceivable --
And a painful thought crosses my mind: How it never occurs to Hagar that God is on her side
Because there is nothing in the facts of her life that would lead her to this conclusion.
She had to find the strength to leave seemingly within herself.
And yet, we know, God is indeed waiting for Hagar
And we must not only remember that God waited for Hagar, we must know
That even if there seems to be evidence to the contrary
God waits for us in this very moment.
Because as soon as Hagar runs away, immediately (!) the very next words
“Vayimtza-ah malach adonai”
An angel finds her
And this angel does not call to her or approach her or use any of the typical Torah verbs angels use when addressing people
No -- the angel finds her
Which reinforces this idea that in the house of Abraham and Sarah it was as if she did not exist
Because the house of Abraham and Sarah, that place we know, it was like angel central (!)
Angels all over the place (!!)
No lack of angels
But somehow, as long as Hagar was in that place, that house,
She could not be truly found by the angels
So it is for us
Only when we command ourselves out can we be truly found by God who waits for us.
And once Hagar is “found” – now a spiritual inventory can take place
One angel asks Hagar where she has been and where she is going.
The spiritual implications of these questions are almost too obvious to point out.
Do we really think the angel, who knows exactly who Hagar is, does not know where she has been?
No, to paraphrase Rashi: “Where have you been?” means,
“What is your spiritual autobiography so far?”
And, “Where are you going?” means:
“What will be the story of your life?”
Hagar is understandably, overwhelmed by these questions in this moment.
She answers the first one, she knows she’s running away from affliction
But she does not, or can not answer the second question, “Where are you going?”
Maybe it is that she does not know.
Maybe, having had to summon herself, command herself away
Maybe even the admission that no God told officially her to go, “to a place I will show you”
Maybe it is all too much
So she doesn’t answer this question of where she is going, not yet --
And maybe in this confusing moment it is another mark of her heroism
She doesn’t know and we don’t always have to know where we are going either, after all, Abraham didn’t know either
Sometimes knowing that we are leaving is enough
Who knows how long those angels looked at her
Fluttering their angel wings
Waiting for her to say what she would do next
Maybe it was three days and three nights like it was for Esther before she listened to Mordechai and decided to go into King Ahasverus’ chambers
But Hagar doesn’t even have a Mordechai
So she is quiet on the subject of the future
She will become a matriarch, she will learn to answer these questions, but not yet, not today
And so now, this Shabbat, like Hagar
We imagine that these angels that surround us
They ask us the same questions
And we realize that the future and our role in it is not set
We realize there are many answers to these questions of where we have been and where we might go
We realize that people like Dr. Blasey Ford and the Saudi journalist Khashoggi did not see the world’s trajectory as written, refused to see the story of the world as already sealed, they had just these same holy questions in mind and this allowed them to do what they did
That there are risks we might also take
Finally, at last last
Something extraordinary and singular happens
Even for Genesis
Even for this angel convention.
After the angels talk with Hagar
Hagar gives God a name
I don’t believe there is another moment in all of Tanakh where someone names God directly
It is almost inconceivable
Abraham names a place after a test that happens there, refers to God
Everyone thinks that is a very big deal
Moses asks for God’s name and everyone thinks that is a super big deal
But anyone giving God a name? Unheard of.
“V’tikra shem adonai hadover eileha --
And she called the name of God who spoke to her,
“Atah El Ra-i.”
‘You are the God of seeing.’
Why the “God of seeing?”
Because the rabbis teach Hagar realized that even when she was sure she was invisible in her humiliation and affliction, God still saw her. (Rashi to 16:13, Genesis Rabbah 45:10)
And there is no one God does not see.
And some say she prayed right then and there (Sforno to Gen. 16:13)
Because she finally understood that God was not limited to the house of Abraham and Sarah, and the strange rules there
But that God was in the wilderness, too, in her, too, and that this was her God
“Atah El Ra-i / YOU are (my) God of seeing.”
So perhaps there was an invitation after all, maybe there was a command from God to leave, to go out.
But Hagar could only see it and understand it once she had extended it to herself
Maybe, like Moses, she needed some time in order to hear
Maybe some invitations come in the beginning of chapters
in short bursts of commanding phrases, super clear
But other times God has us call them out for ourselves in the words and actions and names that only we can understand.