Vayera: Hearing The Other

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven . . . (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion contains some famous and even foundational stories, including the visit of the angels to Avraham in his tent, the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and the Akedah, or binding of Yitzhak upon an altar. The latter two narratives are also the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, presumably chosen for their themes of remembrance and enactment of the covenant between God, Avraham, and Avraham’s descendants.

The story of Hagar and Yishmael is read on the first day of Rosh Hashana, and I’d say that along with the theme of remembering is the leitmotif of hearing. It’s a day devoted to hearing the shofar (remember, the commandment is to hear the shofar, not to blow it). In the Torah reading, the root word for hearing (which can also mean heeding or obeying) shows up connected to Sarah, Avraham, Hagar, and Yishmael himself, whose very name means “and God will hear,” referring to God’s hearing of Hagar’s travails back in chapter 16, the first time Hagar was expelled from the camp.

That last detail seems important to me when considering how the story of an Egyptian maidservant and her apparently unwanted son became the central narrative of a major Jewish holy day. If you go back to 16:11, the text clearly says that Yishmael is called “and God will hear ” because of God’s hearing of Hagar’s suffering. The name also foreshadows this week’s Torah reading, when God hears Yishmael in the wilderness, but his name arises out of hearing Hagar. It’s quite amazing that the crying of an Egyptian servant girl is a central image of Rosh Hashana, given all the ways she is “other” or lesser to the family of Avraham and Sarah: she is a woman, a servant, a concubine, an Egyptian. (You know, the folks who enslaved the Jews for hundreds of years? Right, those Egyptians.)

That, of course, is precisely the moral power of God’s calling to Hagar from the heavens: what matters is not Hagar’s lineage or status but her suffering. This is also the challenge of the text: can we overcome what social scientists call parochial altruism (that is, being generous and empathetic to people in our group) to hear the cries of those who are not like us, not in our group or party or clan or kin?

Please note, hearing the cries of the “other” (I use the word to denote a member of the “not us” group, not to imply that different humans are lesser or inherently estranged from us or anybody else) doesn’t necessarily imply only one obvious outcome. Yishmael is saved, but he and his mother are not immediately restored to Avraham’s camp. The first step in discerning the proper moral response is to truly listen to another’s suffering, without judgment or prediction, just as the God famously heard Yishmael’s cry “where he is,” that is, where he is now, not according to what he might become later.

In our day, there is so much strife, so many who feel so much pain; polarization begins when cries are unheard. The Black Lives Matter movement is shout to the heavens that some citizens feel unprotected by the law; before deciding on a policy response, can we please first hear the pain? On the other hand, I’ve recently I’ve had conversations with current and former law enforcement personnel who feel ashamed by a few bad actors and demonized by a large swath of society they’ve sworn to honorably protect. It is not moral relativism nor ethical laziness to say that there are real human beings on both sides who want to be seen as such, and not reduced to a media stereotype or political talking point.

To take another example,  the refugees desperate to leave the Syrian charnel house are drowning and freezing along the way; can we hear both their cries and the anxiety of those whose communities may be forever changed by large scale immigration? Both groups are “other” to somebody on the political spectrum, but to hear their pain is simply to acknowledge the humanity on both sides of this tragedy. It’s so easy to decide that somebody is not worth hearing, but this is not the way of the Torah, I believe.

There are countless other examples in an age rife with conflict, but for today, let’s simply acknowledge that it is very difficult to truly hear another’s pain, especially if that person comes from a group seen as threatening, strange, uncivilized, or morally deficient. Some of those things might even be true, but that’s not the point, which is this: if God hears the cries of those we’ve cast out, isn’t it our job too? Can we bear hearing cries which may also accuse? Can we enlarge our hearts to hear what we’d rather ignore? This requires great courage, and is a sacred act.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.: These thoughts are an abridged paraphrase of my teaching on the first day of Rosh Hashana at Congregation Temple Beth-El in Kauneoga Lake, NY.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

1 Comment »

  1. Anne Feibelman said

    Hi Anita,

    FYI, I thought you may enjoy this. Shabbat shalom!


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