Thursday, 02 Nov 2023

The cry of Mothers.

During the past weeks we have seen mothers of sons and daughters held captive or murdered by the terrorists of Hamas echoing Sarah’s and Hagar’s pain. Praying for protection of their children, for the world to see their agony, for us to access humanity within us and finding ways of bringing their children back to safety.

Maybe it is passed the time for us to recognise the pain that we all have been through, to stop ancient ways of reacting to the hurt that we have been causing to each other, to hear the multiple cries of mothers who have lost their sons, to find humanity within us, and, together, build a time of peace.

All of this incredible agony might have a textual anchor in this week’s parashah, Vayerah.

We learned in previous weeks that our tradition’s first Patriarch, Avraham, has a wife who has a fertility issue, a leitmotif throughout the book of Bereshit. Sarah, the wife, offers to Abraham her slave, Hagar, in an attempt for a Surrogacy in a polygamous society. But the text is far more complex and ambiguous. It becomes clear that the tension between Sarah and Hagar begins when Hagar becomes pregnant and is raised to the status of a wife of Avraham, making Sarah jealous.

After giving birth to her son Itzhak, “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.”[1] Based on what she saw, Sarah decides to tell Avraham to cast out Hagar and their son, Ishmael. What did Sarah see that caused this feeling? The question certainly confounded our sages. While for Rashi “playing” means idolatry, murdering or immoral sexual conduct, for Ibn Ezra, Sarah only saw him playing as a boy, and became jealous. Ramban adds to Rashi’s list that Ishmael joked about him being the first born and not Itzhak, and Sforno brings the idea that Ishmael was repeating the lines his mother was saying to him.

As a mother, the scene described by our sacred text about Hagar and her son in the desert is heart-breaking. I can visualise Hagar hearing her son’s suffering and made desperate by the idea that he is going to die there. I can relate to her cry to God asking to protect him. I feel and cry with her. I am puzzled and angered by our Matriarch’s actions.

Four weeks into the war in Israel, and it is almost impossible not to make parallels between this parashah and the ongoing conflict with all the pain and anger that it brings, all the mothers crying for their sons, the insecurity and need of protection. A parallel already established by Elie Wiesel in his essay “Ishmael and Hagar”[2]: “If only Sarah could have shared her love between Isaac and Ishmael! If only she could have brought them together instead of setting them apart! Maybe some of today’s tragedies would have been avoided, The Palestinian problem is rooted in the separation of these two brothers.”

There is another parallel that drives my attention: Avraham is willing to sacrifice both his children in the name of his faith. Ishmael is sent to die in the desert with his mother, and Avraham relies on the promise that from his oldest son a nation will rise. By the end of Vayerah Avraham binds his younger son, Itzhak, to be sacrificed to God as another proof of his unlimited faith. It seems that the same questions that can be raised by Avraham’s actions are applicable in this conflict. Who gets to decide when our children are put in danger? Why? Where is the limit?

Parashat Vayerah leaves us with questions unsolved and ongoing conflicts, which may be necessary for us to try to extract new meanings from our text. From those new meanings we may decide to change behaviours and walk through new paths. We may learn that two children, descendants from conflicting parties are able to “just play” as kids do, without carrying their ancestor’s hatred and pain, and therefore, building something good from that relationship.

Next week we will learn that Ishmael and Itzhak bury their father together, a hint of light and hope that shines from their shared pain. Two brothers, who share the same father and the pain of being children of two different hurt and disposable wives. Together they bury the past and build their lives from then on.

Maybe the root of the problem is not in the relationship of the two brothers, as Elie Wiesel proposes, but in Sarah and Hagar’s need to fight for their position, which prevented the two women from establishing a collaborative relationship with each other.

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb writes as Sarah in her poem “Achti”:

“They used me to steal your womb,

Claim your child,

As if I owned your body and your labor


Only at the end,

When I witnessed my young son screaming under his father’s knife,

Only then

Did I realize our common suffering.”

Andrea Kulikovsky LBC rabbinic student


[1] Genesis 21:9 – Translation from The Contemporary Torah, JPS

[2] Elie Wiesel, “Ishmael and Hagar,” in “The Life of Covenant: The Challenge of Contemporary Judaism” Essays in honor of Herman E. Schaalman,” edited by Joseph A. Edelheit, Chicago, Spertus College of Judaica, 1986, pp. 235-250.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.