Derash on Genesis 21 by Arthur Strimling, Rosh Hashanah 5777

Shanah Tovah. Most years I am up here gnawing yet again on the Akedah, but this year Kolot is going traditional – imagine!  The traditional reading for day one of Rosh Hashanah is Genesis 21, and tomorrow, tune in for Chapter 22, the Akedah.  Both are stories about child sacrifice. Today the sacrifice sends one son into exile; tomorrow the knife goes to our throat.

Genesis 21 begins with the birth of Yitzhak, son of Sarah and Abraham, our first matriarch and patriarch. Sarah is 90 years old when Yitzhak is born – you heard me, 90.  And Abram is 100. Torah messes with time -- save that thought -- so you can take their ages as a miracle or a fable or an expression of how precious a birth, any birth, can be. 

But this is Torah; in Torah no miracle goes unpunished; there is always a dark side. Torah, as Leonard Cohen says, always wants it darker.[1]

[Piano and Bass, ‘Deportee’][2]

Fifteen years earlier, five chapters back, in Genesis 16, Sara was 75 and still childless -- tragic for a woman in a world in which bearing children is the prime source of respect and power. But, to make it even darker, God has promised Abraham that he will father a great nation.  No child, no nation. For decades, Sarah has been the childless wife in every camp or village or city, all those migrant years.

So small wonder that Sarah takes matters in hand and gives her Egyptian slave woman, Hagar, to Abraham as a second wife, to birth a surrogate heir, who ‘will build me up.’

That slave, Hagar, came from Egypt and is traditionally described as Pharaoh’s daughter, given to Sarah when she and Abraham fled to Egypt to escape famine. Pharaoh takes Sarah into his harem -- you remember: “Tell them you are my sister,” -- and God puts a plague on Pharaoh, who believes he’s a god. And this tougher god plaguing him makes Pharaoh nervous, she bribes Abraham, God’s man, with a heap of treasure, including his daughter, Hagar. 

[Music fades out]

Ten years later, barren Sarah gives Hagar, as a wife, to Abraham.  And by the way, there is an amazing array of paintings of this moment, all, of course, by men. The male gaze is really aroused by the image of an older wife bringing a young ripe woman to her husband’s bed … you want it darker?

Anyway, Hagar gets pregnant. Which is what Sarah wants, right?  But it’s Torah, and Torah wants it darker! Pregnant Hagar sees barren Sara differently – ‘her mistress became of light worth in her eyes.’ [3] To Sarah this girl is acting uppity, so Sarah torments Hagar as only someone who owns someone can do. And Hagar runs away, carrying in her belly the one thing they really want.  Sarah and Abraham are too old to chase her, so God volunteers to be the fugitive slave hunter, and tracks down Hagar by a well, where God’s messenger tells her to go back to her tormentor, that she will mother a great nation, that her son will be called Yishmael (‘God will hear’), and oh, by the way, he’s going to have a complicated life.

So Hagar goes back and has the baby.  Time passes; angels visit to announce that Sarah will have a baby. She laughs; Abraham witnesses the holocaust of Sodom and Gomorrah; he becomes rich and powerful, and they settle in the land of King Abimelech.

That’s the back story to Genesis 21, where we are today.

“Now God took account of Sarah as He had said.”  Yitzhak is born. Yitzhak, means ‘he will laugh,’ and for a moment hard, sarcastic Sarah becomes a laughing poet. 

‘Laughter has God made me,’ she sings,

‘Whoever hears will laugh.’

So Yitzhak ‘grew, and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day Yitzhak was weaned.’  Imagine that: a weaning feast, a celebration of taking the boy from his mother and turning him over to the patriarchy.  Imagine what that is for Sarah.  Imagine the brave face she has to keep; maybe she drank a little too much. Anyway, she sees Yishmael, this now supernumerary step son, this rival to her precious Yitzhak; she sees him ‘laughing.’ And she goes ballistic – she tells Abraham ‘drive out this slave-woman (not wife anymore) and her son (her son, not your son)for the son of this slave woman shall not share-inheritance with my son, with Yitzhak.’  But Abraham resists – ‘the matter was exceedingly bad in Abraham's eyes because of his son’ (HIS son).  Then, God tells Abraham, “In all that Sara says to you, hearken to her voice.’  So Abraham gets up early, as he always does, and takes some bread and a skin of water and “placed them upon Hagar’s shoulders together with the child and sent her away.”

Now Torah does an amazing thing.  It follows Hagar, the character the story is not about, it spotlights the stranger, the slave, the loser, the one who, frankly, makes us look bad.  And this stranger has provoked readers through the ages -- Jews, Christians and perhaps especially Muslims, have read Hagar’s story in astonishing varieties of ways.  But through all these millennia Hagar is always Ha-Ger, the stranger, the foreigner, the other.

Most of us here can relate to Hagar, and not only out of sympathy-for-the-oppressed, though that is necessary, but because, at some point in our lives, most of us have had to start over from scratch.  Laid off or fired, marriages and relationships broken, communities or homes lost; expelled, abandoned, betrayed, or sometimes by our own choice, we have been cast into the wilderness, perhaps even, like her, a single parent with a child. Hagar and Yishmael are icons of exile. And it is hard for us, because our patriarch and matriarch did this. We, who have been exiles so often and so long, exiled them.

This story comes to us at a moment when our country is deeply engaged in a struggle over the other, the stranger, the immigrant.  Among all the things she is, Hagar is also a migrant worker; brought across the border to do unskilled labor and be sexually used in another land by a people not her own.


The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,

The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;

They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border

To pay all their money to wade back again.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,

Our work contract's out and we have to move on;

Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;

You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be "deportee"

[piano and bass continue under …]

Abraham started-early in the morning,

he took some bread and a skin of water

and gave them to Hagar – placing them upon her shoulder together with the child and sent her away.

She went off and roamed in the wilderness of Be’er-Sheva.

And when the water in the skin was at an end, she cast the child under one of the bushes,

and went and sat by herself, at-a-distance, as far away as a bowshot,

for she said to herself:

Let me not see the child die!

So she sat at-a-distance, and lifted up her voice and wept.


We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,

We died in your valleys and died on your plains.

We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,

Both sides of the river, we died just the same

[Musicians keep playing under…]

But God heard the voice of the lad.

God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her:

What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not be afraid,

for God has heard the voice of the lad there where he is.

Arise, lift up the lad and grasp him with your hand,

For a great nation will I make of him!

God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water,

She went, filled the skin with water and gave the lad to drink.

So, imagine Hagar, by the well with Yishmael. Now, if we follow the chronology, Yishmael has to be about 16 years old.  But a mother leaving a strapping adolescent to die of dehydration just doesn’t compute or make for a good story; so Torah magically turns him into a temporary baby. I told you, Torah messes with time. So imagine her there with the baby Yishmael by the well, under a tree.  She has quenched his thirst and as he sleeps deeply, she nestles him on her lap.  She brushes a fly from his face and looks to the sky:

[Music out]


Sh’ma, God. You listen to me. I stayed silent, but now you listen to me. I am half a god myself; I’m not afraid of you. So sh’ma.

A voice:



Flies!  In the harem, in Egypt, when I was a girl there were flies everywhere. And the boys, the little princes, would catch them and tear their wings off and then cage them in a box and race them.  And then they’d kill them and laugh and laugh. It was their sport.  All these years I have been a wingless fly in the sport of others – Pharaoh’s fly, Sarah’s fly, Abraham’s fly and yours. But when I was a little girl, I remember, I had wings.  And now I want them back, you hear? I want my wings! You have that power, more power than Pharaoh.

But he’s a god too, you know, Pharaoh. I am the daughter of a god.  I keep that in my heart, and I never bow. Oh I perform bows, but in my heart … never. Pharaoh said, ‘You go with them, you serve them; you are my surety of peace with their God.’  So I bent down and tied Sarah’s sandal, but I said nothing. And since then I have done everything they asked, done it all impeccably, but in my soul I never said yes; I never gave consent in my heart. My wings were not ripped off; they were folded all these years, and now I want them open again.

I am still more god than they. 

Alone … we are alone. For the first time in my life … alone -- Oh, there was the first time you spoke to me, the time I ran away, but I was hysterical and not thinking, and I knew I could go back. Actually I thought they would come for me, but instead you did, which was better. I got strength from you; I actually trusted you, forsook other gods for you … for a while. Until Yitzhak; then I wavered.  And now I still fear you, but … can I trust you? 

There is no going back, is there?  Are there no terms on which she would take us back?  No matter what Abraham wants?  Once she said I was her sister; once she said “Be his wife, not his concubine.” I loved her once; was that just the lonely yearning of a naïve young slave? Was her love just the manipulation of a lonely childless old mistress far from home? Perhaps we will see each other again some day, or perhaps our sons will come together, or their sons … someday.

And I cannot go back to Egypt. Egypt … I have forgotten so much; been away so long I can’t remember the word for those little yellow flowers that grew in the garden outside the harem.

And Yishmael. He was born here, lived his whole life here, more Abraham than Egypt. He won’t even speak to me in our language; he understands, but he answers in theirs. And he is circumcised.  In Egypt he would be a half-breed. They would make him a slave or kill him. I can’t go back.

My life is here, wandering this land, scratching for wells, away from my river, my Nile. This is my land, but not my people.  My accent is thick; my gods are not their gods, not even you. Before I was the slave of sojourners. That was … something. Now … nothing. A princess, a half-goddess … and nothing.  Now we will glean at the edges of their fields.

In the morning before he sent us away, he reached around me to put the bread and the water-skin and the boy on my shoulders; it was almost an embrace. And we wept.

Abraham will come to us.  If you let him. Don’t stand in the way. You hear me? Sh’ma!  She has her child, the lineage is hers through Yitzhak. You promised not to abandon us; I will take you at your word. But remember, I am not a wingless fly anymore. Let him choose to come to us sometimes. You are great, you say you will protect us, and I think I trust you, but even so, you are not enough.  The boy needs a father and I need a friend. Are you listening. Sh’ma!

[Silence. Hagar shakes Yishmael, who has become a strapping lad again] Now, wake up. Take your bow and go shoot us some meat. I’ll have a good fire going by the time you get back. Get up. Go!  

[Piano and Bass in…]

And god was with the lad as he grew up,

He settled in the wilderness, and became an archer, a bowman.

He settled in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took him a wife from the land of Egypt.

That’s how Torah ends the story:


Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;

You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be "deportee"

[Music out]

Shanah Tovah!


[2] Deportee, Lyrics by Woodie Guthrie, music by Martin Hoffman. Performed here by Cantor Lisa B. Segal (vocal and piano) and Adam Lane (Bass). There are many great recordings; this is Lisa’s fave:

[3] All translations of Torah text from Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, (Schocken, 2000)

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