By Claudia Setzer
We regularly describe Judaism as an ancient religion, emphasizing the antiquity of our narratives and pointing back to ancestors who take on mythic proportions. This week’s parashah is a prime exemplar, relating foundational stories of Abraham and Sarah, with the births of Ishmael, who becomes the favoured son in Islam, and Isaac, the patriarch of Israel. God fulfils part of the covenant with Abraham, but makes a similar covenant with Hagar.
Yet this God of the ancients is also a source of novelty. In this parashah, the characters are constantly surprised. They act as we all would, assuming the world they see is the same world they have always known and that things will continue as usual. Yet God is presented as constantly revealing the hidden and unexpected. The message of so many of our biblical narratives is that God reveals unseen possibilities—promising the childless couple they will now have a child, opening the eyes of Hagar to see the well that spells survival, or showing Abraham a ram in the bushes to take his son’s place, and ultimately showing Israel a path in the wilderness.
All of these examples affirm life over death. Abraham’s family line will not end with no offspring. Hagar’s dear son will not die from thirst, Abraham will not lose his own beloved son, Isaac. Later on, Israel will not be swallowed up by the harsh wilderness.
We have just finished a season of repentance, and thinking about life and death, which asks us to introduce new ways of thinking into our view of ourselves and others. Teshuva is a re-newal, or a making new of our old ways of being in the world. For most of us, our frustrations with ourselves are not so much about individual acts. While we can always call up some cringe-worthy bits of the past—‘I shouldn’t have said what I did’, or ‘I should have been more welcoming to that person’, or ‘I didn’t give enough tzedakah’, often we can make them right in some way. They can usually be dealt with via an apology, an invitation, or even a cheque.
What we struggle with are our habits—the quotidian lot of our negative, defeating, cynical, small, fearful, life-denying behaviours. These are the well-worn pathways in our hearts and minds that keep us reacting the same ways to things, the habit-encrusted ways of being in the world and the unexamined assumptions that keep them in place.
Change requires a faith in possibility. Can we bracket the past and approach a relationship differently? Can we set aside our own desire for self-aggrandizement and emphasize the contributions of others? Can we start over, making no assumptions about our own or others’ abilities?
The characters in today’s parashah see only dimly, not knowing the three men coming to the tent are God’s messengers, nor that the promise to Abraham means both of Abraham’s sons are under God’s protection. We the readers and hearers are meant to see more clearly, to recognize the eternal flow of possibility and newness that undergirds creation.
Claudia Setzer is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY, and a member of Ansche Chesed and Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel, both in New York City.