Learning To Welcome The Stranger

Learning To Welcome The Stranger

This week’s parsha portion contains some of the most well-known vignettes in the Torah: Three angels appearing before Abraham bringing” laughable” news, Abraham arguing on behalf of Sodom, the celebration of Isaac’s birth and G-d’s test of Abraham’s obedience with the command to sacrifice Isaac.

You might also recall the part of the portion which recounts Sarah’s displeasure upon seeing Ishmael and Isaac at play. Sarah directs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael so as not to threaten Isaac as the sole inheritor of Abraham’s legacy.

When Abraham carries out the deed, Hagar and Ishmael find themselves in the wilderness, their bread and water supply depleted, with Ishmael near death. Hagar is highly distressed, as “…she cast the child away under a bush; she walked away and sat…thinking: ‘Let me not see the child’s death’ (Gen 21:15-16).”

G-d hears this cry and answers by providing water along with the promise that Ishmael will himself grow to be the father of a great nation.

So, what is there to take from this?

The name Hagar means “the stranger,” and as such, we are reminded that Hagar stands outside the circle of Abraham’s family. Sarah overtly treats Hagar and Ishmael as “the other.”  When she tells Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out, she refers to them as “the slave girl and her son (Gen 21:10).”

By not using their names, we can see the distance Sara holds between herself and Hagar and Ishmael.  She emphasizes their lower status and their “otherness.”

Sara’s mistreatment of Hagar stands in stark contrast to what the Torah later teaches. Indeed, the next book of the Bible contains the passage:

“You shall not wrong a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 22:20-21).”

It is precisely because we have the experience of being the stranger – complete with persecutions, expulsions and discriminations throughout history – that G-d commands us not to do the same to others. We are to do as G-d does and “…love the stranger (Deut 10:18).”

To further illuminate this point: In “Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories,” Tikvah Freymer-Kensky writes that the story of Sara and Hagar is not a tale about “us” and “the other.”  Rather, Sarah and Hagar, as both family and stranger, are reflections of “us” and “another us.”

In spite of being named “the stranger,” Hagar’s path of exile and abandonment is one which our people come to know intimately. Imagine the different outcome had Sara been granted the ability to see Hagar as a reflection of herself and instead welcome that “stranger” into the family circle.

The stranger, then, is not necessarily distant, different or apart from us. Rather, the stranger is more likely to bear our image, to embody an experience we’ve had or will have at some future time.

Yes, our immediate and most natural inclination is not to love the stranger, but to keep our distance. This parsha challenges us to walk in G-d’s ways and love the stranger, for they are us.


Editor’s note: Rabbi Judith Beiner is the community chaplain at Jewish Family & Career Services, rabbi of Rodeph Sholom Synagogue in Rome, Ga. and a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.

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