Posts Tagged 'Alienation'

Opened Her Eyes: Some Insight on How See

There are so many other important stories in Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, that we often overlook the riveting story of Hagar and Yishmael in the desert. There we read:

When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (Genesis 21:15-19)

What is going on here for Hagar? At first blush she seems incredibly absent as a parent when they are in a crisis. How could she ignore her child in need?

Looking for interpretations of this moment I came across John Gadsby Chapman‘s 1830 painting Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert. 

Image result for Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert

Here Hagar just seems annoyed by their predicament. Chapman seems to capture this in Hagar’s teen angst in an eye roll. It is noteworthy in the Torah Hagar is crying, but God is responding to Yishmael’s voice. Following Chapman’s reading this could be understood as God’s critique of her being callous to the needs of Yishamael. While she is crying God is modelling empathy and saying I will respond to his needs and not your crying. God is redirecting her as a parent.

Alternatively we could see Hagar in a more understanding way. In Sforno’s 15th Century commentary on “opened her eyes” he writes:

God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. She had not been blind previously so that her eyes had to be “opened.”(Gen. 21:19)

Maybe it was not a miracle at all that Hagar suddenly could see the well that was in front of her the whole time. Rather, Hagar needed some distance from the problem to see the solution. When she got to the balcony she could remove herself from the crisis, regain her bearings, return to her instincts, and only than could she see the well.

In either way of telling this story it is one of reorientation for someone who is lost. Regardless of if you see Hagar as the protagonist or antagonist of this story it is a story about alienation which is profound in that her name means “the alien”. Any way you look at it this is an important story about how we see ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard. (Exodus 23:9-11)

What is the connection between being nice to the stranger and keeping the laws of shmittah, letting the fields go fallow on the seventh year?

On the surface, it seems that every seven years we create a welfare state, which provides for the less fortunate. However, on a deeper level we see that the laws of shmittah maintain a feeling of never owning the land. Cycling through this seven-year process, helps us stay in touch with the experience of our own being strangers. Surely, it is wonderful to feel at home. But, in the words of Rabbi Levi Lauer, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.” The experience of alienation once every seven years is supposed to inculcate us with the need to look out for the dispossessed for the following six years. We can never let our experience of comfort overshadow our compassion for the stranger.

It has been 30- years since U2 released “Stranger in a Strange Land” on their album October. The song starts off:

Stranger, stranger in a strange land
He looked at me like I was the one who should run
We asked him to smile for a photograph
Waited a while to see if we could make him laugh

Often we see others as if they are strangers, when in reality it is us ourselves who are the strangers. It seems at its core we have been singing this song for centuries. 

– And I wish you were here


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