Parashat Haye Sarah

Rereading Hagar

Some want to read Hagar back into the story, giving her character new subtleties and possibilities.

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I am reminded of this story every time I read about the developing world in the news. I know there are human beings behind the headlines of tragedy and suffering. But how can I access their reality? Traveling with AJWS service and education delegations, I met people who showed the fullness of their lives, a fullness that transcended the serious deprivations they struggled to overcome. But now, raising young children, my traveling days are on hold. I find myself struggling to connect to global issues and to prevent statistics from masking the humanity of people around the world.

Powerful Literature

I have found something that works--I read novels written by indigenous authors. While no substitute for travel, literature is a powerful tool to understanding more than the newspapers' chronicles of disaster. As David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, scholars of international development, wrote in a recent paper: "Works of fiction can…offer a wide-ranging set of insights about development processes that are all too often either ignored or de-personalized within academic or policy accounts, without compromising either complexity, politics, or readability."

Fiction invites us into the lives of people in the developing world. Novelists such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Monica Ali, and Khaled Hosseini make the foreign familiar and immediate. They expand our ability to understand the stranger, and, significantly, to care. They personalize, without compromising complexity, politics, or readability.

Is this not the project of the interpreters of Torah? Is Hagar Keturah? The Torah, by itself, won't say. With midrash, our tradition of dynamic reading of these texts, the silence of the Biblical verse fills with alternatives. Both midrash and literary fiction expand our sense of possibility and encourage us to identify with the stranger.

Can the way we read make a difference? By more fully imagining another and her world, our advocacy and action will be more effective. As the 19th century novelist George Eliot wrote, "appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made…but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into…attention."

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.