Parashat Vayera

Blessings for All

We no longer need there to be unchosen children.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

The five-year-old waved a red sports car under my nose and said, proudly, "This is my most favorite car." I nodded and watched him set the car on the coffee table next to a line of other favorite matchbox cars. The three-year-old, seeing my enthusiastic expression, pointed at the same car. "That's my favorite car, too!" she squeaked. The five-year-old shoved her away and, after some tussling, she retreated to the other end of the carpet, to the land of rejected cars. There she began carefully arranging her favorite cars. What amazed me, however, was that for the next 20 minutes, the five-year-old turned his attention away from his own collection and became devoted to a new task--swiping the girl's cars and hiding them under the ottoman.   

american jewish world serviceI was surprised. This was not a battle over a limited resource. There must have been 40,000 matchbox cars all over the living room. Rather, the issue was about the older child's perceptions. For him, something, if not the cars, was in short supply.

What Was Ishmael's Crime?

In Parashat Vayera, Sarah's handmaid Hagar and Hagar's son Ishmael are provisioned with a flask of water and sent away to the desert. It's a disturbing episode. The transgression that necessitates their banishment is unclear. According to the text, Sarah sees Ishmael "m'tzahek." This heinous crime, says Rashi, was either idolatry, attempted murder, or some sort of sexual violence. These readings, I feel, are a stretch.

The Hebrew root of the accusatory word, tzadi-het-kuf, means only "play." What is the ignominy of a mere game? Many translations connect this word with the very name of the son of Sarah--Yitzhak--which bears the same root. Ishmael, it seems, is doing something that drills at the core of his brother's being. Perhaps he is mocking? More interestingly, perhaps, he is "Yitzhaking." He's not behaving badly--he's behaving well!  He's excelling. Like Abel, the first younger brother in history, he is guilty of doing better at that which his big brother Cain first attempted to do--and we know how that story ended. 

Both sibling stories alert us to an ugly reality. On the one hand, people who are in positions of privilege tend to disregard, denigrate, or marginalize those who are less privileged. On the other hand, when less privileged people attempt not only to advocate for their rightful share of the resources, but actually to succeed, it often makes those in the original positions of power even more defensive.

For Sarah and Isaac, there was a practical solution to Ishmael's threat of competition--they could send him and his mother away. Ishmael lived out his destiny in a distant land. For us, however, confronted with people in the developing world who demand a fair share of the world's resources, there is no far away land to which we can banish them.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.