Hagar's Wail

Hagar’s Wail


Tread lightly, walk heavily

We met at the trailhead to Caballero Canyon in Tarzana, on this Shabbat Shuva, midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The sign gave instructions about trail etiquette, which led to an immediate dilemna. “Tread lightly” it said, as we share the trail with all types of animals, birds, and plant beings. “Walk heavily” it said, so as not to surprise any snakes who may be lurking under a bush or around the corner of the trail. So off we went down the trail, like all good Hebrew travelers who know in their bones how to live in multiple worlds of paradox, walking heavily lightly.

Tapping Wood to Stone

Stopping on the trail, halfway up the mountain, a teaching from second century, C.E., Rav Shim’on Bar Yochai, in the Zohar (translation by R. Gershon Winkler, in his book "Daily Kabbalah"):

Three sounds are inaudible to the human ear and never leave the earth: the sound of the snake shedding its skin, the sound of a soul leaving the body at death, and the sound of birthing. Where do these sounds go? They travel to the canyons where they encrypt themselves in the earth. The sound of your voice in the canyon awakens them from dormancy and evokes their powers. However, to awaken the sound of the snake shedding its skin, you must tap wood to stone. You hear these sounds as “echoes” but know that they are three sounds coming right back to you in the garb of your own voice or drumming, to empower you with shedding your old patterns, to aid you in surrendering to the uncertainty of your next step, and to guide you in birthing yourself anew.

At this time of the Days of Awe, shema: tap stick to stone and listen for the sound of the birthing of the new you being born to this year.

Nehushtan: The Copper Serpent

Nahash slithers onto our path for the third time (and for one hiker, a fourth time somewhat later when she actually did see a baby snake during the hike). We spoke about the tale of the “brazen serpent” that Moses had the people build out of copper, and placed on the top of a staff. The Children of Israel were afflicted by a plague of poisonous snakes during their travels through the Sinai, an affliction the commentators tell us that they brought onto themselves by slandering Moshe. By staring up at Nehushtan, they had to lift their eyes to the heavens, allowing them to remember for Whose purpose they were travelling through the desert. This may be the first historical record of the use of guided imagery in healing: looking at the symbol of their affliction, an illness brought on the people due to their use of forked tongue, reminded them of their role in causing their own disease – the first step toward healing. Thus returning to their proper mindset, they were able to be healed by HaShem of the plague of poison snakes.

"Turn me on, Sister Sarah" (lyric by Rebbe Soul)

Reading from Ginzburg’s “Legends of the Jews” we find evidence supporting our suspicion from our last meeting that Sarai was not a passive player in the drama in the House of Pharoah, when she and Avram went down during the famine. According to this version of the tale, it is Sarai who tells Pharoah that Avram is her brother (no suggestion that he told her to do so – in fact he tried to sneak her into Egypt without anyone seeing her!); and it is Sarai who directs a malach to strike Pharoah with a staff any time he tries to approach her, as well as brings on the plague of leprosy. Perhaps this is what the Torah means when it describes what happened according to the D’var Sarai – the word of Sarai. But Ginzburg says that Pharoah deserved the leprosy affliction? But why did he deserve it if he did not know of Sarai and Avram’s true relationship? Perhaps it was because of the way he took Sarai into his palace – by force with an army of soldiers – compared to the way Avram took Sarai away from their homeland to go to Canaan – only with her explicit consent.

Hagar’s Wail

We read every Rosh HaShanah the story of the exile of Hagar and Ishmael from the encampment of Avram, of their abandonment in the wilderness, of their miraculous survival. A few discussion points stand out:

· Erasing Hagar. It seems there are elements within Judaism that wish to erase the memory of Hagar, as if she never existed as part of our people’s history. There are reform congregations that celebrate only 1 day of Rosh Hashanah that do not even read the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. We know of at least one Machzor that even says “Abraham had one son”. A cartoon drawing can be found on-line showing a nice pastoral family scene: Abraham and his 2 sons. But only one woman. Was Hagar holding the camera? More likely she was excised as the "other" - guilty of mothering while Egyptian. http://www.g-dcast.com/roshhashanah?utm_source=G-dcast+mailing+list&utm_campaign=612fcaf157-RH2010&utm_medium=email

· Hearing the son’s cry. Hagar abandons Ishmael under a bush and moves away because she can’t bear to watch him die. She is undoubtedly bereft and distraught, or is she? An angel comes down to save Ishmael, but it is because He has heard the boy’s cry, not Hagar’s. The angel asks what she has done, what she is doing. Is there an oblique reference to her not fulfilling her maternal duties to her and Avram’s son, Ishmael? Should she have held him in his dying moments, rather than moving away and leaving him to die alone? Should she have known where to find the well of water from her prior desert wanderings the first time Sarai banished her from camp? The malach shows her the well, and Ishamel is saved, grows into a strong bowman, marries an Egyptian woman (like his mother), and becomes the Father of the Arab nation.

· A deep teaching tells us that the calls of the shofar do in fact represent the distraught wailing of 3 women in Jewish history: Tekiah represents Sarah’s wailing when she thinks Isaac has been killed by Abraham; Shevarim is the wail of Hannah, barren and pleading for the child that would later be born to her as the prophet Samuel; the stuttering notes of Teruah are the sobs of Im Cisera, the mother of the Canaanite general whose head was impaled by Yael, another of our strong Hebrew women, during Devorah’s conquest of the Canaanites during her reign as judge and prophetess. As the shofar blows on Rosh HaShanah, if we could imagine the wails of Hagar at the impending death of her only son in the wilderness, would that change our approach to the Other?


Resting under the blessing shade of the 2 oaks at the top of our hike, a round of personal sharing: where do we see ourselves as we dwell in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when our souls’ journey has the potential to be reshaped and redirected closer to its intended path. Some of the themes mentioned:

· Uncertainty abounds

· Who will be poor, who will be rich

· Death – present in many ways, all around

· Hebrew letters – the magical and creative force in them

· The stag of certainty: He was waiting near the trees for us when we arrived at the top of the hill, asymmetric antlers, moving slowly, purposefully away from us through the brush, no fear, just Being.


In memory of those who died on 9/11, and all those who have died since because of decisions made as a result of 9/11, and all those perhaps still destined to die in the future because of decisions continuing to be made at least in part as a response to 9/11. May our leaders, and our fellow citizens, be blessed with wisdom, civility, and depth.

Next meeting: Saturday October 2 (24 Tishri), 10 AM – noon, location to be named.


You Are My Sister

You Are My Sister


Check-ins included the scent of frankincense and a reading from a modern piece about feeling the story between the words, which is what we attempt to do in this group. An attempt to bring in teachings from the Koran met with difficulty, as the use of language and story telling felt so different than Torah it was hard to access, and we were unable to pick up the thread of the story of Abraham and Sarah. It appeared clear that it will take time, and likely a Koran scholar to join us, before we can gain from that direction of study. After some further discussion of our last session, including the recognition that one of the oppressions that men have had to bear over the millenia is having to grow up knowing that their role may include that of being sacrificed in war, we picked up the story of Sarai and Abram again in Haran – midway between Ur Kasdim and Canaan.

Genesis 12:5. “Abram took his wife Sarai . . . and the souls they made in Haran”. After Abram gets his walking papers from HaShem – Lech l’cha, Go for your sake – he picks up the family, children, possessions, servants, and entire community they had assembled in Haran and prepares to leave for Canaan, where HaShem has promised “you shall be a blessing.” The Zohar tells us that Abram had to “take” Sarai through persuasion, that a man is forbidden to take his wife to a foreign land without her consent. This is the first hint allowing us to imagine how this couple must have communicated with each other, how they must have negotiated both this dramatic move and all the steps that were to follow.

The various English translations gave us “souls” or “descendents” in place of the Hebrew word nefesh. That the Hebrew uses the singular form of the noun suggests perhaps that what Abram and Sarai took with them on this journey was the communal soul that they had made together. The commentators say Abram had converted the men, and Sarai the women, to the understanding of YHVH, and it is the nefesh of this community that they made in Haran and took with them. This was a time of major spiritual transition, from the goddess and pagan worship that had been predominant in this region of the world for so long, to a new path into the unknown, led by a nascent understanding of YHVH. And Abram and Sarai were building this together. This was on the ground, nuts and bolts, community building, as the verb “ahsu” (they made) indicates the action is in the World of Assiyah (physical reality), rather than some philosophical (B’riyah) or symbolic (Yetzirah) activity.

Finally, reading the words “Lech L’cha”, we remember the melody we have created singing this in our holy tent in the desert . . . and you shall be a blessing.

12:5. “They left . . . and they came to Canaan“

The parsity of Torah is so evident here. What must have been such a momentous journey, travelling with a large contingent over many weeks to get from Haran to Canaan, is covered in just 7 words of Hebrew. What physical challenges did they encounter? How often did they argue? Who joined them on the way? Who left? We are given no clues in the text, and have to “feel” the heart of the story between the words.

12:7. “And he built an altar there to HaShem who appeared to Him.”

We read of the early journeys within Canaan, Abram et al finding their way from place to place – Shechem, Beth-el, Ai, then steadily to the South – leaving altars at each place in dedication to YHVH. What kind of altars? Simple stone? How large? Many details not included.

The verse preceding this one tersely states that “the Canaanite was in the land”. What were the interactions with the local peoples that we are not told about? Abram encounters the town of Ai early upon entry into the land, which is reflected some 400+ years later when on another entry into the land, Joshua encounters resistance and a temporary defeat, but ultimately conquers Ai. It would seem Abram’s encounter was much less violent, much more diplomatic. He was, after all, the stranger wandering into this land.

12:10. “There was famine in the land”

Throughout our history, famine was the great motivator of huge events. This is the first famine to determine the fate of the Hebrew people, forcing Abram and Sarai to journey to Egypt. This foreshadows the later famine which led to the descent of Jacob and the 70 souls to Egypt, as well as that which occurred hundreds of years later which led Elimelech and Naomi to Moab and the story of Ruth which we read last year. What modern day famines have moved/are moving us into new ways of being - if we can pay attention and move?

12.11. “See now, I have known you are a woman of beautiful appearance”

Abram initiates a conversation with Sarai with praise, with acknowledgment, perhaps even flattery. But what he is about to request of her is huge. He starts with the phrase “Hinay – Nah”, a supplication, asking please, approaching softly, intimately, respectfully. This reminds of his having to get her consent to leave Haran. There are conversations, joint decisions to be made in time of great duress. The relationship is presented to us not as one of Abram lording it over Sarai, but a partnership with respect and negotiations preceding each major step. And we take note: these are the first recorded words between Abram and Sarai, and they are words of direct relationship (Hinay, be fully present with me) and deep respect (Nah, please). Imagine the power, intimacy, and connection you would feel engaging your partner, lover, friend in this way.

12:13. “Please say that you are my sister.”

These verses led to much discussion, attempting to understand what was really going on between the ancestral couple at this critical moment. Fearful of his life as they enter Egypt, Abram asks Sarai to pose as his sister, that “it may go well with me for your sake”. Is Abram a barbaric boor, willing to prostitute his wife to save his own skin? Is he simply a coward? Or maybe they messed up here, this dysfunctional couple of ours, simply made a bad decision? Maybe they should have gone boldly and unapologetically into Egypt as husband and wife? But the outcome of this decision served to move the story of the Jewish people forward, feeling like a Greek tragedy full of dark humor, with Sarai and Abram just pawns in a cosmic manipulation – doing this for the sake of the greater plan being played out by God/Zeus.

Or are they acting from their own free will, simply trying to do the best they can in the moment of being confronted with a difficult situation? The moment between them is poignant: Abram respectfully asks her to say she is his sister, “that I may live on account of you.” But the Hebrew used actually says “That my Nefesh (Soul), will live because of you.” This may refer back to the Nefesh that left Haran with them, the entire community of souls travelling with them. How many women throughout history had to offer themselves in this way, potentially sacrificing themselves or their own personal dignity, in order that the group “over-soul” could be preserved?

So Sarai seems to be a fully willing partner in this drama, fully grounded in the fact that it is just the reality of the situation – if they are both to survive and fulfill their joined destiny, she just has to do what she has to do. But let’s not sell Sarai short. As we read between the words to feel the heart of the story, the heart of the relationship between Abram and Sarai, we can sense she was no passive player in this drama, simply being led off to be Pharoah’s concubine. We imagine instead that she acted from a position of power, with the truth and recognition of her role as Priestess/princess and Seer/Iscah, a sacred ambassador to the Pharoah of Egypt. We imagine her fully and consciously utilizing her beauty and sexuality as resources - a pact is made with Egypt that results in her own nation being blessed. And blessed they were - with sheep, cattle, donkeys, manservants and maidservants, female donkeys, and camels. All bigla’lah – on account of her.

Next Gathering: Saturday morning, September 11, Shabbat T’shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur)

Location: Hike to the Trees, Encino hills

What: Continue the exploration of our first ancestral couple; but also hold Council on the Head of Change (Rosh HaShanah) that is presenting itself to each of us individually this year, as we dwell in these 10 sacred days of uncertainty before the cleansing of Yom Kippur.