Knowing our Neighbors’ Names (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5771/2010)

As we prepare to read Torah this morning, I want to call your attention to a curious feature of the portion, and offer a suggestion as to what it might mean for listeners in America as the summer of 2010 draws to a close.

But first, we need to get on the same page, so I invite you to set down your prayer books and pick up the supplement. On pages six and seven you’ll find the verses we’re reading from Torah this morning, from Genesis chapter 21. This is actually the traditional reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, with the more familiar chapter that follows – the Binding of Isaac – read on the second day. Reform Jewish congregations, which typically observe the New Year for one day only, almost always read from Genesis chapter 22, quite rightly feeling that its subject matter, the Binding of Isaac, is central to the liturgy. Having said that, we’ll forego Abraham’s trial involving his son Isaac this year, turning our focus to Isaac’s half-brother, who is at the heart of another of his father’s tests.

That half-brother is Ishmael, and it will be worth our while to listen to the biblical verses that describe his beginnings. I’m reading now from Genesis, Chapter 16, a passage that is not in the handout.

Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Eternal One has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian…and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine. He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she had less respect for her mistress. And Sarai said to Abram, “It’s all your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, she doesn’t respect me as much. Let the Eternal One decide between you and me!” Abram said to Sarai, “She’s your maid! Do what you think is best.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.

An angel of the Eternal One found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, and said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

And the angel of the Eternal One said to her, “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.” And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“I will greatly increase your offspring,
And they shall be too many to count.”
The angel of the Lord said to her further,
“Behold, you are with child
And shall bear a son;
You shall call him Ishmael,
For the Lord has paid heed to your suffering.”

So Abraham’s son by his wife’s maid is called Ishmael, “God will hear, God will pay heed.” It’s a beautiful name, and like so many biblical names, it carries deep meaning. Upon hearing the name Ishmael, we are to be reminded that God listens, and God cares. To be called Ishmael is to bear witness to God’s engagement with the world, God’s ongoing connection to all that lives.
How sad then, that on the most consequential day of young Ishmael’s life, the day on which he loses his inheritance and his family, he seems to lose his name as well.

Listen carefully to the reading and you might note that Ishmael is referred to in any number of ways. He is called “Hagar’s son.” He is called “the son of that slave.” He is called, simply, “the boy,” “the child.” But he is never – not once — called “Ishmael.” Not by his father. Not by his mother. Certainly not by Sarah, whose contempt for the “son of that slave” is so deeply seated.
As it happens, even “Hagar’s son,” seemingly the most innocuous of the terms, is problematic. For while “Hagar” is indeed the name of Abraham’s concubine, it is also a Hebrew word meaning “the stranger,” or “the foreigner,” leading a Hebrew speaker to hear the words ben hagar as “Stranger-Boy.”

So Stranger-Boy, the Son-of-that-Slave, is banished to the desert, sent away by Sarah, allowed to go by Abraham. His mother, Hagar, is helpless to sustain him as their water runs dry, and so she leaves him alone, putting a bowshot’s worth of space between them so that she won’t have to hear him cry, so that she won’t have to watch him die.

He is saved at the last minute through divine intervention. Hagar’s eyes set upon a well of water, she fills the skin, they drink, and they live. This miracle of course resembles its more famous counterpart in the next chapter, when Abraham’s eyes set upon that ram caught in a thicket by his horns. In both cases, a temporary lack of vision nearly leads to the death of one of Abraham’s children, and only a God-inspired return to awareness can save the day.

We Jews who understand ourselves to be descendants of Abraham and Sarah pay much more attention to the Binding of Isaac than we do to the episode that we might call, for the sake of consistency, the “Parching of Ishmael.” It’s a stretch for us to care about Hagar’s son in the same way that we care about Sarah’s. But can we try? Can we hear the words of this morning’s reading with the ears of one of Ishmael’s descendants? Can we inhabit his skin as we read this Torah portion, much as we do with respect to Isaac, year after year? Can we know what it’s like to be Stranger-Boy, the Son-of-that-Slave? Can we imagine what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Sarah’s contempt and abuse? Can we imagine our father’s back, turned away as he walks toward camp, leaving us to head into the wilderness? Can we picture our mother’s face, tears flowing down, as she walks away, powerless to save us from fast-approaching death? To have empathy for the Other is not always easy. God knows it’s not easy when the Other has been our antagonist over long stretches of history, as is the case with some of the descendants of Ishmael.

The consequences of the enmity between the children of Ishmael (that is to say, the Arab World and Islam) and the children of Isaac (that is to say, the West) are well known, and do not need to be reviewed here. But it must be said that in recent years a particularly militant and expansionist form of Islam has taken root in some corners of the Muslim world, visiting terror and violence upon Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It animates both Sunni and Shia Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, Hizbullah, and Hamas. It has brought war and terror to this land and to the Israel as well. It is to be condemned, and fought against, tooth and nail.

But while we’re fighting expansionist, radical Islam, as is entirely justified, let us not make the mistake of marginalizing and depersonalizing the many, many Muslims who share our values and share our antipathy for Al Qaeda and the like. We’ve been down this road before, with Japanese-Americans in World War II, and people of good conscience are in retrospect universally ashamed of our country’s treatment of its own citizens at that time.

Now I’m not suggesting that we’re on a path toward the internment of American Muslims, but there’s no denying that antipathy is on the rise, and that ill will sometimes leads to action. We’ve seen an organization of which American Jews had every reason to be proud experience a stunning lack of vision, failing to stand against defamation and instead giving fuel to those who would defame another minority group. We’ve seen a Muslim cab driver stabbed in New York City. And on this coming Shabbat, unless something changes, the world will watch self-professed “Christians” burn Islam’s holiest book. It’s an ugly moment in American religious life, and one that I believe will be remembered in the same way as previous moments in which nativist sentiment was directed at Catholics, Mormons, and yes, Jews.

How do we come back from the brink? How do we integrate American Muslims more fully into the tapestry of our nation? Taking our cue from this morning’s reading, perhaps we could start by learning, and using, their actual names.

Polls indicate that many Americans who express negative views of Muslims and of Islam – a number that has been rising in recent weeks – also admit to having little or no knowledge of Islam, and having little or no contact with American Muslims. An extreme case: the so-called pastor who will be lighting the match in Florida on Saturday has spoken with pride of his never having read the book he intends to burn. We – not all of us, but many of us – only know our Muslim neighbors as an abstraction. We don’t know them by name. This has consequences, which are borne out by a recent New York Times poll of New Yorkers. The poll found a statistically significant correlation between having a close Muslim friend and being comfortable with the building of the Park51 cultural center and mosque in Lower Manhattan.

Similarly, a 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that people who actually knew Muslims had a 56% favorable impression of them, compared with only 32% of people who didn’t know any Muslims. This wide-ranging poll asked similar questions about Mormons and also about gays and lesbians; unsurprisingly, the results were the same. Commenting on the results to the Forward, Pew’s director of survey research said, “The strong presumption here is that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. Instead, familiarity breeds understanding and de-mystification.”

Knowing this, the prescription for ending a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in America is obvious: non-Muslims need more Muslim friends. We need to get to know our Muslim neighbors, so that our impressions of Islam and its adherents will be shaped by more than our justifiable anger at militant, expansionist Islam. We need to get to know our Muslim neighbors so that our feelings for them will not be unduly colored by the words of politicians and pundits who care little for the truth and less for common decency. We need to get to know our Muslim neighbors, at the very least, because we’d expect and hope the same for ourselves. To paint American Jews as extremists on the basis of our sharing a religion with the likes of Baruch Goldstein (may his memory be erased!) who slaughtered Muslims at prayer on Purim morning would be absurd and obscene. It is no less absurd and obscene to paint American Muslims as extremists on the basis of the existence of militant, expansionist Islam.

Each year, on the last day of Religious School, I ask the kids to do a homework assignment over the summer. I ask them to do three things: take a walk, read a book, and make a friend. A few weeks ago, on the first day back after summer break, I checked their homework, asking them to share a bit about where they walked, what they read, and whom the befriended. Sam Schwartz basically wrote this sermon for me when he raised his hand to tell the school, “I made a Muslim friend this summer; her name is Sultana.”

In conversation afterward with Sam’s mom, I learned that Sultana and her family were visiting America from Saudi Arabia. They are politically and religiously moderate (Sultana’s mother happens to be a fashion designer, not high on the list of professions encouraged by Wahabi clerics), and they share our contempt for the worldview that led their fellow Saudis to hijack four planes on September 11, 2001. Meeting them and becoming friends with them had a big impact on Sam and his family. Tania told me, “it was a blessing to get to know them; it opened up our eyes.”

“I made a Muslim friend this summer; her name is Sultana.” More of us need to follow in Sam’s footsteps, and come to a place where we can actually call one of Ishmael’s descendants by his or her own name. Doing so is our best hope for a future in which American Muslims are woven successfully into the tapestry of American life. Your homework assignment from me in the new year is to copy Sam’s homework. Please, go out into this new year and make a Muslim friend. Let one of Ishmael’s descendants know the redemption of being called – by one of Sarah’s descendants, no less! – by his or her own name.

When we do so, we are actually walking in God’s footsteps, as it were. Stranger-Boy, that Son-of-a-Slave did have a name, after all. And even on the most consequential day of his young life, when all the human beings surrounding him took away that name, God did not. Do you see it in the text? Vayishma Elohim, God heard. Vayishma elohim. God paid heed. Va-yishmael-ohim.

Embedded within God’s hearing the cry of the boy is the boy’s true name, “Ishmael.” Its appearance in Torah, at just that moment, when all seemed lost, was the beginning of his redemption. Ishmael’s name had gone missing, lost to the human beings to whom he was closest. But God remembered. God spoke his name, and with the sound came life-giving water. We owe it to ourselves, and to our cousins, Ishmael’s descendants, to do no less in this new year.

Amen.

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