This week we hear Hagar and her son, Ishmael, cry out in pain. They have journeyed into the desert and have exhausted their meager supply of food and water. After the birth of Isaac to Sarah, Abraham sends his older son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, out to the desert. “When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat at a distance…thinking, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting afar, she burst into tears.”
It is a wrenching story. Abraham and Sarah, now the parents of Isaac, banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. How remarkable that this is the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. On this most sacred of days we read a story that concludes with a promise to the other. How extraordinary that our sacred book preserves the cry of those outside our Jewish circle. Moreover, how remarkable that our Torah affirms God hears this cry, most especially when those emerge from pain.
The message is clear. We do not have a cornerstone on faith. We do not possess the only path to God. Far too many speak with overconfidence in their own faith, as if they alone have God’s ear. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that God listens to the cries of all people.
We ignore these powerful verses and identify only with our Jewish heroes, Abraham and Sarah. We justify their actions. It is ok, we reason, because God ultimately rescues Hagar and Ishmael and offers them their own promise. Our tradition excuses our heroes’ actions and apologizes for their choices. We say, It is complicated. Ishmael would undermine God’s promise to Isaac. Ishmael would become the father of Muslims, many of whom now call us their enemy. Do such complications really excuse their actions?
I can only hear the boy’s cry.
I think of this week’s news from Penn State. In this situation as well people say it is complicated. We turn aside, we apologize for the wrongs of others, especially when they could undermine what we cherish and hold dear. But when a child is in danger, we must never turn a blind eye. It is one thing to hold our tongue when we see our friends’ children perhaps dress inappropriately. It is another thing when we see them in danger and for example, drive drunk. Then it should never be deemed complicated.
The saddest part of the story emerging from Penn State is that far too many adults failed to rescue children in need. Teachers, parents, coaches, and educators have a responsibility to protect children. They might say that the situation is complicated. They might worry that such sins will undermine their football achievements and their school’s promise. But it is not complicated when children are in danger. When children cry in pain, all must listen. When children cry out, no one should ever turn a deaf ear.
“God hears 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 heard the cry of the boy where he is…’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” (Genesis 21:15-19)
Learn this as well from the Torah! When children cry out, we dare not wait for a miraculous well to appear.