Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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Now What? Exploring Babylon Stage Two

I launched the “Exploring Babylon” project on this blog in October 2017. Stage One was to run for roughly 40 weeks, from Sukkot through Tisha B’av. WordPress statistics tell me that I’ve posted 40 times in the category, “Exploring Babylon,” although not entirely on the weekly schedule I’d originally planned, and Tisha B’av is fast — no pun intended — approaching (eve of July 21 through dark July 22).

Not sure yet what shape Stage Two will take. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Where Exodus Metaphors Fail

Meanwhile, a recent interview with the author of Black Power, Jewish Politics returns us to the basic challenge that impelled me into this project.

When I talk generally with white Jews about why Jews are involved in social justice or civil rights or racial equality, they’ll talk about this shared history of oppression.

And the problem is that American Jewish history and African-American history are 180 degrees opposite on that question. One of my African-American colleagues, he said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because they too were once slaves in Egypt,” he’s gonna punch ’em.

Because if Jews have to go back to ancient Egypt to get the slavery metaphor, then they’ve kind of missed that American Jewish history is a story of rapid social ascent, and African-American history is the legacy of slavery. That argument is insulting, and it’s very elementary.

And, of course, I found that the people actually involved in the movement in the 50s, they knew that. And they were quite clear that they were not buying into that.
— Marc Dollinger, 6/4/18 NPR interview

In the struggle for racial and other forms of social justice, might the language and history of Exile serve where Exodus metaphors sometimes fail?

And, as we move through the month of Av and on toward a new year, how might we use ideas about exile and Babylon, in particular, to inform us?

As the source of a long intertextual journey, Psalm 137 generates the poetic vocabulary of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and cried as we remembered Zion.” The pleonastic “there,” repeated in the third verse, calls attention to itself by its very redundancy; syntactically superfluous, “there” defines exile as the place that is always elsewhere. Being elsewhere, being far from Zion, is the pre-text for poetry….(p.9)

With the (re)territorialization of the Jewish imagination in the twentieth century, a radical shift takes place in the relative position of ends and means, of original and mimetic space, of holy and profane, of ownership and tenancy. If exile is narrative, then to historicize the end of the narrative is to invite a form of epic closure that threatens the storytelling enterprise itself–an enterprise that remained alive, like Scheherazade, by suspending endings. Conversely, to claim an absolute place for the exilic imagination is to privilege the story as the thing itself; the map for the territory, language without referent; and to regard “nomadic writing” as the inherently Jewish vocation…. (p.14)
— Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage

Again, comments and suggestions welcome.

May the mourning of the weeks ahead bring us some new light.

NOTES:
Pleonasm
Although it’s pretty clear from context, and maybe everyone else knows, I did look up “pleonasm” for my own edification. Here’s a useful and not overly ad-filled explanation of pleonasm.
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Citation
Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
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God’s Presence Accompanied Them

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.2

Deuteronomy closes with hopes, on the banks of the Jordan and declarations of Israel’s particular relationship to God:

So Israel dwelt in safety
the fountain of Jacob alone…

Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
–Deut 33:28-29

Much later, after Israel had experienced more trial and loss and exile, the idea developed that God was in exile along with the People, as much in need of rescue as the People. In particular, Sukkot prayers include a verse, “Ani va-ho” — sometimes translated as “Yourself and us!” or “Rescue me and the divine name!” — followed by another that begs:

As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia, and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.

This line of thought, which has been developing for centuries, is mean to teach that “when there is suffering in the world, God is not on the side of the oppressors. Rather God is with the oppressed and suffers with them” (from Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom; download and more at Rabbinical Assembly).

The idea that “God is with the oppressed” is too often, I fear, used as a sort of universal Coup-fourré card, a “safety” to correct any “hazard,” so as to stay on the road.

…For those who never played the old card game Mille Borne, maybe “ace in the hole” or “Get out of jail free” card will make more sense; but I find Coup-fourré — the process whereby one is able to surmount a pitfall and keep rolling along — more apt here….

It is way too easy to let “God is with the oppressed” console the already comfortable while leaving the afflicted with their travails. As we enter the new year, I think it’s time for the comfortable among us to examine our “safety” cards.

 

Following God’s Example

We must ask ourselves where we are when there is suffering and injustice in the world. It’s not enough to be concerned or write letters or even stand out in the street in protest — although all of those things are important. God went into exile with us, and something similar is required of us, if we are to make any progress on racial and ethnic justice issues.

We must take steps to remove any sense that we are somehow entitled to dwell in safety — as we find Israel at the close of Deuteronomy — when others cannot. If God could join us in exile, we can work to dismantle White Supremacy and other protections that can never be equally shared. Where there is suffering in the world, we cannot simply declare ourselves “on the freedom side.”

We’ve got to follow God’s example, to the extent we are able, and be willing to be vulnerable, explore what it’s really like in Babylon, not just our romantic ideas about it from outside. We have to look carefully at any place where oppression thrives and ask, “how we are complicit?” Really, deeply, honestly ask ourselves and our communities: “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

And then take action, even if it means compromising our own safety or sense of self.

NOTE: A version of this mini-dvar [word, sermon] was given at Fabrangen and Tikkun Leil Shabbat joint Simchat Torah celebration, 10/11/17.

“Babylon” (Bavel) means many things in Judaism and in U.S. popular culture. Join “A Song Every Day” in Exploring Babylon over the next 40 weeks.

 

Which Side Are You On?

Background on the song/chant —

Florence Reece (more here) wrote “Which side are you on?” lyrics in 1931 as part of labor organizing effort —

Freedom Singers adapted it for the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement —

A version of this is still used, as in #BlackBrunch in Oakland (above), but protestors in the Movement for Black Lives also use a combination song and chant, as in this snippet:

Chant: [Example Leader] was a Freedom Fighter
who taught us how to fight
We gonna fight all day and night
until we get it right

Sing: Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?
We’re on the freedom side!

Learning to See

Where one lives plays a crucial role in determining access to opportunity, and learning to see “opportunity” and its effects is an important part of understanding our world and how to pursue justice in it. “Opportunity mapping,” a creation of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, helps us visualize access to education, health, employment, housing, transportation, and public safety.

Students in the “Mapping Inequity in DC” class at the Maret School in the District of Columbia created an Opportunity Map, under the director of their teacher, Ayo Heinegg Maywood. The results, even for people who knew — or at least suspected — the expected outcome, are staggering. Here is what the students tell us:

This opportunity map suggests that in the 2010-14 period, opportunity (access to quality health, education, housing, public safety, and employment) is clearly concentrated geographically in the Northwest of Washington DC (particularly ward 3), an area that is disproportionately white and wealthy.
— visit “Opportunity Map for DC” for much more detail

This information is relevant to all who live, work, or worship in the District — and to those who otherwise care about the city and its residents, as well as anyone who just wants to understand how “opportunity” works. It’s of special interest to Temple Micah, a synagogue less than one mile from Maret.

The congregation, originally located in Southwest and called “Southwest Hebrew Congregation,” changed its name to “Temple Micah” — to reflect the prophet’s vision that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” — in 1968. In 1995, after a struggle to find an existing worship space for renovation or land for building near the old location, Temple Micah moved quite a distance, to the Glover Park neighborhood (Northwest DC, in Ward 3).

Social Justice efforts, including some partnerships with organizations in the “old neighborhood,” have long been central to Temple Micah. But the “new” location — that is, Temple Micah’s home for more than two decades! — brings different realities. One of them is that the congregation is now firmly situated within the area that Maret students found to be “disproportionately white and wealthy.”

The work of Maret’s “Opportunity Map” project is helping us visualize what most of us have long known, but may not have seen quite so clearly, about our own city and our place in it. Read more in this sermon — known in Hebrew as dvar [word of] Torah — which focuses on the call to keep our hands open to the poor and needy (Re’eh, Deut. 11:26-16:17):

  • How we visualize and speak about people in poverty is part of caring for the needy.
  • How we see circumstances and history contributing to poverty influences the flow of blessing; and
  • Paying attention to whom we view as brothers is part of how we train our hearts and hands and minds to respond.

Especially as we head into the season of reflection and repentance, the information in this mapping project can help us better understand our world and its needs.

 

opportunity