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Rosh Hashanah Day One 5780 - "The United States of Hagar and Ishmael"

We’ll start this with a tale of a bonehead move.  We’ll acknowledge, at the same time, that the bonehead was me.

When I was in rabbinical school, I lived in Manhattan.  Harlem, specifically.  I had a little gold Ford Escort, with a 5-speed, that I drove to my student pulpit out in tree-lined Maywood, New Jersey

It was late one night, in Harlem, when I was first pulled over.

I had a headlight out.  The officer gave me a ticket, saying I had 30 days to get the light fixed and return the ticket, along with a receipt for the repair, to the address listed on the ticket.

The second time I was pulled over, I was annoyed — at myself, mostly, for forgetting to get the light fixed.

I figured I’d get another ticket.  I figured wrong. 

“Step out of the car, sir.”

Step out of the car?

“Are you aware you’re driving with a suspended license?”

I quickly put the pieces together.  When I hadn’t answered the first ticket within 30 days, I was found to be in contempt of court, and my license was suspended. 

Now, where I grew up, in the town of Haverstraw, a leafy suburb about 20 miles north of Manhattan — not unlike Acton — I had pulled similarly boneheaded moves.  I expected that what happened back then would happen now.  The cop would say, “Go right home, and get this fixed first thing in the morning.”

But this was Harlem, not Haverstraw.

“Step out of the car, sir.”

As I was cuffed and booked, I did not feel a sense of mission or purpose, as when I’ve been arrested at demonstrations.  I just felt like, well, a bonehead. 

When I was a kid in Haverstraw, watching Barney Miller, the officers often mentioned taking suspects to “The Tombs.”  The Manhattan Detention Center, the official name of The Tombs, is an enormous network of holding cells just south of Canal Street, a few blocks from the Bowery.

That night, I learned about it first-hand. 

The shock of confinement quickly gave way to the shock of realization.  Room after room, cell after cell, all had one thing in common.  The detainees were men of color.  Black men.  Brown men.  Hundreds of them.  Of all the people in the Tombs that night, only five were white.  Including me.

With nothing to do for hours, I chatted with some of the men.  Their charges were not, as I had expected, violent acts.  They were anything but.  Being in the park after dark.  Smoking weed on a corner.  Turnstile jumping.  Waiting for a friend in a housing project’s lobby brought a trespassing charge.

They were all crimes.  Technically.  But could it be possible that, for one night in New York, those crimes had been committed exclusively by men of color?  I had white friends who smoked weed on the street, who jumped turnstiles when their MetroCards were being fussy and the train was coming.  I had cut through parks at night

But in liberal New York, almost nobody down in the Tombs that night looked like me.

In the morning, the courtrooms came to life.  Judges exited their chambers, lawyers met defendants.  I was one of the first to have my name called.

“You’ll be out of here soon,” the city’s lawyer promised me.

“You don’t belong here.”

It was comforting.  But also unnerving.  If I didn’t belong here — who did?

And who decided who did?

I mentioned last night that, these High Holidays, all of my drashot will be connected in some way to the theme of “home.”  No matter the origin of our ancestors, today we call this country, the United States, “home.”

Most of us feel grateful to do so.  I know I do.

But how do we act on that gratitude? 

When a public official lets the truth slip, saying people of color are assumed to belong in jail, and people who look like me aren’t, what is our obligation – our Jewish obligation — to our American home?

Another story.  It’s the story our sages had us read in the Torah this morning.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael.

You may remember that, though God promises Abraham and Sarah as many descendants “as the stars in Heaven,”[1] the couple is unable to have children.  Sarah offers Abraham her servant Hagar, to help fulfill God’s promise.  Sure enough, Hagar gives birth to a son, Ishmael. 

Trouble arises, however, when Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant with a son of her own, Isaac.  At some point, Sarah determines that Hagar and Ishmael may no longer remain in the camp, demanding that Abraham exile the two of them.

Hagar had been a faithful servant to the family.  And yet, despite years of dedication and service, Hagar and her son are both expelled from their home with no notice.  Abraham sends them off with nothing more than some bread and a skin of water.

We might imagine the Torah leaving it at that, shifting the narrative back to Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.  After all, that’s the “Jewish story.”  Instead, it follows the non-Jews, into the desert of Beersheva.

The scene unfolds quickly, along with the heartbreak.  The meager rations are soon exhausted.  Hagar, refusing to witness the death of her son, places Ishmael under a bush, wailing into the wilderness.

When, suddenly, everything changes.  An angel of God comes to Hagar, promising that Ishmael will become a great nation.  A well of water appears.  Ishmael’s suffering is ameliorated.  Hagar’s wailing is answered. 

It is, in retrospect, in keeping with the boy’s name.  Ishmael, from the same root as shema.  Listen.  Ishmael.  “God will listen.”

The story follows them.  God walks with them.  God’s sustenance sustains them.

On the one hand, this story of Divine compassion is comforting, especially on today, Yom haDin, the Day of Judgement.  On the other hand, a troubling truth lingers.  Hagar and Ishmael needed compassion because of Abraham and Sarah.  The heroes of our story.  Our ancestors. 

Why, on Rosh haShanah, would our rabbis of blessed memory have us read this story, face this hard truth?

Perhaps, that hard truth is the point.  In a book documenting the creation of the Jewish people, we are asked to identify with the suffering of non-Jews.  And in a book about our Jewish heroes, we are asked to look directly at those who suffer because of our heroes’ actions.

Can we follow the example of our holy Torah? 

Can we ask: Who are the people who have been sent away from our American home?  Who are the people who are seen as exploitable, expendable, superfluous — in this country?

Why are they, invariably, people of color?

And what role have we, and our ancestors, played in that calculation? 

During this time of rising anti-Semitism, we are to be forgiven for wanting to focus on dangers to Jews.  Certainly, Jews have been subjected to much more abuse than we’ve perpetrated.  So often, it’s been us, and our children, who’ve been sent into the wilderness.  Or worse.

And yet, that’s not the story of today’s Torah reading.   In today’s reading, it’s the Hebrews, Abraham and Sarah, safe at home.  Expelling Hagar and Ishmael.

Which made me think.

The Torah tells us what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. 

But what happens to Abraham and Sarah?  After such a painful decision, what conversations are they having?  What are they talking about at home?

At least according to the text, they’re not talking at all.

In fact, after this moment, we never hear Sarah speak again.

The next thing you hear about either of them is that Abraham makes a land deal with the Philistine king Avimelech.  Abraham prays to God, and the family lives, in prosperity, among the Philistines — according to Torah, for yamim rabim, “many days.”[2]  Yes, they’re outsiders, but they make a nice life for themselves.

In other words, a happy ending.

The land deal, meanwhile, is sealed over a well, named Beersheva.  But remember too that Hagar and Ishmael were saved at a well.  A well in the wilderness.  A wilderness called Beersheva.

Is it possible that Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, are neighbors?

Is it possible that Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac are now prospering in the very place where Ishmael and Hagar are living as exiles?  In Beersheva? 

And is it possible that you and I live in a land, in a town, in relative comfort while our neighbors live in fear that their children’s bonehead moves will not be forgiven with a slap on the wrist, as mine was, but may result in extended prison time, or worse?  While still other people live in fear of the workplace raid, of the knock in the night, that tears them from their children, perhaps forever — targets because of their country of origin?  Their skin color?

On Rosh haShanah, God forbid that we ignore the truth.  The truth of the racial injustice our American home has never fully confronted.

God forbid that we forget what our Torah teaches us, teaches the entire world, that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim — “in God’s image.”[3]  Even Ishmael.  Even Hagar.  Ha gar, in Hebrew, literally, “the visitor.”  Like ha ger.  “The immigrant.”

God forbid we forget that our families came to this country as gerim, as immigrants — most of them came to this country before the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, when “immigrating legally” essentially meant showing up.  God forbid we don’t honor the labor of America’s Hagars.  God forbid we cast out those Hagars among us who grow our food, process our meat, serve us in restaurants, care for our babies and feed our elders, who clean our offices and seal our basements and, sometimes, literally put roofs over our heads.

And 400 years, almost to the day, since race-based slavery was introduced to this continent — God forbid that we forget the Ishmaels who built our adopted American home.  God forbid we forget the unpaid African-American labor that built the wealth that made this land the goldine medine of our ancestors’ immigrant dreams.

God forbid we forget that enslaved black people built the foundations of the Capitol and the White House of our American home.  And for those of us, like me, whose lineage courses through New York, God forbid we forget the black labor — and the lucrative, gruesome trade in black bodies — that made New York City the financial powerhouse that could accommodate one-and-a-half million Jewish immigrants between 1880 and 1920.

God forbid we forget that while Jews like my grandparents were joining their sisters and brothers in meatpacking and garment worker unions, this country said — and still says to this day — that minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to farmworkers and domestic workers — the majority of whom are people of color.

And God forbid we forget that at the very same time postwar Jews were realizing the American dream with the help of the GI Bill and FHA and VA mortgages, African-American communities were stalked by poverty, by Jim Crow, by school segregation, by substandard housing and healthcare, by federal-sponsored redlining that froze out developers who sold homes to black buyers, by lynch mobs, by the grave.

It’s hard to talk about all of this.  In fact, a few months ago a congregant sat in my office, telling me that she was actually tired of hearing sermons like the one you’re hearing now.  I asked why.  She replied that she hears about our terrible world all the time — on the news, on the internet, and — oy! — from the kids.  They don’t stop!

She wanted a break.

I asked her how she felt when she heard these things.  To her credit, she was honest.  “I’m a white Jew with a nice life in the suburbs!  How do you think I feel?  I feel guilty.”

You may be surprised to know — I don’t want you to feel guilty.  On the contrary. This morning, I invite you to remember how Jews have contributed to the fight for fairness. 

How Jews helped form the NAACP.  How Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched next to King in Selma.  How our martyrs Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner made the ultimate sacrifice next to their brother James Cheney, at the bottom of a river of Mississippi mud.  How Jews, today, even as Jew-hatred is on the rise, put their bodies on the line all over this country in defense of immigrants.

Guilt?  Don’t feel guilty.  Today, feel proud.  Proud to be a Jew, to be among a people who told the world that there’s one God, a God Who demands justice for all of God’s creatures, that every single human being is a reflection of that God.

Be proud to be part of a people that celebrates its New Year by reading about the lost and marginalized, reminding ourselves of their suffering.

And, besides — guilt and shame do nobody any good.  Feeling guilty about Hagar and Ishmael does not provide them with one morsel of bread, not one ounce of water.  It does not ensure people of color a fair wage, or healthcare, or housing. 

What can do that?   We start, like the Torah, by telling the truth.  The complicated truth of America’s Hagars and Ishmaels.

Even in our home here — no matter how liberal we imagine it to be.

We are proud that the nation’s first black female doctor was Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born free, trained in Boston.  We are proud that the first black US Senator since Reconstruction was elected here in Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke.

But we also acknowledge that when an anti-slavery speaker came to Lowell in 1834, he drew a stone-throwing mob, angered by the threat to the wealth Massachusetts had built on cotton, picked by enslaved Africans.  A threat, in the words of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, to the "unholy union ... between the cotton planters and fleshmongers of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the cotton spinners and traffickers of New England — between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom."

We acknowledge the truth that today, a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, can be arrested, in ultra-progressive Cambridge, in front of his own home.

We are proud that the first black player drafted in the NBA was Chuck Cooper, picked in the second round of the 1950 draft by the Boston Celtics. But we also acknowledge that, until 1976, the Red Sox were owned by a man who opposed the racial integration of major-league baseball.  We are ashamed that visiting players at Fenway Park continue to be subjected to racial insults.

Personally, I was proud to travel with a group of rabbis to Montgomery, Alabama to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, designed to help Americans confront the agony, the sin, the ongoing impact of slavery and lynching.

But I was horrified to discover memorials at the site not only to lynching victims in Alabama and Mississippi, but also to victims in New Jersey and one in Orange County, New York — a few miles from where my childhood home, in Haverstraw NY, still stands.

And I was proud to be chosen as a Global Justice Fellow by American Jewish World Service, learning with rabbinic colleagues about AJWS’ life-saving work in Guatemala, one of the countries at the locus of our current migrant crisis.

But my pride was tempered by the knowledge that Guatemala is in the state it’s in because of a coup, engineered by the US government, partly at the behest of Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a major stockholder in Massachusetts’ United Fruit Company.  And I was mortified to learn that one of principle owners of United Fruit was a Jewish businessman named Samuel Zemurray — nicknamed "Sam the Banana Man" — who had no problem funding the coup that cost Guatemalans their dignity and, in some cases, their lives.

Did we, you and I, do this to the Hagars and Ishmaels who walk among us?  For the most part, no.  Most of us are not Sam the Banana Man.  But are we, perhaps, quietly grateful to finally live in a land where, more often than not, someone else besides the Jew is targeted?  A land where the ghetto is, for once, not a Jewish ghetto?

That night I spent in the Tombs, I learned something about my land.  I resolved to take responsibility for it.

Of course, I’m sympathetic to folks like that congregant who sat in my office a few months ago.  It’s tempting to want some peace.  To sit in our sanctuary, and have a break from the troubles of the world, even if just for a few hours.

But you may have noticed: there are windows in this sanctuary.  There and there.  Wherever you sit in this room, you can see out of a window.

It’s not an accident.

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: One may only pray in a house with windows.[4]  So we can see outside.

So we can’t say we didn’t see. 

Or as Heschel said, explaining his decision not to stay in his study, cloistered with his books: “I’ve learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man.”

To pray in the sanctuary, and look out of the sanctuary.  To acknowledge that suffering.

Not to ignore it.  Certainly not to say, “politics don’t belong in shul.”

Because when we say we’re “not political,” we actually make a clear political statement.  We say that what’s happened to Hagar and Ishmael is not our concern.  We say that the problems of people of color are not our problem.  And we say it’s fine to ignore our own Jewish family, the Jews of Color who walk the streets of our troubled American home every day, who don’t have the luxury of ignoring this conversation.

Who don’t have the choice to ignore what happens outside these windows. 

Abraham and Sarah expel Hagar and Ishmael.  It’s so painful.  The Torah tells us they never speak of it.  We can make a different choice.

We can get involved in the work of healing our home.  We can face the reality of racism, and to commit to fighting it.  We can get involved in CBE’s immigration work, in our sanctuary work.  We can address the racism that plagues all of us as Americans.  Tonight, in the Community Court, our friend Roland Gibson (A1C) and I will be talking about racism and anti-Semitism, how they’re related and how they’re different.  Next month, we’ll be taking a Racial Justice tour of Boston, focusing on the redlining and blockbusting in Mattapan and Dorchester that hurt both Jews and African-Americans.  And in January, our Scholar-in-Residence will be Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  We’re in the process of forming a team here at CBE to address racism in our community and our country.  If you are interested in working on this team, please contact me.

Earlier, I asked if it was possible that Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac prospered in the very place where Ishmael and Hagar were cursed to live as exiles — never discussing the matter again.

There is a Midrash, in Sefer HaYashar, that imagines Abraham and Sarah having the conversation that’s painfully missing from this morning’s Torah reading. 

Abraham confesses to Sarah that he misses Ishmael.  “My heart yearns for him,” he says.

And, in the midrash, Sarah’s heart softens.  She allows Abraham to visit — but only on the condition that he agrees not to come down off his horse.  And so Abraham checks in on Ishmael’s household, all the while keeping his identity a secret.  Seeing that his son has himself built a loving home, he rides back to Sarah.

That night, Ishmael comes home and is told, “an old man from the land of the Philistines came to see you.”  Upon hearing the report, the Midrash teaches, “Ishmael [immediately] knew that it was his father.  He knew that his wife had shown [Abraham] respect.  And Ishmael blessed YHVH.”

The Midrash reminds us — Ishmael is Abraham’s son, just as much as Isaac is.  Like old man Abraham, we pray that our hearts yearn after those who walk the same soil we do.  Refusing to ignore the blood and sweat of the Hagars and Ishmaels that are baked into that soil.

At this moment of crisis in our American house, when all its residents are in danger —blacks and immigrants and women, gay folks and trans folks and Muslims and Jews —it’s time to ride out of our camp, to see our neighbors.

And more.  To get down off our horses, to embrace each other and cry together and stand together and struggle together to bring justice and love and compassion to our broken home.

To work, together, to create an American home that that is a blessing for all of us. A United States of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.  A United States of Hagar and Ishmael.


V’haviotim el Har Kodshi.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I will bring all of them to My holy mountain.”[5]


Ki beiti beit tefilah yikarei l’chol ha’amim.  That all houses may be God’s house.  And that God’s house may be a house of prayer and peace and justice.  For all people.



Note: this d’rash includes a reference to a private conversation that occurred in the rabbi’s office.  The rabbi asked the congregant for their permission to include the conversation in the d’rash, and that permission was granted.




[1] Genesis 15:5

[2] Genesis 21:34

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Talmud, Brachot 34b

[5] Isaiah 56:7

Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783