Last week, I spent two days in Bethlehem with a group called Encounter. They bring groups of rabbinical and cantorial students, as well as Jewish educators, to various places in Palestine to meet with local leaders, stay with families, and learn about the effects of Israeli policies on Palestinian communities. It was a remarkable trip; they pack a lot of learning into a very short time. Afterwards, I find myself wanting to talk about what I saw, wanting to share the stories I heard, but having deep doubts about how to have those conversations in some of the Jerusalem communities to which I belong.

Yesterday, I gave the drash at my morning minyan. I knew the day was coming, and had been thinking about what I’d say, but in the wake of my visit to Bethlehem I desperately wanted to talk about Abraham’s expulsion of Ishmael in this week’s parsha. But I’m still not ready to talk about it directly, because I’m not prepared yet to answer the questions that I know will follow. What follows is the drash I actually gave, followed by a quick note about what I hope I accomplished with it.

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In last week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, Avram and Sarai convert to Judaism, and are given the good Hebrew names Avraham and Sarah. The first thing that Avraham does as part of this new covenant is to bring Ishmael, his son, into the covenant as well.

And god promises Avraham, “I will maintain my covenant between me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be god to you and your offspring to come. I assign the land you soujourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their god.” (Genesis 17:7-8) My italics.

Avraham’s first response is to laugh at the prospect of having a child now that he is 100 and Sarah is 90, but his first words to god are, “Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor!” (17:18) God promises to bless Ishmael, and Avraham circumsizes his son, and the 13-year-old firstborn son of our patriarch becomes the third Jew without even having a bar mitzvah.

In Vayera, this week’s parsha, baby Isaac is born, and weaned, and then Sarah tells Avraham to get rid of Ishmael. “‘The son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Avraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.” (21:10-11) Ishmael is now 14 years old. Avraham obviously loves him, and god has blessed him, even though, as we know, god is not so fond of firstborn sons. But Sarah does not recognize Ishmael as part of the family. The next morning, in what we can only imagine must have been a traumatic parting, Avraham gives Hagar bread and water and sends her with Ishmael into the wilderness.

“Some time later,” we read in the next chapter, “god put Avraham to a test.” (22:1) There is a midrash which records god’s conversation with Avraham as follows.

“Take your son.”
Which son? I have two.
“Your favored one.”
Which one? I love them both.
“Isaac, whom you love.”
Ah, now I know which son you mean.

(22:2, midrash source to follow later)

God asks Avraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and he does not protest. The torah does not even record distress, as it does when Avraham loses his first son. The next morning, Avraham takes Isaac and rides out into the wilderness without telling Sarah. This year, for the first time, I read this and wondered if Avraham did this purposefully, so that Sarah might feel the same deep sense of loss that he felt over the loss of Ishmael. It’s a disturbing idea, but not implausible.

And Isaac grows up in a home that has been torn apart by the trauma of his own existence, and then lays quietly on an altar as his father raises the knife to kill him.

Now, I have a confession to make. In my family, I am Ishmael. And I’ve heard stories from many other families about rivalries, and jealousies, and painful estrangements that last years. Even the conflict in the middle east has been described by many as an ongoing sibling rivalry, based on this parsha. But the story isn’t over, and there is reason for hope.

We read next week about the death of Avraham. At that time, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. It’s a quiet moment, and unexpected, but the message it sends us is clear. No matter how complex, or difficult, or painful a relationship is, it is always possible to find a place to meet. Isaac and Ishmael bury their father and quietly go back to their own lives. One of the lessons we learn from this first family of our covenant is that even if we can never again live happily in the same home, we can learn to meet each other in peace and part ways again in peace. May all of us learn to move through our families, and the world, in peace.

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When I finished speaking, several people came to me and thanked me for this drash; it obviously struck a chord with several people who also feel the status of outsider in different ways. I’ve written about this theme before, but without making such a deep personal connection, and without having images of Palestinian villages trapped by concrete walls in my head. It was very, very difficult to write this with these two highly emotional associations, and even more difficult not to speak directly about either.

But I’m pleased with the result: when it became clear that I was speaking primarily about Ishmael, I saw a few people stiffen; there are many people in Jerusalem who absolutely do not want to hear anything about their Arab neighbors. But when I said “I am Ishmael,” the room changed. Suddenly, the despised “other” they had been expecting became me, the young woman who comes to minyan every morning, who they have welcomed warmly into their community. And in that moment when their understanding shifted, my hope is that their minds were opened, however slightly, to the possibility of loving the “other.”