As I write, I do not yet know who has won the presidential election. You might not know either. In this period of suspense and exhaustion, each side waits from its own polarized side of the aisle. Of course, we turn to Torah for wisdom in this tense and troubled moment.
This week we read two of the Torah’s most renowned narratives. For most of my life I read them as two completely separate stories, with only slight similarities. But in fact, as Arthur Waskow has taught, they can be seen as two versions of the same story.
In Chapter 21, Abraham agrees to Sarah’s disturbing order that his son Ishmael, birthed by Sarah’s servant Hagar, be banished from the family home. Mysteriously, God promises that all will be well, but Abraham sends Hagar and his son into the wilderness with some bread and a small amount of water. The child would have died but for direct intervention from God, in conversation with Hagar. God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water that saved both their lives.
In Chapter 22, God famously commands Abraham to take his long-awaited, beloved son Isaac, child of Sarah, to an unspecified place to offer him up as a burnt offering. Abraham prepares to fulfill God’s command, to the point of lifting the knife to kill his son on the mountain, before God intervenes to stop the sacrifice, satisfied by Abraham’s demonstration of obedience. Abraham looks up and sees a ram, which he offers as a sacrifice in place of his son.
We tend to think of these as two separate tales, one an origin story of the descendants of Ishmael and one of Abraham’s line through Isaac, then Jacob and the entire Jewish people. One story is ours and the other is theirs. But in “The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Arthur Waskow points out numerous similarities that link the two stories: • Both journeys begin in the early morning, • Both are initiated by Abraham, • Both are interrupted by conversation with God (in Chapter 21 with Hagar, in Chapter 22 with Abraham), • In both stories, the terrible outcome is averted when the protagonist’s eyes are opened, revealing a resolution for the mortal danger (the well of water for Hagar, the ram for Abraham), • And in both cases, the story’s climax plays out in a place named for “seeing” (Be’er Lahai Ro’i or The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me for Hagar, Adonai Yir’eh/Mori’ah or God Will See for Abraham).
How might our understanding be enriched if we took in these narratives as two versions of the same story? When we step back from the binary perspective that one story is about us and the other is about them, we see a single, very human story about the ultimate family tragedy.
In both cases, we watch with horror as a young child faces death and a parent prepares for the unspeakable loss of a child. In this sense, it is a story about every parent’s deepest desire, for the wellbeing of their children — and every parent’s worst nightmare. In both cases, God/Life/The Universe intervenes at the last moment, and the child is spared. One can imagine the profound joy in Hagar’s heart and in Abraham’s.
The story touches on every parent’s passionate desire for their child’s wellbeing and visceral longing to spare their child pain, much less death. This is why the story is so very painful to read.
Read as two separate stories, these are origin stories from our people’s history, and that of our Muslim cousins. They are deeply disturbing, as they raise unanswerable theological questions about God’s role in endangering the child. We argue with these texts year after year. We love them and hate them.
But read as a single story, it is a profound moment in the life of the universal human family, revealing the most basic of human emotions. From this perspective, we do not argue with the story. Rather, our hearts ache for the parents and the children. What is aroused in us is not theological outrage, but deep empathy and compassion.
What does this combined story have to offer us in this moment of fear, suspicion and mutual dehumanization?
In this tumultuous time in America, we can imagine that the people on our side of the divide are good and all those who voted for the other candidate are evil. Our people are thoughtful, rational, and good-hearted. The others are hateful and stupid. We want what is best for all. They act out of self-absorption and delusion.
How can we reweave a single, shared story of America? First, we must find a way to rehumanize those of the other political party — recognizing what might lead them to think as they do, remembering that at core they are humans and Americans just like us. We can refocus on that which we all desire — the well-being of our families and our national home. We can remind ourselves that those on the other side are humans, created in the image of God, just as we are.
May America soon begin to recreate a story of common humanity and shared aspiration, for the good of all of our children.
First posted on November 5, 2020, at