I love today’s Torah portion, for it recounts truly momentous events from the experience and wisdom of our people:
•God’s remembering, and then acting upon, the divine promises of a son made to Sarah;
•the large celebration on the day Isaac was weaned;
•Sarah’s summary banishing of Hagar and Ishmael to a possible death in the wilderness;
•and their eventual restoration to the human community.
What baffles me about this chapter, however, is the autocratic superiority that Sarah displays toward her hired help. What could possibly have given her the privilege not only to get rid of Hagar her handmaiden, but also to banish this Egyptian servant to a life of homelessness and possible death?
To discover the answer to this question, we’d have to review some background of the story. Like one of those television voice-over announcers reviewing with the audience the incidents that took place before the start of the current episode – and with no apologies to my previous profession – “Previously…in the book of Genesis…”
We first must look at the incident that took place in the Torah just before the start of today’s reading. Abraham and Sarah have just helped cure the infertility of King Avimelech, his wife, and his maidservants, foreshadowing the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah and the birth of Isaac.
Why did this occur? Well, Abraham and Sarah had journeyed to the region of Gerar, and lied to King Avimelech when informing him that Sarah was Abraham’s sister and not his wife. As penance for being caught in this lie, Abraham beseeches God for reproductive healing for this king and his retinue.
For Sarah to become the matriarch of our people, we realize that she has to emerge unscathed from this and other thorny situations, and we think that maybe there is something unique in her background that sets the stage for such privilege. So, we return to chapter 11 to search for Sarah’s lineage…but we find the Torah mute on this subject.
So now we require a “deus ex machina”, or an outside consultant. We jump ahead in time and place to medieval France, into the study of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, the most prolific of Torah commentators, to discover his insights.
He would turn to the camera – sorry, to us – and first note that, according to the Talmud, Sarah was the daughter of Haran, Abraham’s brother. So, at first blush, we would have to call her Abraham’s niece, a relationship that could not, in ancient Israel, result in marriage.
But in a seemingly xenophobic way, Rashi would indicate that since Haran – Sarah’s father – was a gentile (there were no Jews yet, after all), technically speaking Sarah has no father for purposes of Jewish genealogy. So Sarah could be married to Abraham even though she was, by blood, his niece.
From this exhausting excursion through text and time, we might come to understand something about Sarah’s sense of “Israelite privilege”. Sarah was part of Abraham’s prestigious family long before Israelite religion was in vogue; along with Abraham she was an original monotheist!
So she was of high status in Israelite society from a philosophical point of view. And by virtue of her marriage to Abraham she possessed plenty of wealth and property. In that society, she could do whatever she wanted.
So getting rid of a servant who did not fit into the household? Done before completing the thought! No problem!
* * * *
As we might imagine, there were significant responsibilities to being an Israelite: a life of fealty to a mysterious and unseen god; the need to follow all of this God’s commandments; a fate of becoming a race of slaves to many of our host nations; and a life of wandering and existence subject to the whims of others.
But the privileges of being an Israelite were also substantial. Our ancestors had:
•A destiny guided by a respected and superior god;
•We had entree “on demand” to that god;
•We had wealth and property that could be bequeathed to future generations;
•And we had the feeling of belonging to a growing and dominant nation.
In consideration of these privileges, and in thinking about today’s Torah portion, again it would be completely consistent with Sarah’s status to dismiss a disrespectful and racially inferior servant – and her son – because of some perceived slight, even though the son was an offspring of Abraham.
Maybe she read “The Game of Thrones”; it’s best to marginalize the bastard son and never let him forget the stigma of his birth.
* * * *
In Sarah’s era, this kind of hierarchy was commonplace. Such behavior adheres to the customs, and probably the demands, of these early years of civilization’s dawning.
However, we’d think that attitudes would change in the subsequent almost-4,000 years when it comes to the way we treat one another today. We’d hope that we’d have arrived to a place where the color of one’s skin, or the selection of one's clothes and music, would simply represent differences in DNA and personal taste, and not be flashpoints for possible incarceration or some kind of violent culture clash.
Making such presumptions is a phenomenon referred to as “white privilege”, and it is much in evidence today. White privilege was described most interestingly, I think, by Dr. Peggy McIntosh, senior research scientist and former associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, who oversees the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project.
Of white privilege she once wrote, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege…So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
Another author brings this point home more pointedly. Jennifer Holladay, a former director of Teaching Tolerance, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, relates this incident which expanded her thinking on this subject.
“Two years ago”, she writes, “I was driving down Rosa Parks Boulevard, a street that runs through an all-black and impoverished area of town, at night. I was looking for a house that I had never been to before, so I was driving slowly, stopping and moving as I searched for numbers on residences.
“Out of nowhere, this large police van pulled me over, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, and a handful of well-armed police officers jumped out of the van and surrounded my car.
“I did as I was told, and got out of my car. ‘Hands above your head; move slowly!’ I then succumbed to a quick physical pat-down, as well as a search of my car. The officers had pulled me over – not only because of my erratic driving – but also, because, in the words of one officer, I was ‘a white woman driving down Rosa Parks after dark’. They thought I was looking to buy drugs.
“When I went to the office the next day, I relayed my story to several white colleagues. They shared my sense of violation, of anger, of rage. These co-workers encouraged me to call our legal department and report the incident. I later told the story to a colleague who is black and who lives on Rosa Parks. ‘You just never have to worry about those things, do you, Jennifer?’ she said, and then walked off.”
In that response – in those twelve words – her black colleague starkly revealed this author’s sense of privilege.
Most of us might never realize it, but it is white privilege to go shopping in any retail establishment and not have to worry about being followed and observed.
And it is white privilege to not have to be concerned about educating one’s children about the gang bangers that are waiting out there to pounce on unsuspecting young black children and teens.
And it is white privilege to swear aloud, or dress in second hand clothes, or not comport as society expects, without having people attribute these behaviors to the bad morals, or the poverty, or the so-called “illiteracy” of one’s ethnic or racial group.
* * * *
Perhaps the good news is that we have not consciously created this state. It has come about through the complex history of our nation’s relationship with slavery and the passive effects of living in a majority/minority culture.
But the problem with white privilege is that it insidiously maintains and strengthens the racism that is prevalent in our nation.
You might wonder why we’re talking about racism and classism when those issues are, well, so 1980’s. Well, the signs which tell us these matters are still of great concern are obvious:
•the problems of violence arising between police and African Americans;
•or that some fail to recognize the negative effects of food deserts on minority populations, as well as other disabilities of living in unofficially segregated communities.
These attitudinal realities demonstrate that we have far to go to alleviate the problems of race in our society.
* * * *
Writing in the early years of the Great Depression, entrepreneur-turned-historian James Truslow Adams coined – in 1931 – the term “American dream”. It is, he writes, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
This is a beautiful dream, and it’s especially poignant to me that, as originally stated, it looks beyond the material success of those who survived the economic vagaries of the 1930’s.
Sadly, we Americans today usually associate the term “American dream” with only personal economic success; we seem to have neglected the optimistic social imperatives of the original version of this dream.
* * * *
In his recent book “Between the World and Me”, black journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates provides us a slightly different view of the American dream, and his understanding of those who choose to slumber with this idealized vision in their minds.
He writes, “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
Throughout his book, Coates offers a candid rendering of black perceptions of the injustices emanating from “American dream” America. There are vignettes of:
•his frightening childhood in Baltimore’s ghetto;
•his understanding of school not as a place of academic possibilities but rather a refuge from the dangers of the street;
•an account of the death of a friend from Howard University at the hands of Virginia police, who believed the victim had stolen his own car;
•and many other confrontations with American life as a black man and parent.
It is important for white Americans to read and digest his anger, his disappointment, and his conclusions.
He comes to offer few clear prescriptions for the illnesses brought on by this so-called “American dream”. He hopes that the reader will ‘get it’ and, at least, think about it.
He closes with advice: for members of the Black community in relation to the Dream and, indirectly, for those white Americans who dream this Dream with any regularity. He says to Black America:
“Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca [the academic world of Howard University]. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”
So be it. If we in the white community need to struggle, then let us do so because it is the right thing to do. And let us think of it this way:
•Struggling against white privilege: is to volunteer in places like Emerson Elementary School and strike out against illiteracy and poverty.
•Struggling against white privilege: is to support our African American brothers and sisters and be able to articulate proudly with them that ‘black lives DO matter’.
•Struggling against white privilege: is to engage in dialogue with members of any racial or national minority, so that we can better empathize with and understand issues of poverty, inadequate employment, and fair compensation.
•And struggling against white privilege: is to ensure, to the extent possible, that our employers – or the businesses that we own – provide living wages, safe work environments, and benefits that address the true needs of families in any stage of life.
Look, we cannot change the consequence of American history, or easily reverse more than three centuries of anti-Black sentiment. But as Jews we are still required:
- to address the question;
- to empathize with all those who face racism and poverty in our day;
- and to engage in the tasks of correcting injustice.
In the New Year ahead, let us seek out and find opportunities for renewing an “American dream”, a vision that now takes only a limited number of Americans into account. For on this holy day of the New Year, we are required to imagine a different dream, one in which we can, unlike our matriarch Sarah, learn to treat others as we would like to be treated.
We can envision a world in which we resurrect the fullest possible definition of James Adams’ dream, where “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
“Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah.” If we truly desire this, it will remain a dream for only a bit longer before we turn it into a reality.
(Sermon Anthem – “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”)
Rashi’s comment on Genesis 20:12: "My sister, the daughter of my father": And the daughter of one’s father is permitted to a Noahide [for marriage], because a gentile has no father [his lineage is not traced from his father]. And in order to justify his words, he answered him in this way. Now if you ask: Was she not the daughter of his brother? [The answer is that] grandchildren are considered like children (Tosefta, Yev. 8:8; Talmud Bavli, Yev. 62b); therefore, she was (considered as) Terah’s daughter [and would, therefore, be Abraham’s sister]. And so did he say to Lot, “For we are kinsmen” [lit. men, brothers], from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 36.