Thank you to Jeff Weissberger for delivering an inspiring Dvar Torah at our last Board Meeting, which we would like to share with the Heschel Community.
The Parsha Lech Lecha is rich with narratives that are the cornerstone of Judaism: Abraham leaving his homeland to the land promised to him by God, Abraham and Lot splitting the land, brit milah, and more. There is also a story in this parsha that is less frequently discussed: Hagar and Ishmael.
In Lech Lecha, we learn that Sarai is infertile. After 10 years in Canaan and not having borne any children, Sarai brings her servant Hagar to Avram so that a child may be born through her servant. When Hagar became pregnant, it seems as though Sarai was horrified, despite this being her plan all along. Sarai complained to Avram, who told Sarai to deal with Hagar as she sees fit. After being treated harshly by Sarai, the pregnant Hagar runs away to the desert, where an angel finds her, telling her that God would make her offspring too numerous to count. Her son was to be called Ishmael – as in God has heard her suffering.
Who is this Ishmael, Avraham Avinu’s first born? When Sarah ultimately gives birth to Isaac, the Torah tells us that the covenant between Abraham and God shall be passed through Isaac. Abraham asks about his first born, and is told that Ishmael will have 12 sons, and out of him will come a great nation. Ishmael’s numerous descendants become the Arab tribes. According to Muslim tradition, Mohammad is a direct descendant of Ishmael. Ishmael is known as one of the prophets in the Koran, and is said to be buried in Mecca with Hagar.
Yishmael. Yishma-el. God has listened, or literally, God will listen. But to whom? To Hagar, who’s name literally means the stranger. What I am reminded of is that we do not have exclusive access to the ear of God. And if God can listen to the cries and prayers of Hagar, the fore bearer of the nation with whom the Jewish people have had so much conflict, who are we to ignore ‘the other’?
Thinking back to my own day school education, there was essentially no teaching about the larger, non-Jewish world. We were an island, and all we learned of our neighbours in the Middle East was war and conflict. Not so at Heschel.
For those of you who have Heschel graduates at home, you will surely agree with me that the Heschel experience couldn’t be more different. For many years, our children learn about Canada’s First Nations, learn about their traditions, history and struggles. Last year in Grade 8, the class met virtually with children from the First Nation community of Pikangikum in North Western Ontario – to hear about their lives and to develop empathy towards their challenges. Grade 8 children also were involved in a type of learning exchange with children from a local Islamic school – our students visited their institution to learn about Islamic traditions and holidays, and they visited Heschel, giving our students the opportunity to be teachers and ambassadors of the Jewish faith.
My eldest is currently in Grade 9 at Earl Haig. At his art table, he sits with a Muslim boy and a Christian girl. He tells me about their exchanges – teaching the others about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, and in turn learning about Ramadan.
Rabbi Heschel once said “the problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one’s own tradition with reverence for different traditions”. I see the children of our school living the answer to this question.
May we all continue to listen, not just to our Jewish community, but just as God can listen to the prayer of Hagar, may we have the strength to listen to and have empathy towards the stranger and our neighbours.
The picture below shows Grade 8 Heschel students partnered with students from a local Islamic School to learn about each other’s traditions. The students pictured here are making Challah at Heschel.