|Photo: Lora Reehling|
Vayera covers a lot of territory. My focus today is on Vayera’s power dynamics and disparities, who is privileged and who disadvantaged, in the relationship of Sarah and Hagar, mistress and slave. The Torah later celebrates the People of Israel’s liberation from harsh enslavement as our foundational myth, but what we witness here is domestic bondage, more intimate and nuanced, and not questioned - though commentators have noted the connection between Hagar being an Egyptian and the Jewish people’s subsequent enslavement in Egypt. 1 + 2 Since Abraham and Sarah are the parents of the Jewish people, we look at things from their viewpoint.
Last week in Parshat Lekh Lekha, Sarah invited Abraham to consort with her slave Hagar, to produce an heir for Abraham via surrogacy. Sarah’s slave’s child will become Sarah’s child, problem solved; Hagar seemingly has no agency in this transactional consorting. Hagar conceives – succeeding where her mistress has failed. The relationship between mistress and slave quickly goes south.
The conflict seems to be about Hagar’s behavior towards Sarah, not Hagar’s relationship with Abraham; the text implies little contact between Avraham and Hagar after the deed is done – recall that he is indifferent to Sarah banishing her. (And indeed, most slave-owning men did not need their wives to instruct them to consort with their slave women.)
When Hagar asserts herself and belittles her mistress, Sarah abuses Hagar--quite harshly--even though giving Hagar to Abraham was Sarah’s plan. Sarah complains to her husband; in a very histrionic ultimatum she insists he choose between her and the son. Avraham is surprisingly passive, given that in this week’s parshah he argues for the saving of Sodom and Gomorrah’s innocents. He basically just shrugs “Whatever” and tells Sarah to do what she thinks is necessary in this matter. Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar causes her to flee. 2 An angel convinces Hagar to return, explicitly instructing her to submit to Sarah’s mistreatment; in exchange Hagar’s is promised that her son will head a great nation.
In Parshat Vayera, Isaac is born to Sarah – a story familiar to us from Rosh Hashanah. When he grows, Sarah sees his half-brother Ishmael playing with Isaac. Originally conceived to be her surrogate son, she now views him as competition for her biological son Isaacs’ inheritance rights. Sarah once again tells Abraham to cast mother and son out, and this time Abraham does so himself, albeit with some reluctance. Ishmael is referred to as HaYeled, “the boy”, though the chronology of the story suggests he is older. Hagar and Ishmael survive, but are permanently banished from the Sarah-Abraham family.
These stories display a complex of privileges conferred by class and gender; race may play a factor, but it is unclear that Hagar, an Egyptian, is a slave due to racial factors. Hagar enjoys a temporary stretch of being superior to her former superior – but then she is thrown out of the system altogether. Hagar enters the canon in large part because of her surprising and vexing assertion of her new-found advantage. She is the paradigm of uppityness. While the text humanizes Hagar and empathizes with her trials in the wilderness, it does not fault Sarah for treating Hagar harshly; it simply tells the story. The jury is out as to whether the tellers of the story think Hagar deserved punishment for not knowing her place or if they think Sarah had it coming.
We all learn our place in the world through constant – if unconscious—reinforcement, socialization, and training. If we are in the majority, and/or in a privileged position, we notice inequities less than if we are in a minority or non-privileged situation. Occasionally there are moments when we become aware of disparities. Here are a few from my relatively privileged life.
· I am around 4 years old. Our babysitter, a retired farmwife named Mrs. Peterson, is taking care of me; my mother is off doing some volunteer work. Mrs. Peterson takes me to her friend Winifred’s apartment where they and some other old ladies play a card game called Canasta. I have never been in an apartment. Mrs. Peterson tells them that my mum is working the Rummage Sale at the Jewish Temple. They perk up and throw their cards on the table. “Jews’ rummage! Let’s go.” My mother and her fellow Fargo Hadassah volunteers are very surprised when I appear at the Rummage Sale.
· I am 7 or 8. My older brother’s room has a funny postcard hanging on the door, “Genius At Work”, with a lot of messy ink blotches printed on it. My sister and I have no such funny postcard on our room. We get the message: Older Brother is a genius. Clearly that is why he just sits at the table after dinner while we girls clear the dishes.
· I am in 4th grade. Our cleaning lady, a kindly lady named Ruby Summerfeld, must have moved or retired because when I come home for the midday meal – this is the 1950’s! - my mother is serving lunch to a new cleaning lady. Mrs. Thorstensen weighs about 300 pounds; her breathing is heavy and labored, and she is a bit scary. When I return to school, I make absolutely sure to avoid making eye contact with her son Harlan, my classmate.
· David and I live in an Upper West Side brownstone. Our neighbors, The Reverend and Patricia Huntington, invite us to Sunday supper. I brief Patricia about our not eating meat. She asks why not, and I explain we keep kosher. She recalls that her grandparents, missionaries in Africa, often encountered people with food taboos. She also mentions that her grandparents’ were very proud to always eat whatever was served to them, even bull eyeballs. We admire a large oil painting hanging in their living room and they fill us in on its provenance. “That’s a scene from Huntington, Long Island – the town is named for some of our ancestors.” We do not invite the Huntingtons back – ever.
· It is 30 years later. My cleaning person asks me to recommend a summer camp for her daughters, whose uncle has offered to pay for them to attend. I am weirded out. The only not-Jewish camp I know if is for Quaker hippies and I can’t imagine her daughters socializing with the children of anyone I know. I mention the name of the camp, Dark Waters, and – uncharacteristically for me - never ask her what happened.
· Around the same time we are invited to a brunch with physicians, executives in the pharmaceutical industry and their highly-educated wives. In the course of discussion I mention that SAT scores correlate to family income, a fact I had recently learned and found compelling. I am roundly jumped upon. America is a meritocracy! I realize I have just committed a major faux pas.
I was born white, upper-middle class, Jewish, and female. Whiteness and upper-middle class status are both unearned, privileged positions, nationally and even more so globally. Being female is a relative disadvantage, though one can debate how much it is over-ridden by being white and affluent. Jewish is a complex identity, often – but not necessarily-- tied to class and racial privilege, since a majority of Jews are white and financially comfortable, up there with Episcopalians. Of course we have a long history of persecution and in some places in the world experience very real anti-Semitism, but much ink has been spilled teasing out Jewishness from the other identities we all integrate.
Beneficiaries of unearned privileges typically do not notice them – a major point in the article by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. They are daily, ordinary experience. Likewise, people in the majority, in whatever situation they are in, rarely notice minorities. Those in a position of privilege are generally clueless about the experience of unprivileged people. Even the Dali Lama confesses he didn’t give a thought to his mother carrying him around on her shoulders for hours every day.
Being privileged doesn’t mean you’re bad – people don’t choose privilege and more than people chose poverty. They generally are born into it and insulated from thinking of it as incredible luck like Ann Richardson, describing George W. Bush: “born on third base and he thought he hit a triple.”
A lot of this discussion is in the framing. When FairTrade coffee was being introduced, I described the concept to our son Zachary, always an advocate for social justice. He responded, “Well, I guess the regular stuff is ‘unfair trade coffee’ “. Not surprisingly, the term Unfair Trade Coffee has not caught on, nor has “unfairly advantaged” taken off as a descriptor of those who enjoy unearned privilege. According to Rav SpellCheck, “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” are words. “Overprivileged" and "overadvantaged" are not.
While beneficiaries of unearned privilege may be blissfully unaware of it – a privilege in itself –people who are unfairly discriminated against are well aware of it, enduring an unending barrage of undermining actions 3, both subtle and crude. Masters are often surprised to learn their slaves don’t love working for them and being part of their family4. Sarah’s plan had been that Hagar would gratefully hand Sarah the fruit of her womb and maybe be the baby’s wet nurse, not claim motherhood, agency, and higher status. Sarah seems blindsided when Hagar asserts herself and insults her; one can speculate that Hagar is mirroring the way she herself has been treated by Sarah.
In our world, privileges come in many forms. Here is a short list, and people could add many more. Some members of our community, in fact, have put a lot of work and thought into these issues. In addition to the major disparities of race and gender, there is:
Heterosexual privilege: until recently, and still in most of the world, same-sex couples cannot show off their wedding pictures in the office, talk about their sweeties, and if they kiss their partner in public, they are accused of promiscuity. These are just a couple of the daily oppressions – there are thousands of them.
Native-born citizens have huge privileges not available to immigrants – knowing the ropes, speaking the language, having the right forms. Unless, of course, you are a Native American.
Age is a large privilege, until it becomes a detriment. Younger children are intensely aware of the privileges received by the bigger kids. This seems to be plugged into our human nature. Birth order has enormous effects on lived experience.
Education & Literacy confer privileges, and the more affluent you are, the better the quality of education you have access to, along with the length of time you spend being educated.
Military exemption privilege: since our military system is “voluntary”, our safety and rights are defended by those who need jobs and the potential benefits the military provides, in exchange for risking their lives and having no control over where they are deployed.
Fame/Legacy privilege is pretty obvious. Hard work and achievement matter in the United States, but name recognition gets you on short lists. Many have made the observation that the truest form of affirmative action is legacy admissions of mediocre students.
A few questions for discussion:
1. Is Hagar a role model for resistance to oppression, or a cautionary tale that resisters will be punished?
2. Share a time you were aware of your own unearned privilege, or your lack of it.
3. Some of us here are activists on this issue: share ways people can work for a fairer world.
4. Does acknowledging privilege demand that people give some of it up, and is that even possible?
Footnotes: Thanks to Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for bringing them to my attention.
1 "Drive out this slave woman and her son" - ["Drive out" appears] thrice in the Bible: "Drive out this slave woman", "Drive out the scoffer" (Proverbs 22:10), "When he sends you free, it is finished - he will drive, yes, drive you out from here" (Shemot 11:1) - Drive out this slave woman and her son, and then you will have driven out the scoffer, and because Sara drove Hagar out of her home, she was punished, and her descendents were enslaved and had to be driven out of Egypt. (Baal Haturim, Bereishit 21:10)
2 All who have been oppressed can also oppress.
Sarah our mother oppressed her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Sarah was barren and she wanted a child. She gave Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham as a wife. When Hagar conceived and became pregnant Sarah grew lesser in her eyes. So Sarah oppressed her and Hagar ran away, as it says:
"V'ta'aneiha Sarai v'tivrach mipaneyha" (Genesis 16:6)
Pharaoh the Egyptian oppressed our people when they dwelled in Egypt.
The Israelites descended to Egypt and lived there….And the Egyptians treated us harshly and oppressed us; they imposed hard labor on us as it says:
"Vayarei'u otanu mamitzvrim va'y'anunu va'yitnu aleinu avoda kasha." (Deuteronomy 26:6)
This you should never forget: the same word used for Hagar's oppression at the hands of Sarah is used for the Israelites' oppression at the hands of the Egyptians.
Rabbi Tamara Cohen, Mayan Haggadah (following on Nachmanides)
3 Racial Microgressions in Everyday Life – Hat-tip, Nomi Teutsch
4 Masters are often surprised to learn their slaves don’t love working for them and being part of their family – Micah Weiss, Seder commentary
For Further Reading: Recommended by Dr. Andrea Jacobs:
Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale – Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones
I’m not White, I’m Jewish - Paul Kivel
From the NYTimes (suggested by Sue Sussman)