Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Learning to Get Along
JCCA Conference, Ramat Gan, Israel, 11/4/09
The Birth of Laughter: Parshat Vayera, B’reshit 21:6-10
By Annie Lewis

The word L’Garesh! is spray-painted in red letters on a stucco building near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. I am on the way to a maven demo, about to shout that word, in translation, in its first appearance in Torah. It means to banish, to expel, to exile, to divorce, to deport. The neighborhood of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is home to many foreign workers, from the Philippines, Nigeria, Romania, Ghana, Ukraine. Last Sunday, the decision came down from the Prime Minister’s office that the children of foreign workers in Israel illegally are to be deported at the end of the school year. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported:

“Yishai, the Shas Party leader, has been leading the call for deportation. Yishai claims that allowing the children to remain and giving them citizenship could damage the Jewish character of the state.”

In our Torah cycle, we are telling stories of Sarah, the First Lady of the House of Abraham. I had the privilege of assuming Sarah’s voice at last week’s maven as Israeli maven, Eran Kraus, read the words from the Torah and led the crowd in discussion. In Parshat Vayera, God sends Sarah into bouts of laughter, informing her that she will give birth to a bouncing baby boy. At ninety years of age, she expects to be in a nursing home, but nursing?

Our maven took place at the conference center at K’far Ha-Maccabiah, the original Jewish Olympic village. Executives from Jewish Community Centers all over the world were gathered to build relationships and share best practices. Our audience included people from Argentina, Russia, India, Estonia, France and Colorado. We invited them to the Weaning Feast of Sarah’s miraculous first-born son, Yitzhak (Isaac/ One who will laugh).

Sarah is cracking jokes, and getting fahklempt about Yitzhak getting older, and the crowd is singing siman tov! All of the sudden, Sarah panics. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Avraham’s first son, Yishmael, m’tzahkek, an ambiguous word which might mean to play, to mock, to fool around, to rough-house, to abuse.

“Get out! I want them out. Out of my home - that woman (Hagar) and her son. Avraham, Get them out!” Sarah orders. She claims that Yishmael is endangering the safety of her son, Yitzhak.

Eran asked our audience, full of parents, and decision-makers in the work place, to step into Avraham’s shoes. What would they do if presented with such a demand? One man, from Israel, looked to the verses and pointed out that the Torah’s original letters describing Yishmael’s m’tzahek, say nothing about Yitzhak. Becoming the Sarah of our Maven, I have nearly forgotten that this voice of hers is built from layers of midrash; sages seeking to justify the severity of her demand to banish this other mother and her child into the wilderness. Perhaps our rabbinic predecessors didn’t want to see Sarah’s decision as rash or jealous, or based solely on concern about sharing the resources of her home and husband.

Another woman in the audience mentioned that if she were Avraham, she would ask the boys what happened. Eran asked the others whether they, too, wanted to hear another side of the story. As decision-makers at home or at work, what do they do when a conflict arises between different people under their care or supervision? Eran told a story about a time he and his brother came to their father hitting each other and yelling, “He started it! No, he started it!” His father slapped them both, simply saying, “Get along.” The sting of the slap and the truth of those words are with him today.

We ended our sample maven with a dedication to a different Yitzhak. November 4th was the fourteenth anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, a tragic casualty in the continuing conflict between the children of Yitzhak and Yishmael, the sons of Sarah and Hagar. We closed with a prayer for shalom bayit, peace in the House of Abraham, for all of his children. With all our sides of the story, may we learn to get along. May we laugh together and heal the rifts of our past.

This short and bittersweet telling of Torah, storah-style, was received with open arms by audience members from around the world! I am grateful to Eran for the experience and to Bruce Shaffer, our hevruta from Boulder, Co, for his support.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu, V’al Kol Yisrael, V’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel.

May the one who makes peace in the heights, make peace for all of us, all of Israel, and all us dwellers of this whole wide world.

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