Between the Lines—Va-yera

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis 21:17

God heard the cry of the boy (Ishmael), and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is."

Genesis Rabbah 33:14

באשר הוא שם אמר רבי סימון קפצו מלאכי השרת לקטרגו אמרו לפניו רבון העולמים אדם שהוא עתיד להמית את בניך בצמא אתה מעלה לו באר אמר להם עכשיו מה הוא צדיק או רשע אמרו לו צדיק אמר להם איני דן את האדם אלא בשעתו קומי שאי את הנער ויפקח את עיניה אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקב״ה מאיר את עיניהם מן הכא ויפקח אלהים את עיניה

Where he is. R. Simon said: The ministering angels rushed to indict [Ishmael], exclaiming, "Sovereign of the Universe! Will You raise a well for one who will one day kill Your children with thirst?" [God] asked them, "What is he now—righteous or wicked? " They replied, "Righteous." He told them, "I judge a man only as he is in the moment." [Thus, Scripture continues], 'Come, lift up the boy . . . ' Then God opened her eyes, [and she saw a well of water.] (Gen.21:18–19)

R. Benjamin said: All may be presumed to be blind until the Blessed Holy One enlightens their eyes, as the verse states, Then God opened her eyes . . .

"Innocent until proven guilty" approximates God's judgment of Ishmael in the midrash above. No matter how wicked other rabbis imagine Ishmael to have been, R. Simon contends that this ancestor of Arabs and Muslims was indeed righteous enough for God to save him from dying of thirst. Regardless of how Ishmael or his descendents might possibly treat God's children later, in this text God sees only "the boy where he is" in that moment.

If that seems radical, consider the implication of the concluding statement above that we are all blind until God makes us enlightened. While Hagar could not see the well before her, R. Benjamin asserts that our vision is no less obscured from noticing life-saving resources. Sadly, the ancient Sage describes well the inability of many Jews today to find common ground with Muslims and Arabs, and vice versa.

The Sufi spiritual leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, head of the community seeking to build what has been inaccurately described as a "Ground Zero Mosque," sought to reverse that trend through his 2004 book What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West:

The language of good versus evil is precisely the language of the fundamentalists whose worldview we oppose. Once we define as evil those who counter us, we lose the moral high ground and begin to descend an exceedingly slippery ethical slope . . . We have two powerful tools with which to bridge the chasm separating the United States from the Muslim world: faith in the basic goodness of humanity and trust in the power of sincerity and dialogue to overcome differences with our fellow human beings. This faith and this trust are taught by all the Abrahamic traditions. They define the Abrahamic ethic, which lies at the core of our American Declaration of Independence, and America needs to rely more heavily on them, as do our fellow actors on the stage of history. (282–283)

This Monday, Chancellor Eisen will convene a roundtable forum at JTS on Judaism and Islam in America. The Jewish and Islamic clergy, leaders, and thinkers participating in this scholarly gathering will demonstrate through their attendance the principles of faith in humanity and trust in dialogue that Imam Rauf expresses in the passage above. Let us follow their example with similar efforts in our own communities. Our ancestor Abraham would expect no less.