D’var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1

To celebrate Kehillat Israel’s “Year of the Jewish Story,” I decided, rather than deliver a d’var Torah this morning, to read a story I wrote for the occasion. It is inspired in part by a recent poem by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner (find a copy here). The story is a midrash; in other words, it elaborates inventively on the biblical narrative.

Just to quickly summarize the context: Sarah, who could not bear a child, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child in her name. When Hagar’s son Ishmael was born, Hagar became scornful of Sarah, so Sarah treated her harshly. After Sarah’s son Isaac was born, Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the wilderness, where Hagar had a divine revelation. In today’s haftarah, Peninah and Hannah were both married to Elkanah. Peninah had two sons and she taunted Hannah for not being able to conceive. Hannah prayed at the shrine of Shiloh for a son, making the pledge to offer this son for divine service at Shiloh. This led to the birth of the prophet Samuel, and later to three additional sons.


Once upon a time, Hagar, Hannah, Peninah, and Sarah rented a cottage along the lakeshore for a girlfriends’ getaway. Peninah, who makes a mean cosmopolitan, drove up with two gallon jugs full of the mix. Hagar, who knew a pizza and Middle Eastern place in the nearby town run by a couple from Egypt, ordered three veggie pies topped with zucchini and eggplant, and because she charmed them with stories of the old country, the owners threw in a couple of tubs of baba ghanoush and ful medames on the house. By the time the old girls devoured two-and-a-half pizzas and consumed who-knows-how-many rounds of cosmo mix, the party was in full swing: kvelling competitively over their kids, ripping through suitcases to try on each other’s beachwear, the co-wives giggling wickedly together over intimate secrets. It was then that Sarah popped open a dresser drawer and triumphantly pulled out a Gideon Bible.

“Here it is,” she proclaimed. “The whole story of those awful years; complete with fabrications to make each of us come off as revolting as possible.”

“Not exactly each of us,” said Peninah. “Little goody-goody over there just keeps weeping and praying while big-bad-wife-number-one was lording it over her.”

“Give me a break, Peninah,” said Hannah. “Do you think I want to be remembered as a whiny wimp? You know what a knockout I was in my younger days. I drove old Elkanah wild, and we loved each other. Let’s face it; he married you for family connections and for no other reason.”

“So you want to get nasty, Hans?” retorted Peninah. “You were always the pretty little flower. You never did a stitch of work around the house and no matter what role I gave you, you were useless in the family business.”

“Some business,” said Hannah. “A sleepy souvenir shop catering to nonexistent tourists while your sons played poker in the corner. If we had used my connections in Shiloh instead, I could have gotten us contracts for temple ornaments and sacrificial paraphernalia. Those priests paid good money. I’m just glad I got Samuel out of our house and hooked up with the House of Eli.”

“Disgusting!” said Peninah. “Drinking and carousing with those lazy priests, making a fool of yourself until you got so drunk that you pledged your son to slave labor at the shrine.”

“Three thousand years and you two still can’t settle your differences,” said Sarah. “Why, Hagar and I, after all we’ve been through, are still Facebook friends and get together regularly for mah jongg. Whatever happened in the old days, we’re the only ones still around, and life’s too short to hold grudges.”

“But Sarah, dear,” said Hagar, “let’s be honest. It’s taken us a couple of thousand years to get where we are now, and mostly it’s because it was all so long ago, we can’t really remember what all happened. In fact, just for the fun of it, could you remind me what it says in that book of yours about me?”

Sarah read from the Gideon Bible, “‘And when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.’ Come to think of it, you were pretty snotty in those days.”

“Give me a break, Sarah,” said Hagar. “You have no idea what it’s like to be born a slave, to have nothing, and then to suddenly have your mistress throw you into her husband’s bed in some bird-brained scheme to work out their marital problems. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. How could you expect me to respect you after you forced me into harlotry and somehow thinking that this would be in your own best interest!”

“Soooo,” said Peninah. “Now this is getting juicy. And you girls got after Hannah and me for not settling our differences. Go ahead; show us how it’s done. But first have another cosmo.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Sarah. “But if your plan was to get us rip-roaring drunk so two jealous women could entertain you with a bit of reality TV, I’m not playing along.”

“Really, dear,” said Peninah. You don’t mind going down in history as the mean old hag who tormented the innocent young thing?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” said Sarah. “The text really did give me a pretty bad rap: dealing harshly, casting her out twice, and all.” “But isn’t that exactly what happened?” asked Hagar.

“I’ll admit I wasn’t as patient as I might have been,” said Sarah. “But the text doesn’t mention how you were going around saying you wanted to get out of there, that you were hearing divine voices sending you to the wilderness, that you and your son had some grand destiny. I was all too glad to give you what you wanted.” “You sure were,” said Hagar. I told you in confidence about one dream I had and that gave you all the excuse you needed to shove me out of the way.”

Hannah then jumped in. “Hey, this is kind of interesting. It’s just like what they talked about in that postmodern religious criticism class I took at the Lifelong Learning Center last year. See, a text creates its own reality. And so do personal narratives. You each have your own story, and there’s no objective truth outside of that.”

Then Peninah said, “Oh, now the sweet little mother of the prophet has become a literary critic. If you’re so smart, Hans, why don’t you give us an analysis of the varying narratives from Jewish and Islamic sources?” “Yes, that’s a fascinating question,” said Hannah. “Muslim scholars understood Hagar to be the courageous and heroic matriarch of the Arab peoples, the mother of God’s chosen one, and Abraham’s beloved. The rabbis in Midrash Rabbah made her an Egyptian princess. They also claimed that after Sarah died and Abraham married Keturah, it was actually Hagar in disguise.”

“Yes, everybody wants to put in their two cents about me,” said Hagar. “They create texts, and try to tell me that’s who I am, and that I’m wrong if I don’t follow the script. All I know is that Sarah treated me like dirt and almost got me killed in the wilderness.” “And all I know is that this impudent hussy kept trying to humiliate me and put her child higher up the totem pole than mine,” said Sarah.

“Enough of this war of words,” said Hannah. “Let’s do something completely wild, like jump in the lake with all our clothes on.”

They dashed out of the house, sprinted down the beach, and plunged into the refreshing water, laughing and splashing one another. In their excitement and their drunken stupor, they didn’t notice the little boy playing in the sand. While the girls were frolicking in the water, he lay down in the sand and started to make snow angels with his arms and legs. Then he floated up into the sky, flapping his arms like wings. He hovered over the four women and cleared his throat.

Everyone turned silent.

Finally, Hagar said, “I remember you. You came to me when my son was about to die from thirst in the wilderness.”

Sarah said, “I remember you. You and a couple of friends came to our tent. You predicted I would have son.”

Hannah said, “I remember you. I got a glimpse of you the night that Elkanah and I conceived a son.”

Peninah said, “I remember you. You were hovering around our house almost constantly since that time that Hannah prayed at Shiloh for her first son. And what brings you tonight to visit four drunken, squabbling, water-fighting women?”

The angel replied, “I’m hungry. What have you got to eat?”

Hagar said, “I think there’s half a pizza left on the table. And a bit of baba ghanoush.” The angel said, “The pizza would be just perfect. I’ll wait up here and you can bring it out.”

Hagar ran into the house. Two pizza boxes were lying on the floor near the trash can; the other one rested slightly ajar on the table, with cheese and tomato stains on the side. Hagar grabbed the box, closed it shut with her fingers, and brought it out. The other three were waiting for her on the shore, wet and shivering. Peninah opened the box in Hagar’s hands and gasped. The pizza was cold, hard, and broken into at least forty crouton-sized pieces. The four women gazed for a few moments. Then they understood.

Sarah, being the eldest, took the first piece. “I cast off the misdeed of forcing Hagar to have sexual relations with my husband.” She hurled the pizza crumb into the waves.

Hagar took the second piece. “I cast off the misdeed of acting with contempt and haughtiness toward Sarah.”

Now it was Peninah’s turn. “I cast off the misdeed of mocking and humiliating Hannah.” And when Hannah took her first crumb, she said, “I cast off the misdeed of poisoning my relationship with Peninah through jealousy and resentment.”

Over the next several minutes, they took turns recalling ways they had hurt one another and casting them off, until the pizza box was completely empty. The angel was no more to be seen; neither was the imprint in the sand from where he was making snow angels. Sarah and Hagar looked one another deeply in the eyes, hugged each other tightly, and became consumed with tears; Peninah and Hannah did the same. They returned to the house, cleaned up the mess they had made, returned the Gideon Bible to the dresser drawer, and poured the remaining cosmopolitan mix down the sink. Then they all fell into a deep sleep.

When they awoke the next morning, the sun shone brightly. Peninah and Sarah challenged Hannah and Hagar to a game of water polo before breakfast. Then the four women took a slow walk along the lakeshore. No words were necessary. At the opposite end of the globe, a group of men were sitting around the table signing a peace treaty. And the earth heaved a great sigh of relief.

—Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Rosh Hashanah 5774
September 2013