Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Social Justice II

During last week’s shiur klali, Dr. Steinmetz discussed, among other things, Bereishit 21:15-21, analyzing Hagar and Yishmael’s banishment from Avraham’s house, and their wandering through the desert without water until the angel appears to Hagar. One of the most memorable and striking elements that Dr. Steinmetz pointed out was the text’s criticism of Hagar’s actions towards her son in the desert. When they run out of water, Hagar places Yishmael under a bush, and then sits far away from him, so that she does not have to see him suffer and die. The text takes a critical tone towards her actions; it states specifically that it is Yishmael’s cries that God has heard and is responding to, not Hager’s, and the first thing that the angel says to Hagar is, in essence, “What’s going on? Why are you over here?” It is clear that the text is critical of Hagar’s focus on her own discomfort, at a time when she should be focused on the person who desperately needs her at his side during his suffering. While the pain that Hagar is going through is unimaginable, she does not recognize that nonetheless, this moment is not about her.

I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Steinmetz’s shiur when we visited the nursing home today. Every week I am able to sympathize with Hagar, and her desire to run away from the pain of another human being. Among the many difficult features of this chesed project is internalizing the idea that whatever I may be feeling at the moment, these visits are not about me. While I can examine the difficult feelings I have at any other point, for the two hours I am in and out of rooms, it is about connecting with another human being, responding to their needs, and being physically and emotionally close to them.

Rav Shai described the word “chesed,” generally translated as “lovingkindness,” as “love manifested as kindness.” But love is not a completely positive emotion—if that were the case, there would be far less acoustic guitar in the world. With love comes a good dose of fear, whether it is a fear of vulnerability, a fear of the consequences of being in a profoundly affecting relationship with another person, or something else entirely. The point is to take that love, and all of the messy feelings and baggage that comes with it, and be present in a way that results in a positive force acting on the world.

For my impatient fans: Ask the Goldberg is coming later this week!

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