Alone In The Wilderness

Hagar and Ishmael are cast away at Sarah's behest.


Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

The landscape of global hunger can be efficiently surveyed through its statistical contours. Every day, hunger-related causes kill 25,000 people around the world. In 2007, the number of undernourished people increased by 75 million and in 2008 by 40 million–pushing today’s global tally past the one billion mark.

Obscured in this numerical vista, however, is hunger’s human impact–how deprivation can insinuate itself into relationships, dull the senses and fray a society’s fabric. Parashat Vayera, with its story of Hagar and Ishmael, lays bare this crushing impact.

Without Food Or Water

At Sarah’s behest, Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast off, alone, into the wilderness. After their provisions ran out and mother and son were left without water or food in the hot expanse, the boy Ishmael rapidly wasted away. Hagar, recognizing that her son’s death was at hand, “flung the child under one of the bushes and went off and sat down at a distance…for she thought, ‘Let me not see when the child dies.’”
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The tale ends happily enough after an angel of God revealed to Hagar a spring at which to revive the boy. But the story lingers uncomfortably. It is that painful word “flung”–an inescapable mark of something very wrong. Here is Hagar, a mother with a dying son she does not comfort. Hagar does not seek to prolong the moments she has with her only child, to quiet his wailing, to ease his suffering. Instead, she flings the boy and scurries a good distance away.

Hagar’s behavior is not recognizable as cruelty. Indeed, even as she casts Ishmael aside, we feel not scorn, but great pathos for her. Undoubtedly depleted herself, Hagar seems discombobulated by her desperation, and her actions, a manic surrender to it. Hunger and thirst seem to have undone the woman; and her life’s fabric, woven together by the most precious of relationships, has been rent.

While Hagar’s tale grows out of days–at most weeks–of want, such privation and the surrender that follows is a near-permanent global reality today, looming over the millions of mothers and fathers who watch their own children weakened by chronic hunger and undernutrition. In addition to stunting growth and hindering fetal development, chronic hunger attacks the spirit. It saps energy, slows thinking, steals motivation and depresses productivity. It impedes one’s ability to learn and corrodes one’s sense of well-being. In its presence, hopelessness proliferates, prompting world leaders from former Secretary of State Kissinger to Brazil’s President Lula da Silva to cast hunger and hope as antipodes.

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Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.

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