By Rabbi Michael Safra
In the Torah portion Lech Lecha, God leads two people through their personal journeys.
We are most familiar with His command to Abraham, “לך לך, Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But there is another journey that is also important. When Sarah is unable to have a child on her own, she tells Abraham to take her maidservant, Hagar, as his concubine. But when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah gets jealous. She treats Hagar harshly and the maidservant runs away from home.
When Hagar is on her journey, an angel of God sees her and calls out to her. The importance of this encounter is underscored by the fact that this is the first time that God or an angel speaks to a woman in the Bible. The angel calls out, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, אי מזה באת ואנה תלכי, where have you come from and where are you going?” She answered, “מפני שרי גברתי אנכי בורחת, I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” As Rabbi Kushner points out in his commentary in Etz Hayim, Hagar doesn’t answer the entire question. She tells the angel only what she is running from, but she has no destination in mind. The tragedy of her journey is that it is aimless. She doesn’t know where she is going next and so she eventually returns to Sarah’s house, which we know was a terrible place for her.
Compare Hagar’s situation with that of Abraham. Undoubtedly it was difficult for Abraham to pick up and leave his home for an unknown future. But in spite of the challenges along the way, Abraham seems confident that he is headed towards a better place.
I was recently invited to serve on the board of JCADA, the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, which, among other projects, is working to train rabbis to better help victims of domestic abuse to get out of harm’s way and to make safe choices. The Executive Director, Elissa Schwartz, told me about a conversation she had with an area rabbi who wants to be supportive; and he said that if a victim of domestic abuse came to him, he would encourage her to leave the home right away for a safer place.
This sounds like good advice, but it is actually dangerous. If a woman leaves without a solid escape plan – a place to stay, financial support, legal and other assistance – she might end up returning home as Hagar did. But now, the abuser could be more dangerous, angry because he lost power and control over his partner, even if for a short period. Our community needs to be able to help victims develop a plan. They need to know where they are going and how they will be supported by community professionals. The journey will be challenging and uncertain, but it is possible to deal with the challenges if you have a clear sense of where you are headed.
We are fortunate in our community to be served by JCADA, which works with women (and men) to empower them to create a plan. The professionals at JCADA work with their clients to insure, above all, that the client is safe. When needed, professionals also assist clients in securing new housing or furniture, blankets, and other basic necessities. Victims of domestic abuse are often lost– they know what they are running from, but they need assistance in clarifying exactly where it is they are going and how they will get there.
I conclude with a story from the Hasidic Master Rabbi Hayim of Zanz about a person who had been wandering in a forest for several days, unable to find his way out. Eventually he saw someone approaching in the distance and the wanderer thought with a joyous heart, “Now I shall surely find my way out of this forest.” When they met, however, the stranger told the wanderer that he too had been wandering for several days and that he also did not know the way out of the forest. But he added this much: “Do not go the way I have gone, for I know that it is not the right way. Now come, let us search for the way out together.”
This is what JCADA does for our community. It makes sure that victims of domestic abuse never feel they have to find their way out alone.
Rabbi Michael Safra, B'nai Israel Congregation