Friday, November 11, 2011

Parashat VaYera
God and Rescue, Hagar and Ishmael, Dr. Rick Hodes and Ethiopia

In re-reading Parashat Vayera this week, my attention was drawn to one particular story among the many challenging narratives of the family of Abraham and Sarah: the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.  Soon after Isaac is born, Sarah observes Ishmael teasing Isaac and demands that he and his mother, Hagar, be sent away from the family compound.  Despite its troubling nature, Abraham complies with Sarah’s demand after God reassures him that Ishmael will be cared for.  Sent out into the desert, Hagar quickly runs out of water, and hope, and deposits Ishmael at the base of some shrubs:

וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת כִּי אָמְרָה אַל-אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ

And she went and sat down opposite him but a good distance away from him, like the distance an arrow travels, for she said: Do not let me see the death of the child.  And she sat opposite him, and raised up her voice, and cried.
Genesis 24:14-15

I cannot imagine the amount of despair a person could feel that would lead them to choose to abandon their own child.  It is simply beyond my comprehension.

Fortunately for Hagar and Ishmael, all is not lost.  Salvation comes directly from God:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי,
כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם.  קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת-הַנַּעַר, וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת-יָדֵךְ בּוֹ:  כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ

And God heard the voice of the child and an angel of God called to Hagar from Heaven and said to her, What troubles you Hagar?  Do not be afraid for God has heard the boy’s voice where he is.  Get up!  Lift up the boy and hold him in your hand for I will make him a great nation.
Genesis 23: 17-18

The voice of God calls out from the heavens and saves Ishmael, revealing a well of water before Hagar from which she can draw water and rehydrate the child.  In the end, it is not Hagar who saves her son; rather, it is God, specifically God’s voice, that saves them.  

This week, I am thinking a lot about child abandonment and sources of salvation for such children due to a book I am currently reading.  Titled This is a Soul by Marilyn Berger, the book tells the story of Dr. Rick Hodes, a physician who has chosen to live his life in Ethiopia saving children with the most challenging health conditions imaginable and unimaginable. Dr. Hodes takes an unusual path which leads him to this extraordinary life mission.  Along the way, he becomes an observant Jew, a representative of the American Joint Distribution Committee, learns Amharic and adopts multiple children in Ethiopia to give them homes and to help pay for their medical treatment.  

Many of the children Dr. Hodes treats and sometimes adopts in Ethiopia have been abandoned by their parents.  In a place of constant famine and disease, children are often brought to Addis Ababa by family members and left there to fend for themselves, relying on foraging for scraps or begging to provide less than even the basic needs for survival.  They develop diseases common in areas of extreme poverty most notably a form of Tuberculosis that causes the spine to nearly collapse. Dr. Hodes raises money to maintain a makeshift clinic in town, to pay for back surgery, medications, and other procedures.  He creates a worldwide network of physicians and surgeons who work with their medical institutions to provide surgeries and treatments free of charge.  He changes lives.  The abandoned child seemingly condemned to a miserable, short life, riddled with disease is not an anonymous body part.  He or she is a soul.  In fact, the title of the book comes from a question the author asks Dr. Hodes as she observes him taking a picture of a patient that will be sent along with other documents to a physician.  Why send them a picture of the patient?  So that they remember that this is a soul.  

If human beings are the voice of God, as Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches us in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, then Dr. Rick Hodes is the embodiment of that Voice.  For children like Bewoket and Danny, those that are abandoned by their parents or whose parents stay with them but are hopeless about the potential for them to be cured and healed, Dr. Hodes is the angel of God calling out and revealing the well, the source of healing and salvation.  He is the doctor who is the voice of God, creating possibilities for long, healthy, inspiring lives.  He is proof that one person can change the world and he is the embodiment of the Talmudic statement that saving one person is the equivalent of saving an entire world.  Through his altruistic work, Dr. Hodes gives others the opportunity to do mitzvot by asking them to house children for six months or longer in the US as they undergo complicated surgery and recovery.  In fact, a member of the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin family who takes children into their home for recovery is mentioned in the book and referred to by Dr. Hodes as one of his angels.  

In a world where the news is dominated by leaders, celebrities and regular people acting in the most selfish and narcissistic ways, it is refreshing to read about the life of an exceptional and selfless person; to see a person act as an extension of God, bringing healing to those who suffer and family to those who are abandoned.  Dr. Rick Hodes serves as an example for us, a person we can seek to emulate whenever we encounter others who are in dire straights.  The world needs more people like Dr. Hodes... and so do we.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thank you to The Covenant Foundation for the copy of This is a Soul.  It is one of several books the Covenant Foundation gave as gifts to those of us attending the award breakfast for recipients of the new Pomegranate Prize, a new award whose goal, according to philanthropist Lester Crown, is “to provide the means for these already remarkable educators to further develop their skills, fulfill a dream or two, and have the chance to get to know others who, like themselves, are bringing fresh new ideas and abundant energy to the field of Jewish education.”  Congratulations to all five recipients of the Pomegranate Prize, especially to my friend and teacher, Anna Hartman from Atlanta, Georgia.  Congratulations to my colleague, mentor and friend, Amy Skopp Cooper, National Assistant Director of the NRC and Director of Camp Ramah in Nyack, who received this year’s Covenant Award at a ceremony in Denver this week.