The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens.
The weekly stories we read are not historical recountings of the lives of ancient people. They are contemporary retellings of the lives of modern people. Genesis is not a book about the past. It is about the present.
So here is what happened. And here is what always happens.
Hagar had been an Egyptian princess in the court of Pharaoh. Sarah entreated her out to Canaan with promises of work. “You will serve such a holy man,” she promised her. She was given the name, Ha-Gar: the immigrant; the sojourner.
She worked as a maidservant. She, who had been so prestigious in her homeland, cleaned up after Abraham and Sarah in their tents. She washed their clothes and took care of their needs.
Then Sarah realised that she was barren. She instructed Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and Abraham consented. We do not know how Hagar felt about her surrogacy.
So she started afflicting Hagar and making her life unbearable. Hagar ran away. And then she came back, because where was she going to go?
Hagar did indeed bear a child, and called him Ishmael, meaning ‘God will hear.’ And then she was no longer useful.
Fertile woman. Hated woman. Did her work well. Did her work too well. Did her work so well she was no longer useful and had to be sent away.
Sarah was threatened by her and demanded she leave. She was supposed to be a servant and now she was a competitor, with a rival child, an older boy. If Ishmael is allowed to grow up, he’ll take everything from Isaac. If Hagar is allowed to stay, she might have the upper hand.
And Hagar ran away into the wilderness and was so desperate she almost killed her son. But she found a well of water and they survived. Ishmael grew up to be a bowman.
We don’t know what happened next to Hagar. History does not record.
Now here is what happened. And here is what always happens.
Sentine Bristol was born in Grenada, a British colony in the Caribbean. The Empire lured her over to work in the United Kingdom. She came on a boat called the Windrush. She worked as a nurse in the NHS. A successful immigrant, keeping us alive. Too successful, stealing our jobs.
Aren’t they great, bringing their culture and ingenuity and skills? We will celebrate them in our Olympics opening ceremony. But it wouldn’t kill them to assimilate. Couldn’t someone else have done the work she was brought over here on the Windrush to do?
She brought her son with her. His name was Dexter. He worked as a cleaner until he was in his 50s.
And then they were no longer useful. Hardworking immigrants. Parasitic immigrants. Did their work well. Did their work too well. Did their work so well they were no longer useful and had to be sent away.
A new wave of nationalism swept the country. The Home Office destroyed the records of their having arrived in Britain. The government declared a policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, which included people who did not have their papers because their papers had been destroyed.
So the state cast them out. Dexter had to prove he wasn’t a foreigner in the only country he’d known since he was 8 years old. And he couldn’t find the documentation. He lost his job and the right to claim benefits. He was threatened with deportation.
And no well appeared in the wilderness. And he didn’t go on to become a bowman or a great nation. He died of a heart attack from the stress of trying to keep his home. Sentine did not receive justice. She disappeared from the headlines two years ago.
This is what happened. This is what always happens.
One group gains more wealth than another. Maybe by technology, maybe by force, maybe by resources, maybe by luck. The wealthy people require the labour and expertise of others, so they entice them with promises of jobs and prosperity. People go wherever the wealth is. They become nurses, midwives, bricklayers, servants, dream-interpreters, delivery workers, chefs, surrogates, cleaners, plumbers and bus conductors.
The migrant people are despised. They have taken our jobs and brought their diseases. Their ways are too different from ours; they refuse to assimilate. Their beliefs are too foreign from ours; they cannot be allowed into our spaces. We do not trust their food or their clothes or their appearance. They will overtake us by sheer force of their numbers or intelligence or might. They must be eradicated.
The migrant people are prized. Look at the wonderful ingenuity and work ethic they have brought to us. How lucky we are to have them in our ranks. Such awards we must give them for their brains, their athleticism, their musical talent. They have transformed our cuisine and our customs. We cannot imagine our culture without them. We must protect them.
And then they are no longer useful. Maybe they are feared or maybe their hosts become jealous. Maybe the wealthy people are no longer so wealthy, or maybe they no longer feel so wealthy. Maybe there is a new government or an old ideology or a charismatic movement promising to restore former greatness. And the migrant people are surplus to requirement, so they have to leave.
They go back where they came from or onwards to somewhere else, not that it makes much difference either way. They get deported or they go voluntarily because they know they’re not wanted any more, not that it makes much difference either way. They depart on foot into the desert unsure if their children will survive. They leave on camels, in caravans, on boats, in cars. They pile into buses and aeroplanes and dinghies, depending on which paperwork they have and how much money they can stump up front.
And then they are forgotten. And we don’t know what happens to their story after that.
That is what happened. And that is what always happens.
The Torah’s stories tell of the time when humanity transitioned into a new kind of civilisation, one defined by inequality and migration. That is why they are not just about the past, they are about the present.
The Torah recalls what it was like for an Egyptian named Hagar to seek work and be abused among Israelites. It tells the story of an Israelite named Joseph who sought work and was abused among Egyptians.
And because it tells those stories of inequality and migration, it also tells the stories of all the people who moved to Britain over these centuries. Their struggles, our struggles, are reflected here too.
The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens. Unless we do something about it.
I gave this sermon for Glasgow Reform Synagogue on Saturday 7th November 2020, Parashat Vayera.