Rabbi Dr. Yossi Feintuch was born in Afula and holds a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University in Atlanta. He taught American history at Ben-Gurion University.
Author of the book US Policy on Jerusalem.
He now serves as rabbi at the Jewish Center in central Oregon.
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The actual reason for reading Genesis 21 (on the first day of Rosh Hashanah) is to inform us about the miraculous, though certainly not immaculate…, conception of Isaac that according to tradition happened on this day. The bulk of the chapter, however, is dedicated to the forced departure of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham's domicile. The Haftarah that completes the scriptural readings on this day features the story of Hannah who conceived just as well – according to tradition – on Rosh Hashanah; two prominent women in the biblical pantheon who are considered to have been prophetesses in their own right, namely, with direct communication with God.
[Picture: two prominent women in the biblical pantheon who are considered to have been prophetesses in their own right, namely, with direct communication with God... The original image is a free image - CC0 Creative Commons - designed and uploaded by TheDigitalArtist to Pixabay]
As a preface to our reading, we have Hagar who upon becoming pregnant, lickety-split, began to behave conceitedly towards Sara, the woman who envisioned her as a surrogate mother of a child that Sarah had hoped would become hers to raise as Abraham’s heir to the covenant with God. Sara in turn lashed out at Hagar her handmaid with a harsh, if not cruel deportment, perhaps, also because of her anger at Abraham, who was either oblivious of Hagar’s arrogant attitude or did not tell Hagar to knock it down; a silence that Hagar might have seen as effectively acquiescing in her smugness towards Sara.
Yes, silence or tolerance vis-à-vis wrongdoing is likely to entail an upheaval and pain.
Once Isaac was born, Sara knew that his half-brother, Ishmael, should not stay in the household.
Hence, Sara will need an excuse to get Hagar and her son to leave her household. And she manufactures one when she ‘’saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing (מצחק). ‘’Hagar the Egyptian’’ – once we disagree with someone, let alone can’t stand the person, then he becomes ‘’Jack the Commie’’ or ‘’Heather the reactionary’’ – we need to hit them with a slur, or distinguish them as different from US; thus ‘’Hagar the Egyptian’’, rather than just ‘’Hagar’’.
Still, God, too, when commanding Abraham to do Sara’s bidding says to Abraham ''your handmaid'' (or ''slave girl''), rather than ''your wife'', or at least ''Your son's mother'', and perchance, just ''Hagar''…
And what was Ishmael’s (presently a young teen) damning sin that sealed the deal for Sara and required his expunging from the household? He was ''laughing'' or ‘’joking’’, the same verb as in the name Yitzhak. Obviously, it is not clear what he was doing but Sara connected it – how could she not? – to her Isaac, perhaps, Ishmael was ‘’Isaacing’’ it – behaving as though he's the heir?
Indeed, when God first tells Abraham that Sarah will have her own son, Abraham’s response is “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (''לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ,''
Gen. 17:18). Clearly, Abraham seems quite attached to Ishmael, his oldest son, regardless of who his mother was. And he was just fine with Ishmael taking the place of Isaac, and this is what made Sarah jealous.
But regardless of what Ishmael actually did with his laughter, why, kids cross lines -- we all did; but do they need to be demonized by their mother’s mistress, and then banished for it by their dad?
Yet, the narrator, and later commentators – perhaps wanting to justify what should not be justified -- paint Hagar in a most unfavorable light; perchance, Ishmael was parroting the disparaging remarks about Isaac that he must have had overheard his mother saying, namely, that he was the heir.
In a knee-jerk reaction Sara demands that Isaac be considered Abraham’s only heir and that Ishmael not inherit at all, though he is Abraham’s eldest son, whom the Patriarch named and circumcised when he himself underwent this covenantal ritual event.
For Sarah to essentially demand that Abraham treat Ishmael as if he were not his son violates the ethos of Deuteronomy’s law of the firstborn, instructing that sons not be mistreated based on the hierarchical ranking of their mother in the household.
Yet, it’s easy to identify with Sara because she reminds us of ourselves – our children are the only game in town; we have never posted on FB a picture of our siblings' grandkids or pets. Nor will we watch the ''other'' TV channel, let alone befriend those who vote for the OTHER party, lest we disturb our sense of comfort; same with Sara and her hostility to her would-be surrogate child and his mother.
And now to the displacement of Hagar and Ishmael. Our text says that Abraham ‘’sent off’’ Hagar and their son from his domicile in the desert town of Beersheba. While Sara demanded that the two should be expelled, sending off might very well mean dispatching to a specific area, especially since our text does not say that the two were sent off into the desert.
And that may explain why Abraham provided his secondary wife and their joint child, Ishmael, only scant rudimentary provisions; why, their specific destination was nearby and easily reached. Or in any event, Abraham might have believed in God’s sustenance that will reach them on their way. Clearly, the skimpy supplies that Abraham gave Hagar could not have lasted beyond a short distance.
To me, it is inconceivable that Abraham sent his beloved Ishmael to die of thirst in the desert. Why, then, didn’t Abraham provide more provisions and a beast of burden to carry the load? Why did he send off a wife and their son without a ''Bon voyage'' blessing? Or a father-to-son hug?
Be that as it may, Abraham must have had a designated, concrete, and easily reached destination for the two to arrive at before they ran out of their supplies. That specific place might very well be G’rar, Abraham’s former residence where King Avimelech had offered him generously to dwell there, perhaps less than 5 miles away from Beersheba.
Hagar should have been familiar with the terrain and route to that large city, far enough from Sara’s sight but close enough for a loving dad to visit his son on occasion.
Yet, Hagar and Ishmael were soon lost in the wilderness; disoriented they soon ran out of water with Hagar not putting to work the past survival skills that she used when she ran away from Sara years earlier. Indeed, why was she lost in familiar territory, or at least not making it to an inn?
Is it possible that Hagar deliberately lost her way and bearing, thus knowingly menaced her son’s life? But why commit a filicide? Is it possible to think that Hagar actually sought the death of Ishmael to take revenge on his father in whose home she found, especially after Ishmael’s birth, a sense of belonging?
Indeed, Sara’s idea of banishing Hagar with her son rankled Abraham terribly because it meant his separation from his beloved Ishmael; it would not have happened unless God commanded him to do as Sara ordered him to. It is not implausible that Hagar wished to protest and rebel against God, who by approving her being sent away, seemingly forgot about the assurance He gave her in the desert long before that her offspring will be numerous. Ishmael’s death would be her protestation against Heaven as well.
Hence, right after the water jug ran empty, something that Abraham must have thought would not happen before they reached nearby G’rar, Hagar ‘’flung’’ Ishmael randomly ‘’under one of the bushes’’, a mere shrub, not necessarily shadowy or without thorns.
The possible division into 2 parts here at the editor's discretion
Why did Hagar cast-off Ishmael, rather than place him there with TLC? And then, rather than sitting by him, let alone look for water, or at the least speak to him with a hopeful message, or offer a prayer, she ‘’seated herself opposite’’ Ishmael, a good way off him. And immediately thereafter furthering, even more, the distance from her enfeebled son ‘’twice the range of an arrow’’, so she could not even see him.
Hagar thus becomes the first biblical parent to despair. Curiously, throughout this ordeal the only reference to Ishmael by the narrator is by the word ‘’the child’’, but not by his actual name that Abraham gave him. What could be the significance of that? Is it to highlight Hagar’s deliberate detachment from Ishmael?
Though Hagar ‘’lifted up’’ her voice in crying, we are not told for what purpose this crying was; when Hannah cries in our Haftarah she petitions God for a child, as does King David for the recovery of his ailing son. Hagar merely cries but she does not implore God to save the child which may indicate that she felt sorry only for herself, and as such her loud weeping was valueless.
To be sure, God heard not her cry but rather Ishmael’s voiceless internal crying ‘’from where he is’’; indeed, this is exactly what the name Ishmael means. These very words may stress the point that where Ishmael was Hagar wasn’t, either physically, or seemingly not even sentimentally. God hears a silent cry, then, better than a loud cry; perhaps, that is why He heard Hannah’s voiceless supplication.
Those soundless voices of cry are hard to detect but in order to imitate God, whose own voice is ‘’a still small voice –''קול דממה דקה'', we ought to ask ourselves whose silent voices do we hear and respond to, as God does in our story by showing Hagar a well. Yes, Hagar does not even try to look for water, even at the very place where she threw off Ishmael. Hagar must have known from her previous experiences that finding water in the desert was possible, even as the presence of bushes might indicate the presence of water nearby.
But God did not give up on Hagar, let alone on her son despite her passivity and indifference to Ishmael’s plight and hers. Thus, God needs to teach this frightened mother – who had given up on life and motherhood -- how to hold her own child’s hand, while reminding her that he was still destined to be ‘’a great nation’’.
[Picture: Hagar thus becomes the first biblical parent to despair... Image created and uploaded to Wikipedia by Benjamin West. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]
Without judgment or a word of criticism for the abandonment of her child that would have sunk and doomed God’s assurance about Ishmael in which Hagar believed no longer after the expulsion. Fortunately for Hagar the God she rebelled against understands human frailty and seeks to welcome those who have lost their faith to reconsider the value of life over death.
By reassuring her of her son’s destiny to become ‘’a great nation’’ Hagar allowed God to open her eyes anew unto life by seeing now a well, that in her tumultuous and bamboozled state of mind she could not see before. Hagar thus gives drink to her son, an act that means that we people still need to do our part, as God did not bring the water to her but only helped her see it. Indeed, even when God gives us the oars – or show us a well -- we can only get to our destination by rowing ourselves with the oars.
Soon afterwards Abraham will experience what Hagar did by believing against all odds that Isaac will live, even when his hand holding the knife was coming down to slice his throat; by listening to the silent voice of the angel Abraham decreed life to Isaac and the world at large.
As to Abraham he nearly became bereaved of both of his sons, though he consequently lost both of his wives, Sara and Hagar, because he initially heeded voices that he had believed to be God’s words; words that commanded him to violate God’s ethical code. Hence, the Rabbis teach us to ignore such voices,’’אין משגיחין בבת קול'' even if they seem authentic when they conflict with God’s universal ethics. Violating the divine code of ethics should cast a giant shadow on voices that purport to be God’s but contrast with God’s charge: ‘’And you must choose life – ובחרת בחיים’’.
Even wonderful people like Sara and Abraham can do nasty things, or in the words of Ecclesiastes: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.’’
The next Chapter in Genesis which narrates the Binding of Isaac follows this story about Hagar and Ishmael with: ''And it was after these things, God tested Abraham.”
But why did God need to test Abraham now? Didn’t God already know Abraham inside and out? Test him now after so many trials that Abraham had been challenged with? Perchance, especially now God has doubts whether Abraham meets the standards that would qualify him to be the First Hebrew.
Would it be too far-fetched to assume that after forcing his firstborn child away from the household where he was born, and not anticipating the serious risks ahead despite his plan for his relocation to a new neighborhood, because that is what Sara insisted on, God might have entertained second thoughts about Abraham’s making the cut to be a blessing to ‘’all the families of the earth’’?
To be sure, Abraham’s household knows more pain than blessings following the expulsion of Ishmael that is followed by the harrowing almost-sacrifice of Isaac on an altar. His heeding God’s voices, when they conflict with God’s ethics, were disastrous for Abraham, not only because he lost both wives, but both sons as well. Abraham would never exchange a word with either one of the four, and it all began with Hagar and Ishmael’s forced departure from Abraham’s household.