Foreign and Familiar

In this week’s Torah portion, two of the central characters receive new names: Abram becomes Abraham (Gen 17:4), and Sarai, Sarah (17:15). God announces this to Abraham as part of a statement of the covenant between them. Both Abraham אַבְרָהָם and Sarah שָׂרָה now have a “ה” (hey) in their names. Thus, each now carries a letter from God’s four-letter name yud-hey-vav-hey, which is fodder for much commentary.

Rabbi Michal Shekel notes, in addition, that Hagar’s name was always spelled with a hey: “There was no reason to change her name, because she already had a measure of the Divine presence.” Shekel adds:

One can read the tradition as saying that Hagar is an outsider, the other, alien to God, by interpreting her name as Hey gar, “Adonai is foreign.” Yet all her actions in chapter 16 prove that this is not so….Hagar is no stranger to God; she is comfortable with God’s presence in a way that is less formal than God’s relationship with Abraham or Sarah….Hagar fulfills the destiny of her name, hey gar, “Adonai dwells” with her.
— from “What’s in a Name?” Lech Lecha
The Women’s Torah Commentary. Jewish Lights, 2000

Might both — the foreignness and the familiarity of God — be true, for us if not for Hagar?

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