INTRO: In congregations with two-day observances of Rosh Hashanah, the first day’s Torah reading is Genesis 21:1-34, Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the desert; the haftarah reading is 1 Sam 1:1-2:10, Hannah pleading for a child. Congregations with one day of observance often do not have these texts in front of them on Rosh Hashanah, but considering their messages for the new year can still be fruitful. Here, posted as background for Temple Micah’s educational program, are some resources on Hagar.
StorahTelling asks: “Do we need to cry out like Hagar, or can we simply whisper like Chana? Is either one OK?”
(Founded by Amichai Lau-Lavie in 1999, Storahtelling has grown into an international network of educators and artists, invigorating Jewish identity through dynamic educational programs and performances for multigenerational audiences worldwide.)
Text of Terror
— From Lekh-Lekha: Great Sources
In her book, Texts of Terror,* Phyllis Trible compares the story of Hagar in flight from Sarah (Genesis/Breishit chapter 16) and the later incident — in the following portion, Va-yera — of her expulsion, with Ishmael, from Abraham’s household (21:9-21). Trible’s close reading of the text contrasts the first episode’s voluntary flight and hospitable wilderness (where there is water, for instance), with the second’s exile and inhospitable wilderness (leaving mother and child with no water). She also describes how Hagar — “belonging to a narrative that rejects her” — recedes from the tale: the recipient of blessing and revelation, in the first episode, Hagar is un-heard while God responds to Ishmael’s tears in the second.
As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in here. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother and child….
…Hagar is a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits and the only person who dares to name the deity. Within the historical memories of Israel [i.e., post-Flood], she is the first woman to bear a child….the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of not only special but all mothers in Israel.
…she experiences exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wanderings without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return.
…All we who are heirs of Sarah and Abraham, by flesh and spirit, must answer for the terror in Hagar’s story. To neglect the theological challenge she presents is to falsify faith.– p.28
Writing 25 years ago, Trible speaks in her introduction of the need to “uphold forgotten texts and reinterpret familiar ones to shape a remnant theology that challenges the sexism of scripture.” This approach, she explained,
interprets stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray tha these terrors shall not come to pass again. In telling sad stories, a feminist hermeneutic seeks to redeem the time. — p.3
Jacob, wrestling with the angel at the Jabbok (Genesis/Breishit 32:22-32), is the model Trible cited for wrestling a blessing from biblical text:
To tell and hear tales of terror is to wrestle demons in the night, without a compassionate God to save us. In combat we wonder about the names of the demons. Our own names, however, we all too frightfully recognize. The fight itself is solitary and intense. We struggle mightily, only to be wounded. But yet we hold on, seeking a blessing: the healing of wounds and the restoration of health. If the blessing comes — and we dare not claim assurance — it does not come on our terms. Indeed, as we leave the land of terror, we limp.
Over two and a half decades, Trible’s text has been often referenced, and the story of Hagar has been explored — frequently by women — in essay, fiction and poetry. Alicia Ostriker’s poem, “The Opinion of Hagar,” was published in 1990 in Tikkun, e.g. (and reprinted in Nakedness of the Fathers* in 1994). Carolivia Herron’s fiction-midrash, Chamisa appeared in the 1997 high holiday compilation, Beginning Anew.* R. Michal Shekel discussed Hagar in her dvar Torah in The Women’s Torah Commentary (2000).* More recently, Trible co-edited Hagar, Sarah and their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspectives (previewed at GoogleBooks).
*For full citations, please see Source Materials.
Where he is
— from Rabbi Ellen Lippman, website of congregation Kolot Chayenu
My sermon for erev Rosh Hashanah 5764 was in fact a sermon in two voices – mine and that of Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim Brooklyn educator and peace activist. What follows is that two-voice sermon; note that occasionally the text refers to something that was spoken but unwritten.
ELLEN: God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is, ba-asher hu sham in Hebrew. A midrash says that “Where he is” means he will be judged according to the actions he is doing now and not what he may do in the future. The angels asked God, “Master of the Universe, will You provide a well for one whose descendants will at one time kill your children?” God asked them, “What is he right now, righteous or wicked?” They replied, “Righteous.” God said, “According to his present deeds will I judge him.”
In a roundtable discussion about Israel earlier this year, the poet and activist Irena Klepfisz said, “I used to think we had to really study history,” to move forward in thinking and acting about Israel. Now, she said, “I’m beginning to think that history is really screwing us up.” Too much looking at the past, too much looking at the future. What did happen once, or what may happen yet keeps us from judging what is happening now. Some of what is happening now is terrible, and must change. But some is hopeful, and we can’t forget: 10,000 people marched in Tel Aviv last week for peace, and against Sharon’s policies.
We must have hope, or we will die in the desert of violence and cynicism.
DEBBIE, From the QURAN:
The heat was fierce and there was no shelter under which they could take refuge. Before long their provisions began to run low, and in desperation Hagar started looking for some water. Leaving Ishmael sitting on the ground, she ran to the top of a small hill called al-Safa, hoping to see some sign of travelers who might be passing by and who would help them. There were none to be seen. Hagar went down to comfort Ishmael and then climbed up another hill, al-Marwa, in the hope of finding some help. Again she was disappointed. From al-Marwa she ran to al-Safa, and then back to al-Marwa again. Seven times she climbed these hills and each time she saw nothing. Finally, when she returned to Ishmael, he was too weak to even cry. With great sorrow, Hagar bent down to pick him up, when lo and behold a spring gushed forth from under his feet! Hagar thanked God for saving them and gave her son some water to drink.
It was not long before passing caravans noticed that birds had begun to gather in the barren valley where a spring of water now gushed. Soon travelers took to halting there and gradually people began to settle in this place. They called their little town Bakka, or Mecca. It was in this very town that, many years later, the prophet Muhammed was born from the descendants of Ishmael and where he began preaching the message of Islam.
ELLEN: Rabbi Ben Hollander reminds us that there was no miracle in this story. God did not provide Hagar a well or spring of water. Rather, she opened her eyes in a new way. She lifts her son up, first, and then sees the water. What do we have to lift up, care for, or move out of the way before we can see new ways of life and hope?
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite mountain I am searching
for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
both in their temporary failure.
Our voices meet above the Sultan’s Pool
in the valley between us. Neither of us wants
the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels
of the terrible Had Gadya machine.
Afterwards we found them among the bushes
And our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or a son
has always been the beginning
of a new religion in these mountains.
Maybe we do need to forget history, start a new religion. In our new religion, Sarah and Hagar would be friends, or lovers, planning to have a child together, or two children, each loved, cared for. There would be laughter and listening, Yitzhak, Yishma-el. But Abraham would have left already on a different journey.
The Stranger’s Strange Words: a theology
— from Lekh Lekha: Language and Translation
Chapter 16 of Breishit/Genesis introduces the character of Hagar — as in stranger [ger] — who serves as Sarah’s maid and bears Ishmael to Abraham. In one of two episodes in which we find Hagar (and Ishmael) out in the wilderness, she meets an angel/messenger of God [malach yud-hey-vav-hey]. Translators note difficulty working out Hagar’s words after she sees God (and/or was seen by God) — ra-iti acharei ro-i — or, perhaps, as one translator has it, after she sees the back of God.
Here are several translations for these interesting verses (16:13-14) with accompanying notes:
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-Roi,” by which she meant, have I not gone on seeing after He saw me.  Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi  — It is between Kadesh and Bered.
NOTES: 1) meaning of the Hebrew uncertain; 2) apparently, “the Well of the Living One Who sees me.” (JPS*)
And she called the Name of HASHEM Who spoke to her “You are the God of Vision,” for she said, “Could I have seen even here after having seen?” Therefore the well was called “The Well of the Living One Appearing to Me.” It is between Kadesh and Bered.
NOTES: 1) Although an angel, not God, had spoken to her, she understood that he was God’s emissary. She went on to exclaim that though it was common for angels to be seen in Abraham’s house, now she had even seen one here in the desert! 2) This well became a place of prayer in the future; see 24:62. (Stone*)
So she called yud-hey-vav-heh who had been speaking to her, “You are El Ro’i” — meaning by this, “Even here I have seen the back of the One who looks upon me!” That is why that well — the one located between Kadesh and Bered — is called Be’er-lachi-ro-i.
NOTES: 1) The clause is difficult to parse precisely. It seems to mean that Hagar feels lucky to be alive after a direct encounter with the Deity. 2) Literally, “the well of the living one of my seeing.”…Hagar is the only woman whose experience is enshrined in a place name. (TWC*)
And she called the name of the LORD who had addressed her, “El-Roi,” for she said, “Did not I go on seeing here after He saw me?” Therefore is the well called Beer-Lahai-roi, which is between Kadesh and Bered.
NOTES: 1) The most evident meaning of the Hebrew name would be “God Who sees me.” Hagar’s words in explanation of the name are rather cryptic in the Hebrew. The translation reflects a scholarly consensus that what is at issue is a general Israelite terror that no one can survive having seen God. Hagar, then, would be expressing grateful relief that she has survived her epiphany. 2) Though this might well be a somewhat garbled etiological tale to account for the place name…it is made to serve the larger thematic ends of Hagar’s story: the outcast slavegirl is vouchsafed a revelation which she survives and is assured that, as Abram’s wife, she will be progenitrix of a great people. (Alter*)
Phyllis Trible, renowned scholar of text-based and feminist analysis, adds this explanation:
The expression is striking because it connotes naming rather than invocation. In other words, Hagar does not call upon the name of the deity. Instead she calls the name, a power attributed to no one else in all the Bible….Hagar is a theologian. Her naming unites the divine and human encounter: the God who sees and the God who is seen.
To this name she attaches an explanation. It yields confusion because the Hebrew is obscure….Perhaps Hagar is questioning her own understanding of the revelation she has just received. The God who sees her remains unclear to her….We know only that the maid who names the deity “God of seeing” must return to the suffering that [YHVH] imposes upon her, specifically to the mistress who is slight in her eyes. A circle of bondage encloses Hagar. — p.18, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. (Fortress Press, 1984).
*See Source Materials for full translation citations and additional references.
Women, Wells, Water, Waiting
— from Pekudei: A Path to Follow, notes from Amy Brookman (Exodus1verse8) and Shefa Gold
It’s good to meet with friends at the well, because it’s hard work hauling water, and doing innumerable humble chores, like so many women have for so long. Of course men also strive, like Jacob and Moses lifting stone well covers, but I’m thinking about Rivka watering all those camels; that was heavy duty (Genesis 24.46). Rachel, Hagar, Miriam and Zipporah have dramatic associations with wells. In Torah stories women spend a lot of time bearing water. Although much of that kind of work is easily perceived as insignificant, or sentimentalized as a labor of love, the world we know and ha’olam haba, depend upon it….
In this American song a woman brings water to a man working in the fields. It comes from the history of people whose slave labor built the wealth of our nation….
What if we learned to respect and to know about all the people who have ever done for us?
Don’t let the work of their hands go unsung,
— Amy Brookman, Exodus1verse8
AND THEN I SIT. “Dom l’Yah, v’hitcholello.” “Be still,” Psalm 37 tells us,”and wait for God.”
The final sentence of The Book of Exodus, the manual for our liberation, tells us that we must cultivate an awareness of God’s mysterious presence, characterized by the Divine cloud in the day and an inner fire at night. This awareness will guide us throughout our journeys.
— From Torah Journeys, Shefa Gold
Additional reading suggestions
— look at the dance midrash exercise on Hagar’s experience in Torah in Motion*
— there are several powerful articles about Hagar, Sarah and family in Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days*
— Kavanah based in part on Hagar’s story
BONUS: Abraham’s Daughter
Gen. 24:1 says that “God blessed Abraham in all things.” Rabbinical commentary says this means that Abraham must have had a daughter, in addition to sons.
…Some say that this daughter, whose name was “Bakol” (“In All things”), was a child of Hagar, and that she was born after Ishmael repented of his evil ways.
Some say that Sarah not only gave birth to Isaac, but bore a daughter as well, who took care of Abraham in his old age….
— p. 344-45, Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls*
BONUS: Hager and Ismail
Hagar (or “Hager,” as the name is sometimes spelled in Islamic tradition) and her search for water are an important part of the Umrah and Hajj rituals, wherein pilgrims travel seven times between two hills in imitation of Hagar. [more on this later]
*For full citations, please see Source Materials.