The Well of Sight, Seeing, Seen

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins” raised questions about what it means for Isaac to settle at Beer Lahai Roi, the wellspring that is already home to Ishmael, after the brothers have buried their father, Abraham. The Shalom Center proposes bringing this story (Gen 25:7-11) into the Days of Awe to suggest “turning and healing” of the painful Torah passages read at Rosh Hashanah. And in the context of the high holidays, the wellspring’s history seems particularly powerful.

On the run from ill-treatment by Sarah, Hagar has a divine encounter in the wilderness. An angel finds her at a wellspring on the road and demands: Where have you come from and where are you going? (Gen 16:8). An essential question for individuals at the season of repentance and return. Also key for “renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews, another relationship in need of “turning and healing.”

At the conclusion of Hagar’s wilderness encounter, we read:

וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם-יְהוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ, אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי: כִּי אָמְרָה, הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי–אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי
עַל-כֵּן קָרָא לַבְּאֵר, בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי–הִנֵּה בֵין-קָדֵשׁ, וּבֵין בָּרֶד
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me!”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.—
— Gen 16:13-14

In her 1984 Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible pointed out extraordinary aspects of this story, including the fact that Hagar names God — the only biblical character to do so (more here). And the name she uses has a lot to tell us.

El-roi” is translated in a variety of ways and sometimes, as in the 1985 JPS (above), not translated. But all the renderings revolve around sight: God of vision, God of my seeing, God who sees me. This, I think, points to one meaning of Isaac moving to this place: Reconciliation in unlikely if estranged parties cannot see and feel seen, so the brothers both settling in a place of seeing bodes well.

“Renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews requires a lot of seeing. Coming to a place with a powerful history of seeing by/of oppressed and traumatized people could be a great beginning.

SeesMe_graphic

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?

Whence have you come?

An angel encounters Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 16:7). At this point, she has been introduced to us as maid to Sarah, who has been married to Abraham for ten years without producing a child (16:1). We are told that she was given by Sarah “as wife” to Abraham, that she became pregnant, and subsequently, scorned her mistress (“saw her as lightweight”). Sarah then afflicted Hagar, and Hagar ran away. Out in the wilderness, at the spring on the road, the angel speaks to Hagar.

No one in the story has addressed Hagar before this point. And only after the angel’s inquiry does Hagar speak. These obvious, but easily overlooked points are highlighted in Susan Niditch’s notes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and led me to marvel at the power of a few words.

With the fall holidays a few weeks behind us at this point, it’s not a bad idea to pause and (re-)consider* the angel’s query ourselves:

Whence have you come and
where are you going?

But we might also ask: How often have we needed someone to simply inquire and listen? How often do we stop to address someone encountered along the way?

*NOTE

For those observing two days of Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hagar is part of the first morning’s Torah reading.

Lekh Lekha: Great Source(s)

Text of Terror

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 next week’s 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.
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Lekh Lekha: Language and Translation

The Stranger’s Strange Words: a theology

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.
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