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Shabbat Vayeyra: Who Was Hagar?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

The character of Hagar — Sarah’s maidservant, Abraham’s concubine, and Ishmael’s mother — has always fascinated me. At first glance, she seems to be the victim of circumstances and ancient prejudices. She is given to Abraham to ensure he has an heir. But clearly, she is a woman of spirit who begins to assert herself when she is pregnant, and as the text says, she disrespected Sarah, and it showed. Sarah appeals to Abraham, who supports her. Hagar does not like it, and she runs away.

Hagar ends up by a well. An angel appears and tells her to go back and submit to Sarah. But he also reassures her that her child will become a powerful and aggressive nation. Hagar herself then calls the well Be’er LeChai Roi — which roughly translates either as “The Well Where God Appeared to Me” or “The Well Where I saw Life.” Reassured, she returns home and gives birth to Ishmael, and remains a servant.

In this week’s Torah reading, years later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Abraham celebrates with a feast, and there Ishmael disrespects Isaac (echoing what his mother did to Sarah). Sarah is incensed and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out. Abraham is reluctant, but God intervenes on Sarah’s side. Abraham is conflicted, and reluctantly does what he believes to be the lesser of two evils.

This time, Abraham sends Hagar away with what appears to be meager provisions. This is strange, given how wealthy and charitable Abraham is. She wanders in a state of confusion, gets lost, her water runs out, and she thinks she and the child will die. She leaves the boy under a bush because, but then looks up and sees a well. They are saved. Ishmael thrives and becomes a successful hunter.

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What was the name of this well?  Was it the same well that she ran away to the first time? Perhaps it was part of Abraham’s extensive holdings. Later on in the Torah (Chapter 24:62), the well Beer LeChai Roi is mentioned as the place where Isaac himself was living and Sarah’s tent was — so it must have been on Abraham’s estate. But both Isaac and Ishmael came to bury their father Abraham in the Cave of Machpelah. And it appears that Isaac and Ishmael were not only reconciled but they were living near each other and around this well.

This puts a whole new complexion on how Abraham behaved when he sent Hagar away with some bread and water. He did not just eject her unfeelingly, but sent her off to another home on his estates. And if we take the Midrash to heart, after Sarah died, Abraham actually married her.

This story is not just about rejection and ejection, but also about how Hagar was a much more complex and dramatic character than a superficial reading of the text might indicate. And her relationship with Abraham was much stronger and closer than one thought. To be fair to her, if the Midrash is right, she showed incredible constancy and devotion in waiting until Sarah died before she could step into her shoes.

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently living in New York.

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