November 21, 2018

Life Torn and Sewn Together — Thoughts on Torah Portion Chayyei Sarah from Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Human pain is the backdrop of the book of Genesis, pain that produces visions and unimaginable fulfillment. Of the many sad, heart-wrenching and ultimately beautiful stories in Genesis, one of the most is that of Hagar. We meet Hagar as the maidservant of Sarai (before she becomes Sarah). When Sarai cannot conceive, Hagar is given to Avram (before he becomes Abraham) as a concubine. Hagar conceives, but Sarai feels slighted. Sarai mistreats Hagar, and Hagar flees.

An angel of God intervenes, and counsels Hagar to return to Sarai. The angel assures Hagar that her own offspring will increase beyond measure. The child of Avram whom she is carrying will be named Ishma'el, “God hears,” because God has heard her prayer. She gives a name to the God that speaks to her – “The God Who Sees Me” – and she names the place where she encountered the angel “The Well of the Living One.”

We don't know why Hagar must return to Avram and Sarai. Could not this prophecy have come true without her submitting herself to her tormentor?

Hagar returns, and bears Ishma'el. When Ishma'el is a teenager, Sarah bears Isaac, and then insists that Hagar and her son Ishma'el be banished. Hagar is devastated; to have returned to the fold, submitted, and to be exiled again was too much. She suffers a spiritual collapse. Once she ran out of water in the desert, she resigned herself to the fact that she and her boy would die. God intervenes again, and Hagar sees a well of water, and is saved. The reader assumes that she has returned to the place – and to the well – of the first Divine intervention.

The rabbinic tradition insists that the story does not end here. In this week's Torah portion, after Sarah dies, Abraham remarries, to a woman named Keturah – “Incense.”  In the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 61:4), Rabbi Judah says “Keturah is Hagar.”

The brevity of this statement – “Keturah – Zo Hagar” (Keturah is Hagar) is directly disproportionate to its interpretive brilliance. In that brief utterance of Rabbi Judah, many things are brought to light.

We now know that Abraham loved Hagar. The desperation of barrenness that caused Abraham and Hagar to be thrown together, however begrudgingly, produced a forlorn intimacy. Was their love simply that of two people who quietly asserted their humanity in the midst of lives thrown about in some vortex of destiny? Or had they simply fallen in love with each other, a love they knew was impossible to fulfill, knowing that they would never, someday, be together? Or had Sarah's death released a force that took each of them by surprise? We don't know, but we are bidden to imagine.

Rabbi Judah's assertion, in no way supported by the biblical narrative, helps shape a rabbinic theory of love and alternative lives. Rabbi Judah seems to conceive of a God who holds blessings in store that might seem like sheer fantasy.

Had the Bible had its way, Hagar would have gone her way, and Abraham would have married a woman of consolation. Rabbi Judah cannot accept this. In saying, “Keturah is Hagar”, Rabbi Judah insists that loose strands of the narrative urge themselves back on each other.

For each of them, their son and their stepson had nearly died. Might we assume that Hagar/Keturah loved her stepson Isaac, in spite of what Isaac's mother had done to her? Might we assume that Hagar/Keturah herself was stricken when she heard that Abraham had taken Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed?

The text does not report Abraham's weeping when his son and concubine were cast from his life forever. Perhaps that inconsolable heartache – and guilt – had led Abraham to take Isaac for a sacrifice. (This is indeed my interpretation of the Binding of Isaac – his anger at God and Sarah, producing unbearable guilt, caused Abraham to imagine that God wanted him to kill Isaac).

From Rabbi Judah's assertion, we can only imagine why Hagar had to return to Sarah.  So that the love between her and Abraham could be sealed? So that Ishma'el and Isaac could forge a friendship, to be torn but not shredded?

Life can rip us apart. Rabbi Judah wanted us to be able to sew fragments back together.

Hagar had almost let her son Ishmael die, but God intervened. Abraham had almost killed his son Isaac, but God intervened. Hagar and Abraham shared a horror, and a miracle rooted in that horror.

Their two sons lives – each one's stepson – were shaped by that horror. We don't have a record of what the two men said at their father's funeral. We do know that after the funeral, Isaac decided to settle at a place called “Well of the Living (God) Who Sees Me” – that is, near Hagar/Keturah.

We must assume that Isaac took his new wife Rebecca there. We might assume that Rebecca got to know his stepmother Hagar, and perhaps his half brother Ishma'el, very well.

I am in awe of the genius of Rabbi Judah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley