Parashat Lekh L’kha
The story of Abraham and Sarah unfolds with twists and turns. The Sages called such moments “trials.” They are moments of challenge that call upon the person put to trial to have special strength and discernment in order to meet the test. One challenging situation for the first Matriarch and Patriarch involved the maidservant, Hagar. The multiple aspects of this story have, themselves, challenged readers throughout time. This brief discussion will not be able to sort through the story in its entirety, but seeks to consider only one small aspect of the tale.
Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham in the hope that, through her, a son will be born to the family. Hagar becomes arrogant when she, rather than Sarah, becomes pregnant and, when Sarah vents her resentment upon her insubordinate servant, Hagar flees. She ends up in the desert, lost and bereft. But an angel of God saves her and tells her to return to the house of Sarah and Abraham. The angel instructs her to name her son “Ishmael (God will hear) – “for God has heard your anguish.” So she returns and has the child. The Torah reports: “And Abram called the name of his son, born to Hagar, ‘Ishmael’.” (Gen. 16:15)
Some readers have noticed that it is Abraham who names the baby even though the angel told Hagar to name the baby. We might also wonder how it came about that Abraham chose the same name that the angel had told Hagar to use. Was this a coincidence?
Perhaps a clue might be discerned in examining Hagar’s reaction to her miraculous salvation. “She called the name of the Eternal Who spoke to her “God of my seeing,’ for she said, ‘Even here I have seen after His seeing me.’” (Gen. 16:13) The verse is enigmatic, but one thing is clear. While (the angel of) God has emphasized to her that God has heard her, and while this verse mentions that God has spoken to her, Hagar chooses instead to emphasize that God can be seen. The message that God had tried to communicate – that God hears the suffering of humans, including Hagar’s own affliction, is transformed into a statement of wonder that God is visible. In her simple excitement she has given God a mistaken name and thereby lost the correct name for her son.
We may assume that Hagar repeated her wondrous story when she returned home. But it was only through Abraham’s discernment in hearing the story from her that he was able to restore the message meant to be remembered and internalized – that the invisible God nevertheless hears our cries – “Ishmael – God will hear” – and restored the correct name for Hagar’s son. In the midst of a story that tells of many questionable responses by Abraham, we may perhaps credit him this time with passing the test.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein