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Seeing and Not Seeing: Hagar's test




"Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink."



This week we will journey deeply into just a few verses of the Torah portion Vayera. The very title of this portion [וַיֵּרָ֤א] reveal multiple meanings that include appeared, fear, awe, and multiple versions of seeing. We will soon discover that the variations of this word have interrelated and complex meanings for how Hagar's story unfolds. If you examine the text in Hebrew, there are many words that relate to 'seeing' and 'hearing'. As we study the text, it will prompt us to ask some pretty big questions.


In what ways do I acknowledge God as the Source? Do I see the miraculous every day, or am I blinded by my own security in the regularity of what's around me? Is my relationship with God based on fear, awe, or a combination? Which circumstances prompt me to waiver in my knowledge of God?


As we parse through a very small section of Vayera, you might want to hold these questions in mind for yourself, although the focus for this post will be seeing events through Hagar's eyes. Hagar, Sarah's maidservant (Abraham's 'concubine') was also called Hagar the Egyptian. She was banished to the wilderness with Ishmael by Sarah and Abraham (who was told by God to listen to his wife's wishes).


First, it helps to grasp the meaning of Hagar's name. Names almost always hold significance in the Torah. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) offers these meanings for Hagar: הגר - isolate from social contact; be lonely. Related to גרר - swirl; גרה - anger; גור - live fearfully. Any of these words could explain the complexity of Hagar's situation as she is left to wander in the wilderness with her son, with limited water and food.

The text in English

Genesis 21:14 - 21

(14) Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. (15) When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, (16) and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. (17) God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. (18) Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (19) Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (20) God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. (21) He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Ishmael is not mentioned by name in this brief section, and is referred to as "the boy". Earlier, in Genesis 16:11-15, he received the name Ishmael while Hagar was still pregnant. An angel told her it means "God has heard your prayer" [ישמאל]. Other times Ishmael is called by various names in the text: a "son of a slave" (Sarah), "son" (Abraham), and "wild ass of a man" (angel) and "seed" (God).


So, we might infer from the absence of a specific name here that this part of the story is truly about Hagar. Banished to the desert (midbar), Hagar was out of water. In the very next verse, it is Ishmael's cry, not Hagar's, that God responds to and we are left to wonder why. We don't know whether it was a selfish act for Hagar to leave her son to die (she distances herself physically from him)---the text intimates that she did not want to see him die. But she left him alone, under a bush. Perhaps she could have helped him cope, offered motherly love, or many other options, but she protects her own emotions and decides to distance herself from him in his time of need. Perhaps her cries were out of self-pity. The text does not say that she cried out to God, so it is not her cries that God responds to. Hagar seems to be consumed by her situation, and not equipped to do anything except cry.


Hagar, alone in her despair, does not reach out to God. This, despite the fact that earlier in Genesis, When she was pregnant with Ishmael, an angel told her that God would grant her many descendants, so many that they will not be able to be counted.


At that time Hagar had an epiphany when God promised her a son (Genesis 16:13): "And she called the LORD who spoke to her, [Hagar gave a name to God] “You Are El-roi,” (אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י, meaning Vision God---who I've seen ---which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after my vision?


Did Hagar abandon her knowledge of this in her angst? What caused her to doubt God's promise to her? It can be said that she 'saw the light' but soon forgot it when she found herself in a dire situation. So, we learn a great deal about Hagar...and her relationship with God. We also might imagine, for her and for us, that when hardship strikes, how easy it is to forget the Source of good. Having experienced a miraculous vision, Hagar did not draw on that to sustain her when she lived in fear.


Above, it says that God hears Ishmael's cries 'where he is' (הוּא־שָֽׁם). Why is this phrasing of 'where he is' necessary? Of course God knows where Ishmael is. What message can we learn from this?


God is accessible to us where we are, in our very place...which is an incredible universalistic message. There are no special requisites of birth that entitles us to engage in a relationship with God, God will meet us where we are.


We also learn from this that we are the ones that need to cry out to Hashem, we need to make the effort to seek God out when we are in the depths of despair. We need to seek out divine help. It is after God hears Ishmael that Hagar's "eyes are opened", and she sees a well. Was it there all the time? Did her despair and lack of trust blind her?


So, she again saw what she didn't see before. She sees the water that will save her and her son's life.


Are we able to open our own eyes and see the potential that is possible? Do we wrap ourselves in the idea that it is okay to cry out? That it is the cry that God needs to hear?


God is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.

from the Ashrei Prayer.