Responding to Difficulty
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
One of the supporting characters in the Torah portions of Lech Lecha and Vayeira is Hagar, Abraham's second wife: The persona of Hagar is somewhat ambivalent; she is praised in some aspects of her personality and criticized in others. It is instructive to analyze the positive and negative aspects of her character:
Hagar is introduced as the daughter of Pharaoh(1): There are different Rabbinical sources that tell us how she came to be Sarah's maidservant. The most well-known Midrash is quoted by Rashi; it says: "She was the daughter of Pharaoh; when he saw the miracles that were performed for Sarah he said 'it is better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house and not a mistress in another house.' " (2) According to this Midrash it was Pharaoh who decided to send Hagar to serve Sarah due to the miracles performed for her, but we do not see that Hagar himself actively desired to do so. However, there is another Midrash that tells a slightly different story. "Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says; she was the daughter of Pharaoh, and since she saw the deeds of Sarah, she said, 'it is better to be a maidservant of Sarah than the daughter of Sarah.' " (3) According to this source, Hagar herself made the choice to join Sarah, and it was not the miracles but Sarah's deeds that led her to do so. This demonstrates that Hagar possessed a great attribute: she was willing to give up her royal status for a far more lowly position because she desired to connect to the righteous Sarah. It was surely a great act of self-sacrifice to assume the role of maidservant, yet she was happy to do so for the sake of her growth.
However, Hagar soon began to lose sight of the purpose of her serving Sarah. This began when Sarah encouraged her to marry Abraham so that he would bear offspring. Initially, Hagar was reluctant to do so,(4) perhaps because she felt herself unworthy. After marrying Abraham she immediately conceived and this caused her to feel arrogant and even superior to Sarah who had never borne children in many years of marriage. Forgetting her subservient role to Sarah, she began to criticize her, telling other women that Sarah was not as righteous as she appeared. As a result of this insolent behavior, Sarah, with Abraham's consent, began to afflict Hagar.(5) Sarah's intention was at least partly to correct the arrogance that had filtered into Hagar's personality.
Hagar's reaction to this affliction is telling. Instead of improving her ways and humbling herself, she ran away. This demonstrates an important flaw in her character. She originally came to Sarah to improve her ways but when Sarah afflicted her, she did not seek to correct her ways and understand the cause of the affliction; rather, she quickly chose to escape the challenges that she faced in the role that she had taken on. However, a number of angels appeared and told her that she should return to Sarah and accept the position of being Sarah's maidservants. They were teaching her that despite its difficulties this was the most suitable role for her self-development. In addition, they taught her that escaping the challenges of her position was fruitless.
Yet Hagar did not seem to fully internalize the lesson that when a person is challenged in his spiritual endeavors he should not totally give up. After returning to Abraham's home, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Several years later, after the birth of Isaach it became clear that Ishmael posed a spiritual and physical threat to Isaac. Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and her son away and God confirmed the correctness of Sarah's approach.
Ishmael was sick at the time of the expulsion and soon after was on the verge of death. Hagar's reaction here also reflects the same tendency to react wrongly to difficult situations. The Torah says that "she strayed"; (6) Rashi explains that this means that she strayed away from HaShem and reverted to the idol worship that she had grown up with. This shows that her emuna was not strong enough to maintain her faith in God in such a desperate time. The Torah continues its account: "When the water of the skin was consumed, she cast off the boy beneath one of the trees. She went and sat herself down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, 'let me not see the death of the child.' " (7) This is a truly disgraceful reaction; when her only child was on the verge of dying she only focused on her own discomfort at seeing his death instead of trying to comfort him at this terrible time. This provides another example of how Hagar chose to escape the difficult situations that Providence decreed.
To her credit, the Sages tell us that she ultimately repented and became righteous. During her time of separation from Avraham she remained loyal to him and did not marry another man. She is given a new name of Keturah, symbolic of the fact that her deeds were as beautiful as incense (ketoret in Hebrew). Perhaps she somewhat rectified her failure to respond to difficulty. After being expelled from Avraham's home she ultimately did remain faithful to his teachings and as a result had the honor of remarrying him. (8) Yet Hagar's earlier actions remain examples of how one should not react when Providence decrees seemingly negative occurrence. Our job is not to escape the pain, but to turn to God through prayer and self-development. In that way we can use such incidents to become closer to God.
1. See Bereishit, Ch. 16 and Ch. 21 for the full accounts of the incidents involving Hagar.
2. Bereishit Rabbah, 45:1, quoted by Rashi, 15:1.
3. Torah Shleimah of Rav Menachem Kasha zt"l quoted by Minchat Chaim, pp. 673-4.
4. Rashi, Bereishis, 15:3 who says that Sarah had to persuade Hagar to marry Abraham, implying that she did not want to marry him.
5. See Bereishit Rabbah, 45:6 and the commentaries for the various opinions of how exactly Sarah afflicted Hagar.
6. Bereishis, 21:14.
7. Bereishis, 21:16.
8. Bereishis, 25:1.