Hagar the Horrible?

From this week’s Parsha:

ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם–מְצַחֵק. י וַתֹּאמֶר, לְאַבְרָהָם, גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-בְּנָהּ: כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן-הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, עִם-בְּנִי עִם-יִצְחָק. יא וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם, עַל, אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ. יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, אַל-יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל-הַנַּעַר וְעַל-אֲמָתֶךָ–כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ: כִּי בְיִצְחָק, יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע. יג וְגַם אֶת-בֶּן-הָאָמָה, לְגוֹי אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ: כִּי זַרְעֲךָ, הוּא. יד וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח-לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הָגָר שָׂם עַל-שִׁכְמָהּ, וְאֶת-הַיֶּלֶד–וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע, בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע. טו וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם, מִן-הַחֵמֶת; וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם. טז וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד, הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת, כִּי אָמְרָה, אַל-אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד; וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד, וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ. יז וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם. יח קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת-הַנַּעַר, וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת-יָדֵךְ בּוֹ: כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ. יט וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת-הַחֵמֶת, מַיִם, וַתַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-הַנָּעַר.1

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.2

A couple of years ago, we noted, and sharply dissented from, an interpretation of this poignant episode that is very critical of Hagar’s attitude and conduct:

Several of my acquaintances insist that the conventional understanding of the episode (which they endorse) yields a serious indictment of Hagar’s character. While not necessarily unsympathetic toward her, they maintain that Hagar’s casting aside her son and moving apart from him so that she “will not see the death of the child” was selfish and callous; thinking only of the mitigation of her own grief, she was unwilling to remain with her dying son and provide him with whatever comfort she could in his final moments.

I find this attitude deeply upsetting. Hagar is probably still reeling from her shockingly abrupt expulsion from her conjugal home, and is in all likelihood blaming herself for her child’s impending death, since she is, after all, the one who has gotten them lost, and we are lecturing her that a woman of superior character, that we, would behave differently?!

At the time, Wolf2191 commented:

I saw the commentary you cite in the name of your acquaintances as cied by RSRH but I have not had time to check

Yesterday, I did indeed find this perspective taken by Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, who is unstinting in his disparagement of Hagar’s “unrefined Chamite nature” and the “cruel egotism of [her] brutish character”:

Hagar’s behavior is highly characteristic; it typifies the unrefined Chamite nature. A Jewish mother would never abandon her child, even if all she could do for him would be to speak softly to him, to soothe him if only for a millionth part of a second. One who abandons a child and does nothing because “she cannot bear to see the child’s misery” does not act out of compassion. Such conduct reflects the cruel egotism of a brutish character. True humanity is marked by a sense of duty that is capable of mastering even the strongest of emotions. A sense of duty makes one forget his own painful feelings and enables him to extend help and assistance, even if one can do no more than give the comfort of one’s compassionate presence.

Thus the profound significance of verse 17: God heard not קול הגר (although she, too, wept) but את קול הנער. Weeping that issues from egotism and that accomplishes inaction does not reach the Throne of Glory.

Furthermore, ותשלך את הילד תחת איד השיחים, “she threw the child under one of the shrubs.” She does not care where the child will fall; it does not occur to her that he might fall among thorns which might scratch him, adding needless pain to his tormenting thirst.

All the foregoing shows that Hagar completely lost her head when overcome with her own grief. A mother descending from Avraham would never behave toward her child in such a manner. …

What, then is the meaning of כמטחוי קשת? The bow, of course, is not the object that is shot, but is the instrument, the means for shooting. … Thus, הרחק כמטחוי קשת could mean: “she moved away to a distance, as archers do.” That is, just as archers walk backwards from the target to the furthest point from which they can still see it, so did Hagar walk backwards from Yishmael as far as possible, to avoid seeing his distress, but not so far that he would disappear from her sight. This would be in accordance with the conflicting emotions with which she struggled. To her attachment to Yishmael she allotted only the room that was left in her heart after she had catered to her own feelings of anguish.

God has already heard the voice of your child, there where he lies struggling. Had you trusted in God and not thrown the child there, but laid him gently down; had you not sat down at a distance but remained by his side as befits a mother, then you would have already seen the saving well of water, there, just where he is.

First of all, arise and lift up the boy like a brave mother who never gives way to despair; only then will you be worthy of God’s help. Then give him water to drink.3

I stand by my assessment of this judgment as insensitive and unfair. And if we are stereotyping national character, I submit that it is the Teutonic obsession with orderliness and convention that cannot sympathize with a mother, crazed with grief and guilt over the imminent demise of her child from thirst and illness, “completely [losing] her head”, and that it is the daughter of Ashkenaz, rather than that of Avraham, who “would never behave toward her child in such a manner”.

Of course, this is not to side with the Romantics that feeling and passion are the ultimate guides to correct action; we are staunchly of the party of George Eliot. But the issue here is not whether Hagar’s actions were correct and praiseworthy, but rather whether the poor, desperate woman deserves sympathy or censure.

We close by reminding the reader of Rav Yitzhak Arama’s rather more favorable assessment of Hagar’s character, in the context of the Hagar episode of last week’s Parshah:

מה צורך שיראה לה המלאך כמה פעמים … להודיע שלא היה חסרון הזרע לרוע תכונת השפחה ופחיתותה ספר הכתוב כל הענינים האלה אשר היו בין המלאך ובינה ושכבר הגיע משלמותה וזכות רעיונה אשר הורגלה בהם בבית אדוניה להיות לה דבר המלאך למנוחה והשיבה אל בית גבירתה ולדבר על לבה דברים טובים דברי נחומים עד ד’ פעמים4

What need [was there] for the angel to appear to her many times … to inform [us] that the deficiency of [her] issue [i.e., Yishmael] was not due to the bad character of the maidservant and her shortcoming, Scripture relates all these affairs that transpired between the angel and her, and that as a result of her perfection and the purity of her thoughts, to which she had become accustomed in the home of her master, the word of the angel relieved her and returned her to her mistress’s home, and spoke unto her heart good things, words of comfort, up to four times.5

  1. בראשית כא:ט-יט – קשר []
  2. King James Version – link. []
  3. The Hirsch Chumash (Feldheim Publishers – Judaica Press: Jerusalem – New York, 5762), Sefer Bereshis, pp. 467-9. []
  4. עקידת יצחק, בראשית, סוף שער י”ז []
  5. My translation. []
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