The Troubling Story of Hagar's Outcast by Abraham and Sarah | Aleph Beta

Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?

A Troubling Story of "Kindness"

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

One of the defining characteristics of Abraham and Sarah is their custom of doing extreme acts of kindness. Yet, upon closer inspection of the Biblical stories about them, they seem to do some very unkind things! Take the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, for example. How can Abraham and Sarah kick them out of their home and send them into the desert? How should we understand this action, which seems so inconsistent with Abraham's and Sarah’s character?

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores more deeply the actions of Abraham and Sarah. Surprisingly, his answers take us to another Biblical story, one that allows us to understand these actions and their repercussions generations later.


Hi, it's Rabbi David Fohrman. You are watching AlephBeta and this is Parshat Vayeira. This week, I want to deal with a painful and difficult story that begins in last week's Parsha and continues in this week's parsha. It's the story of Abraham and Sarai and their difficult interaction, with Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

The Painful Story of Hagar, Ishmael, Abraham and Sarah

Last week's Parsha involves Hagar, this Egyptian maid servant of Sarai, who actually becomes the mother of Abraham's first child, Ishmael. And while she is pregnant with that child, “vate'aneha Sarai”, Sarai oppressed her, “vativrach mipaneiha”, and she ran away from her. And it doesn't get much better in this week's parsha. Hagar is expelled from the family, Sarai insists on it, God concurs and Abraham does it. But again, another difficult and painful story, and the commentators view it as a difficult and painful story. Nachmanides, for example, takes Sarai for the task and Avraham for the oppression of Hagar, calls it a sin. Why is the Bible focusing on these sins?

I think one answer goes back to an idea I shared with you back in Parshat Noach about the Torah being a guidebook - it's telling history from the perspective of guiding you. And if you are being guided, it may well be that the Torah seeks to guide us by highlighting the sins of our ancestors as a way of letting us know what it is that we need to be careful about as a nation. At least, that's a possibility. And if that's true, it’s possible that Sarai's sin was more subtle than might be gleaned by looking at this text at first glance. I've actually composed an audio epilogue that really takes a look carefully at the nuances in the text, and I think a story behind the story emerges as to what was going on in Sarai and Abraham's head. But for the meantime, I want to take you on a little journey – a journey through words. Because I think these stories about the interaction of Abraham, Sarai and Hagar are not little local stories, they are the beginning of an epic story, and I want to pick up the threads with you and see if we can see where they lead.

Studying The Bible Story Of Hagar

Let's start with last week's Parsha, the introductory verse into the interaction with Hagar. “VeSarai eshet Avram lo yaledah lo velah shifchah Mitzrit ushmah Hagar”, and Sarai didn't have a child but she did have an Egyptian maidservant by the name of Hagar. Now Let me ask you a question: Why does the Torah have to go out of its way to let you know Hagar's nationality? Who cares about that? And now, let's talk about context a little bit. Remember how this story takes place right after that prophetic moment when Abraham was first told that he was going to have a biological child? Well, something else happened at that prophetic moment, too - a dark, prophetic nightmare, through which Abraham found out shocking news. “Ger yihyeh zar'acha be'eretz lo lahem va'avadum ve'inu otam arba me'ot shanah”, your children are going to find themselves strangers in a land not their own, and the inhabitants of that land will enslave them for 400 years." We, at this point in Genesis, don't know what that land will be. But of course, it refers to Egyptian servitude - Abraham's children will be gerim, strangers, in another household and they will be enslaved in Egypt.

Isn't it interesting? We meet a woman who is a servant in Abraham's household, and what happens to her? The verb that she experiences as 'oppression' in Hebrew, “inui”, the very same verb that God says Abraham's children are going to experience when they are enslaved in someone else's household. But we know who's household it ends up being, right? Egypt! Well, isn't it very interesting that the Torah gives us the nationality of this maidservant who is oppressed in Abraham's household? She was Egyptian!

The Meaning Of Hagar's Name

And now, let's talk about her name. What does hey-gimel-resh spell to you? “Hager” - the stranger! “Ger yihyeh zar'acha be'eretz lo lahem”, your children will be strangers in someone else's house. You had Hagar who felt her herself to be a stranger in your house, she suffered oppression, and now your children will feel oppression for 400 years in Egypt's household. It seems that right here in Chapter 16 in Book of Genesis, we're beginning to get the hints of a gathering storm. Egyptian slavery doesn't come out of nowhere - there are seeds, and this seems to be one of the seeds.

Okay, now let's stop for just a minute. Maybe at this point, you sit back and you say, "You know, Rabbi Fohrman, that's really interesting. But could this really be true? Is there any more evidence that supports this? I don't really buy this!" Well, as a matter of fact, there is really more evidence and it's in this week's Parsha - the story of the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar.

The Exodus Precursor? Abraham Casts Out Hagar and Ishmael into the Wilderness

Ishmael was taunting young Isaac; the rivalry was spilling into the next generation. Sarai comes to the conclusion that it must stop, Hagar must leave. Abraham wakes up in the morning, “vayikach lechem vechemat mayim”, he gives her bread and some water; “vayiten el-Hagar”, he gives it to Hagar, “sam al-shichmah”, he places it on her shoulder and she goes. “Vatelech vateta bemidbar Be'er-sheva”, and in the desert, she gets lost, confused. The water in the canteen runs out, she casts Ishmael down beneath some bramble branches; she situates herself a distance away, and she lifts up her voice, she cries - she expects her child to die.

A miracle occurs! An angel comes, tells her, “al-tire'i”, do not fear, Hagar. “Ki-legoy gadol asimenu”, I will make your child into a great nation. Hagar opens her eyes; miraculously, there is a well there. She gives water to the child and he lives, and her journey through the desert goes on. What does this story remind you of?

Hagar left servitude and entered a forbidden desert. Who else leaves servitude and enters into a desert? Oh! That's what we do, as a nation. When we leave Egypt, Hagar's homeland, after those centuries of slavery promised to Abraham. We leave and enter into a desert, into a midbar. It's the very same word, midbar, which was used to describe the place that Hagar went. What happened to Hagar when she left? She lost her way; she was just wandering around the dessert. What happened to the nation of Israel just after they leave? “Va'amar Paroh livenei Yisrael”, and Pharaoh will say about the Jewish people, God says, “nevuchim hem baaretz”, the people are confused, they are lost in the desert. “Sagar aleihem hamidbar”, the desert has swallowed them up! So, Hagar gets lost in the desert and God orchestrates things. So, it seems that the Jews get lost in the desert.

What happened next to Hagar? She experiences a water crisis. And guess what? As we appeared to wander into the desert, we, the nation of Israel, experience two water crisis. As the Egyptians closed in, our backs were to a wall of water – the Red Sea was behind us. Immediately after the Red Sea, the Jews go three days and they can't find water and they’re dying of thirst. One water crisis for them, two for us.

Divine intervention protected Hagar; divine intervention protects us. The sea splits, and just as Hagar and Ishmael experience a miraculous relief from thirst, so do we, as Moses throws a branch in a bitter oasis of water to sweeten the water so that we all can drink. And lest you think it is a coincidence, when an angel intercede to protect Hagar and Ishmael, He tells her, “al-tire'i”, do not fear, Hagar! What is it that Moses say to the Jews, right before the miracle at the water of the Red Sea? “Al-tira'u”, do not fear! It's the same words.

And speaking of the same words, as Abraham sends out Hagar, he gives her bread, “ve-sam al-shichmah”, and places it on her shoulder. When else do we have someone leaving, placing bread on their shoulders? Chapter 12, Verse 34 - the people took their dough even before it could rise; “tsrurot besimlotam al-shichmam”, tied up in their clothes, placed on their shoulders. Bread on your shoulders, as you leave. It's how we took our matza with us as we left Egypt, our house of slavery.

The Lesson Behind Abraham & Hagar's Story

In these stories of Hagar and Ishmael, we have the beginning of seeds that come into scary fruition in the Book of Exodus. But seeds that presage our redemption as well. The Torah is a guidebook; it doesn't just highlight the mistakes of our fathers and mothers for no reason. We are meant to actually learn things from these stories. What are we meant to learn here?

As we leave Egypt, what is one of the expectations that we hear over and over, and over, again? “Ve'ahavta et hager”, love the stranger; “v'ger lo toneh”, don't wrong the stranger; “ki-gerim hayitem be'eretz Mitzrayim”, you know what it's like to be a stranger; you were a stranger in Egypt! The Torah wants us to walk out of Egypt with a sensitivity towards people who feel like the other in our midst. The Exodus of Egypt, after all, was the birth of a nation. A nation means us – people like us… but what about them? The people who are strangers, who don't belong? We still have strangers in our lives today. There's all kinds of gerim. It's a word used for a convert - how do we welcome converts? And there are other kinds of strangers. Do you have a housekeeper at home? How do you treat them? It's a word used for people who don't share our faith – there are good, moral people who live in our midst too. How do we treat them? You're walking down the street, do you only say 'hello' to people you know? Or, will you smile at one of the people who seem so different from you who’s walking towards you? It's not just "ve'ahavta lere'acha kamocha", love your neighbour as yourself for the Torah - it's also “ve'ahavtem et hager”, love the stranger, too.

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