Did she come all this way only to sit in the desert and die without pity?
A few days ago she was full of life, treasured and adored by Abraham. Pride of place was hers. She was the mother of his oldest son, Ishmael. Elevated above a being a mere handmaiden to her former mistress, Sarah, she held sway in the tents as a mother in her own right. While not a wife exactly, her position was far from low.
Now she bakes in the merciless sun and watches her son gasping for air, dying of thirst before her. Dying at Sarah’s pitiless command. No. She places him in some shade and crawls away from him and waits. The text says the distance she went was as far away as a bow-shot. Distance as both a weapon and a defense. She must watch from a remove and listen. How long did she hear his small, tight voice cry for water? She too is close to death. Tears and weeping pour forth. How did it come to this?
What is it we are reading on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah? Murder. Abandonment. Intrusion of the Divine. And even yes, even another almost infanticide by our most beloved patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. This time, Sarah is the Angel of Death, an avenging, protective mother from whom Ishmael will only be saved by another rescuing angel. She casts out Hagar and Ishmael who threaten her son and her position. Abraham is troubled by this, but is told to listen to Sarah. The Lord promises him that despite his misgivings this child will live and lead a great nation, a foreshadowing of the promise made in the Akeidah. We will read an even greater test the very next day, but this is his first test of faith.
Now Hagar waits in the sun. The skin of water is empty. She is watching. Listening. Waiting. Wailing.
What is it to live in the intolerable moment? To stay with it and not turn away. Almost impossible. To sit at the death bed as life wanes. Or hold the hand of the inconsolable mourner? How do we bear the unbearable when sometimes even what is merely trivially uncomfortable challenges us? Do we give in to the child’s demands for a toy, an app, a snack? I confess I usually do. Especially my youngest’s discomfort truly discomforts me. I know, I know… we have to learn to let them cry. Let them suffer. But tears will come soon enough which cannot be consoled by a cookie. We have no choice but to learn the lessons of this story because eventually, like Abraham and Hagar, we must leave our children alone. We will learn to watch our children cry out. We will cry with them at a distance. As below so above. We watch them cry, and the Lord watches us cry at a distance as a loving Avinu, a merciful Father.
The climax of both stories is the answering messenger, the intrusion of the Divine into the desert of the real; first an angel and then word of the Lord Himself. Hagar is not surprised or shocked by their appearance. She lives in hope. The angel tells Hagar, “Arise, lift up the lad and grasp him with your hand, for a great nation will I make of him!” And then the text says, “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; she went, filled the skin with water and gave the lad to drink. And God was with the lad as he grew up.” (Gen. 21:18-19)
Note the sequence: she grasps, sees, fills and gives. First we reach out in the dark and grasp the hand that seeks ours. Only then are we granted vision. We refill our hearts from the ever-flowing wellspring and only then can we give to others. There is rebirth. Life-reviving water is often near if we will stretch out our hand in a moment of grace.
The midrash says that Hagar returned to Abraham after the death of Sarah as a pious and righteous woman named Keturah and bore him more children. The rabbis note that the word ketoret (the sacred incense) shares the same root as the re-named Keturah. Ketoret is sweet, but only can grant favor and fill our senses when it is burned and ultimately destroyed. Hagar recovers from her desert ordeal as a new person, she is not the same. She has gone through fire.
The text comes on Rosh Hashanah to teach us in part that it is then we are perhaps most present in what writer and psychoanalyst David Eigen calls, a “wounded togetherness.” Somehow the many hurts, the intolerable losses and the sharp pains of one another complement and give strength one to another. We will sit together in the pews with friends, family and even strangers, each with wounds only we know. But reaching ever out in the dark, may our tired eyes be opened and our burnt hearts reborn.