Judaism: Trail Travails
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant and the second wife of Avraham Avinu, is an enigmatic personality. According to tradition, she was the daughter of Pharaoh himself, given as a gift to Avraham when Pharaoh recognized Avraham’s spiritual greatness. Not only was she the wife of our patriarch, but she also merited in her own right to converse with angels on at least two occasions. Yet, when she is banished with her son from Avraham’s house, the Torah states that she departed and “strayed” in the desert of Beer Sheva, and when the water Avraham had supplied ran out, she threw her son under one of the trees and moved away.
Rashi, arguably the greatest of all Torah commentaries, interprets Hagar’s straying as straying from the spiritual path and returning to the idol worship of her father’s house. Later commentators struggle to understand Rashi’s deeper meaning, for it is inconceivable that a woman of such great spiritual heights would fall to such a degree as to embrace idolatry, albeit she grew up in such a household. As further proof that Rashi’s interpretation must be examined more deeply, the commentators cite that not only did Hagar subsequently speak with an angel, but Avraham remarried her after Sarah’s death. Certainly Avraham would not have taken her back if she had reverted to idolatry.
In reference to human failures and sins recorded in the Torah, Rav Dessler cautions us to approach carefully, for we are not as finely attuned spiritually as were these giants appearing in the Torah, and what the Torah records as failures are not sins in the egregious sense that most humans would call sin. Rather, because of the high moral ground upon which they stand, Hashem holds them accountable to a very high standard so that a hairsbreadth deviation is sinful for them whereas Hashem would perhaps view it just as a minor indication of human fallibility in our case.
This is perhaps more understandable for us, says Rabbi Reiss, in the case of Yosef speaking ill of his brothers, for example, or for Moshe hitting the rock instead of talking to it to release water. The yetzer horo, evil impulse, acts differently from how it would attack a tzadik, righteous person, for we will rationalize our actions while they would not.
But even on this level, the Torah does not whitewash our righteous people, for we do not believe in “saints”; rather there is no human being that has not sinned during his life. So then, what could have been meant by the straying of Hagar? Rabbi Wolbe explains that while we are accountable for our actions, the giants of Torah are accountable for their thoughts as well. Hagar’s sin was the thought of returning back other fathers house. Our Rabbis point out that the well of water the angel showed her was there all the time, but she did not see it until Hashem “opened her eyes” to it. Yet even then, she filled the pitcher completely, not trusting that Hashem would continue to provide her and her son with water later, notes Rabbi Druckerin Darchei mordechai. On her level, that was a lack of faith.
Hagar’s lapse can perhaps be approached on a more sympathetic level. Rabbi Matlin, in Netivot Chaim would have us note that trauma can be spiritual as well as physical. Hagar’s banishment from the home of Avraham made her both physically and spiritually vulnerable to a lapse in faith and a momentary nostalgia for the idolatrous home of her father.
During that moment, the Hammite Egyptian nature of her birth emerged, writes Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. When her son is thirsty and she cannot provide water, she throws him down beneath a tree not because she is compassionate, but because she cannot bear her own pain to see his suffering. She does not hold him and comfort him, although she did not lose sight of him completely. Therefore God listened to the voice of the child, not the voice of the mother. Only when Hagar went back to the child, took his hand in hers again and reclaimed her responsibility as a mother, did Hashem open her eyes so she could see the well.
Even then, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter notes in Pirkei Torah, she first filled the pitcher completely before she gave her son to drink. At that moment, her concern for the future trumped her concern for her child, and corroborated her lack of faith. Yet she took hold of the child and regained her faith, as the episode concludes with Hagar caring for her son and seeking a wife for him.
Rabbi Shmuelevitz sees a message here for us as well. Life will always have sudden disappointments and traumas. We must grab hold and hold on tightly to our faith so as not to fall into despair. If we become petrified, we open the door for the yetzer horo to entice us to sin through a lack of faith. At difficult times, we must regain our equilibrium and faith, as Hagar did.
Rabbi Frand sees another lesson for us in this episode. Life is full of pitfalls and struggles, writes Rabbi Frand in Listen to Your Messages. King Solomon in Proverbs writes that the tzadik falls seven times and rises up. This verse Rabbi Frand interprets to mean that one becomes righteous by the fall itself and then struggling to get up, for it is only through the struggle initiated by the fall that one grows.
Rabbi Mordechai Gifter in Pirkei Torah quotes Rabbi Pagramansky, and notes a lack of faith near the beginning of this episode. The Torah notes that Hagar strayed, or was lost, in the desert of Beer Sheva. A person of faith is never lost, notes Rabbi Gifter, for he knows that wherever he is, that’s where Hashem wants him to be and that is part of Hashem’s plan for him, for Hashem prepares the steps of man. Yet our eyes may be closed, and we do not recognize the purpose of our present location, just as Hagar could not see the well that was right in front of her eyes. If we feel lost, it is only because we have lost faith in Hashem’s plan for us and we want to be in total control of where we are.
It is precisely this point that Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz discusses more fully in The Essence of Emunah. If we understand that nothing happens by chance, that Hashem has orchestrated everything that happens to us for our benefit, we will never feel lost or frustrated. We will never be angry at our fellow, cast blame for something that occurred, or feel overwhelmed by our challenges, for we would know that all is as it should be. It is a lack of faith that brings us this uncertainty, confusion, and stress in our lives. Hashem coordinates a three pronged approach to what the world, and we ourselves, need. That which needs to be accomplished, the person through which it will be accomplished, and the timing are all brought together as a three ply cord that will not be easily severed. Realizing this principle will keep us on an even keel and prevent us from feeling lost, even when things appear difficult.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz presents a beautiful analogy on this topic. A man of faith is like a child in its mother’s bosom. It doesn’t matter where “life” and his mother carry him; he always feels safe, for his mother is always there, protecting him. But when he no longer feels his mother’s presence, he is lost. When Hagar felt lost, when she threw her child down, she no longer felt the presence of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. That lack of faith, on her level, is a tinge of idolatry, a hint of life lived believing in coincidences and whims, as she experienced in the idolatry in her father Pharaoh’s house.
We often feel lost because our priorities are distorted, says Rabbi Frand. He cites Rabbi Ruderman’s lesson at a pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn son. The officiating priest asks the father, “Do you want to keep the five shekels, or do you want to give up the shekels and keep your son?” It is obvious that at that moment every father opts to keep his son.
Yet, this question is a challenge for the parents’ entire lives. Do they pursue the dollar so avidly that they lose sight of being a parent, actually being there when their children need them, or are they relegating that responsibility almost exclusively to strangers? Keep your priorities straight, for pursuit of the dollar or of other life’s pleasures at the expense of the pursuit of Torah and a Torah lifestyle is also a form of dilatory, reminds us Rabbi Avigdor Miller quoted in Letitcha Elyon.
One can understand so many of these points, but how is Hagar’s filling her pitcher with water to be perceived as a touch of lack of faith? The Ohr Doniel quoting the Ohr Yahel, points out that Hagar had just experienced Hashem’s caring. He had opened her eyes and she had seen the well of water He had provided. Hashem was figuratively inviting Hagar to travel with Him in His carriage. Should she not believe that the King would not provide for all her needs? Filling her pitcher at that moment demonstrated a lack of faith in Hashem’s further providence, if not a lack of gratitude for the presentation of the water. Somewhere within her there was a hint of a doubt about her future survival in spite of the angel’s promise to her in the name of God.
We are certainly not in complete control of our thoughts and may sometimes find ourselves questioning our faith, especially in times of stress. Yet we too must take hold of our responsibilities and grasp the outstretched hand, for we cannot know how Hashem will provide for us, but we must believe that He will provide in the manner that He sees fit, in a manner that will help us grow spiritually as well as physically.