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Parashat Vayera

November 5, 2009

Every year we read the same parashiyot, in the same order, always finding something new. This year, my discovery came last Rosh HaShanah, when I reviewed this week’s parashah, Vayera.
We all know Parashat Vayera. Angels visit Abraham, Abraham argues with God, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters have interesting, incestuous relationships, Sarah has her long-awaited son, Sarah expels Hagar and Ishmael from the camp, and, well, let’s stop there.
As we all know, there are no vowels in the Torah. For the pronunciation of the words, we depend on the Masoretes, those people who about 1,000 years ago punctuated the Torah, set it to music, and told us how the words should be pronounced. Because there are no vowels in the Torah, and because Hebrew is a phonetic language, any cluster of consonants can be pronounced in many ways, some of which will make sense and some of which will not. And so, we get to Hagar.
Hagar, of course, is an Egyptian, and so we might assume that her name is Egyptian. Or perhaps her name is some corruption of her actual name, because perhaps Abraham and his people could not pronounce her actual name.  But we need not view Hagar as an Egyptian name. Rather, let us take advantage of our ability to pronounce any combination of Hebrew letters and change her name to a real, Hebrew word, to . . . ha-ger. Pronounced this way, Hagar’s name means, the stranger. 
Why might Hagar be a stranger? Well, some of the answers are obvious. She’s not in her own country. Indeed, her presence and her name form sort of a punny joke:  she is the exact opposite of the Torah’s constant description of the Israelites in Egypt, which is “ger hayita b’eretz mitzraim” (you were a stranger in the land of Egypt), so Hagar can say gerah hayiti b’eretz cana’an.
She’s not in her own clan. Instead, she’s with all of these Hebrews, whatever they are, who have strange customs and one strange God.
She’s not even in her own bed. Instead, she’s in her mistress’ bed, because her mistress wants Hagar to bear the mistress’ child. Hagar is the world’s first surrogate mother.
And finally, she is not in charge of her own household, because, in point of fact, it’s not her household, which is why she ends up a bowshot away from her dying son. 
In Abraham’s time, a skilled archer could shoot an arrow 175-200 yards. Now 175-200 yards is a long way. Were you to stand 200 yards away from somebody, and were you to throw in some intervening trees and hills or sand dunes, that person at the other end may very well disappear. So, if we measure that bowshot from Ishmael’s perspective, he’s probably feeling abandoned. His own mother seems to have become a stranger even to him.
Let’s not be too hard on Hagar, however. Everything that happened to her was beyond her control, and she is as much out of water as Ishmael, she has been abandoned as much as he has, and his fate is soon likely to be her fate. Undoubtedly she walked off that bowshot’s distance because she was powerless to help her son and herself and the knowledge was too much to bear. The sad truth is that other people’s actions caused Hagar to become a stranger to Ishmael; this relationship is hardly the one that Hagar wanted.
Hagar is not the last parent, or child, or sibling, to find himself at a distance from another family member. Quarrels can cause family members to treat each other like strangers, and difficult situations such as serious illness can cause family members to withdraw out of a sense of desperation. Like Hagar, we could walk off a bowshot’s distance when we feel that a situation is hopeless, especially if the situation is not one of our own making.
But we can’t. An angel saved Hagar and Ishmael, but today we can’t expect angels to rescue us when our families face difficult times. Unlike Hagar, we must make conscious decisions not to move off a distance. We are not saddled with her name, and we are not saddled with her situation. As I see it, we can not be strangers to our families in good times, but we certainly can not be strangers to our families in hard times. 


Simon Rosenbach is a rabbinical student at AJR.