Torah Study

Hagar – Responding to Difficulty

Hagar was an Egyptian princess who became the maidservant of Sarah and ultimately married Avraham Avinu. She is featured in the Torah portions of Lech Lecha and Vayeira and mentioned in Chayei Sarah by her other name, Keturah. After her marriage to Avraham, she immediately conceived; consequently she became arrogant and disrespectful of her mistress, Sarah. Sarah afflicted her, and she fled; yet she was told by angels to return to her subjugation. She ultimately gave birth to Yishmael, who posed a spiritual and physical threat to Yitzchak; as a result, Hagar and her son were expelled, and he nearly died, but an angel promised his survival. Many years later, after Sarah’s death, she remarried Avraham and gave birth to Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midyan, Yishbak, and Shuach, who were eventually sent east.

The persona of Hagar is somewhat ambiguous; she is praised in some aspects of her personality and criticized in others. It is instructive to analyze the positive and negative aspects of her character.

Hagar is introduced as the daughter of Pharaoh. Different medrashim tell us how she came to be Sarah’s maidservant. The most well-known medrash is quoted by Rashi: “She was the daughter of Pharaoh; when he saw the miracles that were performed for Sarah, he said, ‘It is better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another.”[1] According to this medrash, Pharaoh sent Hagar to serve Sarah, but we do not see that Hagar herself wanted to go. However, another medrash tells a slightly different story: “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: When she saw the deeds of Sarah, she said, ‘It is better to be Sarah’s maidservant than Pharaoh’s daughter.”[2] According to this source, Hagar herself chose to join Sarah, inspired not by the miracles performed for her but by her deeds. Hagar gave up her royalty just to connect to the righteous Sarah. It was surely a great act of self-sacrifice to assume the role of maidservant, yet Hagar was happy to do so for the sake of her growth.

However, Hagar soon began to lose sight of the purpose of her serving Sarah. This began when Sarah encouraged her to marry Avraham so that he would bear offspring. Initially, Hagar was reluctant,[3] perhaps because she felt herself unworthy. After marrying Avraham, she immediately conceived, and this caused her to feel arrogant and even superior to Sarah, who had never borne children despite many years of marriage. Forgetting her subservient role, Hagar began to criticize her, telling other women that Sarah was not as righteous as she appeared. As a result of this insolence, Sarah, with Avraham’s consent, afflicted Hagar. Sarah’s intention was at least partly to combat Hagar’s personality arrogance.

Hagar’s reaction to this affliction is telling. Instead of mending her ways and humbling herself, she ran away. This demonstrates an important flaw in her character. She originally came to Sarah to improve herself, but when Sarah afflicted her, she did not seek to understand why and correct her ways; rather, she quickly chose to escape the challenges of the role she had taken on. However, angels appeared and told her to return to Sarah and accept the position of being her maidservant. They were teaching Hagar that despite its difficulties, this was the best course of self-development. In addition, they taught her that escaping the challenges of her position was fruitless.

Yet Hagar did not internalize the lesson that when a person is challenged in his spiritual endeavors, he should not give up. After returning to Avraham’s home, Hagar gave birth to Yishmael. Several years later, after the birth of Yitzchak, it became clear that Yishmael posed a spiritual and physical threat to him. Sarah insisted that Avraham send Hagar and her son away, and HaShem confirmed that she was right.

Yishmael was sick at the time of the expulsion and soon was on the verge of death. Hagar’s reaction here reflects the same tendency to mishandle difficult situations. The Torah says that “she strayed;”[4] Rashi explains that she strayed from HaShem and reverted to the idol worship she had grown up with. Her faith in HaShem was not strong enough for her to cling to Him in such a desperate hour. The Torah continues: “When the water in the skin flask was consumed, she cast the boy beneath one of the trees; she went and sat herself down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, ‘Let me not see the death of the child.’” This reaction is truly; with her only child at death’s door, she focused on her own discomfort instead of trying to comfort him at this terrible time. This provides another example of how Hagar chose to escape the difficult situations that Providence had decreed.

To her credit, Chazal tell us that she ultimately repented and became righteous. While separated from Avraham, she remained loyal to him and did not marry another man. She was given a new name, Keturah, symbolizing that her deeds were as beautiful as ketores, incense. Perhaps she somewhat rectified her failure to respond to difficulty. After being expelled from Avraham’s home, she ultimately did remain faithful to his teachings and as a result merited remarrying him. Yet Hagar’s earlier actions remain examples of how not to react when Providence decrees adversity. Our avodah is not to escape the pain, but to turn to HaShem through prayer and self-development. In that way, we can use such incidents to become closer to Him.


Notes and Sources

[1] Bereishis Rabbah 45:1, quoted by Rashi, Bereishis 15:1.

[2] Torah Sheleimah, quoted in Minchas Chaim, pp. 673–74.

[3] Rashi, Bereishis 15:3, who says that Sarah had to persuade Hagar to marry Avraham, implying that she did not want to marry him.

[4] Bereishis 21:14.

From the book “Beacons of Light”



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