The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year, is not, as one might expect, the creation of the world (Rosh haShanah was Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, 9/18-9/20). Instead, the set reading is Genesis 21, the story of how Sarah, wife of Abraham, gives birth to Isaac—a joyous occasion indeed, given that she is ninety years old. But then Sarah becomes anxious that her husband’s other wife, Hagar, also has a son, Ishmael, who could inherit from Abraham, and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled from the household. This year, reading this tale, I am seeing a story that shows how when we think about success, abundance, and consequences, we include some people in our consideration but not others. In this tale, the Divine includes the perspectives of the unwitnessed even when we do not.
In Genesis 16, it is Sarah (originally called Sarai) who first arranges a sexual relationship between Hagar, an Egyptian woman enslaved to her, and her husband Avraham, who has been called by God to create a new nation. God has promised her husband Avraham a great posterity, but they do not have even one child. Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham in order to produce an heir (no consent on Hagar’s part is recorded). When Hagar becomes pregnant, the text suggests that Sarah has become “light” or “diminished” in Hagar’s eyes. In other words, Hagar no longer treats Sarah as her owner. Sarah complains to Avraham, and Abraham gives Sarah permission to do whatever she wants with Hagar. Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away. An angel arrives while Hagar is sitting by a well, and directs Hagar to return, for she is to give birth to a child who will give rise to uncountable numbers of offspring. During this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: El Ro’I, the God who sees me.
One theme we might observe in the story is that Sarah and Avraham use Hagar for their own purposes—procreation—while also demanding she act with submissiveness to her “mistress.” We are seeing here the oppressions of a patriarchal, slave-owning society where women can be used at will to produce children. Yet the blessing the angel gives Hagar in Genesis 16:10 is almost identical to one given to Avraham in Genesis 22:17. An angel speaks directly to Hagar twice, while in Genesis 18:12 Sarah herself only speaks indirectly to an angel who is mentioning her in the third person. We might say that the text is elevating Hagar—treating her as a character worthy of a story, even though Avraham and Sarah treat her as a means to an end. And Hagar names God “the one who sees me.” The Divine witnesses Hagar even when humans do not.
In Genesis 21, Hagar’s son Ishmael is now an older boy, and Isaac has just been born. Sarah turns from the happy moment of her son’s weaning feast and sees Ishmael playing. She goes to Avraham, demanding that “ha’amah hazot ve’et b’nah”—”that slave-woman and her son” be cast out. Avraham is upset by this al odot b’no, because of his son—he does not want to send Ishmael away. God comes to Avraham and tells him not to be distressed over Hagar or his son, but to follow Sarah’s wishes, for Isaac will be Avraham’s heir– and God also promises that Ishmael will be safe. Relying in a rather extreme way on this promise, Avraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness with little food or water. When Ishmael becomes weak with thirst, Hagar lays him under a bush and sits a little distance away, unable to bear watching him die. God then hears Ishmael’s cry, and sends an angel to Hagar, saying: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Only then does the Divine open Hagar’s eyes so that she sees the well of water nearby.
Again, Sarah and Avraham treat Hagar as an instrument of their own needs. Now that they have an heir and no longer need Hagar’s womb or her child, they send Hagar and Ishmael away without any questions about where they will go or what will happen to them. The text says God promises safety to Ishmael, but what about Hagar? No one promises safety to her. God simply says “don’t distress yourself,” and Avraham goes along with that.
But in spite of this, the biblical lens does not treat Hagar and Ishmael as expendable non-entities. This is instructive to us today. Contemporary society still treats women, the poor, people of color, people from non-European countries, queer people, disabled people, and even our earth itself as not the center of the story. The lens points away from “non-central” people, no matter how much those people provide to their communities and the world. Yet in Genesis, the textual lens follows Hagar away from the camp. The lens stays with her while she weeps in despair and her courage fails her and she cannot even sit with her child because it is too awful to watch him die. The lens stays with her while the angel appears to her and comforts her, while she suddenly discovers the well. And now maybe we begin to understand why Hagar’s unique name for the Divine is El Ro’I, God who sees me. Hagar may not be a real person to Avraham and Sarah, but she does appear to be a real person to God.
What I am learning from this story on this new year is that we as a society need to retrain our perceptions to be like El Ro’i, like the deity who sees. The forces that invite us to see some people as peripheral, as instrumental, as there to meet our needs and then move out of view again, are forces to be resisted. Our awareness of the experiences of women, the poor, people of color, and others whose stories are less frequently centered or witnessed, is crucial to dismantling white supremacy and the other oppressions that afflict our planet. The earth itself needs to be seen as valuable in its own right and not something to be torn down for parts. It is no accident that Hagar, who was dismissed by Avraham and Sarah as no longer useful, is the one who learns where the well in the desert is. If we want to stay connected to deep sources of spirit and life, we have to let our lens widen to include what we have not yet witnessed.
I’m not sure how to resolve the two portrayals of God here—the God who encourages Avraham to send Hagar away, and the God who treats Hagar as an important spiritual personality in her own right. I wonder if we are seeing two experiences of God, one from the privileged and one from the not-privileged. Or maybe we might imagine that God is orchestrating Hagar’s departure from the house of Avraham and Sarah so that she can become the visionary she is meant to be. From a feminist perspective, leaving the house of the patriarch, while scary, can be an opportunity to grow into a fuller, less fearful life.
Hagar’s name means “the wanderer” (ha-gar, from ger, stranger or wanderer). But her name also means “one who dwells.” Maybe this year it is time to stop seeing Hagar as one who wanders in and out of the frame. Maybe it is time to visit Hagar where she lives. Maybe then we can journey in the footsteps of El-Roi, the witnessing God.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya Shere) andThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.