A Random Walk With Rashi: Wordlessly Watching

Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael, by Il Guercino

This is it. Enough with the preamble. The story and life of Abraham, and the paths of those in his clan, are about to change significantly, and forever.

We have seen Ishmael born to Hagar, and circumcised on the very day Abraham and Sarah learned that Isaac would also be born. The fact that Isaac has been weaned was recognized by a great celebration, in which all the leaders of their time were present, and able to see Sarah pounce on the chance to one up Hagar and Ishmael. The two are about to be banished from the land, reluctantly it seems on the part of Abraham, but under the watchful eye and stern hand of Sarah.

Genesis 21:14
So Abraham arose early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar; he placed them on her shoulder and the boy, and sent her off. And she went, and strayed in the desert of Beer-sheba.

We begin by noticing the interesting structure within this relatively short little verse – essentially telling that he arose, he took, he gave, he placed, he sent. An almost poetic sequence that takes us from zero to a biblical 60 in seconds.

Lets start with ‘arose’ – as we will see in the later scene, with Isaac and the Akedah, Abraham seems to be no slouch when it comes to sacrificing sons. He rises early both times to take on the challenge.

The reason? Who knows. Perhaps he simply cannot sleep, knowing what’s about to happen. Or perhaps, as the Rabbis would tell us (ours did at least), this teaches us that we should not hesitate to do G-d’s will. Or perhaps he just needs to get it over with, to the point where if he dawdled at all, he might lose the will to go on.

Or maybe, just maybe, Abraham wanted this scene to attract minimal attention, especially from his wife Sarah. He would heed her instructions all right, by banishing both Hagar and Ishmael, but nobody said he had to be happy about it, and he could still find a way to share this final, private moment with them both.

In spite of the apparent importance and impact of this scene, we notice first that there is no dialogue in this entire scene – which quite likely makes it all the more powerful, since no words would seem to suffice. Recalling the impact that can be provided by a silent film – witness “The Artist” this past year – we can almost imagine the script for this scene, had it been within a silent movie of its own.


This is a long shot, panning then slowly zooming in from the camp interior, toward its entrance, where Hagar and Ishmael stand, bracing themselves for what seems to be a long journey. It is very early morning, with the shadows of the morning sun casting long, sharp shadows over the scene, darkening their faces from view.

SUBTITLE 1: — Hagar and Ishmael – Mother and Son —

Cut to Abraham, approaching from the shadows within the camp, alone, and carrying nothing more than a single loaf of bread and a skin containing water. Abraham stops a step short of Hagar, while both Hagar and Ishmael look away.

SUBTITLE 2: — Meager provisions for a difficult journey —

Hagar is turned slightly from Abraham, and is without expression, as he reaches around to slowly place the bread within her slightly folded arm. As he then places the water skin over her shoulder, he pauses, keeping his hand still as it touches her shoulder, as if to caress.

The camera pulls back as Ishmael slowly comes into the scene, Abraham drawing back his hand, as the two turn to leave, walking slowly, her free arm around Ishmael, both heading off aimlessly it seems, as Abraham wordlessly watches. Abraham returns to camp, with the gait of an elderly man, gently weeping it seems, and unable to look back —

(Fade to black)

For a scene such as this, and particularly one as powerful as this has the potential to be, there are inevitable questions – including what was the role and relationship of Ishmael himself at the moment? Remembering that he was on the order of 15 years old at the time, did he walk alongside Hagar, or was he actually carried on her shoulders, as the text would make it appear?

As with the current “stand your ground” debate in Sanford Florida, we initially begin confused in this regard, but our continual revisiting of the scene, coupled with changing perspectives and new bits of information, can all have the effect of turning our immediate impressions upside down – and then back again.

As we will see below, Rashi clearly suggests that Ishmael had actually become ill, and did indeed have to be carried away on the shoulders of Hagar. Putting aside just how this might have happened, if it were true, it would do all the more to drive home the pain and humiliation on the part of both Hagar and Ishmael.

And what about Abraham? For a guy that put up at least a token defense of Sodom, how could he now banish his legitimate wife and first son, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, together with a minimal amount of bread and water?

Lets ask Rashi.

But not silver and gold, because [Abraham] hated [Ishmael] for having gone forth to evil behavior.

The boy, too, he placed on her shoulder, for Sarah implanted the evil eye into [Ishmael], and a fever took hold of him and he was unable to walk on his feet.

She went back to the idols of her father’s household.

In spite of all our misgivings, here again, Rashi seems to explain the scene in a way that lets Abraham save face – somewhat. Rather than being cold and simply subservient to Sarah, Rashi tells us that Abraham has now come to hate Ishmael. Remember, Rashi is the guy who told us just a few verses ago that for Ishmael to “mock” Isaac was akin to the sin of murder. Having to now stay true to that meaning, it seems Rashi may have dug himself a hole that just keeps getting deeper at every turn.

My own theory? Far less onerous, and still salvages Abraham’s reputation, if not even elevating him a tad. Assuming Abraham did indeed have to send the two off, to do so in this manner was – on balance – the best and safest option. They would be least likely to attract attention from others along the way, or in turn, to have anything of value that might lead to danger. What other options would Abraham have, short of sending them off with an entourage, or protection of some sort?

Whether the answer is Rashi’s or mine, or none of the above, it seems Abraham actually doesn’t need much help from us to look good, when we recall the fact that G-d had confirmed, in effect, that Ishmael would survive to lead a great nation. So whatever Abraham might do, or not do, he knows that somehow things will turn out fine – for Ishmael at least.

For Hagar, however, he has no such assurance. So perhaps this scene, and Abraham’s concerns, are as much for her benefit as anything. Certainly the verse itself seems focused squarely on her – with Ishmael only coming along for the ride, so to speak.

Abraham clearly seems to have affection for them both. The Hebrew word “sahm“, for having “placed” the water on her shoulder, is in the perfect past tense, implying a continual, prolonged moment. It is a beautiful, simple word, similar perhaps (I’ll find out this week) to the word used to describe placing the tallit upon one’s own shoulders? If not, it should be.

And so Hagar and Ishmael leave – here too, raising similar questions regarding the actual meaning of the Hebrew, which could be translated variously as “to stray” or “to roam”, and in turn, having the potential for very different meanings as to whether their path was certain or random, or in control or not. Assuming she had both the ability and the intent, did she head toward something in particular (e.g., Egypt), or away from something, or both?

Though Abraham himself seems saddened at this moment, various commentaries seem to assure us that we are to be ‘pleased’ at this part of the story, since he is taking the actions needed to now arrange his house, into a new order based solely on Isaac, and onto the path that we know and have inherited today. Though Hagar and Ishmael are leaving their covenant with our G-d, and heading back to Egypt (and an eventual Egyptian wife for Ishmael), there is also an upside for them, we are told, assuming they survive. According to the Women’s Torah Commentary, regarding the term ‘cast her out’ we learn that “[t]he verb is used for divorce but more literally means ‘sent her out’. It will be used when Pharaoh lets the Israelites go from slavery … [one author tells us that] Hagar and Ishmael are not sold and suggests they are freed. They leave Abraham’s household as emancipated slaves.”

Not only that, but freed slaves with a great nation waiting on the other end. Not quite the same as legitimate wife and first born son, but hey, not bad for runner up.

And they leave with provisions that, in a way, are not all that different than coach class on a Delta flight. This is looking better all the time.

(Photo: Artbible)