A Random Walk With Rashi: Connecting the Dots

First, the follow-up that I promised to my previous summary. The word that was used to describe Abraham’s “placing” his hand on Hagar’s shoulder, as it turns out, is not the word that is used to describe one’s positioning of tallit. We do not place the tallit on our shoulders at all, but rather we wrap ourselves in it (or more precisely, in its tzitzit). Just as we perhaps “wrap” ourselves in the words of Torah? Oh darn, there I go again. I’ll get back to you on this. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

So back to our current verse.

Though we are nowhere near in sync with the current Torah portion, as is often the case, leading into Passover we somehow still find a way to connect the dots between the two portions, revealing yet another picture. In particular, we are at the point of a different sort of ‘exodus’, that being the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (or more accurately, that slavewoman and her son), from the household of Abraham.

The parallels are striking, and likely intentional, as are the key distinctions.

While Hagar was sent off with little more than water and bread (lechem), the Jews left in such a hurry that they had no time to bake bread, but rather left with matzo instead. Had the Jews been thinking, they would have split the difference, and left a week later, when they could have gotten all the matzo they need on clearance.

Digging deeper, another meaning for lechem, is Torah – could it be that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael off … with Torah? If so, might Rashi have been wrong, when he concluded that Hagar went immediately back to the idols of her father (remembering the midrash to the effect that Abraham had left the idols of his own father)?

Genesis 21:15
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.

AND THE BOY. This boy, too, he placed on her shoulder, for Sarah implanted the evil eye into Ishmael for having gone forth to evil behavior.

AND SHE WENT AND STRAYED. She went back to the idols of her father’s household.

Our current verse includes a pausal Hebrew verb form, in this case, a word that would appear to be pronounced as “eh eh”, but when coming in the middle of verse, becomes either “ah eh’ in some circumstances, or “ah ah” in others. As when the word ‘ha-eretz’ actually becomes ‘ha-aretz’, or in the blessing (hamotzi lechem min) hagefen, becomes hagafen.

In very rare instances, where two or more of these pausal verbs appear together in a verse, they become “ooh-eeh-ooh-ah-ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang”, also known as the “Witch Doctor Song” (about an unrequited love as well, mind you) made famous by the Chipmunks. The line itself has been translated variously as either “who does he think he’s kidding?” or “I kind of figured, Alvin’s such a Jewish name”.

Our current verse has clear parallels to the Akedah, in the following Chapter 22. Both scenes begin in the very same manner, with Abraham arising early to do the thing that needs to be done. If there is a slight, but perhaps profound difference, we note that Chapter 22 begins by telling us plainly “that G-d tested Abraham”. Otherwise, both verses are nearly identical, and together unique, in that they provide rare glimpses of Abraham – both times – suddenly becoming very “busy”, in order to follow the instructions he’s been given.

Rashi also concludes, quite conveniently, that Ishmael is not only ill at this point, but also that his illness was brought about by the “evil eye” that was put upon him by Sarah. Though perhaps surprising to us now, it should be no surprise that superstition of this type played a key role, perhaps all the more so in Rashi’s day than in Torah itself.

To paraphrase the authority that is the web (in other words, I’ve long since lost the site):

The evil eye is a common belief that individuals have the power to look at people, animals or objects to cause them harm. In Islam, God is the only one who can protect against the evil eye; though there appear to be various phrases that can be spoken in order to ward off the evil eye. The Assyrians were also strong believers in the evil eye. They will usually wear a blue/turquoise bead around a necklace to be protected from the evil eye, since it was thought that people with green or blue eyes are more prone to the evil eye effect.

In Judaism – the evil eye is mentioned several times in the classic Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers… Judaism believes that a “good eye” designates an attitude of good will and kindness towards others. Someone who has this attitude in life will rejoice when his fellow man prospers; he will wish everyone well. An “evil eye” denotes the opposite attitude. A man with “an evil eye” will not only feel no joy but experience actual distress when others prosper, and will rejoice when others suffer… Many Jews avoid talking about valuable items they own, good luck that has come to them and, in particular, their children. If any of these are mentioned, the speaker and/or listener will say, “b’li ayin hara“, meaning “without an evil eye”, or “kein eina hara” (often shortened to “kina hora“), in earlier times, often accompanied by expectoration (spitting) in one form or another.

So as odd as superstition may seem to us today (not that we are free of them mind you, knock on wood), it makes perfect sense – particularly when you consider that much of Torah and its commentaries consist of etiologies – finding a cause, or giving a reason for things that occur. We need to know why. Even if the reason is little more than superstition.

If we have no idea how Ishmael came down with the fever (assuming of course we believe that he did), it must have been Sarah and her evil eye.

Genesis 21:15
The water of the skin was finished, and she cast off the boy beneath one of the trees.

THE WATER [OF THE SKIN] WAS FINISHED. Because it is the unusual way of those who are ill to drink much.

A stark and sobering scene. Curious as well, in that it was written in the passive voice – the water “was finished”, as opposed to “Hagar and Ishmael finished the water”.

We can almost picture Hagar at this moment – akin to the delirious heroine in a Hitchcock movie, stranded in the desert, with the world spinning before her eyes, in and out of focus, and a loud chorus of violins screeching in the background.

Hagar has cast off Ishmael, disowning him according to some, using a verb based on the root word for shelach – the same word that can be used to describe divorce or emancipation (perhaps meaning the same to some), or at times to ‘cast off’ our sins, or as in Numbers, when Moses will ‘send forth’ spies to the Land of Canaan.

Yet through it all, there remains a positive thread of hope for Hagar and Ishmael – they have been emancipated, and we know (though they don’t) that Ishmael will inevitably survive. When viewed through that lens, we can actually feel a bit good for them, and wish them well.

By contrast, after reading Rashi’s spin on these verses we come away with a very different feeling, namely, that they had it coming, and it was reasonable that they ended up in the position they are in. If Ishmael was indeed “mocking” Isaac, and Hagar proceeds to straight for the idols she left behind, we feel considerably less of the pathos we might otherwise feel.

So there you have it. From Witch Doctors to the Evil Eye and back again to Hitchcock. All in the midst of the Torah equivalent of fly-over country – Genesis 21:15.

Whoever said Torah study had to be dull?