A Random Walk With Rashi: Hagar and the Wailers

We ended last week on a verse that was, as you might expect, the perfect lead in to the story of Passover, and the exodus from Egypt. It was on the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s home in Gerar. And just why is that? Funny you should ask. Particularly when the answer begins with a truly horrific scene – one in which which Hagar and Ishmael seem to reach the end of their biblical rope, so to speak.

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

Genesis 21:16
She went and sat herself at a distance, some bowshots [away] for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child.” And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept.

(15) THE WATER OF THE SKIN WAS FINISHED, because it is the usual way of those who are ill to drink much.

(16) AT A DISTANCE. This means from far off.

These two verses set the scene clearly enough, and it’s a disturbing one at that. Hagar and Ishmael have recently been banished, with minimal provisions, left to wander aimlessly in the desert. At this very moment, they have run out of water, and can go no further. Hagar’s only choice, it seems, is to abandon Ishmael, both because she can no longer help him, but more so, because she cannot bear to see him die. She walks off, in order to sit by herself a considerable distance away, where she cries out – we can only assume to G-d (though whose or which we don’t know).

What bothers Rashi about these two verses?

As for verse 15, he seems to be wondering, as do we, just how it could be that Abraham did not provide them with enough water for their journey. Unless he was simply mistaken, or perhaps just too frugal to give them more than a single skin, we can only assume that he gave them what he thought would be plenty of water. If that is the case, then something unbeknownst to him must have occurred, in order to render his calculations off target. Did she get lost? Or did they require more in the way of supplies than he had calculated? Or neither. Or both.

Rashi being Rashi, ties it all in with the theme he has been promoting, namely, that Ishmael did wrong to Isaac, with his actions being caught by Sarah, and for that received her evil eye, rendering him ill. Very simple, very easy, I see you, bye bye. His illness, in turn, causes the two to use up the water more quickly than normal.

Since Abraham already knew that Ishmael would survive to lead a great nation, perhaps he provided only for Hagar herself. Then again, if she were not clued in to Ishmael’s fate (nor, for that matter was Ishmael himself), it would make sense that she would err on the side of providing him with the water he needs.

Wouldn’t you know, their quandary brings up a Talmudic debate on that very subject. According to the article “Who Drinks The Water?” at jewishtreats.org, we learn that this provides a “classic ethical dilemma”.

According to the article:

The sages (Talmud Baba Metzia 62a) were also divided regarding the correct response. Ben Petura believed that the correct solution was to share the water. His reasoning, however, was that sharing the water and both dying was better than either of them living and watching the other die. After all, doesn’t it say in Talmud Sanhedrin 74a: ‘Who says your blood is redder? Maybe your friend’s blood is redder?’ Meaning, how can an ordinary human being choose who lives and who dies?’

On the other hand”, the site goes on, “Rabbi Akiva, whose opinion is the accepted one, declared that the owner of the water is the one who should drink the water. As proof, he cited Leviticus 25:36, which states: ‘That your brother may live with you.’ ” Rabbi Akiva concluded that “the Torah said ‘with you’ to teach us that while in most instances you must help your brother, but not if it comes at the expense of your life! Therefore, the owner of the water gets to keep it.

It seems odd at first, but perhaps not unexpected, that the determining factor should be something as simple as ownership of the flask itself – as compared to things like the health and viability of the two people, or their respective number of dependents, or the “women and children” criteria, or for that matter, even their relative devotion to G-d (good luck on that one). Each of which could be argued in its own way to be more meaningful to survival than the question of who’s flask it happened to be. Then again, it confirms the odd and strong power that the simple concept of property and ownership can be at times.

We don’t know who got the water as between Hagar and Ishmael, we only know there was not enough for them both.

As we wrapped up Rashi last week, we turned our attention to the parallels, yet again, between the fates of Ishmael and Isaac (and for that matter, others), in terms of the potential sacrifices that can be called for in order to prove one’s faith in G-d.

The upcoming Akedah, in turn, provides one of the ultimate tensions and ethical debates within Torah, as between the promise provided by Isaac himself, and the potential sacrifice of that promise by Abraham.

At which point we were reminded of Kierkegaard. OK, Rabbi was reminded. By this time, I was already thinking of milk on the way home.

As it turns out, Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” provides us with insights into the realm of “religious ethics”, as raised in the story of Isaac.

According to authority of sparknotes.com, no less:

Fear and Trembling centers on the biblical story of Abraham. Abraham, childless after 80 years, prays for a son. God grants his wish, and Abraham has Isaac. Thirty years later, God orders Abraham to kill his son. Abraham prepares to kill Isaac, but at the last second God spares Isaac and allows Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.

The site goes on to explain the manner in which “[Fear and Trembling] includes four different retellings of the story, each with a slightly different viewpoint. In the first version, Abraham decides to kill Isaac in accordance with God’s will… In the second version, Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of Isaac…. In the third version, Abraham decides not to kill Isaac and then prays to God to forgive him… In the fourth version, Abraham can’t go through with killing Isaac. Isaac begins to question his own faith due to Abraham’s refusal to do what God commanded.

As if the Torah itself won’t be tough enough.

Kierkegaard uses these four variations to conclude (here am I, summarizing Kierkegaard – weeeee !) “that the killing of Isaac is ethically wrong but religiously right…. Kierkegaard claims that Abraham did not act out of a resignation that God must always be obeyed but rather out of faith that God would not do something that was ethically wrong. Abraham knew that killing Isaac was ethically wrong, but he had faith that God would spare his son. Abraham decided to do something ethically wrong because having faith in God’s good will was religiously right.”

Hold on, we’re almost there. “Kierkegaard argues that his retellings of the story of Abraham demonstrate the importance of a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical.’ Teleological means ‘in regard to the end.’ If you are hungry and you eat something with the goal of no longer being hungry, then you made a teleological decision: you acted, by eating, so as to achieve the end of no longer being hungry. Abraham performs a teleological suspension of the ethical when he decides to kill Isaac.” And so it goes.

Finally, after our detour down Kierkegaard Lane, we reached verse 16, in which we see Hagar toss Ishmael under a bush, and walk off to a place nearby, where she begins to sob, or wail. As we tend to see often in Torah, and will see again soon – quite simply, wailing works.

So back full circle to our earlier premise – why is this a perfect verse for leading into Passover? Answer – it ties in cleanly with the plight of the Israelites in Exodus. After they had been enslaved for 400 years, it is only when they finally lifted their voice, did G-d finally hear and respond. In Exodus 3:7-9, we learn that “Now G-d said: ‘I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt, their cry have I heard in the face of their slave-drivers; indeed, I have known their sufferings!’ ”

So we wail and G-d responds. And apparently, its just us. When the Egyptians also wail (in both Exodus 11:6 and 12:30) they get no such response.

One thing we take from this, in turn, is the value of community organizers – those whose role it is to help us lift our voices in order to be heard.

Others may take a different spin. Take Sarah (Palin), for instance, who said of Obama at the Republican National Convention in 2008, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities”.

Take Sarah Palin. Please. I’ll keep Kierkegaard.

(Photo: dynamosquito)