Double Mitzvah – Lech Lecha

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Larry is a Rabbi at Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, Texas. He was ordained a rabbi in 1998 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Larry is a practitioner and teacher of Jewish Mindfulness Meditation and an alumni of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program. Larry and his wife Alanna have three wonderful daughters.

Check out last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Noach.


Rated PG-13In last week’s edition of Double Mitzvah, we explored the theme of “barrenness” in the Hebrew Bible. You may recall that the very first thing we learned about Sarai, the mother of the Jewish people, was that she was childless. In this week’s parashah, called Lech Lecha (“Go forth!”), Sarai thinks she has found a way around her childlessness; she plans to deliver an heir for her husband through surrogacy:

And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian-after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years-and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine. He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived (Gen 16:2-4a).

But what seemed like a good idea in the abstract quickly turns difficult, when feelings enter the picture:

but when (Hagar) saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!” (Gen 16:4b-5).

Abram permits Sarai to send Hagar away; God sends Hagar back “to submit to (her mistress’s) harsh treatment” (ibid., v. 9). A bit further along, we learn that Hagar will give birth to a son, to be named Yishma’el.

Names are important in the Hebrew Bible, and it’s no coincidence that Sarai’s maid was called Hagar (“The Stranger”) and that she was told to name her son Ishma’el (“God heard”). Abram and Sarai are callous, even cruel, in the way they treat the maid; it’s easier to be that way when a person is essentially nameless, utilized, merely instrumental to their own needs. While the biblical audience might not have seen them in this light (they learned different things from this text, about the animosity between the Children of Ishma’el and the Children of Isaac), it’s hard for me to look at this part of Abram and Sarai’s life with anything other than sadness.

I take comfort in knowing that, while the flawed human protagonists may have blown it, God does not. Further along in the story, when Sarai (now Sarah) has finally had enough and makes Abraham send Hagar and her young son away for good, we learn the true meaning of Ishma’el’s name. To see this in action we need to jump ahead to next week’s parashah. By now, Isaac has been born, and weaned. And then,

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears (Gen 21:9-16)

Paying close attention to those verses, we are struck by Ishma’el’s “namelessness.” He is referred to in any number of ways. He is called “Hagar’s son.” He is called “the son of that slave.” He is called, simply, “the boy,” “the child.” But he is never – not once — called “Ishmael.” Not by his father. Not by his mother. Certainly not by Sarah, whose contempt for the “son of that slave” is so deeply seated.

But God is different:

God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded 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.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt (Gen 21:17-21)

Vayishma Elohim, God heard. Vayishma elohim. God paid heed. Va-yishmael-ohim. Embedded within God’s hearing the cry of the boy is the boy’s true name, “Ishmael.” Its appearance in Torah, at just that moment, when all seemed lost, was the beginning of his redemption. Ishmael’s name had gone missing, lost to the human beings to whom he was closest. But God remembered. God spoke his name, and with the sound came life-giving water.

May we all take care to value the people in our lives. May we see them, call them by name, and treasure them for who they are. May they never be mere instruments in the service of our own needs. May our relationships nourish us, as we nourish one another.

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