Hagar’s Transcendent Sexual Experience

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Is there anybody with you imagine sex would be a transforming, uplifting and life-altering experience? What are the qualities of one who might make it onto this shortlist?

Would it be the person’s looks? The perfect body? Physical prowess? Stamina? Does size matter?

How about their spiritual stature? Like holiness. Would holiness be a turn-off, a buzz-kill? Could you see holiness as a trampoline, a slingshot to sexual transcendence?

Hagar, Sarah’s servant-girl, appears in three consecutive Torah portions.

Episode No. 1:

In the first, in Lech Lecha, she is introduced as Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. It has now been ten years since Sarah and Abraham moved to Canaan (and about 60 years since they married), yet they are still without children. So Sarah (then called Sarai) said to Abraham (then called Abram): “Behold now, the Lord has kept me from bearing children; please come unto my handmaid; perhaps I will be built up from her.” Abraham agrees with this unorthodox arrangement, and the next verse tells us that “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid . . . and she gave her to Abram her husband for a wife.”[1]

But Sarah was not the kind of person to treat her servants like chattel. She would not have simply taken Hagar and ordered her to lie with the elderly, 85-year-old, master. The < glossary>Midrash therefore states that Sarah “took” her with encouraging and soothing words, such as: “How fortunate are you that you will merit to cleave to a holy body such as this one!”[2]

“And he came unto Hagar, and she conceived, and she saw that she was pregnant, and her mistress became unimportant in her eyes.”[3]

The episode has a very dissatisfying ending — for both Sarah and Hagar. Greatly pained — both by her own infertility, as well as by Hagar’s disrespectful treatment of her — Sarah takes Hagar’s condescending attitude to Abraham, who tells her: “Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes.” Clearly, Abraham had no split loyalties; he knew which side of the bread his butter was on. So Sarah began to deal with Hagar very harshly. Perhaps she intended to merely reestablish who was boss; but Hagar felt so afflicted that she fled.

An angel finds Hagar at a water-well, and engages her in conversation. The < glossary>Midrash points out how novel it is that Hagar, a mere “Egyptian maidservant” is comfortable conversing with angels, contrasting Hagar with Samson’s father, Manoah, who merely saw an angel and freaked out, thinking that he was about to die.[4] Hagar’s angel ultimately encourages her to return to her harsh mistress and to swallow whatever treatment and indignities she be forced to undergo.[5]

And so she does, and she gives birth to Ishmael, and that is the last we hear of Hagar until the next Parshah, Vayeira.

Episode 2:

In Vayeira, Sarah finally has her own child, the apple of her eye, who grows up to become the second of our Patriarch’s: Isaac. Isaac is about 2 or 3, and Ishmael about 14, when Sarah sees Ishmael “making merry.”[6] There are many different opinions as to what “making merry” might have mean in this context. Idol worship. Attempted murder. Mockery.[7]

Regardless, Sarah sees something that alarms her, and she says to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” Abraham was distraught by Sarah’s request — but the Torah is careful to state that what bothered him was not Hagar’s banishment, but his son’s: “the matter greatly displeased Abraham concerning his son.”[8]

Nevertheless, G-d commands Abraham to listen to Sarah in this, and so he sends off Hagar and Ishmael with nothing but bread and a leather pouch of water. This time, Hagar’s sense of direction fails her, and she does not find the water-well at which she stopped previously. Instead, she gets lost in the desert, and they soon run out of water. Seeing Ishmael near death’s door, she hides him beneath a bush, and then retreats some distant away, so that she will not be forced to see her son’s death.

But she is again visited by an angel. This time, the angel reassures her that G-d has heard the cries of the boy, and that the boy will not only live, but he will become a great nation. Hagar suddenly sees a water-well that she did not see there before, and she and Ishmael are spared.

What happens to Hagar afterwards is unclear. We know only that Ishmael made his home in the desert of Paran, and that Hagar secured him a bride from her home country of Egypt.[9]

We are left with the distinct impression that Hagar is a biblical persona non grata. There isn’t anything in particular that she has done wrong; still, the text is fairly unsympathetic in its treatment of her.

And how did she feel about her banished status? Did she hate Abraham? How powerful must her resentment have been toward him, both on behalf of Ishmael as well as on her own behalf! Twice she had to leave Abraham’s camp: the first time being driven out by Sarah’s harsh treatment of her — a treatment which Abraham blessed; and the second time being banished by Abraham himself, the father of her son, with naught but some bread and a water-skin. How she must have burned with hatred!

Episode 3:

After Isaac settles down with his new wife, Rebecca, the focus of the Torah begins to transition from Abraham to Isaac, our next Patriarch. But the Torah tells us one more story about Abraham.

“And Abraham took another wife and her name was Keturah.”[10]

Huh? That’s it? After 112 years of marriage to Sarah, Abraham’s second marriage gets only a single verse?

Who was she? How did they meet? It seems unlikely that Abraham frequented the singles events in Hebron. Remember, Abraham was 100 years old when he had Isaac, and Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebecca, so Abraham was now a minimum of 140 years old. All of his possessions he had already given to Isaac. So how eligible a widower could he have been at that point?

The Midrash tells us that Keturah was not a new woman or a stranger to Abraham; she was actually none other than Hagar, the maidservant sent away by Abraham more than 30 years earlier.

So why was she called Keturah? The Midrash gives two reasons: First, because her deeds were as beautiful as incense, which is Ketoret in Hebrew (קְטֹרֶת). Perhaps, given Hagar’s rocky history with Sarah, this new-and-improved Hagar needed to be re-branded.

However, it is the second reason behind Hagar’s new name that is particularly fascinating to me: she was called Keturah because she tied — Katra (קָטְרָה), which is Aramaic for “tied” — her feminine opening; for she was not intimate with any man from the day she separated from Abraham.[11]

Think about that!

Sarah had initially coaxed and encouraged Hagar to be sexually intimate with her husband, and Hagar had complied. They spent that one night together, and Hagar conceived. Despite their coupling, there was no question that Sarah was Abraham’s love, his soulmate, his true wife. If there was any doubt about that, it was quickly dispelled when, shortly thereafter, Abraham endorsed Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar; and then even more so when he banished her from his camp at Sarah’s demand. Nevertheless, despite all that, Hagar was never sexual with another man; instead, she bided her time, waiting, until the day finally came that she became Abraham’s lawfully wedded wife.

What must Hagar have experienced during her one night with Abraham that ruined her for other men? What was it in that sexual liaison that left such an impression that she could not see herself being sexually intimate with anyone else?

When we seek sexual fulfillment, or ultimate sexual pleasure, we often confine ourselves to a single dimension: physical sensation. We search for just the right touch, for our favorite sexual act, with a sexual partner who has the ideal body. Or perhaps we expand those narrow horizons, and turbo-charge our sex by adding our mind and heart to the equation. We link our physical sensations with the emotional feelings that we have toward the other person; we try to blend sexuality with mental stimulation by inviting the erotic into (or out of) our bedroom.

But how about the spiritual? What if we were to transcend the body, the heart, the mind, and to somehow sexually connect with our souls? What if we were to somehow fuse and infuse our sexuality with a deep sense of holiness and reverence?

That kind of a sexual experience might be powerful enough to transform a Hagar into a Keturah.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Genesis, 16:1-3.

[2] Genesis Rabbah, 45:3.

[3] Genesis, 16:4.

[4] Genesis Rabbah, 45:7.

[5] Genesis, 16:6-9.

[6] Genesis, 21:9.

[7] See Genesis Rabbah, 53:11.

[8] Genesis, 21:10-11.

[9] Genesis, 21:12:21.

[10] Genesis, 25:1.

[11] Genesis Rabbah, 61:4.