Towards the end of this week’s parasha, almost forgotten between God’s epic “lech lecha” call to Avram, and the chilling “brit bein habetarim” where amidst darkness and smoke Avram experiences a trance-like vision, we read the beginning of Hagar’s story.
Hagar is the Egyptian servant who Sarah suggests becomes a Bible-style surrogate mother for Avram’s child. Hagar falls pregnant but rather than this being the happy family Sarah envisaged, the power balance is disrupted as we are told “when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem.”
Sarah’s response is to treat Hagar harshly, something which the Ramban critiques unequivocally: “Our mother sinned with this abuse, as did Abraham by letting her do so”.
Hagar runs away - the first of two episodes in which we hear of her as a vulnerable figure in the wilderness. We read that “A messenger of God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur”. This angelic messenger speaks to Hagar, offering her reassurances and promises for a strong future for her unborn son.
Harar’s response is remarkable: וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם־יְהֹוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי כִּי אָמְרָה הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי And she called יהוה who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,”*by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after my being seen!”
Hagar speaks directly to God, calling God “the God who sees”. Our commentators interpret this with incredible tenderness. The Ibn Ezra linguistically connects Ro’ i (seeing) with oni (affliction). Similarly, Rashi quotes a midrash in Bereishit Rabba which explains that “the God who sees” means the “One who sees the humiliation to which people are subjected by others”. And the Seforno quotes Bava Metzia 59:
“כל השערים ננעלו חוץ משערי דמעות” that although the gates of prayer have largely remained shut since the destruction of the Temple, the prayer of people complaining (shedding tears) of being dealt with unfairly by their fellow human beings have not been closed.
In this vignette, we see a non-Jewish woman who has slighted our matriarch Sarah. She is on the run, seemingly on her way out of the Holy Land. We might not expect her to be the subject of God’s compassionate “seeing” and consequent care, but she is.
May we all be able to develop a God-like compassion to see suffering in the most marginalised in society, when it is least convenient to see it - in homeless people, in the beggars who go from car to car at traffic lights, in those who do the dirtiest jobs on our streets or in our homes, in those who are so hidden away that we literally don’t see them. May we find the power to see human suffering deeply, and meet it with whatever salve we can offer, just as God did for Hagar.