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Bereishit - Vayera

Hagar Part II - or the Akeidah of Ishmael

Last week we looked at Hagar’s first exile in the desert, and this week she’s there again - this time exiled by Avraham and Sara. And while it’s the heavy story of Akeidat Yitzhak (the near-sacrifice of Isaac) which dominates this week’s sedra, the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert features a compelling number of parallels to Isaac’s story - it is as if Ishmael’s near-death moment in the desert prefigures that of Isaac on the mountain.

I’d encourage you first to take a look at Hagar and Ishmael’s very short story in Bereishit 21:14-19. Now let’s consider the similarities with the Akeidah:

  • In both, Avraham wakes early in the morning - there’s an alacrity

  • In both God asks for a severing of the relationship with a son

  • Each is a test of faith which we know will cause Avraham pain (let alone that of both mothers and sons)

  • Both involve a near-death experience

  • Both take place in a liminal space away from home - the desert and the mountain

  • In both an angel intervenes at the last minute to save the child

  • Both conclude with blessings for the future

  • The stories feature many linguistic echoes, for example both feature “taking” a load and “placing” it:

“And [he] took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, laying it on her shoulder with the child and sent her away (21:14).

“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac (22:6).

Reading the stories side by side, we cannot fail but be struck by the many parallels. Professor Rachel Adelman writes: “The reasons for divine trials remain inscrutable. We, ultimately, will never know why God tests [God’s] subjects. It is clear, nevertheless, that both Ishmael and Hagar, like Isaac and Abraham, undergo a trial of near sacrifice and salvation emblematic of God’s elect.”

In other words, challenging as this idea might seem, these difficult trials involving the near loss and then return of a beloved child are something God sends to those God considers closest. This is further evidence for the idea we considered last week that Hagar, a lowly handmaid who gets on the wrong side of our matriarch Sarah, is nevertheless loved by God. If you find these ideas intriguing, we’ve only just begun scratching the surface. In this book by Harvard Jewish Studies scholar Jon D.Levenson, the author argues that beloved children being taken or almost taken from their parents and returned later is a recurring theme throughout the Tanakh (think Moshe, Yosef, Shmuel and Yiftach’s daughter). He traces the take-up of this theme in Christianity (I’ll let you fill in the Christian version), arguing that this is a great basis for Jewsh-Christian dialogue.

It’s hard to know exactly “why” this theme runs so deep, but I suspect it is to do with God giving those closest the message that everything is in God’s hands. What is most dear to us can be taken… but it can also be returned. At every stage, we are encouraged towards gratitude for what we have, an awareness that nothing can be taken for granted, and a close feeling of dependence on God for all that is good. May these be characteristics of faith we can all achieve, without ever experiencing trials on the scale of Avraham, Sarah or Hagar.

Shabbat shalom!


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