The Love Triangle
Connection - Separation
Personal check-ins seemed to revolve around this theme of feeling a part of, or feeling distant, and the ebb and flow between those 2 states of being. Perhaps this is reflected in a core part of Judaism, the flow between the sacred and the profane. And a key part of relationships as well, moving from close intimacy to seemingly vast distances. We wondered how this theme might be reflected in the part of the story of Abram and Sarai that we would continue today, Chapter 16 of the Book of B’raysheet.
Sarai remains childless, and encourages Abram to sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, in order that she, Sarai, might be “built up” through her. Abram listens to her, following her advice. We recall that up until this time, most religions in Middle East culture were matriarchal and goddess-based, and that the story of Abraham and Sarah is occurring during a shift in those practices. But still, for now, perhaps Sarai is effectively running the show. And the practice of having a child through a surrogate was one that was accepted, as we later saw in the story of Jacob who had multiple children by the handmaids of his wives Rachel and Leah. But given human nature, it does not mean this was an easy arrangement without conflict.
Genesis 16:5 “The outrage against me is on you . . . I became lowered in her esteem.”
As soon as Hagar and Abram “know” one another, she immediately conceives. Rashi’s commentary (no doubt reflecting his era’s views of the ideal Feminine) tells us that Hagar boasted to the women in the community that Sarai must not be so righteous as she seems since she has remained barren, and in general we sense that Hagar sees herself now in a higher status. Hagar had been a princess in Egypt, the daughter of Pharoah, and was given to Sarai as maidservant by Pharoah after his affliction with leprosy (in the “Sarai is my sister” episode). How must Hagar have felt, going from princess to maidservant for this elderly couple of a nomadic, not yet really established, Hebrew people? How liberated and restored to her grandiose idea of herself she must have felt, now having immediately conceived a child with Abram? One can sense the tides shifting, and Sarai’s sense of outrage at the turn of events. The irony is that it all happened on account of Sarai: the Pharoah is afflicted and gifts his daughter to Sarai, then the tide turns and Sarai and Abram are now afflicted on account of Sarai’s giving Hagar to her husband as surrogate. But one can feel Sarai’s pain: starting out with open heart, offering a solution that seeks the greater good, now she feels betrayed and belittled by Hagar, which establishes the root of the animosity between the 2 women that will play out to harsh consequences.
Feeling between the lines, we realize we are finding ourselves in the midst of a full-on spat between Sarai and Abram. We get the sense that perhaps Sarai, having given Hagar as wife to Abram, is actually outraged at herself for creating this mess, but projects it onto Abram. Such projections provide the fuel for the core fights in which all couples engage. Abram is caught in the whirlwind of projection and emotion, not knowing which way is up, and finally throws up his hands (or throws in the towel). Telling Sarai that Hagar is her maidservant and that she should do with her as she sees fit, he restores the original hierarchy of the threesome’s relationships. Wow, what a scene: to have been a fly on that tent wall. We imagined being in the desert next spring and play-acting this scene out, seeing what different angles and understandings might arise by doing so.
Genesis 16:8. “Where have you come from, and where are you going?”
Running away from Sarai’s harsh treatment of her, Hagar finds herself in the desert, by a spring of water. A messenger of HaShem appears to her and asks a profound question: from where, to where? Hagar responds that she is running away from her mistress. What is her frame of mind? What is the tone of her response? Is she sarcastic? Derisive? Depressed? Haughty? We are left to fill in the emotional content and imagine where her head is at, stumbling through the desert, pregnant, alone.
Where have you come from, and where are you going? This is the huge question that we encounter any time we are at a major crossroads and decision place in our lives, when the old way seems to have crumbled into dust, but we don’t really know where we are going. It is the question Spirit asks of us, demanding us to take an accounting of ourselves, to do so with consciousness and intention. Where have you been that has brought you to this place? What is your history? What are your family of origin issues? What wounds and traumas do you carry? And now, given that, perhaps despite that, where is it you need to be going?
Genesis 16:9-11. “You shall name him Ishmael . . . and he shall be a wild ass of a man”
Even though her ego is bruised, her sense of herself as deserving a higher position shot down, the answer Hagar gets from the angel is: yes, you are a princess, but you have actually just removed yourself from the very place where you can fully manifest that. As difficult as the position in which you find yourself may be, that is exactly where you are supposed to be. The angel tells her to return to Sarai and submit to her domination. Hagar needs to surrender her ego, return to the family, and learn the difficult lesson of humility, the lesson of the sephirah of Hod. The angel also promises that by so doing she will be, in fact, living out her soul’s destiny as princess. She will give birth to a son who will be the head of a great nation.
One final point on the nature of prophecy and hearing voices of angels and God. Do these voices and inspirations really come from the outside, or are these inner knowings, inner shifts and realizations, that our mythology, for the purposes of mythology, like all good mythology, externalizes into the realm of Spirit encountering Human? Did Abram really hear an external voice of God telling him “Lech Lecha”, or was this his inner Soul knowing that for the full expression of his essential Self he needed to leave his place of origin? Does Hagar really hear an external voice of a divine messenger, or is the voice bubbling up from within her in this moment of her emotional distress? Does it matter?
Genesis 16:14: The “Well of the Living One Appearing to Me”, here, between Kadesh and Bared”
Hagar has had a profound vision in her encounter with the angel, and has been profoundly changed by it. We must realize she is one of the few women in our bible who receives such prophecy directly. Yet despite her clear identity as a prophetess, our mythology hardly treats her well. But she is not so unlike Sarai, aka Iscah the Seer, Sarah the Princess, and it is this close similarity that no doubt fuels the harshness of their conflict. Hagar, having had the vision, now also plays the role of many other prophets in naming the place where that vision occurred – “the well where for the sake of Life appeared to me”. The text locates it geographically, but we realize the places named have other meanings. “Hinay” – behold! it is here, between Kadesh and Bared. Kadesh of course means Separate and Holy, and is the first section of the Passover seder. Bared, with one different vowel is Barad, which means hail, the seventh plague of the Passover tale. So this well, this lifespring, this place of Life, of YHVH, lies between a rock and the holy. Or one might say that Behold! . . . life is a wellspring that happens between heaven and hell, all around us, all the time.
The chapter wraps up quickly: Hagar gives birth to a son, and Abram is credited with naming the boy Ishmael (though we know better). We are again left to wonder at what is left out between the sparse lines. How does Hagar enter the camp? How was she greeted by Abram? What attitude did Sarai take towards her? What is Hagar’s attitude now towards each of the others in this love triangle? Did she tell them of her encounter with the Malach HaShem and her transformation, or did she keep this quietly to herself? Or can they sense the change in her, and no words are needed. How do Sarai and Abram relate, now that Hagar is back? How will the story play out?
Saturday December 4 (27 Kislev), the Fourth night of Chanukah; Come learn together and celebrate together! Bring drums and timbrels!
Location: Michael Chusid’s house, 4639 Balboa Ave, Encino. 91316
· 4-6: Torah Study
· 6-7:30: Potluck dinner;
· 7:30 - ?: Chanukah (4th night) Council and Celebration