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As Sweet As Incense

By: Rav Michael Susman

While I was completing this shiur the shocking news of the terror attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was reported here in Israel. This shiur is dedicated to the memory of the victims and to a Refua Shlaima of those who were wounded.

Women dominate the narrative of this week’s parsha.  From the death of Sara Imeinu to the search for a wife for Yitzhak Aveinu and the ultimate discovery of Rivkah Imeinu, our parsha is about the women who made Am Yisrael.

There is, however, a third woman in our parsha who often goes unmentioned.  Even her identity is something of a mystery, yet she bore six sons to Avraham Aveinu. The reference of course is to Ketora, who Avraham marries after the death of Sara and after Yitzhak marries Rivka.

As is common in situations like this, our identification of a mysterious or obscure personality in Chumash is often defined by Rashi. In his commentary to 25:1 Rashi tells us that Ketora is none other than Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant turned concubine, who had already borne Yishmael.  Rashi makes this identification based on the Midrash which suggests that the name Ketora is linked to the word Ketoret, incense. Hagar’s actions, says the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 61), were as pleasing as incense.  Rashi then highlights a specific aspect of Hagar’s behavior that was worthy of praise, the fact that she remained faithful to Avraham after he sent her away and did not sleep with other men.

While neither Rashi nor the Midrash he quotes mentions it, Hagar’s chaste behavior contrasts strongly and positively with the behavior of Orpah, Rut’s sister and daughter- in-law of Naomi. Orpah and Rut are faced with a choice when their mother-in-law, Naomi decides to return to Beit Lechem after the death of her husband and two sons. Initially both Rut and Orpah insist on accompanying their mother-in law back to Yehuda, even though Naomi tries to dissuade them. While Rut refuses to be deterred, Orpah ultimately follows her mother-in-law’s advice and returns home to Moav. According to the Chazal (Sota 42b), she then behaves in a shockingly promiscuous manner, and as a result is impregnated and gives birth to Golyat. I believe that the contrast is telling. Chazal see those who leave Tzadikkim (or, as in the case of Hagar, were banished from the company of Tzadikkim) as being especially prone to a radical change in behavior. Orpah is the classic case; Lot might be another. Hagar, on the other hand, seems to have successfully resisted this impulse to the extent that none other then Yitzhak seeks her out to bring her back to his father (see Breishit Rabba 60, also quoted by Rashi on 24:62).

What is surprising about all of this is that either Hagar or Rashi seem to have done a major turnaround. How else can we explain the fact that Rashi has taken a dim view of Hagar up until now? When Avraham, at Sarah’s insistence, banished Hagar and Yishmael from their home, Rashi (21:14) suggests that Hagar returned to the idolatrous ways of her family. Yet here we are, four perakim later, and Rashi is singing her praises!

To be sure, the suggestion that Ketora and Hagar are one and the same is far from universally accepted. There are other opinions, both in the Midrash and amongst the Rishonim. Rashbam famously dismisses his grandfather’s contention with a curt, five word statement (“lefi hapeshat zot ainena Hagar - according (to) Peshat, this isn’t Hagar”). And he is not the only one. Ralbag, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Radak and Abarbanel all reject the Midrash. In doing so,they also shift the focus of our discussion. It is relatively easy to understand why Avraham would have taken Hagar back as his wife. After all, they have a long-standing relationship and she is the mother of his son. Any tension that might have existed between them seems to be a function of the triangular relationship that Hagar shared with Sara and Avraham. Despite Avraham’s deep and enduring love for Sara (see my Chayei Sarah shiur from 2006), with Sara’s death  there is no obvious reason why Avraham would not take Hagar back. As we mentioned above, even Yitzhak is fine with it.  However, if we are dealing with Avraham marrying a woman with whom he has not had a longstanding relationship, his decision to remarry becomes somewhat less understandable. To argue that he still has close to forty years to live is difficult. For all Avraham knows, he will die tomorrow. So why does he choose to remarry? 

This question is discussed by many commentators. Abarbanel alone offers six different answers, some more compelling than others. I would like to reference one of his approaches, primarily in order to contrast it to an idea suggested by Ralbag. Abarbanel suggests that the purpose of Avraham’s late marriage was to produce offspring whose status would be similar to the status of Yishmael. By doing so Abraham reasoned that he would create a situation where friction and tension between Yitzhak and Yishmael would be lessened, since Yishmael would see that Yitzhak’s preferred status as Avraham’s heir was not directed against Yishmael personally, but was rather a reflection of Hashem’s larger plan. According to Abarbanel it worked, as the reconciliation which the Torah hints of between Yitzhak and Yishmael at the time of Avraham's death (25:8-9), would seem to attest.

Ralbag, however, suggests an almost diametrically opposed idea. Commenting on Avraham's decision to send Ketora’s sons away prior to his death, Ralbag briefly, almost off-handedly, notes that once Avraham's recognized that none of them were worthy of being successors on the level of Yitzhak he sent them away. This is in fact a radical idea. What Ralbag, in direct contrast to Abarbanel’s thinking, seems to be suggesting is that Avraham was actively looking for additional heirs to supplement Yitzhak in the role of the “Chosen One”. It also raises a fascinating, if theoretical, possibility, namely that it was possible that such an individual could emerge. This seems to stand in direct contradiction to the passuk (21:12) that clearly states “Ki b’Yitzhak yikare lecha zera”, that your heirs will be descended from Yitzhak. Nonetheless, Ralbag suggests it.

What is most interesting about Ralbag is how he introduces this idea. As I mentioned it is a brief, matter of fact comment on why Avraham's chose to send Ketora’s sons away, not a discussion of why Avraham's chose to remarry or of the implications of having sons who might have merited to stay within Avraham's (and subsequently) Yitzhak’s orbit. Perhaps Ralbag was merely reporting on what was a given. Naturally Avraham sent them away, because of course they would not prove to be worthy of staying with Yitzhak. Or perhaps Ralbag envisioned a scenario where some of these sons would have proven to be worthy and would have merited remaining linked to Yitzhak in some secondary role. Either way, it is a surprising comment with potentially far-reaching implications.

We had begun our study by quoting Rashi’s identification of Ketora as Hagar, and pointed out how this identification seemed to trap Rashi in a contradiction. The very same Hagar who in perek 21 was being criticized for returning to idol worship is now being praised as worthy of Avraham in in perek 25. In his work, Torah Shlaima, Rav Menachem Kasher (25:1, note 10) quotes two sources which might help us understand Rashi, and more fundamentally understand who Hagar really was. Rav Kasher first quotes the Medrash Tanchuma which explains that the name Ketora is linked to sweet smelling incense used during idol worship. Hagar is called Ketora because she once used to bring the incense as an offering to idolatry but now her actions are as sweet as incense. In other words she had done teshuva and was worthy of remarrying Avraham Aveinu.

This medrash firmly places Hagar in the grouping of people who rejected the values of the environment that they left and embraced diametrically opposed behaviors. What remains for us to explore is why Hagar chose to come back. Our starting point will be the difference between the parting of Oprah from Naomi and Rut and Hagar’s leaving the home of Avraham (Lot is a more complicated case and therefore beyond the scope of our discussion). When Naomi decides to return to Judea she tries to dissuade her daughters-in-law from accompanying her because she understands the challenges they will face in Beit Lechem. She has their best interests in mind and honestly believes that they should stay in their homeland. However, as Rut demonstrates, the choice to stay or go is in their hands, and Naomi will stand in the way of that choice. Hagar is a very different situation. She is banished from Avraham's household at Sarah’s insistence (and with the approval of Hashem Himself!), and left to fend for herself and her son with insufficient supplies in the unforgiving desert. Let us add to this the tension that has existed between her and Sarah pretty much from the moment Sarah gave her to Avraham as a wife, including being persecuted by her mistress. While there is no question that Hagar herself bears a great deal of responsibility for the situation that developed it is also likely that she was equally a victim of the circumstances. With this background, would it be surprising that Hagar would choose to return to the idol worship of her parents?

In light of the above, one final source quoted by Rav Kasher in the same footnote is of particular interest. The Sefer Chemdat Yamim* explains that the beautiful habits that Hagar adopted and earned her the name Ketora were acts of Chesed and Tzedaka. These traits, of course, were the traits which defined Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Imeinu’s household. When Sarah looked for a maidservant to give to Avraham to bear children it is quite likely that she searched for someone who also shared the characteristics that were so central to her home in the hope that any children would be worthy of carrying on Avraham and Sarah’s legacy. Apparently Sarah saw that in Hagar. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to suggest that the tensions and frictions that developed within Avraham Aveinu’s household may have overshadowed those characteristics to the extent that after being banished Hagar returned to Avoda Zara. Yet, as time passed Hagar once again resembled incense in both her public and private life, and with the death of Sarah Imeinu, merited a remarriage to Avraham Aveinu.

* (I am unsure as to which book Rav Kasher is referring, a google search turned up a great deal of discussion of a controversial Kabbalist work which many believe is of Sabbetian origin, but I believe this is a different work)

Shabbat shalom - Rav Susman



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