Build Your Home in the Desert: Hagar’s Story of Compassion

In Parashat Lech Lecha and in Parashat Vayera we read the story of Hagar. From a point of view of a relationship based on power, the story of Hagar and Sarah is a story of jealousy and fear. From a point of view of compassion, their story is a story of forgiveness and freedom.

Hagar goes to the desert twice. In the first time, she runs away. In the second time, she is banished. For Hagar, going to the desert is not a choice. The desert is a place of exile and fear. However, the desert becomes a place of mindfulness and spiritual growth. The desert forces Hagar to practice compassion, and invites her to experience spiritual revelation.

In the first story, Hagar goes to the desert in an attempt to run away from Sarah’s harsh treatment. In a sense, Hagar tries to escape from her fate, from herself. Hagar knows how to survive in the desert; she knows how to find water. The Angel finds her near a fountain. The Angel asks her “Sarai’s handmaid, whence camest thou? and whither goest thou?” As long as Hagar doesn’t know who she is and where she is going to, she is enslaved. Her ability to find water points out her power and ability. But the fountain she sits by is a place of confusion. The Angel guides her: “Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.” This is not indifference to Hagar’s suffering, but rather an invitation to re-discover herself through the practice of compassion.

The word compassion is comprised of the prefix “com” which means “together” and “passion” which means suffering. Therefore, compassion means “to suffer together.” The Angel tells Hagar to bear her suffering. Not to run away from the pain, but rather to know her pain and suffering and be ready to bear them. It is an invitation to bear not only her own suffering, but also Sarah’s suffering: the suffering of the barren woman, whose barrenness sets her against her handmaid. Although they are not equal in status, both Hagar and Sarah share the human yearning for fertility and safety, a yearning that in ancient time manifested itself in bearing sons. In this sense, the pregnant Hagar can be compassionate and generous towards her mistress.

Hagar names the Angel: “Thou art a God of seeing; for she said: Have I even here seen Him that seeth Me?” We all need someone who sees us with kindness, not with the quality of justice, but rather with the quality of mercy. The Angel sees Hagar, and knows her suffering. Yet, simultaneously, the Angel offers her the challenge of seeing not only herself, but also her ‘Other’, Sarah, with compassion. The pregnant Hagar returns to a house that is not her home, ready to be compassionate.

In the second story, Hagar is banished to the desert with her son, Ishmael. Despite the harsh circumstances of the banishment, it is actually liberation. As Sarah’s handmaid, she is Sarah’s property. Therefore, Sarah could have sold her, instead of banish her. In this sense, the banishment is an act of liberation. Despite the fact that Sarah sees Hagar and her son, Ishmael, as a threat, she does not act out of fear and revenge, but rather remembers Hagar’s kindness, when she returned from the desert, and grants Hagar her freedom.

Hagar fears the unknown. She sets out to the desert with some bread and water, and when the water runs out she caves in to despair and cries. Only when she reaches the dark place of the soul, does the Angel approach her and tell her: “Fear not.” This time, the Angel invites Hagar to observe her fear. Fear makes Hagar blind: she sees only imagined disasters of the future, while being oblivious to the present. Hagar is not immune to fear and blindness, the act of seeing needs to be renewed. The Angel awakens Hagar to the present: “What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not… Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand.”

The simple question: what aileth thee? And the invitation not to fear, awaken Hagar and bring her from the fear of an obscure future, to the immediate need of the present. She finds water, and finds life.

Hagar is a rare occasion in the Bible: she is visited by God’s messenger twice, she receives instructions regarding her son’s name, and receives a prophecy regarding the future nations that will grow from her offspring. From this moment onward Hagar will become the authority in her life and in her son’s life: she will instruct him, and choose his bride. And the desert will become her home.

Feature Photo: Pixabay

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