Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yera 5769/ November 15, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Hagar’s Tears

Rachel Levmore

Rabbinical Court Advocate

Doctoral Student in the Department of Talmud

Reading the biblical story of the expulsion of Hagar and her son from Abraham’s house, we feel a sense of cruelty.  At first glance the cruelty focuses around the suggestion that they be banished and around their banishment itself, but on closer reading we see that the one who acts cruelly is the ostensible victim and not the person who banished them.

In the first few verses describing the fate of the banished mother and child we encounter a surprising point (Gen. 21:15-17).   On the one hand, Hagar cries:   “She raised her voice, wailing” (Gen. 21:16), yet on the other, it is the boy’s cry and not the mother’s that the Lord answers, even though we have not been told that the boy cried at all:   “G-d heard the cry of the boy” (Gen. 21:17).  I would like to examine this story from the point of view of the mother and suggest why G-d did not answer her cry. [1]

I have always been deeply disturbed by Hagar’s behavior in response to the hardship of being expelled, as described in Scripture.   On every re-reading of the passage, Hagar’s behavior enrages me anew.  True she was in a desperate situation, with no possibility of saving her son, yet first and foremost she was a mother, and so we would expect her to act in a motherly fashion.   But what does she do?

She left [or, rendered more literally, cast] the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.”  And sitting thus afar, she raised her voice, wailing (Gen. 21:15-16).

She throws down her son!   Is this fitting behavior for a mother?   A proper mother would have held her son in her arms, crying bitterly over his fate while trying to console him, so that he not fear.  This is the most difficult task of all facing a parent, and the ultimate challenge is to hold one’s child and give him encouragement as he faces death.  Just as a mother helps bring her child into the world and give him life, so, too, when the situation is such that the child may die, his mother must help him depart from the world as best she can.

Scripture focuses on the mother and her actions, so we are not aware of the crying of the child himself, but the opposite.   We hear about the mother not hearing her son crying.  Our not hearing his voice follows on the heels of Hagar’s deafness.  Not only does she cast him away, she moves a considerable distance off, apparently so that she will not be able to hear him crying, not only so that she will not see him. [2]   Hagar is portrayed first and foremost as unbelievably self-centered.  She may have cried, but that was only because she was in pain, not because her son was in pain.  Clearly it would be out of place to respond to the egotistical crying of such a cruel mother; better, rather, to respond to the inaudible crying of the boy, “where he is,” the boy whose cruel fate was to be raised and “cared for” by such a mother.   At that point in time Ishmael had done nothing wrong (at least according to the plain sense of the text) and did not deserve to die in such a manner, without even minimal emotional support.   Therefore, his voice, not heard by his mother, was indeed heard by He who hears all, and was answered (Gen. 21:17-18):

G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him” (Gen. 21:17-18).

The Holy One, blessed be He, had to instruct Hagar how to behave as a mother.   Thus far no mention is made of her searching for water in the desert.  She threw up her hands the moment the skin of water she had taken with her was finished.   This is an unexpected approach, for Hagar was experienced at finding water in the desert. This was the second time that she had had to survive under such harsh conditions (Gen. 16:6):

Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands.   Do with her as you think right.”   Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.

An angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur.

Given that the first time Hagar had been sent off into the desert she easily found a source of water, one would have expected her to repeat her steps, or at least make an attempt, since she was already experienced in the desert and knew that it was possible to find water there.  But Hagar did not place her son down in a shady spot and go off to find water in order to save him; rather, she cast him away from her so that she would not have to face the difficult experience of his death:  “When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes.”  G-d had to teach   Hagar to rise, to make an effort and pick up her son and take him by the hand – actions that ought to be instinctive for any mother.  Aside from this, her eyes had to be opened to show her the well of water, since she had not gone in search of one herself:  “Then G-d opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.  She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Gen. 21:19).

It is for good reason that Scripture then describes the child growing:  “G-d was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman.   He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt” (Gen. 21:21). [3]

Returning to the beginning of the story and comparing Sarah’s behavior to that of Hagar, it becomes clear that Sarah’s demand, which at first appears cruel to us, was the epitome of proper and natural concern of a mother for her son:

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.   She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Gen. 21:9)

Sarah knew that the behavior of all those around her son would influence him, and therefore she was extremely cautious and critical about everyone who came into contact with him.  Although her idea was extremely displeasing to Abraham – “the matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned his son” (Gen. 21:11) – nevertheless Sarah stood firm in her position, and this received the very highest stamp of approval:

But G-d said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.”

The Creator understands the nature of the human beings whom He created and the role of mothers in bearing and raising their children.  Sarah’s educational approach, founded on the utmost concern for her child, bore fruit.  Isaac trusted fully in his parents, as is illustrated by the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read later on.

The story of these two mothers and their different approaches to their children provides a forceful illustration of Rabbi Simeon ben Levi’s statement:  “Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said:  Whoever is cruel to the merciful will ultimately become merciful to the cruel.  Whoever is merciful to the cruel, will ultimately fall by the sword.” [4]


[1] I have not come across any similar interpretations in the midrash or in biblical exegesis through the ages.

[2] Rabbi Isaac said:  A bowshot away – two bowshots equal one mile (Genesis Rabbah [Vilna edition], chapter 53, s.v. va-yashkem Avraham).

[3] The natural results of the behavior of both of Ishmael’s parents are reflected in the text.  In the annunciation of Ishmael’s birth to Hagar it says (Gen. 16:11-12):   “The angel of the Lord said to her further, ‘Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering.  He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; he shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.’”  The Lord headed Hagar’s suffering out of her egotism – “her mistress was lowered in her esteem” (v. 4), and likewise, “the Lord has paid heed to your suffering,” and the natural result is that her son, too, is egotistical – “his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; he shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.” This stands in contrast to the Lord’s response when He heeded Abraham in regard to Ishmael (Gen. 17:20):  “As for Ishmael, I have heeded you.  I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous.  He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.”  Abraham’s hope was not self-centered, for her was concerned only with Ishmael’s welfare (Gen. 17:18):  “And Abraham said to G-d, ‘O that Ishmael might live by Your favor,’” and the natural result of such concern for another person was the blessing the Lord gave Ishmael, that he become a great nation.  On the natural results of parents’ behavior towards their children, see Rudolf Dreikurs, Children: The Challenge, New York: Plume, 1964.


[4] Midrash Samuel, ch. 18, s.v. va-yahamol Sha’ul.   Sarah’s actions, not having mercy on Hagar and her son, laid the foundation for her son Isaac not falling by the sword, i.e., the knife in the binding of Isaac.  Hagar’s actions, cruelly casting her son under the bushes, led to her offspring growing up into “a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12).