Hagar and Avraham’s Encounter with Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Lech Lecha

From childhood, I have enjoyed analyses of the Torah that account for te’amim, the notes that guide how we chant the Torah. [It started with a comment of the Vilna Gaon on the beginning of parshat Va-Yigash, too long to share here, but contact me and I’ll send it to you.]

Be’er Lachai or Lachai Ro’i?

In 16;14, HaKetav ve-Ha-Kabbalah finds an example. The verse tells us Hagar named the well where she encountered the angel who told her to return to Avraham’s household, bear Sarah’s treatment of her, and that she would have a boy. When the experience is over she calls the angel (or God Who sent the angel) E-l Ro’i, usually translated as the (Almighty) God Who sees, then names the well Be’er Lachai Ro’i, I think generally read to mean the Well of the Living God Who Sees.

R. Mecklengburg points out this version links lachai, living, to ro’i, Who sees, where the te’amim group lachai with the word be’er, well. (It’s a mercha tipcha for be’er lachai, indicating a stop within a phrase, then the etnachta, the stop for the middle of the verse, for ro’i.) Whatever the words mean, the grouping suggest lachai describes the well rather than God. It’s the lachai well of the Seeing God.

He just has to define lachai, a word he found in Ketubbot 91b, where it means good, as in “if this is satisfactory to you, lechayei, and if not, then take this.” (As I’ve written, the word there is actually lechayei, with two yuds, but R. Mecklenburg does not seem to think it makes a difference.) For a closer example, when David contacts Naval (to share some of his bountiful harvest because David’s forces had protected his flocks), I Shmuel 25;6, he tells the messengers to say lechai (here, it is leh chai, rather than le-chai, as we have it in Bereshit). For David, the word means something like “live well,” or “be successful.”

From those two examples, R. Mecklenburg claims Hagar named the well the good-fortune well of the Seeing God, different from usual translations, with his starting point how the te’amim group the words.

The Implications of an Unusual Name of God

Like his maidservant/concubine, Avraham gives God a Name we do not often see, notes R. Hirsch to 15;2. We might not spot the difference, because we read the Name Hashem Elokim, one we see many times in the Torah. However, that usually consists of the four-letter Name (written with a yud, hei, vav, and then another hei, but pronounced like the Hebrew word with the root adon, master). Here, it is actually written Ado… Then the second word, usually Elokim, is here the four-letter Name.

R. Hirsch tells us it appears only three more times in the Torah, once six verses from now, said again by Avraham, and twice by Moshe. The first word displays Avraham’s sense of God as sole Master. Had it meant one master among many, Avraham should have said adoni, says R. Hirsch; the way we have it signals God is the sole One.

The second Name here, the four letter one (often considered an indication of the middat ha-rachamim, God’s Attribute of mercy, or giving another chance), is pronounced as if it were the Name Elokim (the Attribute of Justice) to highlight the underlying rachamim in God’s Justice. Justice and judgment are tools to reach God’s kindness, he says. Even when God punishes us fully, to the extent we deserve, it lays the groundwork for a future with bounty and blessing.

In the current vision, Hashem informs Avraham of a difficult period in his descendants’ future (four hundred years of exile), followed by great goodness. Avraham is declaring God his sole master, along with his awareness of the interplay between justice and kindness, his trust God is doing what is right and best, with good outcomes, even if he himself does not understand them.

A different Hashem Elokim than we are used to, this one—according to R. Hirsch—to declare one’s submission to God’s Justice, an announcement of one’s confidence in the Master, Whose strictness always leads to a better world.

Avraham’s Sense of Family

During the war of the four kings against the five, Lot is taken captive, with all his possessions and those of the people of Sodom and the other four cities. The verse that tells us Avraham heard of the situation, 14;14, speaks only of Lot’s captivity, telling Malbim Avraham cared only about his relative, not the money.

His connection to Lot stands out because Lot had chosen to leave Avraham’s company, yet Avraham still felt the need to save him. Malbim reminds us of Rambam’s claim in the Guide that a low level of prophecy comes when the spirit of Hashem pushes someone to extraordinary acts, such as when Yehonatan the son of Shaul invaded the Philistine camp with just him and his attendant. Avraham, too, attacks the four kings, and does not ask his allies to join him, only his students and the members of his household.

[I think Malbim is saying that being someone’s student makes that person part of the family. Avraham took the students who wanted to learn about God’s service, and the servants born into his household, but not the allies with whom he had made a pact. This was a family matter, so he kept it in the family.]

It worked, because despite their small numbers they chased the kings all the way north, to where Dan would eventually settle.

Avraham Was Supposed to Separate From Lot

Although R. David Zvi Hoffman agrees with Malbim about Avraham’s sense of familial connection, in the introduction to the parsha he gives the sense Avraham was supposed to separate from Lot more quickly than he did. He says the chapter shows how Divine Providence brought about the fulfillment of Hashem’s command to Avraham to leave his land and his father’s house. Lot wanted to join, and Avraham did not have the heart to turn him down.

However, Lot wasn’t a proper companion, as we see from his later choice to live in Sodom. (An important point: Lot’s ability to live comfortably in Sodom itself reveals a flaw in his character.) So Hashem brought about circumstances where Lot would choose to leave, to achieve the goal,  Avraham separating completely from his family of origin.

R. Hoffman sees support for the point in Hashem’s appearing to Avraham immediately after Lot left, then reiterated the Divine promise that Avraham’s descendants would inherit the Land, now adding the words “ad olam, forever,” the promise firmed up once he has established a family free of those negative original influences. [It’s interesting to see him so adamant on this point, when Avraham will send back home for a wife for Yitzchak, who will send Ya’akov there to find a wife as well. In living, R. Hoffman thinks a complete split was the only way.]

The story also shows some of Avraham’s qualities, says R. Hoffman, such as letting Lot choose where to live despite his being the senior member of the family, to avoid further fighting.

Two comments on God, Hagar’s sense of the well as a place of good fortune from God and Avraham’s appealing to the rachamim underlying God’s Justice, and two on Avraham and his sense of family, leading him to come to Lot’s aid, after having been required by Hashem to remove himself from that family.

About Gidon Rothstein

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