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The Return of Hagar

The Return of Hagar


And Abraham again took a wife, and her name was Keturah

Genesis 25:1

Keturah is Hagar. Why is she called Keturah? For her deeds were [now] as pleasing as the ketoret.

Midrash Rabbah on verse

Hagar was the Egyptian maidservant of Abraham's first wife, Sarah. When Sarah had failed to conceive a child after many years of marriage, she implored Abraham to have a child with Hagar. Hagar did give Abraham a child, Ishmael, who turned out "a wild man, whose hand is against everyone and everyone's hand is against him" (Genesis 16:12). Sarah then demanded of Abraham that he banish Hagar and Ishmael from their home. When Abraham hesitated, G‑d instructed him, "whatever Sarah tells you to do, hearken to her voice." Hagar drifted back to the paganism of her homeland, and found an Egyptian wife for Ishmael.

Years later, however, we find Ishmael back in the Abrahamic fold, accompanying Abraham and Isaac to the akeidah. And then, three years after Sarah's death, Abraham remarries Hagar. The reconciliation is now complete—indeed it is Sarah's son, Isaac, who brings Hagar back for her marriage with his father (as per Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 24:62).

"Everything that happened to the Patriarchs," say our sages, "is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates on... the events of their lives... for they all come to instruct the future" (Nachmanides on Genesis 12:6). The same is true regarding the shifts in Abraham's relationship with his "barbarous" wife and son: his expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and their subsequent readmission into his family represent the different stages in our history of dealing with the "Hagars" and "Ishmaels" in our lives—the raw and unruly elements in our nature, society and environment.

The Spiritualist, the Miner, and the Future

There are three basic ways of dealing with the mundanity in one's life: a) disavowal, b) refinement or c) sublimation.

The first approach is that of the ascetic, whose reaction to mundanity is to escape it. Repelled by the corporeality of physical life, he reduces his involvement in the material to the bare minimum and devotes his life to spiritual pursuits.

Then there is the "refiner," who approaches the untamed wilderness of materiality as a prospector panning for gold. He knows that much of what passes through his hands is profitless sludge, but he is searching for the nuggets of sublimity imbedded within. So he doesn't disavow the material, but neither does he embrace it unequivocally. His life is an exercise in selectivity: to extract the sparks of potential while rejecting the irredeemable dross.

The third approach is that of the "sublimator," who refuses to regard any element of G‑d's creation as "irredeemable." He insists that every creature, every force, every experience, no matter how lowly, can be transformed into something positive and holy. There is nothing that is intrinsically negative in G‑d's world, he argues; evil and corruption are never more than skin deep. Everything can, and should, be transformed into a force for good.

These three approaches are actually three stages in the history of human potential. On the second day of creation, G‑d divided His creation into two domains, decreeing that "The lower realms shall not ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms shall not descend to the lower realms." The breach between the spiritual and the physical was absolute: the spiritual could not be actualized, nor could the physical be sanctified. Man had a choice—he could either succumb to the mundanity of the material, or he could transcend it. "Refining" or "sublimating" the material was beyond the capacity of a world in which an inviolable boundary separated the holy from the mundane.

This state of affairs prevailed for the twenty-six generations from Adam to Moses. Then, as the Midrash describes it, G‑d rescinded His decree. On the sixth of Sivan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 bce), "G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai," setting the precedent that the supernal may permeate the earthly, "and to Moses He said: 'Ascend to G‑d,' " empowering the earthly to be elevated.

The era of "refinement" (birur) commenced. At Sinai, we were enfranchised to extract kernels of holiness from the husk of materiality. We were given a guidebook, the Torah, to teach us how to distinguish between that which can be positively utilized and that which must be rejected. The Torah spells out which foodstuffs are elevated when they energize our positive deeds, and which coarsen our minds and hearts and deaden our spiritual sensitivities; which relationships can bring love, joy and sanctity to our marital lives, and which are exploitative and debasing. The same applies to every area of life: the Torah instructs us which elements of physical life we are to embrace and develop, and which we are to reject and disavow. To attempt to go beyond this guide—to seek to sublimate that which the Torah decrees to be irredeemable—is futile and counterproductive. Just as pre-Sinai man was incapable of bridging the divinely imposed barrier between matter and spirit, so, too, are we capable of sanctifying only that which the Creator of life has empowered us to sanctify.

Finally, G‑d promises that there will come a time when "I shall remove the spirit of impurity from the earth" (Zachariah 13:2). A time when all evil and negativity shall cease from the earth and the positive essence of every creature and phenomenon in G‑d's world shall come to light. No longer will we face the daily challenge of winnowing the holy from the profane; no longer will we know the pain of being compelled to relinquish potent areas of our lives because of our inability to properly and constructively channel them. Instead, we will inhabit a world in which everything will naturally lend itself to a good and G‑dly end.

Abraham's Sinai

Abraham lived in the pre-Sinai era. This means that, ultimately, his achievements were confined to the spiritual realm. He forged the Jewish soul, developing his own life into a paradigm of loving kindness and commitment to G‑d and bequeathing these qualities to his descendants. He battled the near-universal paganism of his time, prevailing upon many of his generation to renounce their idols and recognize the one G‑d. But the physical substance of creation was largely unaffected; the divine demarcation between the spiritual and the material was still in force, precluding any human endeavor to sanctify the mundane.

Nevertheless, as "father" and archetype of the Jewish nation, Abraham embodied the entire history of our mission in life. So Abraham's life also included a transcendent "pre-Sinai" period, a "refinement" period, as well as the futuristic "sublimation" era. These three phases in the life of Abraham are delineated by the three Parshiot (Torah sections) which the Torah devotes to Abraham's life: Lech-Lecha (Genesis 12-17), Vayeira (18-22) and Chayei Sarah (23-25).

The exclusively spiritual period in Abraham's life lasted until his circumcision. The divine instruction to circumcise himself was Abraham's "Sinai"--the first (and only) occasion on which G‑d commanded a mitzvah (Torah commandment) to him. For the first time in his life, Abraham could perform a mitzvah—an act that carries a divine empowerment to transform a physical entity (in this case, his own body) into an object of divine will.

[This explains a curious detail of Abraham's behavior related by the Torah. When Abraham wanted his servant, Eliezer, to take an oath, he told him to "place your hand under my thigh"(Genesis 24:2). An oath is taken while holding a sacred object such as a Torah scroll or tefillin; here Abraham is telling Eliezer to swear on the part of his own body sanctified by the mitzvah of circumcision. Yet our sages tell us that "Abraham observed the entire Torah" though it was yet to be given [at Sinai]; so Abraham studied Torah, put on tefillin, affixed a mezuzah on his doorpost, etc. It would therefore seem that he had no shortage of "sacred objects" available to him. Why, then, did he have Eliezer place his hand "under his thigh," contrary to all common standards of modesty and propriety? But as explained above, the import of Abraham's pre-Sinai mitzvot were of a wholly spiritual nature. Since G‑d had not commanded him to do them, they remained human deeds, subject to the natural law that separated the spiritual from the material; while they had a profound effect on his own soul, the souls of his descendants, and the spiritual essence of creation, they had no impact on the material substance of the universe. The single exception was the mitzvah of circumcision, whose commandment by G‑d constituted an empowerment to sanctify the physical. Thus, this was indeed the only sacred object available to Abraham.]

The significance of this watershed event in Abraham's life is emphasized by the fact that, upon commanding him to circumcise himself, G‑d changed Abraham's name. Originally, the first Jew's name was Abram; G‑d added the Hebrew letter heh to make it Abraham. "Abram" is an acronym for the Hebrew words av ram--"exalted father"; "Abraham" stands for av hamon goyim--"father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis, 17:5). Before he was granted the commandment of circumcision, Abram was an exalted father—a progenitor of spiritual achievements and a founder of a spiritual legacy; his deeds, however, remained "exalted," beyond the realm of the material. Upon his circumcision, Abraham assumed a role of influence upon "a multitude of nations"--a role that involved his refinement and elevation of the pedestrian and the mundane (to the extent that this was possible before Sinai).

The Refining Woman

"Male and female He created them," is how the Torah describes G‑d's creation of human life. Indeed, this duality extends to all forms of life, and to all elements of creation—heaven and earth, sun and moon, energy and matter, and the numerous other physical models of maleness and femaleness. The same is true of the spiritual essence of life—our relationship with G‑d comprises both a "male" initiating and achieving aspect, and a "female" receptive and nurturing element.

Thus we find that many mitzvot are commanded solely to the man, while others are the domain of the woman: a husband and wife, our sages explain, embody the two halves of a single soul; the deeds of each contribute to their common soul's fulfillment of both the "masculine" and "feminine" elements of its mission in life. More specifically, each mitzvah is both a "male" and "female" act: it is an act of conquest, of aggressive appropriation of resources from an alien domain for holy purposes, as well as an act of nurture, of refining, purifying and developing the appropriated resource into a vessel of holiness. In the words of the Talmud, "Man brings home grain; but does he chew grain?" Man wrests nutritive potential from the earth, but it is the woman who winnows the chaff from the cereal, sifts the fine flour from the coarse, and kneads, forms and bakes it to edible perfection.

Thus it was Sarah, the female half of Abraham's soul, who effected the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. When Abraham hesitated, loath to relinquish the potent potentials implicit in his pagan mate and wild son, G‑d said to him: "whatever Sarah tells you to do, hearken to her voice." True, you are now Abraham, father of multitudes and elevator of the mundane, but in every refinement process there is the extractable ore and the unprofitable rubble. Hagar and Ishmael represent elements of My creation too crude, too volatile, to be redeemed by your efforts. Sarah, your feminine sense of differentiation, has rejected them—do as she says.

However, Abraham's life includes a post-Sarah era as well—an era in which the most savage of Ishmaels and the most foreign of Hagars have a place in Abraham's family. (Thus Hagar is here called "Keturah," connoting the fact that "her deeds were as pleasing as the ketoret"; for the ketoret, too, represents the transformation of the "irredeemable" elements of creation into a vessel of holiness). This era in Abraham's life is the forerunner and prototype for the age of sublimation, when "no longer will your Master be cloaked; your eyes shall see your Master" (Isaiah 30:20)--when the divine essence of creation will no longer be shrouded in a mantle of corporeality and the positive utility of every creature will be manifest and accessible.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Anonymous USA November 10, 2012

I'll be thinking about that article and rereading it for a while. It's very interesting and complicated. Reply

Michele Francis Chicago Ridge, IL November 9, 2012

Hagar / Keturah Very insightful. I believe that Hagar longed to be refined, and worthy of Abraham. It is good to know that that last segment of her life was pleasing to G-d thus reflecting her new name. I love Sara who set a righteous pattern for us to follow. Nothing happens by coincidence. man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." "Baruch Hashem," Reply

Anonymous Poway, CA April 13, 2012

Hagar is not Keturah I don't believe that Keturah is Hagar. In 1 Chronicles they are listed as two different people. Reply

Marti Bellingham, WA November 25, 2011

Still don't get it... I read this and agree with everything except the premise. I just don't see any rationale for suggesting that Keturah is Hagar. Yes, it's in Midrash Rabbah, but with no justification. Rashi says it's so...Plautt doesn't see any evidence... Reply

Anonymous Salt Lake City, Ut. USA via October 28, 2011

Sara's Mitzvah It takes a male and a female to create many mitzvot. Together Sarah and Abraham did that. My thought is what if Abraham died before Sarah? What kind of Mitzvah would be left for Sarah on her own? Would she be responsible to nurture Hagar and Ishmael? What would her new Mitzvah for the remainder of her life be? Would she be required to remarry? Reply

Anonymous November 15, 2009

Hagar / Keturah Lots to chew on here...wonder if in this scenerio Hagar & Abraham carefully heard, carefully considered and carefully lived by true fruitfulness in Abraham's values of faith or just chose to continue the problematic fleshly concubine relationship as in Abram's past... Reply

Anonymous November 12, 2009

Hagar since she was an egyptian did she have to convert? Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, ny November 11, 2009

fascinating i really enjoyed this well written article. it explains fundamental concepts in a clear, easy to understand format. Reply

Yosepha Red Deer NY, NY May 10, 2009

Hagar, a return to Gdliness Found this article very informative and short considering how much information is needed to give this historical occurrence its proper place in our commentaries and narratives.

More people need to see the whole picture and not just words on paper. It helped me explain Hagar to a former Muslim woman who is now Jewish (her mother was forced to be a Muslim and they were able to return to Judaism in USA) thanks. Reply

HappyMinyan Los Angeles, California March 30, 2009

cosmic narrative I was asked what Hagar's role in Abraham's life was and I responded, "She is the proper wife to the widower (or divorced man?). The fact that she has a place in the story before Sarah passes away suggests to me that a second wife (or husband) IS written into the cosmic narrative; she's not an extraneous character or a wife by default. Had I read this post, I'd have added that "she is the symbol of Divine Essence shrouded in corporeal crudeness---transformed." Reply

pie January 25, 2009

length i think that this is really long but really informative Reply

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