A Hand to Hold
Her beautiful 16-year-old Ishmael lying whimpering nearby from mortal thirst and her own death close at hand, Hagar—in Genesis 21:15–18—is about as pitiable as one might imagine. So when an angel asks, “מה לך, הגר?” (Mah lakh, Hagar? What troubles you, Hagar?; 21:17), one has to wonder what the angel is thinking. “What troubles you?” Why, isn’t it plain?
The angel assures Hagar that God will not only see the doomed Ishmael through, but that great fortune beckons: “Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice where he is . . . A great nation will I make him” (21:17–18). The angel can be forgiven his innocent question, as Hagar heard the same message before. In chapter 16, when Hagar fled Sarai’s abuse, the angel sent her back, saying, “I will surely multiply your seed and it will be beyond all counting . . . Look, you have conceived and will bear a son and you will call his name Ishmael. For the LORD has heeded [literally, God heard] your suffering” (16:10–11). The angel’s message in chapter 16, inscribed in the boy’s name, is that God will act in response to Hagar’s suffering, by making her only child the father of many. As the child is not yet born, however, the name Yishma’el (ישמעאל) signifies that God hears Hagar.
In our chapter, though, the text plays with the question of who needs to be saved and whom God hears. At 21:16, despairing, Hagar sets (or casts) her ailing son down to die, sits a distance away, and raises up her voice and cries. Without having informed us that Ishmael, too, is crying, the text now tells us that “God heard the voice of the lad.” The angel directs Hagar to step back from her despair and act to save her son’s life and prominent legacy. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well of water that had been there all along: “She went and filled the skin with water and gave to the lad to drink. And God was with the lad” (21:19–20). The angel continues: “Rise, lift up the lad and hold him by the hand, for a great nation will I make him.”
“Lift up the lad”: lift him up because he is so weak from thirst that he cannot move on his own.
“Hold him by the hand”: Bring him to the well to drink and be revived.
“For a great nation I will make him”: The present crisis is not his destiny; greatness is.
While Hagar presumably props her son up and revives him, she does not, in fact, lead him to the well: “She went and filled the skin with water and gave to the lad to drink.” Why, then, do we need “Hold him by the hand?” Wouldn’t “lift up the lad” be sufficient?
Another curiosity: True, Hagar has already heard directly from the angel that her life and that of her son are secure. Still, she has been banished from home, sent out by her son’s father to the wilderness with insufficient water and provisions. She has lost her way and, predictably, seen the water run out and her son collapse. At the end of her rope, she leaves her child to die and sobs. Aren’t her tears worthy of God’s attention? Why doesn’t God hear her and Ishmael both?
I think the answer lies with “Hold him by the hand.” When the angel tells Hagar to hold her son’s hand, it’s not to guide him to safety, but to save herself. Ishmael’s great destiny will save her as well. Hagar and Ishmael are without a family, stateless, and destitute; their prospects this day in the wilderness seem to be nil. The angel comes to tell her to hitch her star to her son’s; he will yet be great and she will share in his greatness. When the angel tells Hagar that God has heard the voice of the lad (rather than hers), it’s as if he is saying she’s already saved. She need only revive her son with the water that’s been there all along. The news that God will be with Ishmael means that he will enjoy a life of blessing, and so commences the story of a great and sustaining people.
Hagar believes that her banishment condemns her to ultimate failure as a mother. So consumed with panic at her hopelessness to protect her son, she is blind to the means for his rescue until God opens her eyes. But neither does she see that her own salvation does not sit upon her shoulders (unlike the bread and skin of water Abraham placed there). Ironically, her own salvation resides in the one she must save: “Hold him by the hand (italics added).”
Midrash Sehel Tov (by Menahem ben Solomon in Rome, 1239) draws out this point most poignantly:
[In telling Hagar to lift up her son and then hold Ishmael’s hand,] the angel announces his recovery: “First carry him, and then you will need only take his hand. He will guide you by the hand.” This recalls the passage in Isaiah 51:18, describing Jerusalem, the bereft mother figure: “She has none to guide her, of all the sons she bore; none takes her by the hand, of all the sons she reared.” Isaiah, like the angel before him, preaches comfort:
!התעוררי, התעוררי, קומי ירושלים
Hit’oreri, hit’oreri, kumi Yerushalayim! Rouse yourself and arise, O Jerusalem!
In extremis, prayer offers us two insights: first, as God is with us, we must recognize that we have great capacity, wisdom, and strength. Second, that in adversity, we may already be blessed with the help we need. We are rarely truly alone in our quiet desperations.
We pray that if we open our eyes, there are wells to be found. When all appears lost, we mustn’t blame ourselves for our plight, cursing our foolishness and condemning ourselves by relying only upon ourselves. We must learn to look up, to discover wells of water, and to take the hand of those who will, in turn, save us. May God always train our eyes to see and guide our hands to reach out and to hold.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.