On Monday morning of Rosh Hashanah, Jews in my congregation and around the world will take out the Torah and hear the same story. Ironically, the hero of our first High Holy Day scriptural reading is not famous by most Jewish standard. He or she is not Abraham or Sarah, Moses or Isaac. She is a Egyptian woman named Hagar, the mother of a boy named Ishmael, the father of the Arab nation.
As the Torah explains, Hagar’s story is tragic. Abraham’s wife Sarah is old and unable to conceive a child. One day, Sarah presents her slave Hagar to him, hoping that if she bears a child through him, it would become a proxy for the child that she cannot create. However, Sarah is not prepared for the results of this union. Hagar soon conceives and Sarah finds herself filled with animosity. She punishes and abuses Hagar until eventually Hagar runs away.
Finding herself alone in the desert, Hagar encounters an angel of God who tells her that soon she would bear a child named Ishmael. God had heard her cries and was asking that she return home to Sarah. If she listens she will be blessed.
All of this is background to our reading on Monday. As we learn each year, Hagar does return home and quickly time passes. Ishmael grows up and Hagar grows older. Then, Sarah bears a son named Isaac. After his weaning, Sarah observes something unseemly between her son and Ishmael. Our ancient rabbis abound with explanations for what happened, but more important than the events of that day, are its outcome. Sarah is angry and decides that Hagar and Ishmael must be banished. She approaches Abraham and demands that he send them off. At first, Abraham is distressed from this plea, but God intervenes, telling Abraham to listen to Sarah and promising that a great nation will emerge from Hagar and Ishmael. The next day, Abraham throws Hagar and their son out.
For most, Hagar’s story is resonant. A victim of her circumstances she is cast aside. However, it was not until I found myself in Hagar’s shoes that I understood how deeply she symbolizes so many of the most heart wrenching aspects of divorce.
A few years ago my marriage fell apart. And like Hagar I was suddenly adrift. Once comfortable in my family, in an instant I was unmoored. Though I have since remarried, am happy, and have found my footing, I am reminded each Rosh Hashanah what it means to feel cast out and adrift. The story of Hagar is important for everyone, but for those who are facing broken marriages and failed relationships her story is even more important; it provides a mirror in which to see our own pain.
On the surface, Hagar was like most other slaves. As chattel, she could come and go without the kind of emotional repercussions that weigh deeply on all of us when a household falls apart. Yet, despite the arguments to the contrary, our rabbis saw their relationship differently. The Bible is explicit about the nature of their union. Hagar was to be Abraham’s wife (Genesis 16:3). “A wife” our ancient commentators would remind us, “not [just] as a concubine (Genesis Rabbah 45:3).” In being husband and wife, their parting would engender all the pain and messiness that dwells when marriages dissolve.
I’ve always identified with Hagar on the day of her expulsion. There is a humiliation in the way she is cast out. That morning, Abraham wakes up early and takes bread and a skin of water and places it on her shoulders. Reflecting on this act, Israeli writer Meir Shalev wrote, “Abraham set the pack on the shoulder, like putting something on a clothes hanger or in a saddlebag.” A millennium after the Torah was written, our ancient Rabbis would tell us that in that moment, Abraham tied a water barrel to her loins so it would drag after her as she walked (Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezer 30). One can only imagine the scene of Hagar trudging into the wilderness, holding her only provisions along with her child, a line in the sand growing more faint as she limped toward oblivion.
That moment in Hagar’s life was the perfect metaphor for the special loneliness that accompanies divorce. When relationships end, many people engage in a sort of wandering. We’ve lived our lives moving in one direction only to find ourselves with a future open like a vast expanse. Many of my congregants have spoken to me about how overwhelming it feels to wake up rudderless, without a bearing.
I know this feeling well. Before my divorce, I knew where I wanted to go. I had a vision of my family one, two, five, ten, and thirty years down the line. I had experiences I was ready to share and goals I was ready to achieve. But as the truth sunk in that I was getting divorced, I suddenly realized I would need to rewrite those dreams. I remember sharing a beer with a friend and repeating “I can’t believe I have to start over again. I don’t want to start over again.” Attaining those dreams, having children and growing old with someone, seemed one step removed from reality. Yes, I would need to mourn my marriage and figure out what I was looking for in a wife. But I would also need to rewrite and rediscover myself. I had lived so long attached to another, a piece of me belonged to her and when I got divorced, I had to give it back. I couldn’t find love again until I had filled in the part of me that I lost when my marriage ended with parts of myself that I could be proud of. If I had listed the fundamental nouns of my identity, husband would have dwelt in the top five alongside rabbi, son, brother, and Jew. For me, the thought of redefining myself was daunting. I was entering into the expanse of possibilities and was overwhelmed by its breadth. Like Hagar, I did not know where I would go, only that I must keep walking forward.
However, it’s not just the directionless of Hagar that speaks to the experience of getting divorced but also her burden. Our tradition gives many reasons for why Hagar had to carry that water jug but one has always spoken to me. The line in the sand caused by dragging the water alerted everyone to the fact that she was a handmaiden, cast out. Like the letter “A” which Hester Prinn wore in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter the water jug and the mark it left as she walked would alert all who saw her of a shame in her past.
It’s not shameful to get divorced. In fact, in many circumstances Jewish tradition encourages it. Our rabbis compare a bad relationship to living in a den with a snake or dealing with a bad plague. Some relationships are physically or emotionally abusive. In others, a member breaks the trust of the relationship so deeply that the damage is irreconcilable. And still in others, one or both members of the couple change and the relationship cannot keep up with these transformations. Most of the time, when one chooses to divorce there is a good argument to be made for why this decision is right.
However, just because divorce is not shameful does not mean that it doesn’t elicit feelings of shame. I remember in the months after my divorce feeling just like Hagar looked. I was weighed down by my burden. I was worried that when everyone looked at me, they would see failure. I feared that as I walked through life, I too would mark the sand behind me. This would be a sign to future relationships and potential friends that I was broken. I began rehearsing the “story” of why I got divorced, hoping that if I was able to explain the events well enough, I could somehow explain away the stigma I was expecting to see.
The Torah does not help this feeling. The laws surrounding divorce begins with a description of a man who marries a woman who eventually “becomes displeasing to him because he finds something unseemly about her” (Dt. 24:1). While our rabbis argue about what would cause a women to become unseemly it’s clear that the text implies that if you are divorced it must mean that there is something wrong with your character. Divorce informs us that we are stained and our tradition agrees. For every statement in the Talmud that divorce is important and good, there is another that tells us that if a man divorces his wife, he is to be detested.
Shame is a burden and though Jewish texts are ancient, their judgment is very modern. When I was divorcing I sought out others who had been divorced themselves, hoping that if I surrounded myself with people who could tell me their story, I would learn that my own feelings of anger, helplessness, and fear were normal. And hopefully I would know that if they could survive, I might as well.
Hagar does survive. She settles far away from Abraham, raises her son and grows old. There are ancient Jewish legends that speculate on what happens to her. In some she interacts with Abraham who would from time to time visit his son, but always at an arm’s distance,. These interactions, one must must imagine, are particularly painful. The person she once knew so well becomes to her like everyone else. When we divorce, the natural boundaries that form, boundaries we set up with most people in our lives, seem alien and puritanical when they mediate between two people who once shared everything.
Other legends imagine a reconciliation between Hagar and Abraham. They unite and have more children after Sarah’s death. But this relationship would not be same. The initial bond has been broken and though the marriage might be good, it will forever be different. Even moving forward in this relationship would necessitate mourning her old one.
Hagar is emblematic of the complexities of divorce. Like any trauma, it is helpful to have affirmation that what we are feeling is acceptable and that someone understands. Hagar, whose name means stranger, becomes our intimate confidant. There are few people who can accept the true ambivalence that comes when a relationship ends, how we can be relieved and saddened, open and guarded, devastated and hopeful. Only someone who has been there can understand. Hagar understands. She was a model for me during my divorce and is a powerful voice for all those suffering, often in silence beside their fellow worshipers. She a quiet voice from afar who whispers, “It’s ok, I’ve been there too. I understand this New Year will be hard for you. I am here if you need someone who understands to sit with you in your pain.”
This article is modified from “The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort.”