Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah
“Avraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. . . . “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 25:1)
This week’s Torah portion begins with Avraham purchasing a burial plot for Sarah, continues with the adventures of Avraham’s servant while finding a wife for Yitzhak, and concludes with Avraham’s death and a short genealogy of his descendants. Towards the end of the parsha, we learn from the verse above that Avraham remarried at some point; a few commentators believe that he married Keturah before Sarah died, but for now let’s take it at face value that he remarries after Sarah’s passing.
It’s easy to miss this short report in a casual reading of the Torah, especially since the other events of the portion are much more dramatic. On the other hand, it’s a remarkable portrayal of the human capacity for love and relationship: here is an old man, having gone through many trials and challenges in his life, who nevertheless opens his heart to another after the death of his wife of many decades. This is a truly beautiful moment in the Torah; here we feel so clearly the Torah’s faith in humanity.
So far, so good- but the ancient rabbis add an even more amazing twist to the story. Our friend Rashi, following a much older midrash, identifies Keturah with Hagar, Sarah’s servant and the mother of Avraham’s son Yishmael, who we last saw weeping in the desert after being expelled from Avraham’s household at Sarah’s insistence. (Sarah’s insistence, but Avraham’s complicity; cf. Bereshit 21.) Not only that, but the ancient sages make a pun out of her name, saying that she was known as Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful as ketoret, or the incense of the Temple service.
Again, let me emphasize: the last time we saw Hagar, Avraham had banished her into the desert and she and her son would have died without heavenly intervention- and the next time we meet her in the text, according to Rashi and the older sages, she and Avraham are getting married! Not only that, but the rabbis imagine that she led a beautiful and pious life in the interim: how amazing that our sages could portray an Egyptian servant girl as a model of admirable living, without becoming embittered or cruel, after her harsh experiences at the hands of Avraham and Sarah. (See not only chapter 21, link above, but chapter 16, when she first gets abused by her masters.)
Taking this midrash to its logical (or perhaps emotional) conclusion, we must also consider the depth of Hagar’s ability to forgive Avraham for his previous behavior, perhaps along with Avraham’s t’shuvah for sending her away into dangerous conditions – for without deep t’shuvah and deeper forgiveness, how could the sages imagine that such a violently broken relationship could ever achieve such reconciliation?
So not only do the ancient rabbis take the story of Avraham’s late-life marriage and turn it into a story of tremendous personal transformation- from expulsion to reconciliation, from shame to repentance and repair- but they do so by offering us Hagar as a model of extraordinary personal qualities. In this reading, the Egyptian Hagar becomes an exemplar of forgiveness, patience, and forbearance- traits that Judaism holds as pious and worthy and important.
The Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot 4:1, defines the wise one as one who learns from every person. The rabbis of the midrash identifying Keturah with Hagar go even further: they imagine that the wisest and greatest have much to learn from those considered lowest and least- but who may be even higher and holier in matters of the spirit. The rabbis were not afraid to imagine an Egyptian servant girl as a great soul, an equal to Avraham; who among us may be even greater, and our teacher if only we would see?
PS- the interpretation above is a reformulation of thoughts originally shared at TBE on Rosh Hashanah, and also offered in a different form this past weekend at another synagogue.