Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The Crying of Yishmael
Hagar in the Wilderness by Jean Baptiste Camille-Corot from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In every text, the author makes certain stylistic choices in order to get the reader to identify with the characters. Through this identification, the author can expand the reader, opening them up to whatever message they are trying to send through the characters involved in the story. The Torah utilizes stylistic moves as well, shifting perspectives, creating intriguing omissions, as well as a whole host of others, making the Torah’s message more interesting and more effectively conveyed. These literary devices are often noticed when one encounters a textual oddity such as the one that appears during the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert.
When the problems between Sarah and Hagar culminate in Yishmael and Yitzchak behaving problematically, Sarah makes Avraham throw Hagar and her son out of the house. They are banished to the desert and when the water they had with them was almost gone, Hagar feared Ishmael would soon die. The Torah states (Gen. 21:15-17a):
"When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. And God heard the cry of the boy….”
The textual oddity is that it was Hagar who had been crying and yet the text reports that God responded to Yishmael's voice.
One of the things that this illustrates is that the Torah simply does not report everything that happened to the characters, even in the midst of an involved and closely observed narrative. This is obviously the case, as has to be, in any story that is told. The narrator makes certain editorial selections in order to tell a compelling story, sometimes leaving out details and letting us fill in the blanks. The Torah rarely tells us that the characters in the Bible are eating or sleeping, but of course they do. We know nothing of how the woman Cain marries was created. We know next to nothing of the early years of Moshe. Sometimes we don't bother to fill in the blanks in the stories because they are irrelevant to the larger narrative. Sometimes, we fill in the blanks with the most obvious conclusions because to do so otherwise would be ludicrous. For example, we know that Rebekah was buried because the text reports this (Gen. 49:31), but the Torah never says that she died (the rabbi's finding allusion to it in the weepings of the oak, aside); we fill in the blank in the obvious way (that she died) because it would be absurd to think that Yizchak buried her alive.
The point is that even though the text does not say that Yishmael was crying, this does not mean necessarily that he wasn't. It is a fair assumption that a boy who was dying in the desert heat would have been crying, and indeed, this follows the Radak who states, “ki gam hu nasah et kolo u'vacha.” He also lifted up his voice and cried." The Radak's comment confirms the fact that a textual oddity exists here, one that needs his clarification. We could also use as proof that Yishmael was crying the fact that God responded-- to his cry.
At least two questions still remain:
1) Why does the Torah decide to report Hagar's crying? Just as it is safe to assume that a dehydrating child would have been crying, isn't it also safe to assume that a mother who is watching her son's death would be crying? Since so, why does the Torah report it explicitly?
2) Why indeed does God answer specifically Yishmael's cry?
The answer to question #2 we get from Rashi. Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah 53:17, says that we learn here that the prayers of those who are sick are better than the prayers of others on behalf of a sick person. This would explain why God is said to have answered his prayers and not hers-- he was the praying sick one. And her prayers became redundant after he was saved. Additionally, the same siman in Bereshit Rabbah talks of Yishmael's merit-- that God answered him because at that moment he was praying and that made him righteous. Even though in the future he would act badly according to the Midrashand even though in the past he did wrong by Yitzchak, according to the Torah, at that time he merited assistance because he was acting righteously. God answering his prayer serves a didactic purpose: we learn that we are judged for what we are doing at the moment and not on our history or future transgressions. Of course, given that he was also a son of Avraham, he deserved some assistance, says the Midrash, so family connections do matter.
We are left with the question of why does the text report that she is crying when this too would have been obvious. I believe the answer lies in considering the disparity in reporting Hagar and Yishmael's weeping not as an omission, but as an ingenious literary device employed by the author of the Torah for a particular affect.
By reporting the weeping of Hagar and not the weeping of Yishmael, it makes you hear her cries and not his. Because of the stylistic omission of his crying, you follow her story for just a little while longer, which means that the author wants to emphasize something about her plight during this scene. She has already removed herself a bowshot from where he is; she could do nothing for her son and in her despondency, she runs away. The Midrash (B.R. 53:13) notes that the phrase kimtachavei keshet is written in the plural and so R. Isaac reads her distance as two bowshots away. He further states that two bowshots equals 2000 cubits (approx. 3000 feet, over half a mile). From where she is, she can no longer hear the cries of her son.
The reason the text does not report his cry and therefore the reason that we do not hear his cry is because we are with her where she is. We see that she is crying to an enormous silence, made worse by the fact that she cannot even hear the one thing that may still be crying with her. To her, this silence would have signified the death of her son. Following her in the scene, and hearing her cries along with the obvious exclusion of his creates such a powerful realization in the mind of the reader of what that silence means that you cannot help but be exhausted by the space between verse 16 and 17. The caesura makes us re-enter the mind of Hagar in her fright. She is caught between not knowing whether her son is just too far for her to hear his cry or if he had indeed, just then, died. At that moment the reader is meant to be in this terror with Hagar hearing the silence and feeling the collapse of the universe. It is not just the hopeless loneliness of her situation, she also encounters the moment where she cannot discern between alive and dead. As she stumbles away from her son, a walk on which the reader accompanies her, she moves from incredible powerlessness, to extraordinary loneliness and ending in a pain made more massive by its ambiguousness.
How long elapsed between verses 16 and 17? How long did she hear the quiet before God indicates that he heard the cry of the boy and that he would live? This is something we don't know and perhaps would have a better sense of if the text were still understood as an oral text. Perhaps a day went by. Perhaps the teller of this story was supposed to wait a full minute and be with Hagar in the silence for an extended period of time. It is something that I am not sure the answer to, but think the question still furthers the point that the absence of mention of his cry means to underscore her dramatic despair.
The verse following her cry reports that God will remove her from the black hole that she faces and that her son will live. It is perhaps the oldest but still most significant religious message, that even in the moments when it seems our sorrow is permanent, we shouldn’t give up. It suggests also that even if God does not seem to be giving us relief directly, God could be dealing with the causes of our despair, as is the case here. By not reporting Yishmael’s cry, the Torah creates the conditions for our identification with Hagar and, if we read it correctly, opens us up to receive this theological comfort. It is not only the words of this story that must be read, but, as in life, one must also consider the silences.
 This was brought to my attention by Joel Silberstein through his close reading of Genesis 21.