SALT - Sunday, 19 Cheshvan 5777 - November 20, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Towards the end of Parashat Chayei-Sara, we read of Avraham’s marriage to Ketura, whom Chazal famously identify as Hagar.  Years earlier, Avraham had sent Hagar away from his home together with her son, Yishmael, who posed a threat to Avraham’s other son, Yitzchak.  Now, after Yitzchak was married, Avraham remarried Hagar.

            Rashi, citing from Midrashic sources (Bereishit Rabba 61:5, Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 30), gives two explanations for why the Torah now calls Hagar by a different name – “Ketura.”  The first is that the name “Ketura” is derived from the word “ketoret” (“incense”), and thus alludes to Hagar’s noble character, which was, in Rashi’s words, “pleasing as incense.”  Secondly, Rashi writes, the root k.t.r. means “knot,” and so the name “Ketura” alludes to Hagar’s having “knotted” herself throughout the interim years, not marrying or engaging in intimacy with any other man.  Apparently, according to this explanation, Hagar anticipated the time when Avraham would want to remarry her, and so she remained faithful throughout this interim period and avoided intimacy.

            It is interesting to note that Rashi does not present these two explanations as two distinct approaches.  Ordinarily, when Rashi offers multiple explanations for a difficult word, or multiple answers to a question, he uses the term “davar acher” (“Another explanation”) to introduce the second approach.  Here, however, he simply writes both reasons for Hagar’s name change without indicating that these are two separate answers to the question.

            Rav Yisrael Moshe Dushinsky (Torat Ha-Rim) inferred from Rashi’s presentation that these are not actually two different explanations of the name Ketura, but rather two components of a single approach.  Earlier in Sefer Bereishit (21:14), Rashi comments (citing Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer) that after Hagar was sent from Avraham’s home, she returned to the pagan lifestyle with which she had been raised, and which she had led before becoming Sara’s maidservant.  And yet, here in Parashat Chayei-Sara, Rashi glowingly describes Hagar as a righteous woman, whose “deeds were as pleasing as incense.”  To explain how Hagar could be described in such terms after having fallen back into her pagan lifestyle, Rashi adds that Hagar remained committed to Avraham throughout the interim years, in anticipation of ultimately being reunited with him.  The emotional connection she retained with Avraham helped ensure the possibility of her spiritual recovery even after resuming pagan worship and practices.  Even as she was mired in idol-worship, her commitment to Avraham preserved the foundation upon which she could rebuild and become once again “pleasing as incense.”  Rashi thus informs us that Hagar’s actions were “pleasing as incense,” and this was possible despite her return to pagan worship because of her unwavering commitment to Avraham, a commitment that prevented her from complete spiritual deterioration and enabled her to eventually grow and recover.