We read in Parashat Vayera of Hagar’s banishment from the home of Avraham and Sara, after which she wandered in the desert until she found herself without any water. As her son, Yishmael, was dying from dehydration, Hagar placed him under a bush and distanced herself so as not to see him die. As she sat there weeping, an angel appeared and reassured her that God had heard her son’s cries, and showed her a well. She quickly filled her canister with water and revived her son.
When the angel appeared to Hagar, he began speaking to her by asking, “Ma lakh Hagar,” which likely means, “What is wrong, Hagar?” (21:17). This question, at first glance, seems very peculiar. Was it not obvious why Hagar was weeping? She and her son had just been banished from their home and now the son was about to die. Why would the angel ask, “Ma lakh Hagar”?
Rav Avraham Nesher, in his Pirchei Shoshana, suggests an answer based on Chazal’s understanding of the phrase in the previous verse, “va-teilekh va-teita” (“she went out and wandered”). The Midrash explains this to mean that Hagar returned to the idols which she had worshipped prior to becoming Sara’s maidservant. The Midrash’s remark need not be understood to mean that Hagar actually renewed her worship of pagan gods, which would be difficult to imagine considering that she now received a prophetic vision and that Chazal elsewhere speak of Avraham remarrying her later. Rather, the Midrash speaks of Hagar’s sense of disillusionment and despair. She had embraced Avraham’s beliefs and values while living in his home, but the dire crisis that she faced caused her to have doubts and begin to consider rejecting the faith of Avraham and returning to the pagan faith of her childhood. Her faith was challenged by crisis, and it began to crack. We might add that the Midrash makes its comment in explaining the phrase, “va-teilekh va-teita,” which speaks of Hagar “wandering” through the wilderness. Chazal perhaps draw upon the image of Hagar’s aimless wandering, noting that she “wandered” in the theological sense, and considered the option of returning to pagan beliefs.
On this basis, Rav Nesher writes, we can understand the angel’s question. The angel was not asking why Hagar was weeping, but rather why she was losing faith. We should never lose hope or despair, even in times of hardship and crisis. Rather than weep, we should have confidence that God is available, understands our plight, and is capable of helping under any circumstances. The angel’s message to Hagar is that God does not give up on us when we “wander” and stray, and we, too, must not give up on God when we face dire crisis and turmoil. Even under such circumstances, we must remain steadfast in our faith in and loyalty to God, trusting that He is always with us and is always available to help.