As we noted earlier this week, Rashi (25:1) cites the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 61:5) which identifies Ketura, the woman whom Avraham married in the latter part of his life, after Sara’s death, as Hagar, Sara’s maidservant whom Avraham had already married many years earlier. Sara, who was childless for many decades, had Avraham marry Hagar to produce children, but she later had Avraham send Hagar and her child away, as she perceived them as a threat to her own son, Yitzchak. Now, after Sara’s passing, Avraham remarried Hagar, who was named “Ketura.” Rashi cites Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (30) as explaining the Hagar was given the name “Ketura” to allude to the fact that “her deeds were as pleasing as the ketoret” – the incense that would be brought each day in the Beit Ha-mikdash.
As we saw, this description of Hagar must be considered in light of Rashi’s earlier remark (21:12) – again citing Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer – that Hagar reverted back to pagan worship after being driven from Avraham’s home. The Torah tells that Hagar “wandered about” in the wilderness after Avraham sent her away, and Rashi explains that she “wandered about” and was lost in a spiritual sense, as well, returning to her previous life of idolatry. The question thus arises as to how she became worthy of being compared to the ketoret after having lived as a pagan during the interim years.
The simplest answer, perhaps, is that her resumption of her pagan practices did not last long. Immediately after telling us of Hagar “wandering about” in the desert, the Torah tells that her son, Yishmael, nearly died of dehydration, but just as Hagar despaired, and angel appeared to her, reassured her, and showed her an oasis. She brought her son water, and he survived. It stands to reason that when the Midrash speaks of Hagar resorting to idolatry after her banishment from Avraham’s home, it refers to a brief period, as after the miracle of her son’s salvation and having been shown God’s angel, she regained her faith in the one, true Creator.
On a deeper level, Hagar reverted back to idol worship because she felt betrayed by the God of Avraham whom she had embraced. As other Midrashic sources describe, Hagar eagerly left Egypt to join Avraham’s household, adopting his beliefs and lifestyle, but when tragedy struck, as her life suddenly turned upside-down, she abandoned those beliefs and that lifestyle. The miracle of her son’s survival, however, showed her that faith can and must be maintained even in times of distress and upheaval. Just as the crisis of Yishmael’s thirst could be instantly resolved, similarly, her condition of loneliness was not necessarily permanent. Hagar was taught that problems can eventually be solved, that faith means believing in the possibility of change, and that one must not despair in trying situations. This incident thus turned her back away from her pagan past and inspired her to retain her faith until, many years later, Avraham brought her back.
For this reason, perhaps, the Midrash associates Hagar specifically with the ketoret. The Gemara (Keritut 6b) comments that one of the spices of the ketoret, the chelbena, independently has a foul odor, but when it mixes with the other, fragrant spices, it actually has an enhancing effect on their fragrance. Hagar was “pleasing as the ketoret” in the sense that she learned this lesson of the chelbena, that adversity can transform into something positive and have an enhancing effect. Just as a foul-smelling spice can change and actually improve the scent of other spices, similarly, adversity and hardship can gradually transform into sources of joy that enhance, rather than darken, a person’s life.