SALT - Thursday, 20 Cheshvan 5778 - November 9, 2017


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  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Torah tells towards the end of Parashat Chayei-Sara of Avraham’s marriage to a woman named Ketura (25:1).  The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 61:5), as Rashi cites, famously identifies Ketura as Hagar, Sara’s maidservant whom Avraham had previously married but was then forced to send away from the home.  Now, towards the end of Avraham’s life, he brought Hagar back.
            Rashi cites from the Midrash two explanations for why Hagar here is called by the name “Ketura.”  The first is because, in Rashi’s words, “her deeds were pleasing like incense,” and the word “Ketura” is related to the word “ketoret” (“incense”).  The second explanation Rashi cites is that the root k.t.r. means “knot,” and Hagar “knotted” herself in the sense that she did not engage in intimacy with any man during the interim years, out of her commitment to Avraham and her hope that he would one day bring her back.
            It appears that these two readings of the name “Ketura” reflect two very different, though not contradictory, aspects of Hagar’s character.  The powerful scent of the ketoret spread far and wide, as it emitted a strong, pleasing fragrance that wafts through the air.  This characterization of Hagar, as somebody whose “deeds were pleasing like incense,” likely refers to her pleasant, amicable personality, her spreading warmth, kindness and joy through her “fragrant” words and conduct.  The second characterization of Hagar, by contrast, describes her as having “knotted her opening,” which we may assume refers not only to sexual abstinence, but also to a “knotted” mindset and outlook.  All throughout the interim years, Chazal seem to be telling us, Hagar remained committed to Avraham’s lifestyle and teachings, and she thus “knotted” herself in the sense of firmly and stubbornly maintaining her values and resisting opposing ideas and mores.  She insistently “closed” herself, passionately adhering to Avraham’s value system and refusing to yield to any competing set of ideals.  Thus, while on the one hand she spread warmth and pleasantness like incense, she was also “closed,” remaining steadfastly committed to Avraham’s values and forcefully rejecting opposing values.
            If so, then these two descriptions of Hagar teach us that “closedness” and pleasantness do not need to be mutually exclusive.  One can be “closed” in the sense of passionate adherence to a set of beliefs and values, and still be “fragrant,” creating an aura of pleasantness that spreads far and wide, and which is pleasing to everybody around him.  It is wrong to assume that we cannot “knot” ourselves, firmly rejecting beliefs and practices which conflict with our value system, because we will then need to compromise our “scent,” the pleasant, joyful and respectful demeanor with which we are to relate to other people.  Conversely, it is wrong to assume that we cannot deal pleasantly with those who follow opposing values and ideas, in light of our desire to “knot” ourselves and reject those values and ideas. Chazal’s depiction of Hagar instructs that we can firmly adhere to our ideals without diminishing one iota from the pleasant” fragrance” that ought to characterize all our conduct and dealings with other people.