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    Behind the Names – Lech L’cha

    Hagar and Ishmael banished by Abraham, Verhagen, 1781

    Why was Abraham’s first son, born to Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, called Yishma’el?

    The name means “God hears”; according to Gen. 16:11, God heard Hagar’s suffering.

    Of course one might ask why the name is “God hears”, not “God sees”. This is the question asked by Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, who explains that what God perceived was not silent affliction but heartfelt prayer or crying.

    Why was Abraham’s second son, born to Sarah, called Yitzchak, “laughter”?

    Because Abraham and Sarah were so old that they could not believe they were going to have a child and all they could do was to laugh: hence the name Yitzchak (Gen. 17:17).

    The Targum Onkelos however indicates that the Hebrew verb can have more than one meaning. In Abraham’s case it meant that he laughed out of sheer joy; with regard to Sarah, she sneered out of lack of faith that God could possibly fulfil a prophecy about an old woman giving birth.

    What we learn from this episode is that one and the same moment can be interpreted quite differently, even by people who are as close and loving as Abraham and Sarah.

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