This week we read about an arranged marriage – by Yitzchak for his widowed father Avraham. Towards the end of this week’s Parsha we find that Avraham remarried. The Rabbis explain that Yitzchak found the woman for Avraham to marry. He married a woman named Ketura. Rashi explains that Ketura was none other than Avraham’s wife Hagar. So, Avraham remarried his former wife.
But, there seems to be a difficulty with this explanation of Rashi in identifying Ketura as Hagar. Hagar lived a checkered past. When Sarah realized that through natural means she would be unable to have a child, she convinced Hagar – an Egyptian princess – to be her maidservant and marry Avraham. Hagar became pregnant soon after marrying Avraham and immediately began mocking Sarah – who could not have a child. So, Sarah threw Hagar out of the house. When the angel told her that she would have a child who would be a wild, uncivilized person, a robber and a murderer, Hagar rejoiced – a symbol for her descendants who celebrate when their children murder Jews.
Hagar returned to Sarah as the angel commanded her to do so. After Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak, the Torah informs us that Yishmael was teaching Yitzchak ideas of idolatry, immorality and murder. So, at the request of Sarah and G-d’s agreement, Avraham threw both Hagar and Yishmael out of his house. When Yishmael was dying in the desert, Hagar refused to sit near him and try to help him. She stayed far away from him. What kind of mother is that? In addition, the Rabbis teach us that Hagar returned to her old idolatrous lifestyle. So, why would Avraham want to remarry Hagar – especially after having been married to such a holy woman as Sarah?
Hagar was overcome with remorse. She realized what could have been had she treated Sarah properly, kept a good eye on her son Yishmael and remain in the house of Avraham. She understood that she had already blown a golden opportunity for a spiritual and meaningful life and she was not going to let this opportunity pass her by a second time. So, she changed, as indicated by her new name.
Rashi explains that Hagar’s name Ketura is related to the word “Ketores” which means incense. (The incense that was offered daily in the Bais Hamikdash was called Ketores.) The Torah here calls her Ketura because she repented of her improper ways and her actions now were as beautiful as incense. She had become a good person and a righteous woman. A part of her holy personality was that since she left Avraham’s house years earlier, she refused to marry anybody else because she recognized that nobody was as good or holy as Avraham. For his part, Avraham recognized her teshuva – repentance - as sincere. She now had a clean slate. Her old ways were history and she was not going to revert to that lifestyle.
The Rabbis teach us that in the place where people who repent stand, perfectly righteous people can’t stand. In a sense, those who repent are greater than people who have always been righteous. The righteous people did not necessarily have to deal with all the religious challenges that those who repented had to face. They have had so much more to overcome that they raise themselves above the level of the righteous. Avraham recognized Hagar’s greatness and the challenges that she overcame. She was truly worthy of his companionship. The old Hagar had serious character flaws – not fully appreciating Avraham’s lifestyle. Her new name indicates that she changed from not holy to holy – she changed from insensitive to incense.