Sampling for Success (Shabbat Vayeira)

Written by Student Rabbi Eleanor Davis — 6 November 2023

There’s a song currently in the charts called Paint the Town Red, by Doja Cat.  It isn’t immediately obvious that she’s a Jewish rapper and singer, and some of us may be a little old for her target audience, but your ears might prick up if you hear Paint the Town Red.  That’s because of a line that repeats throughout the song: it samples the Bacharach and David song Walk on By, as originally recorded by Dionne Warwick.  Sampling in the hip-hop sense means taking a snippet from one song, often but not always a much older song, and inserting that snippet into a new song; usually in a different sound world and a contrasting mood, with a different rhythm track, and sometimes set against a whole new melody.  Doja Cat works her sample hard – it reappears at the end of almost every line – but the principle is the same however much or little you use it: repeat part of something in a new context and by doing so, create new meaning from it.

I can’t quite claim that hip-hop techniques were deliberately involved in the Bible’s creation, but there are definitely echoes of them in the way that parts of an earlier chapter reappear in our parashah.  We read today of Hagar in the wilderness, in a chapter that picks up snippets of an episode from Lech L’cha (last week) and gives them new meaning in Vayeira by working them in a new context and with a newly-developing story.  In Genesis 16, Hagar is pregnant and afflicted by her mistress so that she runs away into the wilderness: an angel meets her at a spring of water and sends her back to submit to the affliction, softened by a promise that her descendants will be numerous and her son’s name Ishmael, because “God has paid heed (shama) to [her] suffering” (Genesis 16:7-11).  In Genesis 21, which we read today, Hagar is once again in the wilderness and an angel will again appear to her – but beyond those snippets, the context has changed and so has the outcome.

Here in Vayeira, Hagar finds herself in the wilderness because Abraham expels her from the household, at Sarah’s request, perceiving Hagar’s son to be a threat to Sarah’s son.  This time, twenty-seven years later, she is cast out with her son; this time, too, the wilderness is a more dangerous place.  Hagar doesn’t immediately find her way to a spring; instead we read that “she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba” (Genesis 21:14) and the water she has brought runs out.  Perhaps she is distracted by worry for her son, or perhaps she loses her way because her mind is clouded by old memories evoked by being back in the wilderness again, like a sample evoking memories of an older song.  The Rabbis of the midrash (Tanchuma Vayeitzei 5, with similar in Genesis Rabbah 53:13-14) seem to think this latter is true, when they take an interest in the place that Ishmael comes to rest when things look most bleak: under the bushes.

The Hebrew word for bushes, שִׂיחִים, can also mean ‘conversations’: from this, the Rabbis learn that mother and son stopped in exactly the same place as the angel had spoken with Hagar the previous time.  This second time, she will have another conversation with a Divine being, but now the Rabbis imagine her remembering that first conversation and reproaching God for her current situation.  “Is it possible, Master of the Universe, that you are like an ordinary human being, who gives a gift and then withdraws it?  Did you not tell me: your descendants will multiply exceedingly?  Yet now my son is about to perish from thirst!”  In response to this, in the Rabbis’ version, the angel is commanded to reveal the well of water to Hagar; from here, the route out of the wilderness will lead Hagar and Ishmael not back to Abraham but forward to a new life.

This is a rare moment of the Rabbis speaking well of Hagar: her standing up to God in concern for her son’s welfare has echoes both of where Abraham argues with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of where we wish he had argued, when his son’s life is endangered in the Akedah.  Being likened to Abraham is no small compliment!  Yet in general the Rabbis are quick to attribute bad motivations to Hagar: the same midrash criticises this speech as impertinent, understands her ‘wandering’ in the desert as going astray after other gods, and even finds fault with her filling the skin with water when she finds the well.

This shows a lack of faith, say the Rabbis: she should have trusted God to make more wells appear.  Elsewhere, though, their colleagues teach quite clearly: “a person should never stand in a place of danger saying that God will perform a miracle for them, lest [God] does not perform a miracle for them” the next time (BT Shabbat 32a).  It’s a teaching important enough for Maimonides to repeat it approvingly centuries later: his discussion of what constitutes proper faith in God (Duties of the Heart, Fourth Treatise on Trust 4:25) includes not relying on miracles.  Perhaps we should give Hagar credit for good behaviour: by filling her bottle when she had chance, she showed appreciation for the miracle that had just happened and an understanding that a repeating snippet doesn’t mean the whole story will repeat, miracles and all.

It also needn’t mean the whole story’s tragedies need to repeat either.  Yet if we hope to see a different outcome when elements of our personal, communal, or international past recur, we might benefit from a sampling approach like that of Doja Cat and colleagues.  When we understand that a repetition in a new context can transform its meaning, we open up the possibility of new endings for our stories.  Without having to become hip-hop artists, we can try to see elements of repetition as opportunities to engage our creativity and build new possibilities for our future.  May the songs that we create, and the pathways that we open up, prove beautiful for us all.