According to legend, the first pregnancy in Jewish history belonged to woman named Hagar and ended in miscarriage. In short, Abraham and Sarah, our first Jewish couple, are unable to have children. After ten years of trying, Sarah suggests to Abraham that he try having a child with his wife's concubine, Hagar. Quickly, Hagar gets pregnant. This humiliates Sarah, who begins abusing her slave, causing Hagar to run away. However, Hagar doesn’t get far. She meets an angel of God who tells her to return home. She will have a son named Ishmael who will sire a nation.
Nearly a thousand years after this story first appears in the Jewish canon, our ancient Rabbis pick up on an anomaly in the narrative. While Hagar first becomes aware that she has conceived while in Abraham’s camp, the angel of God who approaches her in the desert speaks about her pregnancy as it it is new, “The angel of God also said to her: ‘You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son.’” (Genesis 16:11). From this seam, our Rabbis unweave tale of pain and woe for Hagar. Ishmael maybe her firstborn son, but he is not her first pregnancy. Hagar lost that first child from the stress of Sarah’s abuse (Genesis Rabbah 45:5). Empty and aching for the child that could have been, she runs away. This is why that angel tells her that she is pregnant. Ishmael was an unexpected surprise following a tragic loss.
A few years ago, I found myself reflecting on Hagar’s story as I sat with and counseled a congregant who had just lost a pregnancy of her own. In her sorrow, she found much to mourn. As an older mother, she grieved the lost time she has spent getting pregnant, hoping that this was not her last chance in a closing window in infertility. She worried what it would be like to now have to tell the few people who knew about her pregnancy that she had miscarried, knowing that a piece of her would have to relive the awful reality each time that she told someone.
But more than these things, two pieces of that conversation, two sources of pain, have staying with me since that day, both of which are present in Hagar’s narrative as well: this congregant mourned the death of the story she had built for her child and ached for a visible sign that her child had existed.
It is universally true that when a person learns they are to become a father or mother they begin to dream. They construct physical images of their future child, hoping he or she has their father’s nose, their mother’s eyes. They take the best parts of themselves and place them within this child. They imbue him or her with their their father’s compassion, their mother’s drive. Yet, in an instant, that child is no more.
One of the most famous principles about miscarriage in all of Jewish literature is that “an embryo, until the fortieth day, is only a mere fluid” (Talmud, Yevamot 69b). Yet, this adage cannot be further from the truth. An embryo is a fully formed human being in their parent’s imagination. The loss of a pregnancy means the death of a parent’s dream, it is the destruction of the person we imagined might be, the annihilation of our invested vision. We conjure a child in our minds that is as real to us as any we might one day hold. They are more than just water; they are our everything.
This was true for my congregant and I imagine it was true for Hagar as well. However, the difference between these cases is that while the former had someone in which to confide, Hagar suffered in silence. It is no wonder then that she ran away.
However, to her benefit, Hagar was afforded one gift most people dealing with pregnancy loss today are not: she was able to build a monument to her lost dream. I once had a conversation with an elderly congregant who was weighing the merits of burial over cremation. In the end, she decided to be buried, “I want my children to have a place to visit if they miss me,” she said, “and a place toward which to direct their prayers and good wishes.”
Pregnancy loss robs us of this opportunity. Often occurring before even the first scans and pictures are taken, after a miscarriage there is often no physical proof of the life that once existed. In an instant, our child has vanished. The gift Hagar received from her angel, a gift that so few of us receive was that in addition to announcing Ishmael’s birth, she was given a place to associate with her grief. God had seen her in her suffering and understood her in her grief. She named the place of her encounter “Beer Lahai Ro,” the “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me,” and gave herself a place to direct her gaze. When she would ache for the life that could have been she knew where to focus her grief. If only more of us had this opportunity.
In the end, Hagar did give birth to Ishmael and likewise, my congregant was eventually blessed with two beautiful children, however, these gains do not undo their profound losses. Even if only in their imagination, their babies had lived. And for this reason, our tradition knows that one day both women will meet their children. For, our ancient sage Ravina taught, “When will a minor find his place in heaven...from the moment [their seed] is sown” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 100b). Their sons lived, their daughters existed. Though their lives could only be counted in weeks and days, these children left their mark on the universe. In their short time on earth, they secured their place in eternity. Someday, they will meet their mothers again, and both women will greet them, open armed and shining faced, and say “you are exactly how I imagined you would be!”
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He is the author of The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort. His writings can be found on his blog.