And the water was depleted from the leather pouch, and she cast the child under one of the bushes. And she went and sat down from afar, at about the distance of two bowshots, for she said, “Let me not see the child’s death.” And she sat from afar, and she raised her voice and wept. And G-d heard the lad’s voice, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is. (Breishis 21:15-17)
And she sat from afar: When he drew near death, she went further away. -Rashi
And G-d was with the lad, and he grew, and he dwelt in the desert, and he became an archer. (Breishis 21:20)
Since when is the Torah measuring anything in increments of “bowshots”? It’s never used any other place in Torah literature to express distance. What’s going on here? Another strange point is that Hagar cries and HASHEM hears “the lad’s voice”. Why was the mother’s voice not the note that registered in heaven? Nothing is more powerful than the prayer of a mother! It’s curious to note that just a few verses later we are told that Yishmael became, of all things, an archer!
The Torah is not speaking here in objective terms. This is not the omniscient observer reporting mere factual details. We are being given a window into Hagar’s subjective perception of reality. Her standard for measurement and the distance she removed herself over and over again (according to Rashi) is in lengths of arrow shots. Why is this relevant? What is the Torah teaching us?
We see here that arrow shot distance is that space that allows Hagar to shield her mind and heart from the suffering of her child. Her moving away is not perceived as a noble step but rather as evidence of selfishness. She is protecting herself from pain rather than comforting her child. The most direct proof of this is that although the Torah records her crying, HASHEM is responsive to the voice of her son Yishmael. Her tears are not acceptable. It’s a portrait of self-pity couched as false empathy. “Woe is me! I can’t watch this!”
Immediately after this we are informed that Yishmael became an archer. What’s the relevance of this? An archer, a shooter of arrows, confronts his enemy, his game in a different way.
Essav is told, “by your sword shall you live”. The man with a sword meets his challenger face to face and up close. The range of the weaponry invites a close encounter. The man with bow and arrow or a rocket launcher shoots from a distance.
The distance he creates from his victims is not just a military strategy. It’s a psychological strategy. Like mother Hagar, it creates a distance from the shooter and the experience of pain and the destruction leveled on the victim or victims.
For the morally uncourageous it allows for some false sense of plausible deniability. “I only shot a missile in the air, but where it lands and who it hurts, I can’t see, and so I do not care!”
Chaim Vital explains that the name Yishmael which literally means that “HASHEM will hear” really means that in the final chapter of history Yishmael will cause the prayers of the victims of his cruel game of target practice to be heard, and that cry will attract HASHEM’s attention. Not the voice of the one hunkering and hiding so may arrow shots away but rather “the voice is the voice of Yaakov.” HASHEM hears the difference!