After Sarah’s passing, Abraham remarried, to a woman named Keturah. She bore him six more sons. They are listed in this week’s parsha as Zimran, Yakshan, Midan, Midyan, Yishbak, and Shuach. According to Rashi, Keturah was actually Abraham’s former wife, Hagar, whom he had sent away with her son Yishmael. When Sarah died, Hagar returned to be married to Abraham.
Although originally known as Hagar, she now has a new name, Keturah.
Rashi explains that this name is related to the word Ketores, incense. When Abraham sent Hagar away, she returned to her father’s idolatrous ways. However, when Abraham remarried her, she was a different person; her deeds were as pleasant as the fragrance of incense.
The fact that Abraham remarried suggests that he did not retire from his spiritual growth but continued to grow. Yet, despite the fact that Keturah was now a righteous woman, she could not compare to our Matriarch Sarah. Furthermore, the six children that she bore could not be compared with Yitzchak. Abraham, therefore, gives them gifts and sends them away.
How are we to understand how Abraham’s remarriage to Hagar/Keturah represented his continued growth? On the surface it would seem that Abraham was declining from the high point that he achieved when he was married to the Matriarch Sarah and fathered the Patriarch Isaac.
It may be suggested that Abraham reached the pinnacle of spirituality within the sphere of holiness during his life with Sarah. He was not ready to take on the challenge of completely elevating and transforming those who were evil. Hence, he could not have Hagar and Yishmael living with him. However, when Sarah passed away, she bequeathed to him the power to rehabilitate Hagar and Yishmael.
That this began a new period in Abraham’s life is hinted in the name of his new wife, Keturah, which is associated with Ketores, the incense offered in the Bais Hamikdash.
It follows then, that, the lesson we can learn from Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, mother of his six additional children is that it relates to the concept of Ketores.
There were two distinct types of services in the Bais Hamikdash: sacrifices and incense.
What was the difference between them? The difference was that a sacrifice, called a korban-which means closeness, brought us closer to G-d. Ketores, by contrast, has the meaning of a knot or bond. Not only did it bring the Jewish people, on whose behalf the incense was offered, closer to G-d but it also bound and attached them to G-d.
Another salient difference between Korban and Ketores is that one of the ingredients in the incense came from a non-kosher source. Bringing the Ketores had the effect of transforming negative forces into something extraordinarily positive and fragrant. And it was precisely because of this added feature of transformation that the incense service brought about a more powerful union with G-d than the sacrifice itself.
Hence, it follows that Abraham’s marriage with Keturah was his message to us that we should not be content with getting closer to G-d by doing good. We must work on transforming the negative traits we possess into a pleasant fragrance.
It may be suggested that the six sons Keturah bore to Abraham represent six negative traits that can and must be transformed into the superior service of Ketores.
The first son’s name was Zimran, which is related to the word zemer, a song, as symbol of joy. Music is a powerful force and has the potential of being destructive because it touches our inner core. The Alter Rebbe stated, “While speech is the pen of the heart, music is the pen of the soul.” Music and its attendant power of joy must be converted into holy songs and joy.
The second son was named Yakshan, which is related to the word akshan, which connotes stubbornness and rigidity. The Jewish people were famously described by G-d as being a stiff-necked people. No matter how hard G-d tried to show them His love and compassion, they resisted Him and obstinately and irrationally persisted in their rebellious ways.
To be able to bring our incense we must convert our negative stubbornness into a positive trait. No matter how much pressure there might be for us not to fulfill a Mitzvah, we tenaciously and stubbornly hold on to the Mitzvah.
The next two sons were given similar names: Both names, Midan and Midyan, are related to a word that means quarrel.
There are two forms of negative quarreling:
Midan can be understood as one who quarrels with G-d, after all, the Torah records how G-d frequently rebuked us for quarreling with Him. There is a positive form of quarrelling with G-d. We need to emulate Abraham, who argued with G-d for the people of Sodom and, especially, Moses, who argued with G-d to save the Jewish people.
Midyan relates to the second form of quarrelling and divisiveness within the Jewish community itself. To elevate our internecine quarrelling, we must redirect it internally and argue with our individual Yetzer Hara-evil inclination, as the Talmud states, “One should always argue with the Yetzer Hara.”
The next son’s name was Yishbak, the root of which means to forsake, which the Midrash interprets to mean one’s forsaking of G-d. We must convert this negative trait by forsaking the materialistic ways of this world. Alternatively, we should forsake reliance on G-d when it comes to helping a person in need; we should act unilaterally to help the other.
The sixth and final son (and trait) is Shuach, whose name relates to the idea of lowliness. One of the most negative traits is to feel insignificant and thus unable to undertake accomplishing anything meaningful. This is an unkosher form of humility. We must reject this self-deprecating and self-defeating humility, which leads to inaction, by transforming it into a healthy form of humility, in which we know that all of our many positive assets are gifts we received from G-d.
When we transform these negative traits into their positive counterparts we create the atmosphere of Moshiach, which prepares us for the ultimate Redemption.
Moshiach will take the negative joy and song and transform it into true and holy joy and melody as the Psalmist states, “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter.” We prepare for this time when we increase our own kosher form of music and joy.
The trait of stubbornness relates to the heartfelt cry that we want Moshiach now! This persistent plea, the Rebbe explained, will hasten his coming. The way to bring Moshiach is through stubborn Work to that end.
As for the trait of quarrelling, the Midrash states that we may and must demand of G-d that He bring Moshiach and the Final Redemption.
To bring Moshiach we must do Teshuvah, which the Torah describes as forsaking our errant ways; as the Rambam rules, when the Jewish people will do Teshuvah they will be redeemed, immediately.
And finally, one of Moshiach’s greatest traits is his humility. And, in addition, the Midrash states that he will announce his coming to the Jewish people by saying: “Humble ones, the time of your redemption has arrived.”