This week we start the saga of Jewish history. God appears to Abraham and tells him to leave Mesopotamia and abandon his home and everything he knows in order to become a great nation. Abraham’s move is the start of our people; it is the beginning of the tale of our past, present, and future. Abraham leaves a centralized, urbanized civilization and becomes a nomad, and sojourns to what will later be identified as the Land of Israel. Almost immediately a famine strikes Israel, and Abraham travels southward toward Egypt to beseech aid. This ostensible display of his lack of faith is a point of debate among the commentators. The Ramban (Nachmonides) maintains that this decision to go to Egypt was a great sin! Abraham lacked the faith that God would help him with the famine, and left Israel to seek other help. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) differs in his opinion and postulates that God was testing Abraham. God wanted to see if Abraham would be able to handle the fact that he was being forced to leave the land in which he was just promised to have a great nation created. Could Abraham leave temporarily and still have faith in the bigger picture?
Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion we come across a very peculiar story. Abraham and his wife Sarah are unable to procreate, so Sarah offers to give her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a second wife in order that he at least be able to have a child with her:
Sarah said unto Abraham: Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be built up through her. Abraham listened to Sarah. And Sarah, Abraham’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abraham had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abraham, her husband, to be his wife. (Genesis 16, 2-3)
After Hagar finally does conceive a child, one would expect Sarah to be happy or at least satisfied with the outcome of the situation. However, she is distressed and bitter instead. She takes a harsh blow to her self-esteem, and lashes out against Hagar and causes her to run away from home:
And when she (Hagar) saw that she had conceived, her mistress (Sarah) was despised in her eyes. And Sarah said to Abraham: ‘the wrong done to me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem…Then Sarah treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. (16, 4-6)
It should be noted that the entire concept of a woman giving her handmaid over to her husband to beget children was not unusual practice in the Middle East in that time period. The Hammurabi Code, which (most likely) preceded Abraham, gives a barren woman the right to do so (this is pointed out by Nehama Leibowitz in her work Studies in Bereishit). The strange part of the story is the hypocrisy of Sarah.
It is evident that Sarah initiated Abraham’s marriage and cohabitation with Hagar. Furthermore, the verses hint to the fact that the entire process was egged along by Sarah the entire time. For instance, the Torah does not say that Abraham “did so,” rather it says that “he listened to Sarah”. Sarah took her and gave her to Abraham, but Abraham never showed any initiative. The Ramban infers from these verses that Abraham never actually wanted to be “built up” from Hagar. He only did so to carry out the wishes of Sarah.
What happened along the way that caused Sarah to change her mind about Hagar? She promoted the entire ordeal from its inception, but once Hagar succeeded to conceive, Sarah turned on her! Rashi quotes the Midrash that gives us an idea as to what may have happened:
Hagar said: Sarah is not what she seems to be. She behaves as if she were a righteous woman when she is not righteous, since she did not merit conception all these years, while I became pregnant the first time
Hagar’s mockery surely offended Sarah greatly. Sarah was trying to be selfless by giving Hagar to Abraham but instead she was being branded as fake and not righteous. Her change of attitude and behavior then become more understandable. Nonetheless, was Sarah “correct” in her behavior?
The Ramban, in a similar fashion to his criticism of Abraham’s move to Egypt, postulates that Sarah’s actions were inexcusable and sinful. Furthermore, he contends that due to her actions of acting harshly with Hagar, Hagar’s descendants would act harshly towards hers consequentially. Essentially in the eyes of the Ramban, on some esoteric level, the violence of Arabs against Jews throughout Jewish history can be attributed to some degree to Sarah’s sin of treating Hagar harshly!
The Radak writes in a similar fashion and explains that Sarah’s initial actions were unnecessary to begin with, and that Sarah should have been more merciful and understanding after the fact.
However, the true lesson we learn from Sarah’s sin is not in her failure to treat Hagar properly, for any of us would have acted the same under the same pressures. We must learn that we should not undertake extra missions that we cannot fulfill. If Sarah was not going to be able to restrain her jealously and bitterness (albeit rightfully justified), she should not have initiated the marriage between Hagar and Abraham to begin with. Nehama Liebowitz quotes the famous literary saying: “A good deed is only credited to the account of the one who completes it.”
The Sages warn people against this type of immaturity with regards to those who make vows they cannot fulfill. In many circumstances in Jewish law, it is not recommended to take certain extra stringencies upon oneself given the danger that one fail to keep them.
We must understand our strengths and weaknesses and be honest with ourselves. Sarah’s mess up warns us that we need to possess a certain level of maturity. Although we must always aim for high reaching and extraordinary goals, we should be realistic with our promises and know our limitations, because the danger of failing the test can outweigh the potential for success.
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.