Hagar the Horrible?: Lekh Lekha 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Questions to Start: Have you ever been drawn into someone else’s conflict against your will? What are the risks of being in this situation? Are there ways to avoid being caught in the middle of such a conflict, or are there ways to protect yourself once you are locked in the middle?

It’s difficult to know what to make of Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden who bears Abram’s first child, Ishmael, because Sarai had been barren up until that point. But we can’t help but feel bad for someone who is faced with much more than she bargained for.

Text: “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Look, Adonai has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a child through her.’ And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. … He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she see that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. Adonai decided between you and me!’ Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.’ Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.” (Genesis 16:2, 4-6)

Commentary #1: Unlike the Mishnah, [Tosefta Yevamot 8:5] spells out what a man is required to do if he has no child after ten year of marriage — divorce his wife. But the Tosefta’s intransigent stand is rather puzzling. Why doesn’t it recognize that there is an alternative course of action, namely, to take another wife without divorcing the first? … Furthermore, the very next line of the Tosefta cites a verse from Genesis that says that after Abraham lived for ten years in Canaan (in which time Sarai did not give birth), she gave him her concubine saying, “Perhaps I will be ‘built up’ through her.” How strange for the Tosefta to learn from the Torah how long it takes to establish that a wife is barren, and even use a poignant phrase about surrogate motherhood first coined by Sarai, but still not recommend what Sarai recommended, that in these circumstances a man take another wife! This baffling omission leads me to suppose that the Tosefta, throughout its discussion of this topic, holds that women, too, are obligated to procreate. — Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

Commentary #2: Although Sarai was hurt very much when she heard what Hagar was saying, she did not say anything to her, not wishing to lower herself to Hagar’s level. Instead, she complained to Abram. She said, “Let God judge between me and you because of the anguish that I am suffering.” This can be explained with a parable: Two men had been cast into prison. One day the king passed in front of the prison, and one of the inmates began to cry, “My lord the king, have mercy on me and free me.” The king had mercy when he heard this plea and he gave an order that the prisoner be freed. The second prisoner did not know that the king had passed by. When he heard that his cellmate was about to be free, he complained, “May God punish you. If you would have asked the king to free both of us, I would also be going free now. It is easier to ask the king to free two men at once than to make a separate request. The king only gives such an order once. You therefore causes me to remain in prison forever.” Sarah made a similar complaint to Abram: “When you asked God for children, you only asked for yourself.” — Bereshit Rabbah

Commentary #3: Abram replied, “Your maid remains in your possession; you can enslave her again and do what you want with her. She is so disrespectful she deserves to be a slave.” “Your advice is of no help,” replied Sarai. “Once I gave her to you as a wife, she is free. I can no longer sell her or even make her work for me. This is God’s law (see Exodus 21:8). All that I want is that you not see her and not have anything to do with her.” Sarai then made sure that Hagar remained secluded, never allowing her to be alone with Abram. She also began to beat her. — Targum Yonatan

Follow-Up Questions: Targum Yonatan sees Hagar as a victim of Sarai’s abject cruelty. Bereshit Rabbah isn’t necessarily enamored with Hagar, but sees Abraham as the insensitive one in this episode. To Hauptman, the ancient Sages doesn’t judge Hagar, but looks suspiciously at Sarai’s solution for her barrenness.

As is often the case, even our commentators treat Hagar, the one caught in the middle, as an afterthought. Why is this the case? If we were to press any of these sources for an opinion of Hagar, what do you think they would say? Does the fact that, later in this chapter, God promises to make great nation out of Ishmael mean that the Torah is sympathetic to Hagar after all? How can we give voice to those who are in the kind of position that Hagar is in?

Emanu-El Happenings: Tomorrow morning, we will be privileged to hear Sidney Strauss of World ORT. My mother was very active in ORT when I was growing up, and after years of overhearing many a meeting, I know that ORT is a wonderful organization bringing educational opportunities to Jews around the globe. Please join us at services beginning at 9:30AM to get the chance to hear and meet Sidney Strauss.

The Big Inning at the End: To reiterate my Facebook post from yesterday, a sincere congratulations to the Mets and their fans. I have the good fortune to know a lot of people who are passionate about their team, and even though the Mets’ legacy of misery isn’t as bad as that of my Cubs, I can relate to years of frustration of a favorite club falling just a bit short. Good luck to the Mets in the World Series … and just know that the Cubs will be back next year stronger than ever.

Shabbat Shalom!