Monday, August 06, 2018

929- Genesis 16- Our Matriarch Sarah, Worthy of Compassion

This is the chapter where our Matriarch Sarah is generally viewed in a negative light. She is certainly viewed this way by today's socially conscious young adults, who seek to right injustice wherever they may find it. And in fact, there are even traditional commentators who view her as  having done wrong. Ramban states that she sinned in her treatment of Hagar. Both Radak and Rabbi Menachem Kasher discuss Sarah's behavior as well.
ספר בראשית, פרק טז, פסוק א-רד"ק על "ותענה שרי" ותענה שרי - עשתה עמה יותר מדאי ועבדה בה בפרך, אפשר שהיתה מכה אותה ומקללת אותה ולא היתה יכולה לסבול וברחה מפניה. ולא נהגה שרה בזה למדת מוסר ולא למדת חסידות, לא מוסר כי אע"פ שאברהם מוחל לה על כבודו, ואמר לה "עשי לה הטוב בעיניך" היה ראוי לה למשוך את ידה לכבודו ולא לענותה; ולא מדת חסידות ונפש טובה כי אין ראויה לאדם לעשות כל יכלתו במה שתחת ידו, ואמר החכם מה נאוה המחילה בעת היכולת, ומה שעשתה שרי לא היה טוב בעיני האל, כמו שאמר המלאך אל הגר "כי שמע ה' אל עניך" והשיב לה ברכה תחת עניה. ואברם לא מנע שרי מלענותה, אע"פ שהיה רע בעיניו, משום שלום בית. וכן זה הספור נכתוב בתורה לקנות אדם ממנו המדות טובות ולהרחיק הרעות  And Sarai afflicted her: She did with her (Hagar) excessively and she worked her with backbreaking labor. It is possible that she (Sarai) hit her (Hagar) and cursed her and she (Hagar) wasn’t able to bear it so she ran away from her. And Sarah was not behaving this way out of the trait of ethical behavior or the trait of piety. It wasn’t ethical behavior because even though Avraham gave in on his honor and said to her ‘Do what is proper in your eyes” it would have been worthy for her to not harm Hagar due to his honor. And it was not piety because it’s not proper for a man to do whatever he is able to do with those who are under him, and the wise man said that forgiveness is desirable in a time where one can give it, and what Sarai did was not proper in the eyes of God which we see when the angel says to Hagar “for God has heard your affliction” and he gave her a blessing in place of her affliction. And Avram did not stop Sarai from afflicting her even though it was evil in his eyes due to shalom bayit (keeping peace in the home). And this story was written in the Torah to show that an individual should strive to acquire good attributes and should distance himself from bad ones. 
 Israel Passover Haggadah by Rabbi Menachem M. Kasher, page 77 Rabbi Simeon the son of Johai said: Hagar was the daughter of Pharoah. When Pharoah saw what was done on Sarah’s behalf in his own house, he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah. “And he called her Hagar,” which name is a form of the Aramaic phrase “hav agrach,” which means “Here is thy reward.” Later, Holy Writ informs us “And Sarah tormented her.” Because of her harshness to Hagar, Sarah’s descendants were afflicted and enslaved by the Egyptians. For this reason, also, it is written: “And Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt.”  

Back in the day, when I learned these approaches, I felt vindicated. As a Bais Yaakov girl, we were only taught black and white portrayals of characters in which the Avos and Imahos were unquestionably righteous and it would have been akin to heresy to suggest otherwise. (Incidentally, I think that teaching children black-and-white versions of important characters in Tanakh is developmentally appropriate in the younger grades, and fully support the use of Midrashim that paint characters in these ways in elementary school. High school should be the time to uncover nuance and start exposing children to the multiplicity of readings on any given text or indeed, any character. But I digress.) Knowing that there were traditional commentators that viewed Sarah as human, and having fallen prey to human error, was a coup for me.

I still think it is valuable for students to learn that even the greatest individuals among our people have flaws and faults. But I have changed, and I have much more compassion for Sarah than I originally did. Thus, what I would like to do here is suggest that actually, the fault for Sarah's behavior lies more with Avraham than with Sarah. And I believe that if Avraham had acted differently, Sarah would never have behaved in this manner.

What is it that Sarah was seeking and did not find?

She sought protection. 

Ramban believes that Avraham sinned when he brought Sarai to Egypt. In his words:
ספר בראשית, פרק י, פסוק יב-רמב"ן על "ויהי רעב בארץ" ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו, והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו, כי יש באלקים כח לעזור ולהציל. גם יציאתו מן הארץ, שנצטווה עליה בתחילה, מפני הרעב, עון אשר חטא, כי האלקים ברעב יפדנו ממות. ועל המעשה הזה נגזר על זרעו הגלות בארץ מצרים ביד פרעה.   Know that Avraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save. His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in famine God would redeem him from death. It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.  (Taken from the Chavel translation, page 174) 
There are other more charitable interpretations of Avraham's actions in this scene. But let us, for this moment, go with the Ramban's approach. According to this approach, Avraham should have stayed in the land of Canaan alongside Sarai and trusted in God to help them survive the famine. But he did not, and because he did not, his wife was taken from him and placed into the lion's den, the Pharoah's palace. As much as Avraham might have wanted to protect her, he failed her. Sarah was left alone, unprotected and defenseless.

Of course, God intervened, bringing plagues that Rashi explains interfered with Pharoah's ability to perform sexually. Because of this, Sarai was not assaulted. But she could not have known that this would happen, and it is possible she felt rightfully vulnerable, angry and frustrated that her husband could not protect her.

Then, in the next chapter, Sarai sees the lengths that Avraham will go to to protect a kinsman. Avraham risks life and limb, not only of himself but of 318 men, to save Lot. He spares no effort and no expense to take him back from those who have kidnapped him.

And so, having witnessed Avraham's efforts, it is reasonable for Sarai to expect that Avraham will spare no effort to protect her as well. Struggling within herself, Sarai finally admits to herself that there is no way that Avraham will sire a child with her. Her menses have stopped. She is old. But Avraham is still virile. And so, in what must have been an extraordinarily difficult decision, Sarai determines that she is willing to allow a surrogate to bear a child on her behalf. She tells Avraham of her decision, willing him to lie with her handmaiden in the hopes that the child that is born will be their child- the child of Avraham and Sarai- even if it was originally housed within another's womb.

Just look at the language of the verse.
ב  וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל-אַבְרָם, הִנֵּה-נָא עֲצָרַנִי יְהוָה מִלֶּדֶת--בֹּא-נָא אֶל-שִׁפְחָתִי, אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה; וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם, לְקוֹל שָׂרָי.2 And Sarai said unto Abram: 'Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her.' And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

 You know where we see a similar tale? In the story of Ruth and Naomi.

Naomi begins by mentioning her old age and the unlikelihood of her bearing children:
יא  וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי, לָמָּה תֵלַכְנָה עִמִּי:  הַעוֹד-לִי בָנִים בְּמֵעַי, וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לַאֲנָשִׁים.11 And Naomi said: 'Turn back, my daughters; why will ye go with me? have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?
יב  שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לֵכְןָ, כִּי זָקַנְתִּי מִהְיוֹת לְאִישׁ:  כִּי אָמַרְתִּי, יֶשׁ-לִי תִקְוָה--גַּם הָיִיתִי הַלַּיְלָה לְאִישׁ, וְגַם יָלַדְתִּי בָנִים.12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say: I have hope, should I even have an husband to-night, and also bear sons;
יג  הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה, עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ, הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה, לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ; אַל בְּנֹתַי, כִּי-מַר-לִי מְאֹד מִכֶּם--כִּי-יָצְאָה בִי, יַד-יְהוָה.13 would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye shut yourselves off for them and have no husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of the LORD is gone forth against me.'
By the time her story is done, Ruth has served as a kind of surrogate for her. It is Naomi who ends up dandling the child upon her knee and loving the child almost as though she were its mother.
יג  וַיִּקַּח בֹּעַז אֶת-רוּת וַתְּהִי-לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה, וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ; וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה לָהּ הֵרָיוֹן, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן.13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife; and he went in unto her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.
יד  וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הַנָּשִׁים, אֶל-נָעֳמִי, בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר לֹא הִשְׁבִּית לָךְ גֹּאֵל הַיּוֹם; וְיִקָּרֵא שְׁמוֹ, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.14 And the women said unto Naomi: 'Blessed be the LORD, who hath not left thee this day without a near kinsman, and let his name be famous in Israel.
טו  וְהָיָה לָךְ לְמֵשִׁיב נֶפֶשׁ, וּלְכַלְכֵּל אֶת-שֵׂיבָתֵךְ:  כִּי כַלָּתֵךְ אֲשֶׁר-אֲהֵבַתֶךְ, יְלָדַתּוּ, אֲשֶׁר-הִיא טוֹבָה לָךְ, מִשִּׁבְעָה בָּנִים.15 And he shall be unto thee a restorer of life, and a nourisher of thine old age; for thy daughter-in-law, who loveth thee, who is better to thee than seven sons, hath borne him.'
טז  וַתִּקַּח נָעֳמִי אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ, וַתְּהִי-לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת.16 And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it.
יז  וַתִּקְרֶאנָה לוֹ הַשְּׁכֵנוֹת שֵׁם לֵאמֹר, יֻלַּד-בֵּן לְנָעֳמִי; וַתִּקְרֶאנָה שְׁמוֹ עוֹבֵד, הוּא אֲבִי-יִשַׁי אֲבִי דָוִד.  {פ}17 And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying: 'There is a son born to Naomi'; and they called his name Obed; he is the father of Jesse, the father of David. {P}

The story of Ruth and Naomi shows the way that the Sarah and Hagar story could have gone. If Hagar felt affection towards her mistress, and would be willing to surrender her child to her, then people would have said "There is a son born to Sarai" in the same way that they said "There is a son born to Naomi."

But Hagar either does not have or chooses not to show affection or kindness to Sarai. Instead, she uses her pregnancy to put on airs, flaunting the fact that she is pregnant by Avraham when Sarai is not. And so, instead of Sarai's sacrifice and desire to create a covenantal family being recognized, she is mistreated in her own house, put down and made fun of in her own home.

It is Avraham's duty as a husband to protect her from this. It is Avraham's duty to step in, intervene and clarify to Hagar that she is not a full wife to him in the way that Sarai is. Hagar's job is to serve as surrogate, not to serve as a full wife.

But Avraham is a kind man and he is an idealist. He cannot do this. To his mind, Hagar is equal to him; he does not or cannot view her as a mere surrogate. And because he cannot do this, he allows Sarai to be mistreated.

Is it any wonder then that she comes to him, with a cry that encompasses her whole soul, and states that God Himself will judge between him and her?
ה  וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל-אַבְרָם, חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ--אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ, וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ; יִשְׁפֹּט יְהוָה, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ.5 And Sarai said unto Abram: 'My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.'

 She has been wronged and mistreated and he has allowed it to happen. He has not been strong enough, clear enough, to let Hagar know exactly what her place is...and what it is not.
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל-שָׂרַי, הִנֵּה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ בְּיָדֵךְ--עֲשִׂי-לָהּ, הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיִךְ; וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי, וַתִּבְרַח מִפָּנֶיהָ.6 But Abram said unto Sarai: 'Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes.' And Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face.
Avraham's response is inadequate. Sarai is looking for him to show that he cares. This is his moment to intervene. This is where he is supposed to step in and say, "Yes, I will defend you. I will protect you. I will speak with Hagar. I will make her understand that though I value her and the child she bears, that does not give her a right to treat you in this manner."

But Avraham does none of those things. Instead, he offers the responsibility back to Sarai. "She is your handmaiden- do with her what you wish."

In her frustration and bitterness, realizing that her own husband will not protect her and will not defend her, Sarai is overly harsh with Hagar. We can all agree that it was not fair and perhaps not justified. But we can certainly understand why she does it. What she wants is to be valued. To be defended. To be protected. She wants Avraham to stand up for her. But he doesn't.

Unfortunately, and this is the real tragedy, Avraham constantly fails to protect Sarah. He fails to stop Avimelech from taking her. He fails to see that the situation with Hagar and Ishmael has deteriorated to the point that they must be cast out. Indeed, God himself must intervene there to make Avraham listen to his wife. And finally, when Avraham makes the misguided attempt to protect Sarah by not telling her anything about the Akedah, the Midrash informs us that Satan (disguised as a human) is the one who breaks the news to her in an ungentle manner, and that she has a heart attack on the spot due to the shock (see Midrash Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31).

Avraham doesn't behave this way because he doesn't love Sarah. He may love her very much. He simply doesn't see the world like she does. He isn't aware of the threats that she sees. He assumes that Sarah's frustration with Hagar can be rectified if Sarah reprimands her. He sees this as a situation where something needs to be fixed- not a situation where he needs to prove something about Sarah's worth and value to him. He figures that even if his strategy for protecting Sarah didn't work in Egypt, it will work in Gerar. He assumes that even if Hagar and Ishmael are behaving badly (if he even sees it! because he may not be able to see it), it's a child's posturing, nothing serious. Sarah, in contrast, sees the threats, and wants her husband to act against them. When he does not, she realizes she will have to rely upon others- God, and herself- to manage them.

And when you see Sarah in this light, as I feel compassion for her.  She hurts, too.

I'll stand by you,
I'll stand by you, won't let nobody hurt you,
I'll stand by you.
Baby, even to your darkest hour, and I'll never desert you,
I'll stand by you.
And when, when the night falls on you baby,
You're feeling all a lone, you're wandering on your own,
I'll stand by you.

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