Saturday, December 08, 2018

Safeguard My Son: Why Only Judah Can Serve as Benjamin's Protector

A local rabbi asks questions about the parsha (Torah section that is read aloud in synagogue) each week. This week he asked why Jacob was willing to entrust Benjamin to Judah but not to Reuben (see Genesis 42:36-43:1-10).

I felt the answer was obvious; my husband told me to write it up so here goes...

Reuben offers his two sons (Jacob's grandchildren) as sureties. It seems to be his guilt speaking (for he intended to save Joseph but instead is party to causing him to be sold, possibly lost or dead) when he declares:

לז  וַיֹּאמֶר רְאוּבֵן, אֶל-אָבִיו לֵאמֹר, אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם-לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ; תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל-יָדִי, וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ.37 And Reuben spoke unto his father, saying: 'Thou shalt slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to thee.'

Jacob is disturbed by this offer- these are the grandiose, desperate words of an individual who has not actually suffered child-loss but who is attempting to atone. If one understands the loss of a child (as Jacob has experienced, losing Joseph) they would never make a statement like this. It would be unthinkable.

Judah, in contrast, has lost children. Two of them. And he understands what it is like to withhold a third child out of fear of losing him as well. Indeed, there's a distinct parallel between him and his father, Jacob. In Genesis 38:11 Judah says

יא  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְתָמָר כַּלָּתוֹ שְׁבִי אַלְמָנָה בֵית-אָבִיךְ, עַד-יִגְדַּל שֵׁלָה בְנִי--כִּי אָמַר, פֶּן-יָמוּת גַּם-הוּא כְּאֶחָיו; וַתֵּלֶךְ תָּמָר, וַתֵּשֶׁב בֵּית אָבִיהָ.11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter-in-law: 'Remain a widow in thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown up'; for he said: 'Lest he also die, like his brethren.' And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

This echoes Jacob's fear, declared in Genesis 42:36

לו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם, אֹתִי שִׁכַּלְתֶּם:  יוֹסֵף אֵינֶנּוּ, וְשִׁמְעוֹן אֵינֶנּוּ, וְאֶת-בִּנְיָמִן תִּקָּחוּ, עָלַי הָיוּ כֻלָּנָה.36 And Jacob their father said unto them: 'Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away; upon me are all these things come.'

Judah lost two children and sought to protect the third.
Jacob loses two children (Joseph, Simeon) and seeks to protect the third.

And thus, when Judah speaks to Jacob, he comes from a place of understanding and empathy. He understands Jacob because he has lived what has happened to Jacob. Importantly, he has also learned how to take responsibility for his actions- good and ill. As Rabbi Ari Kahn explains, Judah is the one to coldly say "What profit is there in our brother's death?" and to suggest the sale instead. It is therefore unsurprising that his own children show no familial leanings- they do not wish to build a family lest they mar their wife Tamar's beauty and they do not wish to build up their dead brother's legacy through siring a child in his stead. When Judah declares to Tamar, "You are more righteous than me," is is the beginning of an understanding that overall, he has lived his life incorrectly. First, he witnesses the lengths to which she is willing to go to build a family, and feels shamed by his own indifference to his family. Second, the man who coldly weighed the profit in a brother's murder is now willing to step forward to save Tamar from the devouring fire even though she wronged him, deceiving him and now the cause of his public humiliation (the rabbinic equivalent of death). This choice- to put family and life above his personal gratification- is the turning point that will eventually lead him to step forward in Parshat Vayigash and offer himself in place of Benjamin.

And thus it makes sense that Judah declares (Genesis 43:8-9)

ח  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו, שִׁלְחָה הַנַּעַר אִתִּי--וְנָקוּמָה וְנֵלֵכָה; וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת, גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ גַם-אַתָּה גַּם-טַפֵּנוּ.8 And Judah said unto Israel his father: 'Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones.
ט  אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ--מִיָּדִי, תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ:  אִם-לֹא הֲבִיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ, וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.9 I will be surety for him; of my hand shalt thou require him; if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever.

Let us live and not die- we,  you and our little ones- Judah's focus is on the value of family- all family, no matter whether they profit him or do not profit him.
I will be a surety to him- I have already demonstrated that I will put the life of another above my own, as shown by the episode with Tamar.
Of my hand shall you require him- I, who understands what it is like to lose two children, and who could not bear to part with my third.
If I bring him not to thee and set him not before thee, then let me bear the blame forever- I will know how I have failed you in a way that no other can know. Because I know what it is like for a child- two children- to die, and there is no blame you could apportion to me that would be worse than the blame I would feel if I caused you to lose this child.

Jacob can trust this vow, and so he allows Benjamin to travel with Judah.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What Moses Can Teach Us About Brett Kavanaugh

The biblical prophet Moses was no stranger to cruel allegations. Slanderous accusations were made about him, the most glaring of which suggested that he was engaging in affairs with married women (see Sanhedrin 110a and various commentaries to Exodus 33:8). What led the nation to believe Moses capable of this kind of infamy? A series of events, all true, but misinterpreted. When the women of the camp were asked to offer up their gold to forge the golden calf, they refused. Yet when Moses asked them to hand over their jewels for the Tabernacle, they did so with alacrity. Naturally, this made their husbands feel insecure and jealous. Whether the women were engaging in a kind of hero-worship or were naturally righteous, the end result was that they paid more heed to Moses' words than the words of their husbands. Additionally, Moses separated from his wife (see interpretations to Numbers 12) with what seemed to others to be superhuman strength; they nastily whispered that he must only have been able to do so because he was conducting a secret affair.

Our tradition asserts that Moses was the most remarkable of men. He was kind, and we are shown many instances in early Exodus that show him defending the helpless, whether Israelite or polytheist. He stayed true to God. He turned down offers where the Creator was willing to elevate him to the highest of status and destroy the wayward Israelite nation. He was dedicated to the people, and despite his errors, most notably at the scene that features the hitting of the rock, he remains an inspiration to us. But even he had allegations made about him. This shows it is possible for allegations to be made about the most upstanding, upright people.

At the same time, when Moses gives his farewell address in the book of Deuteronomy, one of the accomplishments he chooses to home in on regards his appointment of judges. In his words:

ט  וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר:  לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם.9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: 'I am not able to bear you myself alone;
י  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הִרְבָּה אֶתְכֶם; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב.10 the LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.--
יא  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵכֶם, יֹסֵף עֲלֵיכֶם כָּכֶם--אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים; וִיבָרֵךְ אֶתְכֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם.11 The LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as He hath promised you!--
יב  אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם.12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?
יג  הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים--לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם.13 Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.

A close reader of the Torah notices something peculiar. In this instance, Moses indicates that judges must have certain qualities. They must be חכמים-wise men. They must be נבונים- understanding. They must be ידעים- full of knowledge. But these are not the qualities that were originally recommended for these arbitrators of justice.

The original qualities can be seen featured in Exodus 18:21, and is suggested by Jethro, Moses's father-in-law and originally, a priest of Midian.

כא  וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת--שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע; וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת.21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.

Jethro talks of the character traits these men must have. Knowledge is not sufficient. These men must be אנשי חיל- valorous, and able to serve in the post without being intimidated. They must also be יראי אלהים-God fearing. (An interesting note: in the book of Genesis, when there are miscarriages of justice such that women are taken from their protectors, who often claim the title of brother, this demonstrates that the culture was not God-fearing.) They must be אנשי אמת- men of truth; men who find lies and falsehoods or anything that remotely resembles falsehood utterly repugnant. They must be שנאי בצע- those who hate bribes. For those who will understand this reference, they must be men like Ned Stark.

A few verses later, we see who Moses appoints:

כה  וַיִּבְחַר מֹשֶׁה אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל מִכָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם רָאשִׁים עַל-הָעָם--שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת.25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.

Why does Moses only end up choosing men who are אנשי חיל but who lack the other qualities? It seems very strange.

There are several interpretations of the episode. Seforno among others suggests that Moses searched in vain to find men who possessed all the admirable qualities laid out by his father-in-law. He simply could not find such people, which is unsurprising, because men of that caliber are rare indeed. The Chizkuni offers another approach which both answers the implicit question raised by the text in Deuteronomy and seems appropriate for the current moment. He writes:
ויבחר משה אנשי חיל, “Moses selected capable men;” the meaning of the words אנשי חיל, is that he selected men whose qualities corresponded to the criteria stipulated by his fatherinlaw, Yitro in verse 21. Moses at least knew beyond doubt who were the wealthy men among the Israelites, and who could therefore be more or less immune to the temptation of bribes. As far as the invisible virtues were concerned that his fatherinlaw had stipulated as criteria for making someone suitable to be a judge, he had to rely on his intuition and G-d’s help. This is why they were not mentioned here, as Moses’ judgment was not based on evidence acceptable in a court of law. Even forty years later when Moses recalls the episode, he speaks only about characteristics which are visible, i.e. possessing insight, displaying wisdom and possessing knowledge, i.e חכמים נבונים, ידועים. (Compare Deuteronomy 1,13) No one, on the other hand, can be sure if his fellow man truly is a G-d fearing person.
No one can truly know whether his fellow man is a God-fearing person. (Recall, as I mentioned earlier, that sexual propriety is aligned with fear of God in the entirety of the Book of Genesis). Thus, at the end of the day, Moses found himself in a position where he needed to judge based on visible virtues - whether a person possesses insight, displays wisdom and possesses knowledge.

But Maimonides tells us the law is stricter than this. He brings up another important point- reputation. In Hilkhot Sanhedrin, Chapter 2, Law 7:
We are not careful to demand that a judge for a court of three possess all these qualities. He must, however, possess seven attributes: wisdom, humility, the fear of God, a loathing for money, a love for truth; he must be a person who is beloved by people at large, and must have a good reputation. 
All of these qualities are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. When relating Moses' statements concerning the appointment of judges, Deuteronomy 1:13 mentions: "Men of wisdom and understanding." This refers to wisdom. 
The verse continues: "Beloved by your tribes." This refers to those who are appreciated by people at large. What will make them beloved by people? Conducting themselves with a favorable eye and a humble spirit, being good company, and speaking and conducting their business with people gently. 
When relating Jethro's advice to Moses to appoint judges, Exodus 18:21 speaks of "men of power." This refers to people who are mighty in their observance of the mitzvot, who are very demanding of themselves, and who overcome their evil inclination until they possess no unfavorable qualities, no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood, they were spoken of highly. The phrase "men of power" also implies that they should have a courageous heart to save an oppressed person from the one oppressing him, as Exodus 2:17 states: "And Moses arose and delivered them." 
Just as we see that Moses was humble; so, too, every judge should be humble. Exodus 18:21 continues: "God-fearing" - the intent is obvious. It mentions: "men who hate profit," i.e., people who do not become overly concerned even about their own money. They do not pursue the accumulation of money, for anyone who is overly concerned about wealth will ultimately be overcome by want. 
The verse continues: "men of truth," i.e., people who pursue justice because of their own inclination; they love truth, hate crime, and flee from all forms of crookedness.
It is possible that Brett Kavanaugh is innocent of everything he is said to have done. As the Chizkuni asserted above, none of us can know who is truly God-fearing, who is truly moral. At this point, however, such a divisive nominee- someone whom half the country believes assaulted a classmate- is not fit for the post. On a biblical level, he cannot be seen as a man of integrity who defends the helpless and oppressed, a man beloved by your tribes. Indeed, in his testimony he himself admitted that he will never be able to recover his reputation- it has been ruined. Most of all, unlike Moses- whom God Himself describes as humble- he is not humble. If Brett Kavanaugh sought to do what was best for the country as opposed to what is best for himself in terms of achieving status and position, he would ask for the President to withdraw him as a candidate (consider Moses' well-loved statement in Exodus 32:32 "Erase me from your book!"). To serve as Justice is to serve the people, and to serve the people is to act with humility and choose their well-being over one's own. Despite the allegations made against Moses, this is something the biblical figure indisputably did, time and time again. Over and over again, when he had to choose between himself and the people's needs, he chose the people. To be a leader and to be a Justice is to some degree, indicated by a willingness to sacrifice. It is a mantle that can only be assumed by someone who is willing to serve and thus someone who is willing to humble himself.

Brett Kavanaugh is not that man.

Monday, August 13, 2018

929-Genesis 21: Hagar, Bilam and Opening One's Eyes

Since I am behind on my learning, I am just going to share a short thought on this perek in an effort to catch up. If anyone's interested in a longer intertextual analysis, feel free to check out this comparison between Abraham and Samuel, both of whom are told to listen to someone else's voice.

Here's my short thought- there are so many layers to our world, and we see so few of them. For example, until van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope, we had no ability to see germs, even though they were always there. 

Similarly, in a scene in this chapter and a scene with the Prophet Bilam, something is there all along, but our protagonists do not see it until God literally opens up their eyes.

Here's the scene with Hagar in Genesis 21:19-

יט  וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת-הַחֵמֶת, מַיִם, וַתַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-הַנָּעַר.19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

Similarly with Bilam (whose donkey is capable of seeing the angel even though Bilam himself is incapable of it)- in Numbers 22:31-

לא  וַיְגַל יְהוָה, אֶת-עֵינֵי בִלְעָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלֻפָה בְּיָדוֹ; וַיִּקֹּד וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, לְאַפָּיו.31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

The Hebrew words are different, and it would be worthwhile to look at a concordance to figure out when the word פקח is typically used as opposed to גלה. Opening is likely different from revealing. But in both scenes, it seems clear that something was there all along (a well, an angel) and it was simply a matter of revealing what was already there to our befuddled protagonists. 

This reminds all of us that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

929-Genesis 20: Behold God's Justice- When Men are Angels, Sisters are Wives & Slaves are God's Chosen

When I learned this perek at other times, I typically thought about it through the lens of the individual. I wondered why Abraham would resort to the same ruse that failed in the past, and compared Avimelech's responses to that of Pharaoh. However, this time I came to realize that the placement of this chapter is incredibly important because it is intended to show both Abraham and the reader how God's justice works. 

We see this almost from the get-go. When Avimelech realizes that the woman he has taken is another man's wife, he speaks to God and says (Genesis 20:4)

ד  וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ, לֹא קָרַב אֵלֶיהָ; וַיֹּאמַר--אֲדֹנָי, הֲגוֹי גַּם-צַדִּיק תַּהֲרֹג.4 Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said: 'LORD, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation?

There is a very strong echo here to an earlier scene with Abraham. Specifically, it is the scene in which Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah (Chapter 18).

כג  וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע.23 And Abraham drew near, and said: 'Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
כד  אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם, בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר; הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם, לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ.24 Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
כה  חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ--הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט.25 That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?'

The cry that Abraham espouses- "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" is echoed by Avimelech. "I didn't know," Avimelech claims. "I acted in the innocence of my heart and with clean hands. I ought to be judged fairly!"

(A point of interest is that God agrees that he acted in the innocence of his heart but not with clean hands. That part is omitted from the answering verse.

ה  הֲלֹא הוּא אָמַר-לִי אֲחֹתִי הִוא, וְהִיא-גַם-הִוא אָמְרָה אָחִי הוּא; בְּתָם-לְבָבִי וּבְנִקְיֹן כַּפַּי, עָשִׂיתִי זֹאת.5 Said he not himself unto me: She is my sister? and she, even she herself said: He is my brother. In the simplicity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this.'
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם, גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם-לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת, וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם-אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ, מֵחֲטוֹ-לִי; עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיךָ, לִנְגֹּעַ אֵלֶיהָ.6 And God said unto him in the dream: 'Yea, I know that in the simplicity of thy heart thou hast done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against Me. Therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.

Why isn't Abimelech considered to have acted with clean hands?

Rashi comments to this and explains that while it is true Abimelech originally took Sarah innocently, not having known she was another man's wife, it is only Godly intervention that prevents him from consorting with her. As becomes clear later in the chapter, Abimelech and all of his court are stricken with some kind of ailment that stops up women's wombs and renders them infertile (Genesis 20:18).)

Here is the important part. Once Abimelech recognizes that God has brought this plague upon him, he does the right thing and relinquishes Sarah. But not without a parting shot- note the following odd phrase:

וּלְשָׂרָ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הִנֵּ֨ה נָתַ֜תִּי אֶ֤לֶף כֶּ֙סֶף֙ לְאָחִ֔יךְ הִנֵּ֤ה הוּא־לָךְ֙ כְּס֣וּת עֵינַ֔יִם לְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתָּ֑ךְ וְאֵ֥ת כֹּ֖ל וְנֹכָֽחַת׃
And to Sarah he said, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as a covering of the eyes before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.”
There are several different interpretations as to what Avimelech means when he talks about giving Sarah money "as a covering of the eyes" before all who are with you. However, some commentators interpret that Abraham and Sarah blinded Abimelech and kept him from seeing clearly by pretending to be sister and brother. Therefore, an angry Avimelech curses Sarah (see the Torah Temimah) and eventually the curse comes true.

כסות עינים. א"ר יצחק, לעולם אל תהא ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך, שהרי אבימלך קלל את שרה ונתקיים בזרעה, שנאמר הנה הוא לך כסות עינים, אמר לה, הואל וכסית ממני שהוא אישך וגרמת לי הצער הזה, יהי רצון שיהיו לך בני כסויי עינים, ונתקיים בזרעה, שנאמר ביצחק (פ' תולדות) ותכהין עיניו מראות י.
(ב"ק צ"ג א')

There is another scene just prior in which blindness was referenced. This is the famous scene where the angels come to Sodom and Gomorah and the members of the city want Lot to give them over to be sodomized. Lot tries to argue with the mob and offers them his virgin daughters in lieu of his guests but the people of Sodom press him and say they will do worse to him. They attempt to break down the door.

Then the angels cause blindness to fall upon every single one of them (which, if we are paralleling our two scenes, would be the equivalent to Avimelech and his entire court being unable to bear children).

This is the moment at which the people of Sodom can choose to see the hand of God at work or choose to refuse it. They can decide to give up on their desire to sodomize the men, recognizing that God (or more precisely, His angels) have forbidden them to do it. This is what Abimelech does in our scene- recognizing that something mysterious and miraculous is in play, he speaks to God, speaks to Abraham, makes reparations to Sarah and relinquishes her.

But this is NOT what the people of Sodom do. They are stubborn and they will refuse to recognize God's intervention- quite literally if it kills them.

יא  וְאֶת-הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-פֶּתַח הַבַּיִת, הִכּוּ בַּסַּנְוֵרִים, מִקָּטֹן, וְעַד-גָּדוֹל; וַיִּלְאוּ, לִמְצֹא הַפָּתַח.11 And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.

Those three words ought to shock you. When these people are blinded, a completely supernatural event, their reaction is NOT, like Abimelech, to give up on the pursuit. They do not make reparations, pay Lot, pay the guests they have tried to seize (exactly as Abimelech took Sarah)- no, they simply keep on grasping for the door and they only give up when they have literally become so weary that they have to.

It is only AFTER this event that the angels turn to Lot and say

יב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים אֶל-לוֹט, עֹד מִי-לְךָ פֹה--חָתָן וּבָנֶיךָ וּבְנֹתֶיךָ, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ בָּעִיר:  הוֹצֵא, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם.12 And the men said unto Lot: 'Hast thou here any besides? son-in-law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whomsoever thou hast in the city; bring them out of the place;
יג  כִּי-מַשְׁחִתִים אֲנַחְנוּ, אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  כִּי-גָדְלָה צַעֲקָתָם אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, וַיְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ יְהוָה לְשַׁחֲתָהּ.13 for we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxed great before the LORD; and the LORD hath sent us to destroy it.'
What then do we learn from this?

We learn that this was actually a test.

Abimelech passed the test but the men of Sodom failed.

Here's the test, in short: Someone who is not quite who you think they are (an angel disguised as a man, a wife who appears merely to be someone's sister) appears in your place of residence. You either take them or try to take them. You are stricken by a mysterious plague (literal blindness or a plague caused by the fact that you were blind to the truth of the situation). Do you recognize God's hand in these events and immediately attempt to make reparations? Or do you deny God's role completely?

If you're Abimelech, you recognize God. Thus, you pass the test. You demonstrate there is at least some fear of God in your land.

If you're the Sodomites, you refuse to recognize God. You fail the test. You and your city are totally destroyed.

Here's why it matters- because Abraham bears witness to it. He sees a situation in which God does allow someone who did wrong but who later made reparations to be saved. Indeed, he is the agent that helps it to happen because he prays on Avimelech's behalf (Genesis 20:17).

Where else do we see someone praying on a monarch's behalf?

It happens with Moses.

Look at Exodus 9:27-30.

כז  וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם:  יְהוָה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים.27 And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: 'I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.
כח  הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-יְהוָה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד.28 Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.'
כט  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מֹשֶׁה, כְּצֵאתִי אֶת-הָעִיר, אֶפְרֹשׂ אֶת-כַּפַּי אֶל-יְהוָה; הַקֹּלוֹת יֶחְדָּלוּן, וְהַבָּרָד לֹא יִהְיֶה-עוֹד, לְמַעַן תֵּדַע, כִּי לַיהוָה הָאָרֶץ.29 And Moses said unto him: 'As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread forth my hands unto the LORD; the thunders shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that thou mayest know that the earth is the LORD'S.
ל  וְאַתָּה, וַעֲבָדֶיךָ:  יָדַעְתִּי--כִּי טֶרֶם תִּירְאוּן, מִפְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים.30 But as for thee and thy servants, I know that ye will not yet fear the LORD God.'--

Notice the echoes going on in this scene. Pharaoh admits that he and his people are wicked while God is righteous and just. It seems like he is going to behave as Abimelech does and finally relinquish the people once and for all (just as Abimelech relinquishes Sarah). But Moses chides him, saying that while he will pray for him he knows that they do not truly fear God. Pharaoh and his countrymen are more similar to the people of Sodom, who will weary themselves trying to keep what they want, than Abimelech, who was willing to give it up eventually.

So what is going on in this perek? This perek is a meditation on God's justice. We learn something about how His justice works. God does not assume that everyone knows and plays by His rules from the beginning. He does, however, insist that once He brings punishment upon them (whether blindness or a plague that causes infertility) they then acknowledge His presence and relinquish what is not theirs (whether it is the men who are really angels, or the sister who is really a wife, or the slaves who are really God's chosen.) If they are willing to do this, He is merciful - as Abraham himself and we as the readers witness in this chapter. If they are unwilling...God has already shown what will happen in His destruction of Sodom.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

929- Genesis 19: Family Values

I've written about Lot at various points on my blog.

One piece is about how we actually ought to have a great deal of respect for the daughters of Lot.

Another compares Lot and Noah's responses to what they perceived as the end of the world.

But I listened to Rabbi Alex Israel of TanachStudy on this chapter, and the part that was new to me had to do with the dissimilarity between Abraham's hospitality and Lot's hospitality. Rabbi Israel reads the two stories as foils for one another (much as Hamlet and Laertes are foils, for example).

When it comes to Abraham, the entire family is involved in hospitality. We see that both Abraham and Sarah are working to provide food for the guests. There is even an interpretation of the statement  וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וַיְמַהֵר, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ that indicates the na'ar in question was Ishmael, and he too was involved in serving the guests.

In contrast, when it comes to Lot, he alone is involved in seeing to the guests' needs.
ג  וַיִּפְצַר-בָּם מְאֹד--וַיָּסֻרוּ אֵלָיו, וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם מִשְׁתֶּה, וּמַצּוֹת אָפָה וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.3 And he urged them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

His wife (and as we find out later, his daughters, his married daughters, his sons-in-law etc) are nowhere to be found. But the main shared responsibility would have rested on his wife, and she's clearly not mentioned when it comes to caring for the guests.

The suggestion is that when it came to Abraham and Sarah, there was a family value of providing sustenance to others. In contrast, Lot alone had this value- it was not something he had successfully imparted to the other members of his family. (My husband made me read part of a book called The Secrets of Happy Families and the author writes about being explicit in one's family values and imparting them not only by modeling but by transparently stating them/ teaching them to one's children. It fits well with the overall idea here.)

Thus, when it comes to Abraham and Sarah, since they had inculcated this family value of giving and sustaining life through offering food, they were blessed with life. In contrast, since Lot's wife did not subscribe to this value at all (and she's the foil to Sarah), she's cursed with death. Rabbi Israel makes the point that salt connotes death. We know that "salting the earth" is a way of symbolically cursing a city and that if enough salt were sown, it would be impossible for anything to grow on that arid land. We have an example of this ritual of salt connoting death in the book of Judges.

מה  וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ נִלְחָם בָּעִיר, כֹּל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא, וַיִּלְכֹּד אֶת-הָעִיר, וְאֶת-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּהּ הָרָג; וַיִּתֹּץ, אֶת-הָעִיר, וַיִּזְרָעֶהָ, מֶלַח.  {פ}45 And Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and slew the people that were therein; and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.

Thus, on a symbolic level, when we say Lot's wife turned to salt, what we mean to say is that she was incapable of giving life (like a salted field). She refused to be hospitable- it was not a value of hers- and so she was judged, measure for measure.

Incidentally, the idea of being kind to strangers or NOT being kind to strangers and then reaping the consequences of one's actions is a major trope in fairy tales and folklore. I can name numerous stories where the theme arises, but the most recent one to come to mind is one I read to my daughter and it's called Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. In this take on Cinderella, the daughters are not step-siblings and there is no fairy godmother. However, there is a king who can change his form and pretend to be a hungry boy or a wise old woman. He sees how each of the sisters responds to him (and whether or not she shares her food with the hungry boy, for instance) and eventually chooses his queen based on that. It would be interesting to research fairy tales and folklore and see whether this idea of sharing food with strangers and being rewarded for acting in a kind/ hospitable fashion predates the Bible or is mainly seen after the Bible. If it comes after, I think the Abraham-Sarah vs. Lot-Lot's Wife stories are a good first example.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

929- Genesis 18- The Auditory God

We live in a visual culture. The aphorism "a picture speaks a thousand words" is well known. Especially today, with our emphasis on sharing information about our lives through formats like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook (if you're my age) and even blogs, so much of what we do has to do with visual social media. If you ask people what they have found arresting of late, it's typically pictures, texts or videos.

So I found it interesting when reading this chapter that God specifically speaks about the cry that reached Him from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He is responding to an auditory cue, not a visual one. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה זַעֲקַ֛ת סְדֹ֥ם וַעֲמֹרָ֖ה כִּי־רָ֑בָּה וְחַ֨טָּאתָ֔ם כִּ֥י כָבְדָ֖ה מְאֹֽד׃
Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!

אֵֽרֲדָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָ֛הּ הַבָּ֥אָה אֵלַ֖י עָשׂ֣וּ ׀ כָּלָ֑ה וְאִם־לֹ֖א אֵדָֽעָה׃
I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

This put me in mind of an earlier scene (found in Genesis 4).

יֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃
Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!
We find similar wording when God determines the time has finally come to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 2). 

וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃
A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.

וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃
God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (ס)
God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
What I found fascinating is that there seems to be a theme. First there is cruelty. Then God hears the voice of the victim. After hearing the voice of the victim, that is the point at which He actually goes to investigate - and that is the first visual mention. God does not need to see the degradation the people are under- the first step for Him is to hear their cry.

(Please note there are exceptions to this rule. For example, when it comes to the Flood, God saw that the wickedness of man was great on earth. Similarly, by the Tower of Babel, it is left ambiguous in that there are certain things members of the coalition say, but the first verse we have referencing God says that God came down to see what was happening. This suggests that perhaps punishment is different and more severe- or at least encapsulates more people- when God simply sees as opposed to hearing, but to investigate that concept I would need to use a concordance and look at the language used in each place in order to see whether that is indeed so. It's also possible the difference lies with whether the people are rebelling against God (breaking bein adam l'Makom) or harming one another (bein adam l'chavero).) 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible talks about the visual vs auditory nature of Judaism as a whole. He writes: 

Ancient Greece was a visual culture, a culture of art, architecture, theatre, and spectacle. For the Greeks generally, and Plato specifically, knowing was a form of seeing. Judaism, as Freud pointed out in Moses and Monotheism, is a non-visual culture. We worship a God who cannot be seen; making sacred images, icons, is absolutely forbidden. In Judaism we do not see God; we hear God. Knowing is a form of listening. Ironically, Freud himself, deeply ambivalent though he was about Judaism, invented the listening cure in psychoanalysis: listening as therapy. 
It follows that in Judaism listening is a deeply spiritual act. To listen to God is to be open to God. That is what Moses is saying throughout Deuteronomy: "If only you would listen." So it is with leadership- indeed with all forms of interpersonal relationship. Often the greatest gift we can give someone is to listen to them. 
Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and went on to create a new form of psychotherapy based on "man's search for meaning," once told the story of a patient of his who phoned him in the middle of the night to tell him, calmly, that she was about to commit suicide. He kept her on the phone for two hours, giving her every conceivable reason to live. Eventually she said that she had changed her mind and would not end her life. When he next saw the woman he asked her which of his many reasons had persuaded her to change her mind. "None," she replied. "Why then did you decide not to commit suicide?" he asked. She replied that the fact that someone was prepared to listen to her for two hours in the middle of the night convinced her that life was worth living after all.
As Chief Rabbi, I was involved in resolving a number of highly intractable aguna cases, situations in which a husband was unwilling to give his wife a get so that she could remarry. We resolved all these cases not by using legal devices but by the simple act of listening: deep listening, in which we were able to convince both sides that we had heard their pain and their sense of injustice. This took many hours of total concentration and a principled absence of judgement and direction. Eventually our listening absorbed the acrimony and the couple was able to resolve its differences together. Listening is intensely therapeutic. 
The deep truth behind person-centred therapy is that listening is the key virtue of the religious life. That is what Moses was saying throughout Deuteronomy. If we want God to listen to us, we have to be prepared to listen to Him. And if we learn to listen to Him, then we eventually learn to listen to our fellow humans: the silent cry of the lonely, the weak, the vulnerable, the people in existential pain. 
When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied: lev shome'a, literally "a listening heart" to judge the people (I Kings 3:9). The choice of words is significant. Solomon's wisdom lay, at least in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said. It is common to find leaders who speak; it is very rare to find leaders who listen. But listening often makes the difference.  
-pages 252-254
What I find fascinating is that here Rabbi Sacks talks about how important listening is for us as people and as a nation. But there seems to be another aspect to listening, and that is that it is actually a form of imitatio Dei, emulating God. God listens. He hears the voice of the victim. After He hears it, He investigates it. He is the Auditory God, the God who hears as opposed to merely seeing. 

And there is something really impactful about that image. The God who listens is a God who is connected. The God who sees could seem more impassive, dispassionate, looking down from on high (although interestingly, we notice in our texts that whenever God goes to investigate and see, He actually descends, going down in order to see). What becomes clear in our narrative is that no victim is forgotten- their blood cries out- they cry out- and then God investigates, looking to determine what must be done. The voices remain even when the person is gone. 

There is a scene in the film 'Bruce Almighty' (see below) that shows God receiving email prayer requests, and it could not be more different from the way God is depicted in our texts. God does not simply receive all these emails (visual) but rather He actually hears the cries, the pain, the difficulty, the whispered words (auditory). It provides us with an understanding of a far more connected, loving God. He is the All-Hearing God, if you will, such that every creature may come to His attention, as opposed to the All-Seeing Odin of Norse Myth. 

929- Genesis 17- Blood Parity

I read Rabbi Alex Israel's commentary on the English 929 website today, and it made me realize something I never had before. Specifically, it made me recognize that this chapter is significant because both Avraham and Sarah are undergoing transformation. And there is parity in their transformation. Their names (which signify the essence of who they are) are changed and transformed. Additionally, their bodies are transformed. Avraham must circumcise himself, causing blood to flow, and Sarah will bear a child, her monthly bleeding returning. 

Rabbi Israel expounds upon this idea, explaining that this symbolizes the Jewish conception of God in the world in contrast to other cultures. In his words:
Hellenistic society did not approve of bodily mutilation. At the Olympics, it celebrated the beauty of nature exhibiting the naked body and its athletic abilities. Similarly, the Hellenists believed in fate, in the role of social class that God had assigned humans. This is the mindset of Turnus Rufus. 
Rabbi Akiva responds: Wheat or bread? Flax or linen? In other words, the human role is not to accept fate and celebrate nature, but rather to transform and refine nature.  The example of the umbilical cord takes this further: If anything, altering creation does not violate the laws of nature, but is in fact a basic obligation of existence, a critical element, perhaps, of nature itself. 
Dr. Ido Hevroni comments on this Midrash: 
“The … severance of the foreskin, the most impulsive organ of the human body, makes a clear statement: Man shares with God the ability to stand outside of and apart from nature. Man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. Man wants to change… the world.” (Circumcision as Rebellion. Azure 28)
The legacy of Abraham is to refine that which nature gives us. 
Abraham and Sarah start their journey childless. Theirs is a journey of transformation: their names are changed, and their bodies are transformed - Abraham is circumcised and Sarah becomes fertile. Life is not about acceptance of fate, but rather transforming and refining the natural reality. Only once they internalize this idea are they blessed with a child.
Upon reading this, I was put in mind of a quote from Ezekiel 16:6 which we say when we read the Passover Haggadah:

ו  וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ, מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ; וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי.6 And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live;

There are several different interpretations of this verse- some talk about the blood of circumcision and others of childbirth.

What I realized when reading Rabbi Alex Israel's approach is that very important parity is taking place in this scene.

Abraham and all his men must circumcise themselves, causing themselves harm and allowing blood of pain to flow from their reproductive organs...
and meanwhile, Sarah's womb will be healed and blood of creation will flow from her reproductive organs.

(In case you are wondering how I know that Sarah's menses had stopped, it's stated explicitly in Genesis 18:11-
יא  וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים, בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים; חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה, אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים.11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.--)

I want to suggest that on some level (and this is not peshat), Abraham must circumcise himself (one type of bleeding) IN ORDER for Sarah's menses to resume (a different type of bleeding). There is some kind of spiritual causation or manifestation here, a kind of transference or balancing act. To some degree, it is the personal sacrifice of the male and his willingness to undergo pain that allows for the fertility of the female he cares for to come into effect. (To be clear, I am not suggesting that Abraham knew this would be the outcome of his choosing to observe the commandment- only that this is something we as the reader observe.) 

(Assuming there is truth to what I am saying, it may explain why it is precisely circumcision that is used by Simeon and Levi against Shechem and his family. Shechem and his people circumcise themselves, arguably to become like the Hebrews and to be able to intermarry with them. But they will never truly be able to be like the Hebrews. Circumcision, seen in the light I have just explained it, is a way of the male saying that he is willing to cause pain to himself and allow his life blood to spill in order to allow his partner to experience the gift of creation and create life. In contrast, for Shechem, who violates and rapes Dina, to perform circumcision is a complete perversion of the act. He is not capable of doing something so selfless for his female partner- he has demonstrated that by abducting and raping her! Thus, it is fitting that the very act of circumcision causes his downfall...) 

This type of balancing act- where there is a price to be paid, harm for the sake of healing, or pain for the sake of creation- is seen in other places throughout Tanakh. For example, at Mei Marah, Moses is instructed to throw a bitter branch into non-potable waters in order to turn them sweet. The prophet Elisha also performs a miracle like this- he puts salt into non-potable waters in order to turn them sweet (II Kings 2:19-22). 

This idea feels unfinished to me, and if anyone has thoughts on how to expand it/ what meaning there might be in it, I welcome them...

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.