Yes Dear: An Intervention in Abraham and Sarah’s Tent

Jane: Honey, what is that wooden sled still doing here? Jakie almost broke his head tripping over it when we walked into the garage! You know how much I hate it. I told you to throw it away!!

Joe: Honey, this is my favorite sled! You know how much it means to me. With this very sled my high school sweetheart and I won the foreign teens championship in Norway thirty years ago during my year abroad! You cant possibly ask me to…

G-d: Joe! Forget that old sled. Just do whatever Jane says…

Among its many amazing stories, from Abraham hosting the messengers and arguing with G-d for Sodom and Gamora, to the miraculous birth of Isaac and the mesmerizing story of the Binding, we get a one verse glimpse into what must be the most famous domestic dispute. Sarah tells Abraham to kick Hagar and Yishma’el out, and while we do not hear Abraham’s response, we can guess it, for had he quickly agreed (as he did back in chapter 15 when Sarah first offered him Hagar), there would have been no need for G-d Himself to intervene.

Last week, in Parashat Lech-Lecha (Genesis 15:1-16), Sarah (then still Sarai) suggested that Abraham (Abram) take Hagar to have a child. After all, G-d promised him an offspring, but maybe not through her? They have been in the land now, after returning from Egypt, for ten years. Surely if G-d wanted them to have children together, it would have happened by now. Maybe it’s just Sarah who is stalling G-d’s plan? As they have aged, she might have become more and more worried.

Hagar becomes pregnant, but rather than remembering she was given to Abraham so Sarah can be “built” and have continuity through her (15:2), she treats her mistress lightly. She continues to be known as Sarah’s “shifcha” (maidservant) but feels herself to be Abraham’s wife. Sarah approaches Abraham and asks for his help in the matter: “May Hashem judge between me and you”. His response is, “do to her as you wish”. Sarah “tortures” her (vate’aneha”) and Hagar runs away. The angel that finds her also calls her “Hagar the maidservant of Sarai” (15:8) and instructs her to go back. Rabbi Hirsch notes the order of the angel’s words: “go back and work it out”, he says (loosely this is how Hirsch explains “hit’ani”) and Hagar doesn’t move. Only when he says, “behold you’re pregnant with a son…” (15:11) she agrees to go back.

In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac is born and Sarah observes with great distress the interactions between her son, Isaac and that son, Yishma’el.  She doesn’t just tell Abraham to send Hagar and Yishma’el away but uses the verb “garesh”, same root used for gerushin, divorce. The text tells us that Abraham felt very badly for his son, but G-d says, “don’t feel bad for the boy and for your maidservant”, which might be the first time that someone actually notes the special bond that developed between Abraham and Hagar. For a brief moment, it seems that G-d “understands” Abraham’s feelings. It is important to note that up until this point, none of our key Biblical heroes had a second wife so perhaps no one knew how complicated the theory can get in real life. Still, in spite of the brief compassion, G-d tells him: “Listen to Sarah’s voice”. Rashi notes that this comes to show that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in prophesy. Rabbi Hirsch notes that the voice is likened to the soul and that G-d instructed Abraham to be tuned with Sarah’s spiritual knowledge. In a way, Abraham was the transistor but Sarah was the antenna.  In fact, G-d never talks to Abraham without Sarah being an active part of his life!

But there is also irony in this section, expressed by the choice of roots: first, it is Yishma’el who is the one “metzachek” (same root as Yitzchak, from to laugh) and Sarah is the one about whom it is said, “shma bekola” (same root as Yishma’el, from to hear, listen).

I admit: There was a time when I was almost jealous of Sarah. Wouldn’t you like it if G-d showed up at your home too when you’re about to lose an argument, telling everybody to listen to you and do as you say?!

But then it dawned on me how terrible it must have felt for Sarah not to be heard by the person who was her nearest and dearest, especially when it came to the most critical issue in their life; to be so unheard, that G-d Himself had to intervene. Having such a powerful ally might shed light not only her great spirituality but also on the grave state on their relationship at that moment.

But in spite of the pain and him not fully understanding, Abraham complies. He gets up early, packs a lunch and saddles his donkey. By doing so, perhaps he gives Sarah what is still the greatest gift any person can give another human being: the gift of listening.



This entry was posted in life and some, shabbat shalom, פרשת השבוע לחילוני האדוק. Bookmark the permalink.

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