Sh’ma Abraham! The Torah portion of Vayera

Jane: Honey, what is that wooden sled still doing here? Every time I walk into the garage, I almost trip over this thing! I hate it! I need you to lose it and asap!
Joe: Honey! How could you ask me to… what?? You know how much this sled means to me! With this very sled my high school sweetheart and I won the foreign teens championship in Norway thirty years ago! You cant possibly ask me to…
G-d: Joe! Forget that sled, I’ll get you another one, and listen to whatever Jane says…

Last week, Sarah (Sarai then) suggests to Abraham (Abram) take Hagar, her handmaid, for him 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, wouldn’t it?
Interestingly, Abraham who fights to save Lot and argues about Sodom and Gamora, here, just says, ok, or – nothing, He quickly complies as Hagar also maybe answers his prayers for a child; for a child with the Egyptians who has the potential of making him – and his way of life – a great dynasty. Hagar becomes pregnant, and treats Sarah, her mistress, “lightly”, feeling, herself to be Abraham’s rightful wife, possibly fueled by his feelings as well. Sarah approaches Abraham asking for his help in the matter, and his response is, “do to her as you wish”. Sarah “tortures” her (vate’aneha” – a word with multiple roots and meanings -) and Hagar runs away.
The angel that finds her calls her “Hagar the maidservant of Sarai” (15:8) as if trying to remind her who she is and what’s her role, instructing her to go back. The Abarbanel points out that she didn’t head back right away, suggesting she was scared to be worked too hard and lose her baby. Only when the angel says, “behold you’re pregnant with a son…” (15:11) she knows her promise will be kept and 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 “his son”, Yishma’el. She uses the verb “garesh”, same root used for gerushin, divorce when telling Abraham to send them away.
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. 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 while Sarah was the antenna. A careful read reveals that G-d never talks to Abraham without Sarah being by his side!
But there is also irony in this section, expressed by the choice of roots: Hashem tells Abraham about Sarah, “shma bekola”, listen to her voice (21:12) using the same word as our Shma “mantra”, and the same root as Yishma’el, And already Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer notes that G-d does not put his name (“el” – G-d) in many names, but He did in Isra-el and in Yishma-el, to hint that at the end of time, these two children of Abraham will have to “figure things out”.
Back to Sara, I must admit, there were times when I was almost jealous. Wouldn’t anyone like it if G-d showed up on their side when one is about to lose a major argument, telling everybody to listen up?!
But then it dawned on me, how terrible Sarah must have felt, to need such an Advocate, to not 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 far that G-d Himself had to intervene… Having such a powerful ally might shed light not only her great spirituality, as Rashi and others say, but also on her pain and danger and the grave state of their relationship at that point.
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 one of the greatest gift anyone can give another: the gift of listening.

Shabbat Shalom.  

 

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