By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Jealousy or Love?
The story of Hagar and Sarai has fascinated and confounded students over the
centuries. On the one hand, a casual reading of the Parsha seems to cast
Sarai in the role of the overbearing, possessive, and jealous mistress, and
Hagar as the victimized maidservant who must acquiesce to her mistresses
demands or be banished from the her husband's home. Avram, appears to be
overwhelmed by Sarai's jealous demands, and rather than come to the defense
of Hagar, his pregnant wife, allows Sarai to do as she sees fit.
On the other hand, everything that we know about Avram and Sarai contradicts
this presentation! First of all, Avram and Sarai are the quintessential
paradigms of Chesed. Their kindness to all, including the stranger and the
enemy, was legendary. Their sensitivity in meeting the needs of their many
guests, and their all encompassing love for all people, regardless of
background or religious affiliation, were the very methods of their
monumental teaching success. Sarai's selflessness was so extraordinary that
it was her own idea for Avram to marry Hagar so that he would be guaranteed a
son and an heir! How then could she be accused of jealousy and selfishness
just because Hagar had became pregnant?
Secondly, Avram is the last person we could accuse of being weak and
spineless in the face of injustice. For seventy-five years he fought
Nimrod's pagan and self-serving influence. For seventy-five tears he
withstood the pressures of his family and society while steadfastly
maintaining and teaching his belief in monotheism. The Torah has already
related Avram's fearlessness in freeing the local population from the evil
tyranny of the four kings. In next week's Parsha Avram will soon challenge
G-d Himself in attempting to defend Sodom and secure for them a judicious
reprieve. Why then does he appear so dominated by Sarai's feelings and so
unwilling to contest them?
Who was Hagar? Why did she merit being a part of Avram's destiny? What was
the relationship between herself, her husband, and her mistress? Why even
after she was married to Avram, did she remain Sarai's maidservant? Why
wasn't she elevated to the more exalted position as Avram's wife?
In order to understand Hagar's story we must review Avram and Sarai's
self-assumed mission. Their universe was a pagan world ignorant of or
opposed to monotheism. Daring all odds, Avram and Sari confronted their
society's beliefs and awakened their hearts and minds to the majesty of G-d's
manifest presence. G-d confirmed their assumed task and promised that Avram
would become "a father of nations" and a "blessing to all the families of the
earth." In essence, Avram and Sarai accepted the job of reintroducing
humankind to G-d.
Following Adam and Chava's expulsion from Gan Eden, the world's destruction
through the Mabul, and the incident of the Tower of Bavel, G-d retreated
behind a veil of secrecy. The original plan had been for His infinite
presence to be self-evident in nature and for humankind to extend their
awareness and understanding of G-d by exploring and experiencing His
universe. As humankind continued to deny His manifest presence by sinning
and appointing other gods, G-d retreated from the forefront of nature and
secreted Himself behind the illusion of a natural world.
As the centuries passed, a handful of righteous individuals maintained their
steadfast awareness of the Creator and passed on their knowledge to a few
worthy disciples. Avram and Sarai's emergence onto the stage altered that
accepted script. Rather than maintain G-d's secrecy, they actively pursued a
campaign to reverse the consequences of humankind's folly and reveal His
presence to as many people as possible. Therefore, G-d confirmed their
mission and rewarded them with the promise that their children would merit
being the "Chosen People." As the Chosen People they would be obligated to
teach the world about G-d and continue Avram and Sarai's volunteer work of
revealing G-d's presence in the workings of history and nature. (As an
interesting association, consider the nature of volunteerism Vs obligation in
contrasting the beginning of Avram's mission with the "reward" of our
The Torah presents us with a series of events in the lives of Avram and Sarai
that must be evaluated in relation to their primary mission - revealing G-d's
presence in the world. Upon arriving in Canaan, Avram is forced to go to
Egypt. His encounter with Mitzrayim and Pharaoh presents is a fundamental
contrast between Avram, representing a G-dly way of life, and Egypt,
representing a civilization founded upon principle of hedonism and
self-worship. The simple contrast between Avram's affirmation of Sarai's
modesty, "and only now do I realize how beautiful you are," and the Talmud's
description of the Mitzrayim as "promiscuous and licentious," reveals how
opposing their values were. It is this contrast that would provide the Bnai
Yisroel with the cognitive awareness and emotional strength to withstand the
temptation of assimilating into Egyptian society allowing them to develop
into their own nation. Likewise, just as Avram was able to leave Egypt and
return to Canaan so too would his children be able to do the same.
Avram's encounter with Egypt and her king clearly demonstrated two
fundamental truths. 1. In order for the Jew to affect changes in the world,
society must be desirous of having us live among them. (Note: the contrast
with Abimelech) 2. As the children of Avram and Sarai, we have the ability
and the strength to withstand the temptations of society. However, ideally,
we are intended to return to Eretz Yisroel.
Before leaving Egypt, as per the request of Pharaoh, Pharaoh presented his
daughter, Hagar, to Sarai as a maidservant. Rashi records that Pharaoh
reasoned, "it is better that she be a maidservant in the home of Avram than a
princess in my palace." This revealed that even Pharaoh recognized the basic
value of Avram's teachings and wanted to be a part of his "blessed" destiny.
Hagar willingly went with Avram, which revealed the nobility of her character
and her eventual worthiness to become Avram's wife.
Cham's descendents were cursed to be "a servant to his brothers." Mitzrayim
was a son of Cham, making Hagar Cham's direct descendent. Therefore, her
destiny was to be a maidservant to Sarai (Shem's direct descendent), just as
Eliezar, the son of Nimrod and great-grandson of Cham, was a servant to
Avram. The true meaning and greatness of Noach's curse was to foster a
relationship between the G-dliness of Shem = Avram and the passions of Cham =
Hagar and Eliezar. Thereby, the passions of Cham would eventually be used in
the service of Shem and G-d.
Sarai accepted Hagar as her maidservant providing Hagar with an unequaled
opportunity to learn from her teachings and her example. Hagar embraced the
opportunity and Sarai sensed in Hagar true nobility and potential.
Therefore, when Sarai realized that she might never provide Avram with an
heir she reevaluated her role and accepted that her destiny was to be the
spiritual mother of the Jewish people, not necessarily their birth mother.
She therefore urged Avram to take Hagar as a mate, with the understanding
that Sarai would be responsible for raising and training the child to be a
proper heir to the spiritual throne of Avram. However, in order for Sarai's
plan to work, Hagar would have to remain subservient to Sarai's instructions
and teachings. Therefore, Hagar remained the maidservant of Sarai rather
than the wife of Avram.
Onece Hagar became pregnant, Sarai, the master teacher, sensed a growing
arrogance in Hagar that would eventually interfere with Sarai's ability to
teach Avram's son. Therefore, she demanded that Avram choose between the two
of them! Either the child would be only his son, or he would be the
spiritual child of both Avram and Sarai. It wasn't jealousy, it was a demand
for Avram's to support her as the spiritual mother of his soon to be born
son. Avram immediately agrees to support all aspects of her educational
program and strategy, including attacking Hagar's growing arrogance. Avram
had absolute trust in Sarai's ability to train Hagar and develop her
abilities to be worthy of sharing in the raising of their son.
Hagar was unwilling to accept Sarai's demands and she fled. Underscoring
Hagar's nobility is the incident of the angel speaking to Hagar and
instructing her to return to the tent of Sarai, "Öand submit yourself to
her." The angle clearly told Hagar that it was in her best interest to
submit to Sarai's instructions and demands. Sarai's investment was in
Hagar's future and the future of her child. There wasn't any jealousy.
There wasn't any possessiveness. There was only a love for the goodness and
nobility in Hagar and the child she would bring into the world.
In the end, Sarai's relationship with Hagar and the manner in which she dealt
with her was motivated by her and Avram's mission to reveal G-d in the world.
Although Hagar's destiny was to be apart from Sarai, nevertheless, her
experience as Sarai's maidservant prepared her to join Avram as a "father of
nations." As Rav Kaplan Zt'l writes, it was the children of Avram, the Jews,
the Moslems and the Christians (children of Eisav) who were responsible for
fulfilling Avram's mission of spreading monotheism and revealing G-d to all
people of the world.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.