Sarah and Hagar: Lapse in Sensitivity?

God heard Hagar’s cries and blessed her with a son who would avenge the hurt she felt, and to this day we, the descendents of Avraham and Sarah, are still suffering from this lapse in sensitivity.

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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Shiur summarized by Channie Koplowitz Stein.

There is an incident in Parshat Lech Lecha that raises several questions about the interpersonal relationships in the household of Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imenu. After Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham for a wife and Hagar becomes pregnant, Hagar no longer esteems Sarah as before. Sarah deals harshly with her and Hagar flees. Along the way, she has a dialogue with an angel who tells her to return to Sarah and submit to her domination.

Rav Sternbach in Taam Vodaat points out some questions that beg to be asked. First, is it possible for a woman of Sarah’s caliber to deal harshly with another, especially when that person, namely Hagar, left her position in a royal household to follow Avraham and his teachings? Then, what was the nature of this harsh treatment, and finally, why did the angel urge Hagar to go back and submit to Sarah.

Furthermore, asks Rabbi Frand, why is it important for the Torah to record this incident at all? Because maaseh avot siman levonim, what transpires in the personal lives of our forefathers in some way is predictive of what will transpire in our national history. In other words, the challenges they faced are indicative of similar challenges we will face, and it behooves us to learn the proper approach to these challenges from their examples and behavior.

Furthermore, continues Rabbi Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim, Our forefathers calculated every one of their actions for the benefit of future generations. Our forefathers set up patterns and categories that we symbolically absorbed as spiritual DNA. They understood that they were to be the roots of a mighty nation, and if they would have diverged from the proper course of growth, the later branches and fruit would be totally disfigured and rotted. For example, we have learned to sacrifice for God’s will because Avraham was willing to sacrifice to fulfill God’s command.

Rabbi Friedlander adds that whatever we do today also has a ripple spiritual effect on Bnei Yisroel and on the world. Therefore, we have to take responsibility for our actions, for our actions affect not only ourselves but also all of klal Yisroel, whether it’s a mitzvah we do or Tehillim we say, or even putting on our shoes. How we put on our shoes makes a statement and creates energies in the cosmos. Right represents chessed, loving kindness, while left represents gevurah, power and judgment. We put our right shoe on first but tie our left lace first so that we begin and end with chessed. Similarly, when we prepare a person who has died for his final journey, we always start dressing him on the right, but the final wrapping puts the right side over the left side.

Given these consequences, how can we say that Sarah afflicted Hagar? Obviously, we must first understand the nature of this “affliction” or harsh dealing. According to Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar did not change at all; it was Hagar’s perception of that treatment that changed. Until she conceived, Hagar was content to be Sarah’s maidservant and learn from her the ways of a household that lives according to the word of God. Once she conceived, however, she no longer regarded Sarah with the same respect and could not tolerate the secondary role of maidservant. Perhaps a woman as great as Sarah should have been more sensitive to the change in Hagar and approached the situation differently.

Ramban seems to be following this line of reasoning when he comments on the name Hagar gave her son, Yishmael, God will hear. God heard Hagar’s cries and blessed her with a son who would avenge the hurt she felt, and to this day we, the descendents of Avraham and Sarah, are still suffering from this lapse in sensitivity.

While Rav Dessler in Michtav MeEliyahu has a similar approach, his perspective changes slightly. Obviously Sarah did not abuse Hagar, but being the mistress of the house, she acted to counter Hagar’s sudden arrogance and boastfulness at having conceived so easily while Sarah had not conceived in decades. This was the appropriate action on Sarah’s part, but perhaps there was a slight tinge of jealousy in her behavior as well.

It was this minute shred of jealousy that constituted Sarah’s sin, and only when we can conquer this taint in our character and substitute love for sinas chinom, unbiased hate, will be able to free ourselves from the grip of the Arabs.

It is not so much that Sarah sinned, maintains the Siach Yosef, as that she missed the mark, she was slightly off target. That is the true definition of sin rather than actually doing something wrong.

Whatever Sarah’s actual behavior was, what motivated her to take any steps at all? Several commentators point out that the sole mission of the lives of Avraham and Sarah was kiruv, to bring others closer to a recognition of and relationship with Hashem. It was this mission that was being compromised by Hagar’s boastfulness.

Mizkanim Esbonan explains that while Sarah taught the women, she would also send them to Hagar who would further explain Sarah’s teaching. Once Hagar conceived, she told the women that they could not learn from Sarah, for she, Hagar, was on a higher spiritual level, having conceived so easily. In order to maintain the integrity of her teaching and prevent a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, Sarah had to put Hagar in her place as the maidservant and not the mistress.

According to Rav Scher in Sichot Mussar, Hagar’s relationship with Sarah paralleled Eliezer’s relationship with Avraham. Both would translate the words of their masters for the people. When Hagar became pregnant, however, she felt she was entitled to present revelations and interpretations of her own rather than staying within the parameters of Sarah’s talks. Sarah, understanding that Hagar was meant to be the translator only, had to make Hagar understand who was the mistress and who was the servant. With Eliezer, we are constantly reminded that he put Avraham’s interests above his own. Throughout his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, he is referred to only as eved Avraham, Avraham’s servant. Hagar found it difficult to accept this subservient position, and this was her affliction. Sarah recognized something wrong, a chilul Hashem, and acted to prevent it.

Eliyahu Kitov keenly observes that Hagar’s inability to submit to the affliction that Sarah, a gentle lady, imposed upon her is proof that it is not Yishmael but Yitzchak who is destined to be the spiritual heir of Avraham. If Hagar, Yishmael’s mother could not tolerate such mild abuse, how would her descendents tolerate the prophesied 400 years of affliction by cruel taskmasters in a strange land?

If Hagar found subservience so difficult, why did the angel nevertheless urge her to return to Sarah and submit to her domination?

Rabbi Sorotskin in Habinah Vehabracha responds to this question very positively. Hagar thought that she had gained enough spiritual strength in Sarah’s home that she could now venture out on her own. The angel brought her back to reality. Hagar, if you continue to run away, you will be putting yourself in danger. Don’t you realize that in Sarah’s house you were living in a protected spiritual bubble? Do you really believe you can withstand the temptations of the outside, impure world on your own? Go back and submit to Sarah’s affliction, for only there will you grow to achieve your potential, for she is doing it to strengthen you and improve your middot. She is doing it out of love for you.

From another perspective, if it is decreed that you suffer affliction, says Rav Yosef Salant, you cannot escape it. Better to suffer under someone such as Sarah that under an unknown oppressor.

Along this same reasoning, Rav Silverberg in Sichot Hitchazkut reminds us that this “affliction” is not random, as Amalek would have us believe, but tailored for us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself to help us grow.

In counterpoint, Rav Eliyahu Kitov sees this whole incident as a test for Sarah. Just as Avraham Avinu was tested in ways that went counter to his basic nature of loving kindness, so was Sarah tested to see whether her kindness was natural or not. She too had to overcome her basic tendencies to do Hashem’s will, to prevent a chilul Hashem and to foster the spiritual growth of others.

It is this point that Rabbi Gamliel makes when he states in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, that we must always strive to make His will our will. Then we can achieve true harmony in our lives, and Hashem may make our will His will.