Epilogue: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael And...Exodus?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This is an epilogue to our Parshat Vayeira video, "Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael And...Exodus?"
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and this is a little audio epilogue which I wanted to put together to you that follows our regular Parshat Vayeira video, so if you haven't seen that, go take a look there. But I want to come back with you now into the very difficult and painful stories that we began to look at.
In this week's parsha, Hagar is expelled from the household along with her child Yishmael. In last week's parsha, Hagar was oppressed by Sarai and she ran away. These are painful and difficult stories. The Ramban, the great medieval commentator in writing about these stories, suggest that Sarai and Avram were guilty of a terrible sin. The Ramban suggests that there were significant consequences that echoed through the course of history as a result of this oppression. The child of Hagar, Yishmael - in the Ramban's view - would become something of a thorn in the side of the children of Isaac. There would be a kind of historical enmity here which would come back to haunt the children of Isaac.
Let's take a closer look at these stories, because frankly Sarai's behavior just seems so inexplicable. I mean here is a woman that we revere and it just seems like she lost it, but that's a terrible thing. The Ramban does say this was a terrible thing, but is there any way of understanding at least from Sarai's perspective, what was happening here? Was it really just as simple as getting yourself caught up in anger and spinning out of control? I don't think that's what the text suggests. I think to understand more deeply what was going on here, we really need to go back to some of the themes which we were talking about last week.
Last week I suggested to you that there is a central theme that winds itself throughout all of the Abraham stories, the glue that makes all of the Avram stories stick together and make them one large story. That is the theme of legacy; who will be the child of Abraham? Because it's not even clear that he will have a biological child in the beginning. He's going to be the father of a great nation, as I suggested last week, could be he's going to be George Washington. How is this great promise of nationhood - that this great nation that's going to come from Abraham - how is it actually going to come to fruition? This is the question that Avram struggles with.
I think it's against this backdrop that you need to examine the story of Hagar. It's not a coincidence that Sarai is oppressing Hagar, it's part of this great, epic, developing story. The question of who Avram's child will really be.
Immediately before the oppression of Hagar was that Abraham found out something momentous. Chapter 15 in last week's Parsha begins with these words; Acharei [Achar 2:40] hadevarim ha'eileh - after these things. After what things? The very last thing that happened. After Abraham left Lot for the last time, Lot goes with the King of Sodom, and his only biological connection to the next generation is gone. At that point G-d comes to him in a dream and says; Onochi magen lach secharcha harbeh me'od - I'm going to be your shield, I'm going to give you all of this great, great reward. I'm so impressed with you. Avram says, G-d: Mah titen li - what can you possibly give me? Onochi holech ariri - I don't even have any children. Ben messek beiti damessek Eliezer - all I have now is my servant. Am I down to my servant Eliezer? Who is it going to be? Where is this nation going to come from?
There's this silence, this pause. So Avram begins speaking again. Va'yomer Avram - and Avram says the same thing. Hein li lo natatah zerah - You didn't give me any children. Hinei ben beiti yoresh oti - is it really going to be my servant? At that point G-d responds and tells him something. Avram has pressed the point twice and G-d responds and says; Lo yirashcha zeh - he will not be the one to inherit you. Asher yetzei mimei'echa hu yirashecha - you're going to have a biological child. It's the first time G-d is explicit about this with Abraham. Here he is, he and his wife they're advanced in years and it's really going to happen, Avram is going to have a biological child.
Is it a coincidence that in the very next story it begins that Sarai the wife of Avram she didn't have any children, but she had an Egyptian maidservant, a woman by the name of Hagar. Sarai says to Avram; Hinei nah azarani Hashem miledet - G-d has apparently held me back from having children. Bo nah el shifchati - consort with my maidservant. Ulai iboneh mimenah - maybe I can be built up through her. Avram listened to the voice of Sarai and did this.
What's going on? There was just a prophecy that they would have children, right? So why is she saying, G-d has held me back from having children, does she not believe? But look carefully. The prophecy was never that she would have children, that wasn't the language, and this in fact is how Rashi interprets it. That Sarai saw in the promise a promise for Avram, but did not necessarily see that she was included in this, and she jumped to conclusions. G-d has apparently withheld me from having children, so you're going to have this great child but who is it going to be with? Let me at least have some hand in this. If the woman who becomes the mother of this child is at least my maidservant, subservient to me, then at least I can raise the child, I can have a hand in this.
So Avram marries Hagar. Hagar becomes pregnant, and once she becomes pregnant she starts treating Sarah lightly and that is what causes Sarai to oppress her. Sarai is not just a scorned woman who can't reign in her emotions. What's the import of Hagar treating Sarai lightly? Hagar is saying, I'm not subservient to you anymore. What does that mean for the child? It means Sarai is not going to raise that child. It's like the Torah is discussing a case of surrogate motherhood over here. I'm not going to have a child for you. What's the whole question with surrogate motherhood? What happens when the biological mother wants to keep the child? Well that's Hagar. I'm not subservient to you anymore, it's my child.
At that point the whole plan goes down the drain and you hear it in Rashi's words explaining Sarai's bitterness. A bitterness the text says is her bitterness to Abraham her husband. Chamasi alecha - my anger is kindled against you. Rashi explains, what did he do wrong? It wasn't something he did now, yeah he listened to her now, but what about earlier, when you prayed G-d in the last chapter? When you said, G-d what can You give me, I don't have any children. You shouldn't have said what can you give me, I don't have any children, you should have said, what about us? What can You give us? Then, as Rashi says; Vehayiti ani nifkedet imcha - then I would have been answered along with you.
Now this was one last desperate role of the dice, it didn't work out, Sarai oppresses Hagar in an attempt to reassert the mistress/servant relationship, so that the child would be hers. But the attempt fails. Hagar runs away.
So coming back to the Ramban, there is a sin here, a terrible sin, a sin that doesn't come out of nowhere. It's not just emotions out of control, it's a desperate attempt to control a situation, to control who is going to be this child? How will this nation, this great nation promised by G-d come about? The question of legacy poses the central challenge in the lives of Avram and Sarai. This is a moment when that challenge leads to a terrible error in judgment, Sarai's oppression of Hagar and Avram's allowing that oppression to take place.