Sarah Got It Wrong

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Rosh Hashanah 5779, September 10, 2018 – 1 Tishrei 5779

“People called her stupid. Her brothers, the women in the market who tried to confuse her into buying more flour than her mother asked for, even her mother, who said her daughter’s eyes were not empty but filled with dreams, whispered into her hair and loved her anyway. Her mother, who put her arm around Hagar’s shoulders whenever local children laughed at her, who pushed Hagar behind her big, round bottom when her father came at her, ready with his closed fist, and wouldn’t let him approach.”[1] This is the tale that Michal Lemberger tells about Hagar’s life before she enters Abraham and Sarah’s home in her short story The Watery Season. As Lemberger tells her story, drawn from midrash and inspired by modernity, giving voice to a nearly voiceless woman in the biblical narrative, we see that Hagar is at a greater disadvantage than even the text of this morning’s Torah reading and her earlier appearance in Genesis describe.

Lemberger tells a tale of Hagar’s upbringing with an abusive father and a loving mother who couldn’t protect her. In The Watery Season, Hagar is simple or slow, perhaps someone whom today we would label as having developmental disabilities. Her family sells her into slavery to make ends meet, a practice that unfortunately still happens around the world today, and she’s carted off to a nearby civilization where she is destined to become some other woman’s handmaid. At first, in Lemberger’s story, Hagar admires Sarah and Abraham. She recognizes that this couple, as old as they are, must have some sort of divine protection. They speak Egyptian, her native language, and so they can communicate with her. She is happy they’ve chosen her. At first, Sarah is patient with her.

As in the biblical narrative, Sarah gives her to Abraham to have children since Sarah appears to be barren and Hagar immediately becomes pregnant. But in The Watery Season, Hagar doesn’t know how it happened. At this moment in Lemberger’s story we see what calls to us from the biblical text, from this morning’s Torah reading:  even here, Sarah and Abraham begin taking advantage of Hagar. She is merely the vessel to deliver their child and once she has fulfilled this purpose, her situation deteriorates, even more so once Isaac is born.

In the ancient Near East, marriage contracts included a common practice that if a wife were barren and owned a handmaid in her own right, she could give the handmaid to her husband to procreate on her behalf. According to the Code of Hammurabi, if the wife refused to give her slave, the husband was permitted to marry another wife in addition to her, which would compromise the first wife’s status. It seems, then, that it’s in her best interest to give her handmaid to her husband. We see also in the Code of Hammurabi that the son of the handmaid would have had full rights of inheritance if the husband acknowledged him as his own. If he didn’t, then both the handmaid and the son would be freed from slavery. There are a lot of parallels in the biblical text to other ancient Near Eastern custom, but in most cases, there is something different in the biblical narrative. There’s always a lesson about how covenantal relationship with God is different.

But here we see that Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar follow the ancient custom of their neighbors with little exception, so we are left asking ourselves, what is the lesson? What sets this story apart and what are we supposed to learn from it? We know that our ancestors in the biblical text are not perfect. Torah shows us their imperfections, so perhaps the lesson here is what not to do. Maybe we’re specifically supposed to be unlike Sarah here. The text is deeply painful and my thought is that perhaps it’s supposed to be.

The midrash supports the notion that Abraham and Sarah engage with Hagar in a fashion typical for that time. The sages wonder about Ishmael’s playing with Isaac, m’tzachek in Hebrew. The simplest meaning of this word refers to playing, but Rabbi Akiva says that Ishmael is engaged in idolatry, fornication, or murder, that he plans to teach Isaac to follow other gods, engage him in some sexual act, or even murder him. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai argues that there’s no way these big three infractions – the only ones in which one cannot even engage to save one’s own life – would be happening in Abraham’s household, so it must be something else. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai posits that what the boys are fighting about is inheritance; Ishmael seeks to claim the inheritance as Abraham’s firstborn.[2] This would mesh with his rights afforded to him in the law codes of the ancient Near East. That is, unless, Abraham can be convinced to reject him as his son, resulting in his and his mother’s being cast out, which is exactly what Sarah pursues.

There is no doubt that Sarah had her troubles. She faced the normal stresses of her time:  famine, migration, and flight from burning cities. She faced the additional stresses of her barrenness, which limited her usefulness in Abraham’s patriarchy. She was arm candy to local kings when Abraham passed her off as his sister while he enjoyed luxury. But these challenges, suggests Rachel Hackenberg[3], do not make her treatment of Hagar acceptable or even understandable. Our own challenges and inadequacies – real or imposed upon us by our society – do not absolve us of complicity, either. Sarah’s troubles do not supersede Hagar and Ishmael’s worries for survival.

This is where we begin to understand the lesson of this story for us today. If we can see ourselves in Sarah’s shoes then, perhaps, we can make a different choice than she did. We can’t pretend that we lack privilege, even if we perceive that our privilege is more limited than that of others. Privilege is societally granted, unearned advantages accorded to some people and not others. There are a number of privileges that many of us possess, whether or not we acknowledge them:  privilege of gender, sex, and sexuality; of nationality; of class; of body type; and, of course, of race. I want to speak, for a moment, about race in particular, but we can apply what we learn to any of the privilege that we possess.

“Racism undermines the American Promise, the promise of equality enshrined in our nation’s founding documents, and the promise that our ancestors embraced and ultimately experienced when they came to this country.”[4] In spite of this ideal, it took generations before it was applied to American Indians, descendants of slavery, women, and other marginalized groups. And it still hasn’t been realized or accepted by some as the ideal for all. Racism and segregation persist. Privilege still permits some people the benefits of society that others lack. While separate-but-equal is no longer the law of the land, we still live segregated, most of us, from those who are not like us. Access to things we take for granted is limited to those on the fringes:  quality of education, banking systems, housing, and other basic needs.

How many of you know that when parents of black children have “The Talk” with their kids, especially their sons, it’s not about the birds and the bees? It’s about how to interact with police and, hopefully, not get shot. For those of us with racial privilege, we don’t understand this. Our textual tradition calls us to work for justice and equality. In the creation narrative, we are told that the first human being was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image.[5] The Sages understand this to mean that our diversity is a testament to God’s glory.[6] Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, in his book The Future of the American Jew, argues that justice is one of the basic values of Judaism, based upon our intrinsic equality despite our diversity. “Our society should be viewed as a community—a social organization in which the welfare of each and every person should be the concern of all.”[7] Unfortunately, this isn’t what we see in the biblical narrative of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar and it isn’t what we see in our own society, either.

Just as Sarah is complicit in Hagar’s treatment, so are we complicit in the treatment of those on the fringes of our society, unless we act to elevate the divine image within them. Rachel Hackenberg describes the patterns of behavior in white women in their role in systemic racism in America. We would do well to understand this pattern and recognize it in ourselves even as we recognize it in Sarah in our biblical text. We sympathize with the other, but soon reject our new understanding and become angry at others for our hurt feelings. Sarah and Abraham welcome Hagar into their relationship and Sarah elevates Hagar’s position so that Abraham can fulfill the divine promise of becoming a father of nations. But as soon as Ishmael is born and even more so once Isaac enters the picture, Sarah turns on Hagar, convincing Abraham to expel her and her son, forgetting that even as Sarah’s status is slightly better than Hagar’s in their society, both are disadvantaged. The text demonstrates, “how a woman with limited systemic agency shifts her weight within that system to betray another woman with systemically less power.”[8]

Much of our awareness of those at greatest risk, those with the least power in our society, is superficial:  we join protests, we raise the alarm on social media, but we miss the microaggressions that our siblings of color and others on the fringe endure on a daily basis and we turn a blind eye to, “the systemic racism that hustles young Black men from schools into prison.”[9] When called on this, many of us become defensive or turn to tears and anger, not at what is happening, but at the accusation being leveled against us and claim to be under attack. “We cry offense and retreat, or, like Sarah, we cast out the ‘offender.’”[10]

Our community is working to counter this seemingly natural reaction. In the coming weeks and months, our Tikkun Olam Council has organized a panel and volunteer fair so that we can help to serve the needs of new immigrants to Maine and their communities. Nathan Szanton shared that information with you in his remarks and I hope you’ll join us for those events and others that follow. But we have to do more than attend panels and programs. We have to open our eyes to the plight of those who are at a greater disadvantage than we are on a daily basis. As Jews, we have often been among those at risk wherever we’ve lived and while we benefit from acceptance, for the most part, in the fabric of the American society, if our history has taught us anything it has taught us that that is not a given. Even when it means risking our own status, it is critical that we Jews speak up for those who face discrimination, hatred, and the brunt of our society today. It is specifically because we are also at risk that we must speak up for those at greater risk and be their advocates and their allies. Sarah got it wrong, but we don’t have to and it’s what God expects of us. Shanah tovah.

[1] Michal Lemberger, “The Watery Season,” After Abel and Other Stories. Altadena, CA:  Prospect Park Books, 2015, pp. 82-3.

[2] Tosefta 6:6.

[3] Rachel G. Hackenberg, ”White Women, Sarah, and Hagar,” The Huffington Post., July 17, 2013.

[4] Laura Grabelle Hermann, “Addressing Race as a Jewish Community,” Reconstructing Judaism., August 16, 2017.

[5] Genesis 1:26-27.

[6] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

[7] Hermann.

[8] Hackenberg.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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