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Sara abandoned the handmaid's son, Pharaoh's daughter saved another handmaid's son
Photo: Shutterstock

Endless tragedy of injustice towards foreigners

Hagar's character has been weighing on Hebrew conscience to this very day. How is it possible that our foreparents, Abraham and Sara, failed in finding a compassionate solution towards the non-Jewish handmaid and child?

Hagar lives in our conscience

A story in which the main characters' names are "Sara" ("minister" in Hebrew) and "Hagar" ("foreigner" in Hebrew) leaves no room for doubt. This is a story of the strong versus the weak, ministers and rulers against the foreigners and the poor.



The "heroine" and the "villain" were crowned even before we heard the plot itself, and this time, as complicated as it is, the wicked Sara is a mother.


Lechi Lach (Go!)

Hagar is expelled twice from Sara and Abraham's home to the desert. The first time is in "Lech Lecha," last week's Torah portion, after it turns out that unlike Sara, she has become pregnant with Abraham's child (Genesis 16:3-6):


"And Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt 10 years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, 'My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee.' But Abram said unto Sarai, 'Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes.' And Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face."


The second is after both women have children, and Sara is afraid that Ishmael, the firstborn son, will be Abraham's primary inheritor (Genesis 21:8-14):


"And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. Wherefore she said unto Abraham: 'Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.' And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son. And God said unto Abraham: 'Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to you. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is your seed.' And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-Sheva."


Hagar will suffer expulsion and emigration, Sara will release her handmaiden, and Abraham, father to many nations, will helplessly stand by collaborating with Sara.


Since then, Hagar's character has been weighing on the Hebrew conscience like a millstone to this very day. How is it possible that our ancient foreparents, Abraham and Sara, did not succeed in finding a solution that was both compassionate and truthful towards the non-Jewish handmaid and child?


Why does the Torah open with Hagar's story?

It can be proposed that the essence of the Five Books of the Torah is to address the experience of foreignness (estrangement) and treatment of foreigners and the weak elements in our community.


Already at opening of the Torah we get acquainted with the experience of the exile from the garden of Eden, and immediately thereafter we are exiled with Abraham from Haran to Canaan, and from Canaan getting dragged down to Egypt, and again back to Canaan until the great emigration to Egypt and the days of being a stranger and suffering that we would come to know there.


And from the moment of the exodus from Egypt until the Torah's conclusion, we are accompanied by the most frequent mitzvah in the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:19 and many other verses): "You shall love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."


The stories of the expulsion of Hagar, located at the beginning of Genesis, are intended to burden our conscience and demand of us that we repair the primordial sin of our ancestors.


Moral justification for Egyptian exile

A close reading of the tales of Hagar's expulsion teach us that the narrator is constructing these stories as a moral justification for the exile and the suffering we will experience in Egypt. Hagar's expulsion is in fact an inverted mirror's tale of the Egyptian exile. Every mistake and sin which Sara and Abraham committed will return two-fold on their descendants in Egypt.


Hagar is an Egyptian servant and Sara is the Hebrew ruler, whereas the opposite is true in the Egyptian exile. Sara tortures Hagar whereas the Egyptians will torture the Children of Israel.


Hagar escapes to the desert and experiences a divine revelation there, just like the Children of Israel will escape to the desert and experience divine revelation. Hagar's distress in the desert is the distress of food and water. This will also characterize the desert distress of the Children of Israel.


Finally, in both stories we witness the terrible tragedy of abandoning children. In the story of Hagar (Genesis 21:15): "And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child..." In the Egyptian exile stories (Exodus 1:22): "Every son that is born you shall cast into the river..."


Hence it follows that Hagar is a microcosm of the migrant, immigrant, and foreigner wherever they may be, and Sara is a microcosm of the ruler. We can learn the essence of the patriarchal and matriarchal sin and its punishment also from comparing two verses (Genesis 16:6): "And Sarai afflicted her (Hagar)..." with (Exodus 1:11): "Therefore (the Egyptians) did set over (the Hebrews) taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens."


'Say that you are my sister'

This time, as always, we have a surprising Talmudic Midrash that claims that Hagar, the Egyptian handmaiden, was originally a woman of distinguished royal lineage. And how did an Egyptian princess fall to the lowly status of Hebrew handmaiden?


(Genesis Rabbah, Lech Lecha, 45): "Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, 'Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh. Since Pharaoh saw what was done for Sara in Abraham's house, he took his daughter and gave her to him. He said, 'Better for you to be a handmaiden in this house than a matroness in another home."


This is an amazing Midrash. Only a few verses ago, the Torah shared the story of Abraham's denigration. Abraham arrives from Haran to Canaan and because of the famine present there he leaves with his wife for Egypt. Sara is beautiful and Abraham fears the Egyptians will desire her and kill him in order to take her. Therefore he begs Sara (Genesis 12:13): "'Say, I pray thee, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake, and that my soul may live because of you.'" And this is indeed what happens.


Sara says, "I am his sister". She is taken to Pharaoh's house and Abraham receives in exchange for her many gifts. However, God is not happy with this arrangement and afflicts Pharaoh with a plague for the sin of taking Sara. Frightened Pharaoh gets angry at Abraham for the deceit and expels him with his wife and the gifts from the land of Egypt. Nevertheless, the Midrash specifically praises Abraham.


Did Abraham really pass all the trials?

The medieval doctor, philosopher, mystic, and Biblical commentator Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194–1270) harshly criticizes the way Abraham exploits Sara and blames Abraham with causing the Egyptian Exile:


"Know that our forefather Abraham unintentionally sinned a great sin when he brought his righteous wife before a stumbling block of sin because of his own fear of being killed... And for this act the Egyptian Exile was decreed on his descendants."


Now it is understood that the Midrash's claim that "the Egyptian King was impressed by the miracles done for Sara and therefore gave her his daughter as a handmaiden" is ironic as Abraham abandoned his own wife, so why would the king hand over his daughter to him?


Ups and downs

Abraham abandons his wife in Egypt. Sara abuses her Egyptian handmaiden who was given to her in that same terrible incident. Who are we to complain about the treatment we received from the Egyptians?


Twice Pharaoh's daughter

The Midrash's author takes advantage of an additional benefit of the connection between Hagar and Pharaoh's daughter, the association of the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael with the story of Moses' rescue by Pharaoh's daughter.


The Midrash's author, who is attempting to make even harsher the criticism of Abraham and Sara, reminds us that Pharaoh's daughter, who risked her life publicly disobeying her father's command, saved from death a boy who was not only not her own son, but not even a son of her own people.


How difficult it is now to read the story of Hagar in which our matriarch and patriarch send away into the desert a youth who was supposed to be under their protection. A youth who was supposed to be the firstborn son and rightful heir to Abraham. A youth who was supposed to be one of one of our forefathers.


It is easy to understand the heart of jealous Sara, easy to understand Abraham's embarrassment, but the Torah is forbidding us from being enticed by that. The Torah demands acknowledgement of the offense done to Hagar.


Perhaps we have learned our lesson?

This week we learned of the approval of Knesset Member Elazar Stern's proposed conversion law. This bill is far from having a liberal approach to conversion, however it would be a step forward and make easier the path for those desiring to convert.


There is much more that needs to be done in relation to aliens (gerim toshavim) and righteous converts (gerei tzedek) in Israel, yet I nevertheless welcome this step taken in the direction of Hagar.


And in the beit midrash of talkbacks

It's called breasts: The Meuhedet health maintenance organization amazes us once again in its concern for the health of the Ultra-Orthodox public, this time with a riddle. Who can solve the following sentence? (Those who succeed may win a life saving medical check): "Women's cancer is created in the tissue of the discussed organ..."


I recommend for that Meuhedet follow this trend and publish a new edition of the Bible. This way we can correct God's vulgar Biblical verses: (corrected Lamentations 4:3): "Even the jackals draw out the 'discussed organ,' they give suck to their young ones..." or (corrected Song of Songs 4:5) "Thy two 'discussed organs' are like two fawns."


Go for it, Meuhedet. And in the meantime, I am waiting for the ultra-Orthodox woman or man who will sue you for withholding life-saving information.


And last week: "Anti-Feminist" (Talkback #47), "Half Sane" (Talkback #44), Lior (Talkback #43) and others asked from where did I bring the statistics that one in seven people have suffered from some form of incest.


I cited my source in the column itself. Difficult to believe? It was hard for me to believe as well. Therefore before I publicized the figure I consulted with Dr. Zivya Seligman on whose statement I relied and confirmed with her that I correctly understood the alarming number.


She stands behind the statistic and she refers in her article to the study on which she bases her opinion. I know it is hard to believe, why this is our greatest trouble.


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas.


Click here to read this article in Hebrew.


פרסום ראשון: 11.04.14, 20:24
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