Abraham, Sarah and Hagar: "A Family Affair"

Did Sarah Sin Against Hagar?

by Rabbi Matis Greenblatt

We look to our matriarchs and patriarchs for moral guidance. For example, Abraham's actions are the paradigm for kindness. But just as we look to them as role models to be emulated in our lives and in the resolution of our own moral dilemmas, so do we learn from them when they falter and we may then learn how not to act.

Nachmanides in his commentary on the passage in Genesis 16:6 "And Sarah sinned in this oppression and so did Abraham in allowing her to do this, and G-d heard her pain and granted her a son who would be a "wild man" to oppress the progeny of Abraham and Sarah in many different ways."

It is interesting that Nachmanides uses the term "our Mother." I believe he does so because her sin had repercussions which reverberated down through the generations until our own day. Our oppression by the children of Ishmael had continued to cause anguish to every committed Jew. (Similarly in Genesis 12:10 Nachmanidies comments that "Our father Abraham" sinned when trying to conceal his relationship to Sarah and it is to this sin that he attributed the Egyptian exile.)

Let us briefly recount the two Hagar episodes. G-d promised Abraham that his own progeny would inherit him. However, he did not promise that Sarah would necessarily be the mother of his child. And so, when it appeared that Sarah would remain barren, she offered to give her servant Hagar to Avrohom with the understanding that the child of their union would be considered as Sarah's and that Hagar would still remain as Sarah's servant. It should be noted that this was common practice at that time as evidenced by the Nuzi documents of the time. (See Jehoshua M. Grintz's Yichudo V'Kadmuso shel Sefer Breishit, Magnes, Hebrew University, 1983 PPs. 51-55).

However once Hagar conceived she became contemptuous of Sarah who took forceful steps to put Hagar in her place, whereupon Hagar fled do the desert. An angel of G-d spoke to her, promising her a son for "He has heard your suffering." At the same time Hagar was instructed to return and submit to her mistress.

When Sarah gave birth to Isaac it was clear that only Isaac would inherit his father. After the weaning party for Isaac, Ishmael scoffed. And Sarah once again complained to Abraham and demanded that Ishmael be driven away. Abraham was disturbed, but upon G-d's intervention he heeded Sarah and sent Hagar and Ishmael away.

Once again an angel of G-d spoke to Hagar promising her that Ishmael would become "a great nation."

In both instances Sarah had good cause for being disturbed. First Hagar was given to Abraham with the understanding that their offspring would be Sarah's child to reared under her guidance. Once Hagar disdained Sarah and her position, Sarah realized that it would be impossible for her to raise Ishmael--who at that point was thought to be Abraham's successor--thus throwing into jeopardy the whole future of Abraham's mission.

In the second instance when it was already clear that Isaac was Abraham's true seed, Sarah had a new concern. Ishmael was a scoffer. He was sure to be a negative influence on Isaac in his delicate and crucial formative years. And so, Sarah demanded that Ishmael be banished from their home. Abraham was at first reluctant, but eventually complied with G-d's admonition to heed Sarah's warning.

And yet Nachmanides informs us that "our mother sinned." Let us listen carefully to the profound lesson Nachmanides is teaching us. We may be defending the most justifiable cause. And yet, the manner in which we pursue our objective is critical; so critical that if we pursue our goal too forcefully or with a measure of insensitivity the results may be disastrous. In the words of the great commentator Rabbi David Kimchi, "how pleasant is forgiveness when we hold the reins of power."

Rabbi Matis Greenblatt is the Literary Editor of Jewish Action Magazine.

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