Sarah’s Folly? by Doniel Sherman


In this week’s Parsha, Sarah gives her husband, Avraham, her maidservant as a wife. At this point in time, Avraham is eighty-six years old and Sarah is seventy-six years old. Sarah has given up hope that she will conceive a child for Avraham, so she gives him her maidservant, Hagar, to bear a child for him. Within a year, Hagar conceives a child; the Pasuk then describes how Sarah became “lighter” in Hagar’s eyes. Rashi explains that Hagar’s respect for Sarah had lessened after Hagar, a non-righteous person, had conceived within a year, so how much less righteous must Sarah have been when she had not conceived at all. Sarah then utters a perplexing statement to Avraham: “Let Hashem judge between me and you.” While the statement is confusing (a topic for further discussion), we can understand from Sara’s attitude that she is angry at Avraham. This is bewildering concept: Sarah gives Avraham a second wife to conceive a child for him, yet when Hagar gives birth, Sarah is annoyed! Was it not Sarah, herself, who gave Hagar to Avraham in the first place?

Nechama Leibowitz proposes a satisfying answer, using the Rambam to understand Sarah’s character. Ramban explains the words “Vayishma L’kol Sarai,” (Bereishit 16:2) to mean that Avraham listened to the voice of Sarah in taking Hagar for a wife. He waited for Sarah to give him permission to marry Hagar. Furthermore, in the next Pasuk, it says that Avraham took Hagar as a wife. While Avraham could have taken Hagar as a concubine, Sarah wanted Hagar to have the status of a wife to Avraham. These examples show Sarah’s righteous character and respect for her husband.

Nechama Leibowitz continues by saying that Sarah’s bringing a rival into her house to grant the gift of a child to her husband was a great sacrifice on Sarah’s part. By overcoming feelings of jealousy, Sarah reached a high point in her relationship with Avraham. As soon as Hagar conceived, however, Hagar sought to demoralize Sarah. It was only after her rival, Hagar’s taunting, that Sarah was unable to maintain her elation and lost her cool.

It is possible that Sarah didn’t anticipate the consequences from her decision. She may not have realized that Hagar would jeer at her. Sarah’s anger was understandable and may even have been justifiable, yet Ramban and Radak argue this was no excuse for Sarah to send Hagar away with her child, as she does in next week’s Parasha. Her anger needed to manifest itself in a less harsh way than severely disrupting another woman’s life. We can learn two things from Sarah’s reaction to Hagar: to anticipate our reactions and emotions to any scenario or challenge what we encounter in our lives, and to manage our anger in a more productive way than pure retribution against the individual that hurt you. (Editor’s note: for a justification of Sarah’s actions, see Rav Elchanan Samet’s essay to Parashat Lech Lecha in the first volume of his Iyunim B’parashot Hashavua).

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