Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sarah and Hagar - The Torah's Attitude Toward Slavery II

Last week, I posted an article entited The Torah's Attidude Toward Slavery by Rebbetzin Devorah Heshelis, the author of The Moon's Lost Light. As I said, it's a brave approach to the difficult-to-address issue of slavery in the Torah because of the modern attitude toward slavery and how most nations have carried out slavery in the past.
Sarah and Hagar

The story of Sarah's slave woman Hagar is more difficult to understand than the relationship of Avraham and Eliezer. The relationship between Sarah and Hagar, which started lovingly, turned sour, causing pain to both Sarah, Hagar, and Avraham.

Hagar was the daughter of Par'oh, the king of Egypt, who had Sarah taken to his palace. When Par'oh saw the miracles Hashem performed for Sarah, and how he became stricken with leprosy at her word, and cured when he released her, he told his daughter Hagar that she would be better off as a slave in this house than as a princess in the wealthy and mighty Egypt. Why?

Par'oh knew that in Avraham and Sarah's house slaves were not chattel who existed merely for the benefit of the master or mistress, but rather respected people, who, imbued with the teachings of Avraham and Sarah would become the honored and beloved representatives of Hashem.

This idea is illustrated at the end of parshas Lech Lecho, where we are told that not only Avraham and his descendents were told to make bris mila, but also all his slaves. Bris Milah is a covenant with Hashem that removes the barrier to holiness so one can unite with Hashem. And the parsha ends by telling us: "And all the men of his [Avraham's] house born in the house and acquired with money from strangers, were circumcised with him". In other words, the Torah stresses that when Avraham rose up to the high level of attachment to Hashem acquired through bris milah, all the slaves in his house rose up with him. It was into such a house that Par'oh placed his daughter Hagar.

To Sarah as well, a slave was a student, someone whose behavior she could purify, guiding her and teaching her the ways of Hashem. A loving relationship developed between Sarah and Hagar. We can only imagine what the relationship was like, but Chazal tell us that students are like children for one puts one's very soul into them. Sarah loved Hagar and it appeared that Hagar loved and respected Sarah as well. Hagar rose to such a high spiritual level that she was accustomed to seeing angels. Her great teacher must have been everything to her.

Then Sarah decided to give Hagar the greatest privilege possible. She would free her and allow her to become Avraham's wife. Sarah had no children. She thought that when Hagar would bear a child from Avraham, she would raise the child as if he were her own. We see later the same idea with Rachel and Leah who treated the children of Bilhah and Zilpah as if they were their own children. Indeed, there it worked well, for the maid servants were self effacing and full of respect for their wonderful teachers/mistresses. Bilhah and Zilpah were actually freed and became wives, not concubines, but they remained emotionally and spiritually under the influence of Rachel and Leah, to the point where after Rachel's death Bilhah became Yaakov's main wife, for her charachter so resembled her guide, Rachel (just as Eliezer came to resemble Avraham).

And so Sarah, with this plan in mind, talked Hagar into marrying Avraham, telling her what a great privilege this would be for her. Hagar agreed and immediately became pregnant. What was her reaction?

Instead of feeling gratefulness to Sarah, Hagar reacted by openly deriding her benefactor. In her arrogance Hagar assumed that since she immediately became pregnant from Avraham while Sarah did not, it must be that Sarah was not "on the inside what she was on the outside". And Hagar didn't keep these thoughts to herself. She insulted Sarah, to her face, and before Avraham as well. Sarah was hurt to the very core of her being. Her emotional pain was terrible. What a betrayal! This was the thanks she got from Hagar for giving Hagar her own husband, something which is so hard for any woman to do? And what would be of her plan to have a child through Hagar? Her hopes were dashed.

And that wasn't all. Chazal say that Sarah was a great Torah teacher who converted many women. The most respected women of the times used to come to hear her. Hagar told these women that their admired teacher, Sarah, only pretended to be a tsadeket, but in fact, was not. It is a very sorry fact of human nature that people tend to believe, either partially or totally, the lashon hara that they hear. If Hagar were free to do as she pleased Sarah's life would be ruined. Her influence on the world, her life's work of bringing people closer to Hashem, would be destroyed because of Hagar.

Sarah, in her deep pain, blamed Avraham for not reprimanding Hagar. It is unclear as to why Avraham had remained silent and did not come to Sarah's aid. Perhaps he thought that since Hagar was the granddaughter of Nimrod who had thrown Avraham into the furnace, his reprimanding Hagar might be tinged with selfish motives of revenge, or at least be so interpreted by Hagar.

Instead, Avraham responded by telling Sarah that Hagar was in fact still her slave (although Sarah had actually freed her) and that she could do with her as she saw fit. Sarah then afflicted Hagar.

There are different opinions as to what the affliction was. Rashi says that Sarah made Hagar do hard work. Hagar, having been born a princess, was not used to hard work, and Sarah, understanding that, had never asked Hagar to do anything difficult. In order to break Hagar's arrogance, Sarah for the first time, gave Hagar hard work.

On the other hand, Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch points out that the angel later told Hagar that Hashem had heard her affliction. Since the usual terminology is that Hashem saw the affliction, the implication is that Sarah's affliction of Hagar was not physical but verbal. She made Hagar aware of her own low status in behaving as she did, telling her that she could not be free since she was still a slave to the yetzer hara. Yet after tasting freedom, after having been Avraham's wife, Hagar did not want to be under Sarah any more. She rebelled and ran away to the desert.

Did Sarah sin by afflicting Hagar? The Ramban says yes, she did, and so did Avraham by allowing her to do so.

This is truly amazing. Hagar had deeply pained Sarah, who was her Torah teacher and benefactor, and who had until this time showered Hagar with love and positive attention. Yet when Hagar became pregnant, instead of showing gratefulness for Sarah's sacrifice in giving her her own husband, Hagar attacked Sarah's most sensitive area, the deep pain of her barrenness, openly insulting Sarah and trying to destroy her influence on her other students. Hagar was tearing Sarah to shreds. Who would not have reacted as Sarah did? Yet the Ramban's opinion is that Sarah, and Avraham, were expected to be such paragons of kindness that even in such circumstances, one should not afflict a slave.

Other commentators, however, say that the affliction of Hagar was not considered a sin for we find no condemnation of this in the Torah. According to this opinion the affliction of Hagar was both warranted and necessary. Yet even so, we see Hashem's concern for the oppressed, for an angel was sent to speak to Hagar, and tell her that Hashem had heard her affliction.

How great is Hashem's caring for the afflicted!

To be continued....

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