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Parashat Vayera

October 30, 2006

By Jaron Matlow

In this week’s parashah, we find myriad fascinating events which are very difficult to understand. One example is the story of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac (21:9-13). The peak of this event (21:10) is that Sarah tells Abraham to drive out the slave woman (Hagar) and her son (Ishmael), because the son of this slave woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac. This results in the very common thread in Sefer Bereishit (Genesis) – that the younger son is selected to carry on the line and the older son is somehow set aside. It is also important to remember that in Sefer Bereishit, it is often the wives who take the actions that ensure the younger son is selected.
The text tells (21:9) us that Ishmael did something to Isaac (metzaheik) which could mean various things from teasing or mocking to much worse actions. We do not know what really happened, but the end result is the same, Hagar and Ishmael are to be exiled. Sarah’s response of driving them out seems like a very harsh response, but tradition teaches an answer for this.

As Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, observes in Reading the Women of the Bible, throughout the story leading to the birth of Isaac, God intervened on the behalf of Sarah. Sarah is working to ensure God’s promise that Isaac is the one who is to carry on Abraham’s line, and God enables Sarah’s actions.

God then tells Abraham not to be upset by this matter but to listen to and follow Sarah’s words (21:12). Rashi points out that Sarah is greater in prophecy than Abraham, since the instruction from God ‘Sh’ma b’kolah,’ heed her voice, is a recognition of her prophecy. The Hafetz Hayim (late 19th/early 20th century) points out that Sarah’s actions and prophecy are to protect Isaac from danger, so that he can carry on the line. Abraham then hurries to send Hagar and Ishmael. The Hafetz Hayim further observes here that despite Abraham’s feelings about the matter, he proceeds to do it with ‘z’rizut‘ or alacrity, which is his response most times God tells him to do something.

Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away with only a small amount of bread and water. It is difficult to imagine that with all Abraham had in his possession, he would be so stingy here. Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) points out that if Abraham had given Hagar money for the journey, he would have failed to follow God’s command to carry this action out according to Sarah’s will.

This commentary points out the need to follow a very important Jewish value concept, Sh’lom Bayit, maintaining peace in the household. No matter how difficult this matter was to him, God told him to do it in accordance with Sarah’s will, which can be seen as maintaining Sh’lom Bayit. As we have seen in Parashat Lekh L’kha and this parashah, Abraham is very occupied with answering to God, and does not seem to use Sh’lom Bayit as a guiding principle. Thus God intervenes here ‘ for Abraham is always ready to do God’s bidding, and God, recognizing the need for Sh’lom Bayit, intervenes on Sarah’s behalf.

This story further shows us the strength of both Sarah and Hagar. On first reading, this would seem to be an ‘us vs. them’ story. As Frymer-Kensky points out, however, this is really ‘us vs. ‘another us.” Despite Hagar’s humble origins and her marginalization, she is here to carry out a very important part of the story. Just as Sarah is working to preserve Abraham’s line through Isaac, Hagar is working to preserve Abraham’s line through Ishmael. Thus from this understanding, we take away another important concept ‘ that both the line descended from Isaac and the line descended from Ishmael are to be considered ‘us’; neither is to be considered ‘them.’

It is my prayer that all of us in the world find the strength and courage to remove the word ‘them’ from the story, and make Kol Yosh’vei Teivel, all the inhabitants of the world, one us.