By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky
The play date found a package of “Frozen” Jelly Belly jelly beans, a special treat from a good friend out of town, and asked my daughter if she could have one. “Of course,” my daughter said. One jelly bean quickly became most of the package and my daughter came to find me, crying quietly so her friend wouldn’t know that she was terribly upset that most of her jelly beans were now gone.
Another play date asked my daughter if she could take home a couple of little figurines the girls had been playing with and she would bring them back to school the next day. My daughter insisted she wanted to give her friend the toys despite my warnings that she may not get them back. I certainly have no objection to giving away toys (please take my clutter to your house); but I did not want to maneuver the delicate negotiations with the other parent should my daughter decide she absolutely needed those particular (probably gone forever) toys back.
Generosity feels good. Giving to others and doing good deeds are values we hope to instill in our children. But is it ok to have limits to our benevolence? Is the merit of our charity reduced if we cannot meet the recipient’s need right to the end?
In this week’s parashah, God promises Abraham that his offspring will be “as the dust of the earth so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring, too, can be counted,” and further on, “count the stars if you are able to count them! And He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” It’s a wonderful visual that the younger children focus on when they learn this week’s text. How big is God’s promise to Abraham: infinite generations of children like the innumerable stars in the sky or the countless specks of sand on the earth.
The problem is that Sarah does not seem able to conceive. God keeps assuring Abraham He will give his descendants the land, yet Abraham remains childless. Finally, Sarah decides to take matters into her own hand. She says to Abraham, “See, now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; come, now, to my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.” This was a common custom of the Ancient Near East, in which a barren woman was permitted to give her husband a maid with which to have children for her, and, by all accounts, a generous and selfless act on the part of Sarah. She can be commended for putting her personal feelings aside for the larger goal of inhabiting the land God has given them. In fact, when the the text tells us, “and Abram listened to the voice of Sarai,” Rashi explains that Abraham heard a prophetic quality to Sarah’s voice, suggesting that her offer was divinely inspired.
Sarah takes Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant and gives her to Abraham “as a wife,” and Hagar conceives – according to the rabbis, on the first try. And this is when the bag of treasured jelly beans you were so willing to share, now seems tragically empty.
Hagar realized she was pregnant, and Sarah “became lighter in her eyes.” The rabbis understood from this that Hagar felt Sarah presented herself as a righteous woman but she did not think Sarah could really be righteous because she was not found worthy enough to conceive. In other words, according to Hagar, Sarah’s barrenness reflected some deficiency in her moral character. Ouch.
Sarah lashes out at Abraham: “My injustice is upon you! I gave my maidservant into your bosom, and she saw that she has conceived, I became lighter in her eyes. Let the Lord judge between me and you.” Isn’t it always the husband’s fault? Sarah blames Abraham, according to the rabbis, for not coming to her defence in face of Hagar’s degradation of her. She’s not angry with him for something he did, but something he didn’t do, something he should have done. He should have interceded on her behalf; he should have anticipated how difficult this situation would be for her; he should have read her mind. Maybe he should not have accepted her offer in the first place.
Interestingly, the Ramban goes to great lengths to show Abraham’s sensitivity to Sarah’s barrenness. He explains that the text says, “Abram listened to Sarai, “ and not Abraham “did so” to show us that even though Abraham yearned for children, he did not seek out another means to have them without Sarah’s permission. Moreover, when the text tells us that “Sarai took” Hagar to Abraham, we learn that Abraham did not rush at Sarah’s gift, but rather waited until Sarah literally delivered her maid to him.
Abraham reminds Sarah that Hagar is still her maid and that she is free to do with her as she sees fit. “And Sarai afflicted her, so she (Hagar) fled from her.” Rashi explains that “afflicted her” means she made her work with harshness. Rabbi David Kimchi (RaDaK) suggests she made Hagar do too much and worked her hard, and possibly beat her and cursed her.
It’s a good moment to think about Sarah’s feelings. Anyone who has ever experienced any form of infertility recognizes the pressure and desperation she was feeling to have a child, and the righteous desire, amidst her inner pain and turmoil, to rise above her own aspirations to do what was best for her husband and for God’s greater plan. What could be more noble? Similarly, can we understand her bitterness and outrage at Hagar seemingly mocking Sarah’s failings and even blaming Sarah’s character for her inability to conceive. Sarah’s distress is excruciatingly real and, in my humble opinion, her reaction is completely justified.
The commentators, however, disagree with me. Ramban explains that both Sarah and Abraham sinned – Sarah for her treatment of Hagar, and Abraham for letting her. Because of their sin, God gave Hagar a son – Ishmael – “a lawless person who would bring suffering to the offspring of Abraham and Sarah.”
Radak says that Sarah should have acted in a way that honoured her husband, and risen above the permission to afflict Hagar as she wanted. He claims Abraham did not stop Sarah from treating Hagar harshly, even though he did not agree with it, because of “shalom bayit” (peace in the house or in the family). Sarah was already mad at him that Hagar was pregnant and rubbing it in her face – Abraham was not going to get in the middle of this adversarial relationship. Smart man.
Sarah began with the ultimate selfless act of helping her husband to have offspring when she herself could not conceive; she ends, however, by treating her handmaid harshly and thereby sinning. What is the lesson? Nechama Leibowitz, a 20th-century Israeli Bible scholar and commentator, wrote in her commentary on Genesis (p. 156-7):
“Perhaps the Torah wished to teach us that before man undertakes a mission that will tax all his moral and spiritual powers he should ask himself first whether he can maintain those same high standards to the bitter end… Had Sarah not wished to suppress her instincts and overcome every vestige of jealousy for her rival, had she not dared to scale these unusual heights of selflessness, she would not have fallen victim to the sin of ‘Sarah dealt harshly with her…’”
Most of us know what the kind or generous or conscientious thing to do is in a given situation. It’s more difficult to understand and apply our own limitations. It requires maturity, life experience and self awareness. It’s easy to share a yummy treat. It’s more challenging to anticipate how we’ll feel when that treat is finished and we wish we had more. We hear often as new parents that we need to take care of ourselves in order to better care for our children. I don’t think the Torah is trying to teach us through Sarah’s story not to be selfless or generous, lest we sin. I think we learn from Sarah that we need to be aware of our own feelings, that we need to take care of ourselves in order to best give of ourselves to those we love.
We teach our children “sharing is caring.” Our hearts fill with pride when our children exhibit kindness and generosity. With experience, they will learn that giving is the best feeling when you truly can and want to give. In the meantime, I replaced the Frozen jelly beans, and the toys are happily forgotten amidst the clutter in my own house.
As our Akiva community celebrates Shabbat this week, enjoying Friday night dinner in each other’s homes as part of the Shabbos Project: Keeping it Together, please continue to remember Jay Sokoloff – Yosef Yisrael ben Zelda – in your prayers. May the warmth of the candles and the kindling of new friendships amidst the many blessings of Shabbat help bring him a full recovery.
Discussion questions for the Shabbat table:
- Why is it important for Abraham and Sarah to have children?
- Sarah gives Abraham her maid in order to have a child – why is she upset when Hagar is pregnant?
- How does it feel when you give something you’d rather keep for yourself?
- Do you think giving something reluctantly has the same merit – is the same quality of mitzvah – as giving something willingly?
- When might you be reluctant to be generous?
- When is it ok to put your own needs before the needs of someone else?