Why Hagar Left: This Week’s Torah

 By Rabbi Phyllis Berman

[Rabbi Phyllis Berman is a spiritual director. She has been the founder and director of a renowned English-language school for new adult immigrants and refugees; director of the summer program at Elat Chayyim; and co-author of several books on Jewish thought and practice.

[This story appears in a fuller version in the book Tales Of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories To Heal The Wounded World (republished by Ben Yehuda Press, 2021) written by Rabbis Phyllis Berman and Arthur Waskow.]

Long ago and far away is where most stories start; but this one begins in my own life.

One day when I was 16, I came home from school very upset. My mother asked me what was wrong. I told her that Danny, the-love-of-my-life, was spending a lot of time with my second-best-friend Tamar. And I was frightened. At the moment they were only friends, but I knew that Tamar really liked Danny, and I knew that he was also interested in her.

"So you're jealous of her?" said my mother.

 "Well, of course," I said. "What else can I feel? I’m worried I’ll lose him; in fact, I’ll lose them both."

"Where did you get the idea that two women have to compete over a man?" my mother asked with a sparkle in her eyes.

Incredulous, I blurted out, "Come on! From the time I was an infant, I’ve gone to shul; from the time I started Hebrew school, I’ve read the Chumash. We hear the story of the competition between Sarah and Hagar not just once but twice a year. It’s all about jealousy over Abraham’s affection! How can you ask me that question so innocently?”

"From your birth, I’ve been waiting to have this conversation with you. But I had to wait till you were ready. So at last it’s time.

"What you’ve been learning about Sarah and Hagar – it’s not the whole story. How do I know? My mother told me when I was about your age; she had heard it from her mother, who had heard it from her mother, all the way back through all the generations. What she told me is the real story of Sarah and Hagar ...

“I’m sure you know the story about how Avram pretended Sarai was his sister when they visited Egypt, and how she ended up in Pharaoh’s harem, and how Pharaoh was so upet when he discovered they were really married that he threw them out of Egypt altogether. But you don’t know that Hagar was in the harem too, that that she and Sarai became close friends, and Sarai insisted that the Pharaoh release her too.

“And that is how it happened that the companions Sarai and Hagar, and the couple Sarai and Avram became a family of three. The three settled in Hebron and peacefully went on with their lives.

"When Sarai learned she would be able to have a child, her name and Avram’s too were changed to affirm they would be life-bearers: Each of them added to their names a deep breathing sound, a hhhh, Breath of Life.

"Now you may think that everything was finally perfect, but I’m sorry to say that a strange shadow fell upon the family right before the birth of Sarah’s baby. Avraham awoke one morning full of dreams about a commanding transcendent lordly God. In his dreams he had heard this God demanded the circumcision of all the males in the family -- the adolescent Yishmael, the aging Avraham, and all future newborn boys to hallow the male genitals to create life for ongoing generations.

"Avraham told these words to Sarah and Hagar, and the women were outraged. 'You mean to say that you’d take our Yishmael --  a thirteen-year old just coming to terms with his body’s change from boyhood to manhood -- and you want to cut off the skin at the tip of his penis?' Hagar said incredulously.

 " 'Yes,' Avraham answered, ''I, and all the men of our clan and our village, and all the boy children, including our Yishmael, must be circumcised.'

"The women looked at each other in disbelief. They could barely tolerate the thought of maiming their male child, let alone the men in the community. It made no sense, they thought; and yet, Avraham was so certain that it was what God wanted. Finally and reluctantly, they agreed, and the circumcisions were done.

"But from that moment on, a gulf fell open between the two women and Avraham. If he could dream such weird dreams, such dangerous and outrageous dreams, who knew what might be next?

"And yet all this was put aside when Sarah delivered a healthy baby boy. To this son, the three of them gave the name 'Yitzhak, Laughing One,' because the news of his coming had caused all of them to laugh with delight.

"The family of five continued to grow in love and prosperity, until one morning Sarah awoke from a terrible night’s dream. She was so distressed that she told it to Hagar: In her nightmare, Avraham had had another dream. This time God had told him to take his first-born son to a nearby mountain, and, like so many of their neighbors who believed that sacrificing living beings insured continued fertility, sacrifice him. As Sarah told the dream, she began to cry. Her body shook and her voice broke.

"Hagar put her arms around Sarah. 'Beloved Sarah, it is just a dream,' said Hagar.

" 'Beloved Hagar, it is just a dream,' said Sarah.

"  'It is just a dream of a dream,' said each woman to the other.

"But the dream came to Sarah once again, and yet once more. 'Three times!' she said to Hagar. 'It will no longer leave me in the morning. Remember when Avraham dreamed that God wanted our oldest son circumcised? Is it so impossible that he might dream that God wants him to sacrifice our oldest son?'

"Sarah and Hagar didn’t know what to think; but, since the circumcision, they were not so confident about Avraham and the voices he chose to listen to. 'What can we do if Avraham decides to take our Yishmael to sacrifice him?' they cried. And so they sat and talked and planned and plotted through the day and into the night.

"The plan," my mother said, "is one we know well; it’s the one we read about in the Torah.

"If Sarah were to tell Avraham this preposterous story about Yishmael teasing Yitzhak and demand that Avraham send Yishmael and Hagar away from the household, he would have to believe her, because he knew without a doubt how bound together the women and the boys had been. So he would send Hagar and Yishmael away."And they agreed on a plan to protect Yishmael from Avraham’s potential dream.

"It was a terrible plan, a heartbreaking one, but one that would keep Yishmael alive and out of Avraham’s reach.

"We all know what happened: Sarah did tell Avraham that she and Yitzhak could no longer stand to live with Hagar and Yishmael. Avraham couldn’t understand it, but Sarah was so insistent that Avraham agreed, with a heavy heart, to send them away.

"The night before Hagar and Yishmael were to go, the two women sat up, alternately weeping and reminiscing, and, each in her own hand, they wrote two scrolls. In each was the real story of their love and friendship through all the years they had lived together. Hagar placed her scroll in Sarah’s hands, to give to a daughter-in-law or other female relative. Sarah put her parchment in Hagar’s hands for the same purpose.

"So it was that Hagar and Yishmael left the household and went out into the desert. They lived a good and long life.

"Sarah was never the same after Hagar and Yishmael went their own way. She became withdrawn and lonely, barely consoling herself with mothering the growing Yitzhak. Although she believed that her deception had saved Yishmael’s life, it had taken from her most of her own life energy.

"You can imagine, then, how shocked, how outraged she was, many years later when Avraham, indeed, did have the dream she had seen in her own vision. For in his dream, Avraham did hear God commanding him to take his son, his only son, his beloved son Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah and to sacrifice him there.

"Avraham did take Yitzhak, and was ready to sacrifice him on that day. But at the last moment, God sent a ram to take Yitzhak's place on the altar.

"When Avraham and Yitzhak returned home after this terrifying journey, Sarah was on her deathbed, grief-stricken once more and half-crazed that everyone she had ever loved would be lost to her. When she saw that Yitzhak had returned, miraculously alive, she blessed him and gave him the parchment that had been written by Hagar.

"This scroll," Sarah said, "is my gift to your wife if you should marry. I dont expect to live long enough to give it to her myself, but there is a story she and her offspring must know."

"So it was," my mother told me, "that Yitzhak presented Rivkah with this mysterious gift from his mother Sarah; Rivkah eventually gave it to her daughter-in-law Leah, who" gave it to her daughter Dina, and so it passed from generation to generation through the ages. When the actual scrolls disappeared, women just told the story to their daughters and granddaughters, to their nieces and their cousins."

Through this whole story, my mother and I had been sitting side by side, Her eyes were turned more inward, toward the past, than facing me. But now she took my arm and turned the two of us to face each other. And then she said, "At last this story I’ve so longed to tell you -- at last I can put this story in your hands. Now it is your responsibility to pass on to the next generation, so people will know the truth about Sarah and Hagar.

"And more!" she said. "Now you too can look beyond the world of jealousy and competition. You can ask yourself whether we must forever live according to the tale you learned in school or has the time begun to come when women can shape the world together, as Hagar and Sarah tried to do. "


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