We have to talk about Sarah and Hagar. Hagar an Egyptian, is a slave of our foremother Sarah. Sarah, wife of Abraham, is unable to have children, gives Hagar to Abraham - saying, “God has kept me from bearing children. Take my slave Hagar and perhaps I will be built up with a child through her.” Thus begins a conflict that some call classic, petty female rivalry and others call a cycle of abuse instigated by a system of misogyny. Spoiler alert: I’m going to go with the latter.
Here’s how it all plays out, Biblically speaking: when Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham, she starts to regard Sarah as the lesser, which instigates Sarah’s abuse, causing Hagar to run away, returning only at God’s urging. Some time later, after Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant with and gives birth to Isaac, the rivalry continues, with Sarah having Abraham send Hagar and her son Ishmael away to die in the wilderness, claiming that Ishmael was inappropriately taunting Isaac. Abraham gives in and a young Ishmael comes near death until Hagar cries out on his behalf and they are saved.
To use the word “rivalry” when describing Sarah and Hagar is to blame the two women for their competition. Two women fighting over a man, competing from their respective son to become the rightful heir. It’s just girls being girls!
But to sum it up that way is to neglect the violence embedded in the text: the fact that Sarah and Hagar are both victims, living at the mercy of the men around them. Worse yet, they are then pitted against each other as if the other is the source of their oppression.
Julia Klein, writing for US News and World Report, dives into this week’s Torah portion to show its role, for better or for worse, as a cultural blueprint for today:
“Surrogate motherhood. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The oppression of the underclass. Sounds like a roundup of headlines from the nightly news—if the media were in full swing back in biblical days. All of these timely issues can be found in the twist-and-turn-filled story of Sarah and her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. According to the biblical account, both women bear a son for the patriarch Abraham. From that starting point, scholars have gone on to explore varying (and sometimes contradictory) layers of meaning in this classic tale of family rivalry.”
Klein continues: “Hagar, a slave, is never asked to consent to bearing a child, so the narrative raises the timeless issue of "upper classes exploiting those with fewer options."...African-Americans have appropriated Hagar, impregnated by her master and cast out into the desert, as a symbol of the plight of the slave woman. Feminist scholars say the story reflects the male-dominated societies of the times—or that it misrepresents the cooperative relationships that more likely existed among women.”
Klein is right - the story of Sarah and Hagar not only raises issues of misogyny, but also sexual assault, as well as racial and economic injustice. In the year 2021, we can understand this story with the fullness of a feminist lense. This isn’t women being petty. This isn’t one woman simply favoring her son over the other. This is a horribly detailed account of an abusive cycle fostered by misogyny.
Indeed, women have been accused of hysteria, of being conniving and cutting down other women for their own advancement for centuries. Yet the archaeological record and ethnography upon ethnography shows the opposite: the cooperative, compassionate and close-knit relationships among women are the backbone of nearly every civilization.
The Torah this week is not teaching us about female nature. It’s teaching us about systems of oppression and the trauma they cause - leading to an unravelling of even our most basic family units.
Even the rabbis of old even seem to pick this up to a degree. In the midrash Avot D'Rabbi Natan, Sarah’s declaration to Hagar “The Eternal will judge between me and you,” is interpreted to be Sarah’s intimation that others were at fault for fostering a fight between these two women.
The difficulty of the text, then, is not the rivalry we witness between two women, but the fact that overtime, our tradition started to support the violence between these two women, not understanding the deeper point being made about what is causing their conflict.
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary highlights the casual acceptance and invisibility of violence against women that has and is so ubiquitous in many cultures, including our own (TWC 108). Judith Plaskow, a great feminist writer further elucidates:
“[In this account of Sarah and Hagar], can we see the ways in which marginalized peoples are all too liable to duplicate patterns of subordination from which they themselves have suffered? In Sarah’s banishment of Hagar, can we see the horizontal violence that oppressed people visit on each other as they jockey for what seems to them limited resources, rather than making common cause against the forces that suppress them?”
Now, though, we have the opportunity to right this wrong, so deeply embedded into the fabric of not only our tradition but society as a whole. Women are jockeying for limited resources - working for their basic safety and dignity, in addition to equal pay and recognition. But even that has to be broken down. White, cisgender women like myself, for example, need to acknowledge our own pain and struggle, while also understanding it is significantly worse for transwomen and women of color. There are power dynamics even within marginalized groups, and while it should not be the responsibility of a marginalized person to have the work start with them, our power can be in doing the thing that those who abuse power refuse to do: break the cycle.
To that end, Tamara Cohen, a Jewish activist and writer, wrote a powerful prayer that calls to mind the cycle of violence in this week’s Torah portion and how we may begin to fix it:
“Sarah, our mother, oppressed her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Sarah was barren and she wanted a child. She gave Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham as a wife. When Hagar conceived and became pregnant Sarah grew lesser in her eyes. So Sarah oppressed her and Hagar ran away,
Go forth and learn: Pharaoh the Egyptian oppressed our people when they dwelled in Egypt. The Israelites descended to Egypt and lived there. When then they became a nation - great, mighty and numerous - Pharaoh feared that the Egyptians would be overcome by the great multitudes of Israelites, so he decreed that every male child born to an Israelite woman be thrown into the Nile. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and oppressed us; they imposed hard labor on us.
This you should never forget: the same word used for Hagar's oppression at the hands of Sarah is used for the Israelites' oppression at the hands of the Egyptians.
This too you should never forget: The children of Israel were saved from Egypt through the brave and righteous acts of two women: one Hebrew and one Egyptian. Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh.
Go forth and learn: It is easier to oppress than to be free,
[But] "Until all of us are free none of us is free."
When Sarah prays “take my slave Hagar that I may be built up with a child through her,” I hear the voice of a desperate woman exploiting an even more powerless woman.
Today, let us transform Sarah’s prayer. May it read: “May God take note of me, and of my sister Hagar, of all those whose worth is decreed by those who lord over them. May we join hands in the struggle for recognition, for bodily autonomy, for security, and may we built one another up brick by brick: not building dynasties or garrison cities, but a more compassionate society together.”