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Toward an Ancient Ethic

November 2, 2011 – 7:52 pmOne Comment

Hagar & Ishmael Expelled, by George Soper

By Joel Lazar

A sad tale is told in this coming week’s parashah, Lech Lecha. It is the heart-wrenching tale of an insulted and jealous master, the matriarch Sarah (still ‘Sarai’ here) and a scorned maidservant and concubine (Hagar) who falls pregnant and is driven from home. How are we to make sense of the seeming arrogance of a subject towards her master and the justification of her harsh response?

It is very rare that a woman’s pregnancy is mentioned in any significant detail in the Bible. The birth of a child perhaps; the building of a legacy, the beginning of a new life; the traces of a new story. Thus, when a pregnancy is granted attention by the text, we are drawn near; much like with Jacob and Esau where the text and commentators describe the epic battle between the forefathers of two nations transpiring within Rebecca’s womb.

Mention of Hagar’s pregnancy here is significant. Hagar uses it as fuel for ridicule and inadvertently elicits the wisdom of Proverbs (30:21):

“For three things the world is disquieted, and for four it cannot bear: for a slave when he becomes kind; and a fool when he is filled with food; for an unloved woman when she is married; and a handmaid that is heir to her mistress

Hagar’s actions seem to reflect an almost unforgivable level of arrogance and haughtiness from a woman sitting on the lowest social rung of society.

In curt response, Sarai imposes a more strenuous work routine on Hagar; one that evokes the Jewish slavery under Egyptian task-masters – that of inuy. This treatment drives Hagar away from her only home whereupon she is ‘found’ by an angel of God who declares that he has heard her “affliction” and consoles her in her pain.

This brief account begs a question that cannot be ignored: Were Sarai’s actions justified?

On many levels, Sarai seems to be a character deserving of criticism. Both the text and the angel that finds her weeping confirm that Hagar indeed suffered affliction at the hands of Sarai.

Further, no less than thirty-six times does the Bible demand of us not to oppress the stranger in our midst. Worthy of note is the oft-quoted reason for this edict; “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. That Hagar is described as an “Egyptian maidservant” is significant; it is a prescient hint of the lessons the Jewish People would one day learn as slaves to foreign rulers and the moral responsibility that would consequently be placed upon their shoulders. In most, if not all, instances whereupon the Torah mentions the relationship between the Jewish master and non-Jewish slave, there is no mention of the obligations of the slave; no prescription of the duties and respects he or she owes to the master; only rights.

But how should a person in Sarai’s situation truly have been expected to act towards a maidservant and ‘foreigner?’ What could be expected from the member of a society of which Sarai was part?

In a pre-Sinaitic era, it may follow that Sarai and Avram’s dealings with Hagar are to be judged not in accordance with Jewish ethics but rather by reference to the universal standards of their contemporaries.

The Hammurabi Code (Law 146) gives a more precise outline of principles adopted by contemporary society to deal with circumstances identical to that of Sarai, Avram and Hagar:

“If a man takes a wife and the wife gives her maidservant to her husband and he bears sons (through the maidservant) after which the maidservant demands equality to her mistress on account of her giving birth to sons, her mistress shall not sell her for money; to slavery she must subject her; together with her (other) maidservants shall she be regarded”

The situation in which our biblical characters find themselves was not uncommon. The existence of maidservants, mistresses and tensions within a household demanded a legal regulation of practice. According to the code above, it was both legal and socially acceptable for a mistress to inflict her maidservant with a more strenuous work routine and a reminder of her place within the nuclear family, namely, outside of it.

Sarai (supported by Avram, whether actively or passively) acted as her contemporaries did; asserting dominance in her household and denying her maidservant equal status. Further, unlike the Hammurabi Code, which permits the subjugation of a rebellious maidservant who has already given birth, Hagar’s womb is not yet ripe when she ridicules her mistress, possibly further justifying Sarai’s harsh response. Pregnancy was far from an assurance of birth in those times.

Given Sarai’s psycho-emotional and socio-historical situation, each to be considered in equal measure, what fault can we find in her actions? On what basis could we find such a scathing rebuke as Ramban’s (on Genesis 16:6): “our mother sinned in this affliction [against Hagar]; so too did Avram in allowing it to happen…”?

In the eyes of Ramban it could not be any clearer – our forefather and foremother sinned greatly. His commentary continues, “God heard her [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son [Yishmael]…to afflict the descendants of Avram and Sarai with all kinds of afflictions”.

In attempting to reconcile these polar ethical expectations, we may find a powerful message:Sarai and Avram’s behaviour served the minimum standards required for the stability of a functioning society, but added nil to the moral fibre of it. Ramban’s view of moral uprightness (commentary on Deutoronomy, 6:18) is poignant here:

“…man should do what is good and right in every matter; he should include in that a compromise beyond the letter of the law”

It was incumbent upon Avram, to whom the Zohar (parshat Lech Lecha) ascribes the trait of chesed (kindness), to guide his household in the ways of kindness, beyond what any natural or social law might have required of him. In failing to do so, Sarai and Avram fell into the temptation of society’s minimalistic ethical demands and were deaf to the higher demand of God.


What system therefore should guide the character and practice of the modern-man? One may turn to universalistic, subjective or intuitive ethics. Yet subjective ethics are just that – subjective and unstable –subservient to the dominant culture that perchance holds the world in its palm. As that civilization is inevitably toppled by another, its ethics easily fall with it.

Otherwise, modern-man rests his morals on the law, such that actions that receive no socio-legal critique ultimately become the norm or even the desired norm. Yet this has obvious limitations. Slavery, for example, was once accepted (legal) and now is not. Does that mean slavery was ever right? Moreover, governments are severely limited in their capacity to enforce moral behaviour on their citizenry, nor should they desire to. As Eliezer Berkovits points out in his book, Not in Heaven:

“The moment a society attempts to rule over the conscience of its members…dictating their personal value system, it becomes immoral and cease[s] to be a democracy…[however] it [the Torah] does involve the private conscience; it does present the Jew with an entire system of values, with a complete way of life to be followed”

Judaism must battle the torrent of societal approval and always take a check-and-balance. Judaism requires us to go beyond; to be eternally critical of the status quo (sometimes for no other reason than it is just that) and to ceaselessly ask: How can we go one step further?

This idea is based on a shiur given by Dr. Chezi Cohen at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa

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One Comment »

  • R B says:

    … and, as we know, she was not the last Sarah in Jewish history who was the wife of the nation’s leader, treated her maid arrogantly and harshly, and at the end sent her away from home…

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