Rabbi Phyllis Berman, 9/12/2003
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. I could only see Danny on weekends because he went to a different high school; but Tamar got to see him all the time - at school and at their synagogue's youth group. 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.
Incredulously, 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 in the Torah reading cycle. It's all about jealousy over Abraham's affection! How can you ask me that question so innocently? I've been taught jealousy and competition from my birth."
"And from your birth, I've been waiting to have this conversation with you," my mother said, patting the chair beside her to invite me to sit down. "But I had to wait till you were ready - more than ready. So at last it's time; at last it's clear you need to hear what I'm about to say.
"What you've been learning - 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 ..."
Sarai and her boyfriend Avram — those were their names until late in their life — grew up in the same little town. Not only were they cousins, they were friends from childhood. So it was no surprise to anyone when their friendship turned to love.
Most of the young folks they knew stayed close to home, even when the time had come to marry. But Avram and Sarai were different. Sarai heard the words over and over, as if in a dream: "L'chi lach" - "Leave where you are, to learn who you are."
So she and Avram left their families and their home town and all that was familiar to them, to make their new life together.
As they journeyed, they came to a town where a powerful Pharaoh was in charge. At first it seemed a good place to live, because land was plentiful for grazing cattle and growing crops. But Sarai and Avram quickly noticed that, while there were some men in the area, there were no other women to be seen.
Avram made some discreet inquiries and learned that all of the town's women were living under the Pharaoh's "protection" in his palace. Even worse - in the past, some men had protested when the Pharaoh's officers had come to take the women to the palace. Those men had simply disappeared. The whisper was they were most likely dead.
"We should never have left home!" Avram thought. Night after night, he woke up trembling: Pharaoh might kill him too, in order to add Sarai to his conquests.
So one morning Avram said to Sarai, "If Pharaoh asks us, we'll tell him you're my sister."
"I suppose it's almost true," said Sarai. "You are my cousin. And I love that song you used to sing to me -"How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!" She looked into his frightened face. "All right; I'm willing."
Sure enough, not long after that the Pharaoh asked about them. Learning they were siblings, he ordered Sarai into his harem. As you can imagine, Sarai was terrified: she was separated from her beloved Avram and didn't know what was going to happen to her. So she looked around for a friend, and quickly found another young woman, who only weeks before had herself been added to the collection of Pharaoh's women. And she was a foreigner too, from a distant city - so far away that the other women called her "Hagar" (The Stranger).
So Sarai and Hagar, both far from home, uncertain when they'd be released or what would happen until then, both new to the palace culture, became immediate and intimate friends.
Now when the Pharaoh had first approached Avram and Sarai, he had promised that she'd be free of her palace duties and able to return to Avram's home after a year. And so he said to all the women before they entered his palace. But when Sarai and Hagar looked around, they could see women of all ages. It looked to them as though women were remaining in the harem far more than the single year they had expected.
When they asked the other women how long they had lived in the palace, they heard the same story over and over again. Yes, the Pharaoh had said they might leave after a year, but, by that time, each of them had borne a child. The Pharaoh told them they could leave if they wanted to; but the child, his child, must remain in the palace. What woman, each one said in her own way, could walk away from a child still nursing at the breast? So the single year of servitude turned into many years, the child into children, and after awhile they could no longer extricate themselves from the Pharaoh's home.
The key to freedom, Sarai and Hagar said to each other, is not to become pregnant during this year. But how could they avoid it when none of the other women had been able to? They thought and thought, they talked and talked. And finally they remembered that, in their own home towns, there had been a special feast at the sighting of the new moon each month. In the women's community where Sarai came from, it was called "Rosh Chodesh". The women talked through the night, one idea melting into another until they had the perfect plan.
The next day the two women gained audience with Pharaoh, who was delighted to receive the newest additions to his harem. They told him how it was the custom in their traditions to celebrate the new moon: he should invite all the men in his retinue to a monthly feast which would be prepared, not by the royal cooks and bakers, but by all the women themselves. The Pharaoh so much liked the idea of a monthly gathering of men to eat and drink that he hardly thought twice when the women mentioned that, once the food and wine were prepared, the women would go off into the woods by themselves for a night or two, to celebrate the moon's fecundity.
"Ah, but that night or two was crucial!" my mother said. "When you live with other women in a college dormitory, you'll see. For when many women live together, they often begin to menstruate on the same cycle. And in those days when there were no electric lights, women's cycles, like the tides, mirrored the rhythms of the moon as it waxed and waned each month. Those days of the New Moon - that was when the women were most fertile!"
Sarai and Hagar knew that, if the women were out of the palace and away from Pharaoh during the most fertile point of their month, they would probably not get pregnant. And for some months, the plan worked very well indeed. None of the women got pregnant - and Pharaoh didn't even notice. That was because there were still women who had already become pregnant before the New Moon celebrations started. They kept having babies. Pharaoh and his men reveled in the feasts, eating and drinking the finest specialties of the women's dishes.
For Sarai and Hagar, the months passed joyfully, each new moon another step toward their day of freedom. Each month, they felt safer from a lifetime sentence.
Four months, five months, six months - and Pharaoh realized something strange was happening. No morning sickness, no bellies swelling. What had happened to halt all fertility?
And then one afternoon, when Avram made his weekly visit into the ruler's gardens where he could talk and walk with his "sister" Sarai, the Pharaoh just happened to be standing on his balcony.
Sarai and Avram were deep in conversation. Now you know how it is, when two people love each other - how they look at one another, how they touch. Even from the distance of his balcony, the Pharaoh could see in the energy field of their loving glance, that this was not the look that one would expect between a brother and a sister. He began to think about life in his palace in the recent months, and suddenly all the different pieces of information fell into place. He ordered Avram and Sarai to his presence immediately.
"You lied to me," the Pharaoh roared. "Anyone can see you are husband and wife, not brother and sister."
"In our tradition," Avram said, "it is common to refer to our brides as our sisters. This is merely a misunderstanding," he assured the Pharaoh. "Even our poetry ..."
"Poetry, shmoetry! You have bewitched my Kingdom with your trickery! "said Pharaoh. "I have been cursed with infertility since you have come here. Get out of my palace and away from my lands this instant, and let us return to our blessed state of birthing many babies."
Avram was ready to leave immediately, but Sarai balked. "I'm not leaving here without my dear friend Hagar," she said determinedly, looking the Pharaoh in the eye.
"You are lucky to get out of here with your lives," Pharaoh fumed. "Take Hagar," he said; "just get yourselves out of here and leave us in peace."
And that is how it happened that the companions Sarai and Hagar, and the couple Sarai and Avram became a family of three. It was no surprise that just as Sarai loved both Avram and Hagar, so it was that Avram and Hagar came to love one another as well. The three settled in Hebron and peacefully went on with their lives.
Well - mostly peacefully, because for several years neither Sarai nor Hagar became pregnant. "Maybe our trick has brought a curse on both of us?" they worried. They prayed together: "You Who are the Source of All Life and all Liberty, You Who heard our prayers for freedom from the Pharaoh's palace, hear our prayers for new life now."
So it was an enormous relief when Hagar's belly did begin to swell. When the son of Hagar and Avram was born, the three called his name "Yishmael - God hears," for God had listened to their prayers. If you've seen how dear friends or close family members delight in the birth of one another's children, so it was with Sarai, who adored Yishmael as fully as Hagar and Avram did. There's more than enough work for two mothers when a newborn comes into a family, and Sarai was involved with Yishmael's parenting in every way but one.
The one thing that Sarai could not do was to nurse the baby, and, according to my mother, when Sarai watched Hagar soothe and satisfy the baby at her breast, it caused her some grief. She yearned for a baby born from her own body, but in all other ways she loved Yishmael as her own.
The household flourished; living together was easy; and the years passed. Sarai had almost made her peace with the fact that her body would bear no children when their household was visited by three strange-seeming guests. First the three suggested that both Sarai and Avram slow down and breathe more. They even urged them both to add a breathing sound to their names as a reminder: "Sarahhh and Avrahham." And if they were to do that, the visitors predicted, within the year Sarai herself would give birth to a son.
Sarai laughed to hear such news. "After all these years?" she said - in a mixture of joy and disbelief. Yet, filled with hope, she and Avram agreed to rename themselves as the visitors had suggested: Sarah and Avraham.
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 demand 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.
"For God insists that on the eighth day of life we will circumcise newborns, but now we must consecrate men and boys of all ages so that our people will be as numerous as grains of sand on the seashore or stars in the sky."
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, just as they had done so many years before, in the Pharaoh's palace.
And once again, they agreed on an idea, this time to protect Yishmael from Avraham's potential dream. 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.
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. How they survived there and made a life for themselves is a story for another day. It's enough to say that they lived a good and long life. Yishmael had many children and won a great deal of respect among those with whom he settled.
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 don't 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. "
*From the book Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World (Jason Aronson Publishers) by Phyllis Ocean Berman and Arthur Ocean Waskow. Copyright (c) 1996 by the authors.
Berman - p. 12