“After Abram had lived in Canaanfor ten years, his wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian her slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. When [Hagar] saw that she was pregnant, she looked at her mistress with contempt. Sarai said to Abram, “It’s all your fault! I myself placed my slave in your arms! Now that she sees herself pregnant, she looks at me with disrespect. Let G-d judge between me and you!” Abram replied to Sarai, “Your slave is in your hands. Do with her as you see fit.” Sarai abused her and [Hagar] ran away from her.”

We consider our ancestors to be role models for us. Sometimes, however, on the simple textual level they do not seem so wonderful. Could it really be that Sarah abused Hagar? Why is Avraham so passive?

Looking deeper, we find more here than meets the eye. Going back a little, before this whole incident, what is the relationship between Sarah and Avraham? At first, all we know about Sarah is that she is Avraham’s wife and barren. The beginning of our parsha talks about what Avraham took with him to Canaan. One of the things mentioned is “the souls they had gathered.” (Genesis 12:5). The Midrash states that these were people Avraham and Sarah had converted, Avraham the men and Sarah the women. What is the message? Sarah is part of Avraham’s mission; they work together to achieve a common goal.

Time goes on; Avraham receives a promise of children. But ten years go by and Sarah is still barren. She offers her maidservant. Why? Perhaps Sarah, as part of this common goal with Avraham wants the promise to be fulfilled. Since this is not happening through her, she offers her husband the next best thing as she sees it, her maidservant. This was common practice, found in ancient law from around that time. What is special here is how Sarah handles the situation. Ramban, noting a few phrases in the way the whole incident is related in the text, concludes that Sarah is acting in a very respectful way to her husband (and in consequence to Hagar). She humbles herself and gives her own slave to be her husband’s wife. Can we imagine how hard that is? They have this beautiful relationship, working together in common belief but she puts herself aside and lets another in. How noble!

Something goes wrong. It’s almost as if Sarah didn’t think what would happen to Hagar. One can imagine Hagar, suddenly promoted from maidservant to fellow wife. She is on top of the world. But apparently she takes it too far. She forgets what is due her mistress. The Midrash describes Hagar’s verbal abuse of Sarah, although there is no room here to elaborate, the words are hurtful, to say the least. Sarah has sacrificed much to allow Hagar in. “I myself placed my slave in your arms!” she says. To have it thrown back in her face is too much.

She takes it up with Avraham. One can imagine his discomfort. But he knows that his priority is his wife and the choice is hers. He reminds her that ultimately, Hagar is still her servant and she can do what she wishes with her. Sarah’s abuse has been explained in many ways. There are those who say (Ramban and Radak) she really did abuse Hagar, tormented her, enslaving her cruelly. These commentators admonish her for this. She is not living up to ethical and moral standards according to Radak.

Nechama Leibowitz, who was an incredible teacher of Tanach in Israel, comments on this. Maybe the message we can take out of this story is that when we take something so lofty upon ourselves we need to think thoroughly – can we really see this through, even in the rough times. How many of us, wanting to be righteous or good, do things that we ultimately cannot live up to? How many of us have such lofty aspirations and selfless wants? How much are we willing to sacrifice? We can learn much from our matriarch Sarah, whether by example or mistake.