In legal terms, divorce is fairly straight-forward – a strict delineation of names, assets, and debts. But in practice and process, it is far less tidy. Several years ago, the end of my own marriage proved a severe and bottomless shattering. Suddenly, I discovered myself spun glass as I split into shards again and again. The brutality of it all seared welts into my soul. It was abject catastrophe, ceaseless chaos, and loss so staggering I have yet to recover. The divorce which I initiated was the single most excruciating experience of my life.
Sisterhood saved me. When I felt as if I were adrift in a vacuum, it was coffee-fueled conversations and commiserations around a bonfire that served to bring me back. My female friends rallied, offering every kind of support. They listened, they proffered practical advice, and they practiced patience and listened more. Friends gave furniture, dishes and utensils and helped me move from the home I owned into a studio apartment. But it wasn’t only the support of my closest girlfriends that guided me through such difficult terrain. As I made my way solo in the world, a sort of secret sisterhood emerged. Women with whom I work appeared in my office to let me know that they’d been through the same, and that I would survive. My hairstylist shared her own story and gifted me hope and humor when they were both greatly needed. When I called to remove my name from a utility account and explained the reason, the Customer Service Representative’s demeanor softened. She let me know that she too had been through divorce and that I would be ok. So many acquaintances and even random strangers offered reassurance that I began to think of us all as one collective sisterhood, united by challenge and committing to thrive. It was an empowering and positive sensation during a time when both were in short supply.
Like all women, however, I am familiar with the other side of female relationships. Our culture fosters competition between women, and we’ve all been caught in the destructive trap of negative attitudes and spiteful behaviors against our sisters – both biological and communal. Jealousy, body shaming, and judgmental gossip serve to keep us alienated from one another and only support those cultural paradigms that are damaging to everyone. In my own life, I’ve behaved in ways counter to my deep seated commitment to empowering all women. Even now, I sometimes catch myself entertaining thoughts not aligned with my affirmation of strong sisterhood values.
So when I read the story of Sarah and Hagar, I can’t quite subscribe to the version our sages promote. Centuries ago, the Rabbis wrote copiously of Sarah’s extraordinary beauty, humility and graciousness. She is viewed as a prophet and mother to the world. Of Hagar, they were less complimentary. Generally, they cast Hagar as somewhat of an outsider, ungrateful for Sarah and Abraham’s generosity. They posit the two women as adversaries, depicting cruelties on both sides. Yet, in their work Sarah always manages to emerge unblemished by such acts.
The facts presented by our Torah are irrefutable. After ten years of marriage, Sarah offers to Abraham her handmaid (some translations describe Hagar as a slave) for purposes of procreation. “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.’ And Abram heeded Sarai’s request” (Genesis 16:1-2).
No mention is made of how the transaction transpired between Sarah and Hagar, nor are Hagar’s feelings about the arrangement known. It can be a difficult passage to read. A world where people are property and infertility is grounds for procreation with another woman is foreign and disturbing to me. Nonetheless, the events as described reflect what was reality for many in the ancient Near East and must be understood in their historical context.
Hagar conceives almost immediately and tensions arise between her and Sarah. “He [Abram] cohabitated with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!’ Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.’ Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her” (Genesis 16:4-6).
In the Torah narrative, Sarah is a highranking Israelite and Hagar, an Egyptian slave. A distinct power differential exists between them. However, they are both navigating a world where roles are proscribed, women marginalized, and the possibility of social and economic ascension is slim. Hagar is depicted as serving Sarah for at least a decade before conceiving Ishmael with Abraham. She and Sarah would have traveled side by side, would surely have been alone together frequently, and Hagar was no doubt a keen and routine observer of the dynamics between Sarah and her husband. For such a relationship to flow as seamlessly as needed, significant trust must have existed between the two women. Some degree of emotional intimacy would have likely arisen. And while perhaps never friends, Sarah and Hagar would have known each other well.
We can speculate as to the origins of Sarah’s outburst towards Abraham and her cruel treatment of Hagar. Perhaps she felt the bile of jealousy rise within her. Perhaps her pride was wounded, and she feared the endangerment of her social standing. Likewise, it is possible that Hagar, for years consigned the role of servant, viewed the impending birth of Abraham’s child as her one opportunity for social advancement. It is also possible her pregnancy provided a platform to express feelings towards Sarah she had previously repressed. Very human emotions, indeed, and definitely ones with which this 21st century reader is familiar.
I cannot view Sarah as the otherworldly paragon of godly virtue our sages depicted. Nor can I regard Hagar and Sarah as strictly enemies. Rather, I seem them as two women surviving in very difficult conditions. I imagine Sarah and Hager came to rely greatly on one another. The divisions that arose between them were largely the result of cultural dynamics far beyond their own control. In a sense, the intimacy of their parallel lives made them sisters. And like with all sisters, both solidarity and conflict ensued.
When I read this week’s parshah, I am prompted to think of my own relationships with other women. Most importantly, I consider my attitudes, measuring them with the yardstick of empowerment. What thoughts do I harbor supportive of women in general? Where do I fall into a web of jealousy and spiteful behavior? The relationships between women are universally complex. Sisterhood is a tangible concept vital to the lives of so many women today. Parshah Lech Lecha reminds us it lives in our Torah, as well.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.