By Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut
We dedicate this learning to our new granddaughters: Phyllis’s granddaughter, Lily Diana (Aviva Chaya), and Rivka’s newest granddaughter, Tova Nitzana.
Our founding ancestors are both admirable and flawed. They are chosen by God, but they are also only human beings whose desire for intimacy with the Divine leads to anguish as well as to redemption. Many rabbis have either denied their flaws or tried to justify them. They admire Abraham for his willingness to exile one son and sacrifice the other in the belief that God wanted him to do so. Praise for the Akedah appears throughout our liturgy and the story is read every Rosh Hashana. In contrast, the commentators blame Sarah for her cruelty towards Hagar and Lot for his ungodly, immoral ways.
We propose a radically different approach to these Biblical figures.
The sages, with a few exceptions, such as Ramban on Genesis 12:10, do not blame Abraham for pretending that Sarah is his sister and thus available to both Pharaoh and Abimelech. This deception is viewed as justified, reasonable, because it saves Abraham’s life.
According to Rashi (Genesis 11:29), Sarah and Lot share the same father and are either full or half-siblings. Abraham is both an uncle and a husband to Sarah and an uncle and a father surrogate to Lot. We maintain that what has been considered objectionable in both Sarah and Lot are traits they have actually learned from Abraham, their role model and religious leader. Our purpose is not to downgrade our ancestors. Rather, we wish to wrestle with morally problematic texts. It is not enough to “hold” by previous commentators, learned as they are, but to bring our era’s sensibilities, which includes feminist knowledge, to bear on the text. We are religiously obligated to do so.
Although the Torah does not explain why Abraham is the one whom God chooses, many Midrashic accounts teach that Abraham is the first person to recognize that there is one Creator of the world. Therefore, he tries to destroy idols and worships the one God. Abraham’s capacity to “break” with one past on God’s behalf might be one of the reasons that God chooses him. God perceives that, like Moses and Elijah, Abraham could do this. Abraham is the one who “crosses over,” he is Abraham “ha’ivri,” the man who crosses boundaries, rivers, and who aspires to move from this world to God’s world.
Abraham’s yearning to be God’s intimate compromises his ability to be close to humanity, including his own family. He strives to obey God’s commandments and is even willing to sacrifice his sons when he believes that God desires him to do so. At God’s bidding, and without hesitation, Abraham circumcises himself, i.e. he sacrifices a part of himself; he also circumcises his son Ishmael and other members of his household.
Abraham separates himself from others. He also separates family members from each other. For example, Abraham deprives his father Terach of his grandson by taking Lot, his deceased brother’s son, along with him. Lot is the only living survivor of his father Haran. According to some commentators, (Ibn Ezra on Gen.12:1), Terach lived for another sixty five years in Haran. Perhaps Abraham took Lot along as his surrogate son; perhaps Terach was no longer able to raise this grandson. However, this is also the first time we see Abraham severing a family relationship. It may also be an example of Abraham not following God’s commandment fully. Lot was part of Terach’s household. God directed Abraham to leave his father’s house, not to take it along. Perhaps Abraham’s “adoption” of Lot was also a lesson to Sarah about one’s option to parent through surrogate arrangements.
When Abraham and his retinue (Sarah, Lot, and their servants) first arrive in Canaan, Abraham nomadically wanders around building altars. Abraham is not seeking property, livestock or any earthly enrichment; he is only seeking intimacy with God. [Gen 12:7-8]. However, soon after their arrival in Canaan, a famine drives them to Egypt where food is plentiful. Suddenly, Abraham realizes that his wife Sarah is beautiful and as such, might be prey for any powerful man. To save himself, he tells Sarah to pass herself off as his sister. Otherwise, as her husband, he might be killed and Sarah taken anyway. This strategy turns out to serve Abraham well and puts him in a position to negotiate a “dowry” from Pharaoh when he takes Sarah for himself.
Abraham emerges from this episode a rich man—and in possession of Egyptian servants, which likely included Hagar. When the family leaves Egypt, the first sign of strife emerges amongst this formerly united band. Abraham’s and Lot’s herdsmen squabble. Abraham’s proposed solution is that the two camps should physically separate. In 13:8, he asks Lot to “please” (“na”) separate from me because we are brethren, family, and we do not want controversy to divide us. Abraham couches his request as if he is doing Lot a favor by offering Lot his choice of location. Abraham has already separated Lot from his grandfather and country. Now he is separating Lot from Sarah and from himself. Abraham is a master at separation. Lot now takes his uncle’s suggestion and goes off towards Sodom, where the pasture appears to be better.
The use of the word “na” suggests that Abraham uses this phrase on important occasions and when he tries to convince someone to do something they may not want to do. Abraham uses it when he pleads with God to spare Sodom; and, as we shall see, Lot uses it when he attempts to appease the mob in order to protect the angels. Sarah uses this word as well when she asks Abraham to take Hagar as his concubine so that Sarah will have a child through a surrogate.
What is the real reason behind the separation between Lot and Abraham right after leaving Egypt? Perhaps Lot is upset at the way Abraham sent their relative Sarah to another man. Lot may even be traumatized or disgusted by this act; thus, Lot himself may have been ready and willing to leave Abraham and Sarah. Their relationship is not completely severed; when Lot is taken captive, Abraham races to rescue him. However, Lot never returns to his uncle’s side. Before the destruction of Sodom, the angel suggests to Lot that he flee “to the mountains” [Gen 19:17] where, according to midrash (Rashi on Gen. 19:17), Abraham resides. Lot disagrees with the angel and requests a small town in the plains, not in the hills. [Gen.19: 19, 20].
Despite their physical separation, Lot has already been deeply influenced by his uncle and mentor. When the people of Sodom attempt to sexually use the men, who are really angels, Lot, ever the good host, a trait he may have learned from Abraham, offers them his virgin daughters instead [Gen 19:8]. From where did he get this idea? Perhaps from Abraham! Lot sees his uncle, the man who speaks with God, the man who is consumed with the desire to be intimate with God, treat his own wife as a possession who can be sexually bartered. Lot imitates Abraham’s behavior when he offers up his own daughters to the mob of Sodom. Actually, Lot does so in order to protect his guests, not merely to protect himself. This might be one reason Lot was worthy of being saved.
Sarah also learned about separating from family members and about using women sexually/reproductively from her husband’s behavior. Like Abraham, she left home to travel to a strange land. Like Abraham, who offered Sarah to Pharaoh, and like Lot, who offered his daughters to a raging mob, Sarah now offers Hagar to Abraham. However, Sarah does not use Hagar’s sexuality; she is only interested in Hagar’s reproductive capacity.
When we first meet Sarah, she is portrayed as a mostly silent partner to Abraham, an obedient wife. She is alone, childless, and without intimates, except for her two male relatives Abraham and Lot. She travels with Abraham and seems to acquiesce in his handing her over to be sexually used by two other powerful men. However, the text preserves a possible hint of revolt on her part. The Midrash emphasizes that the first time Abraham offers his wife to another man (Pharaoh), he uses the term “na”, please. [Gen12:11}. The second time, when he sends her to Avimelech [Gen 20:2 and see Rashi ad loc], Abraham omits “na.” The midrash speculates that this time Abraham had to order Sarah to go. Having once experienced being used as a sexual object, she did not willingly agree to a repeat performance. In addition, in our view, Sarah must have been deeply traumatized i.e. shamed, angered, humiliated, helpless. Modern research and clinical practice describe how trauma victims are often capable of treating some more vulnerable than themselves in a similar manner. Many abusers were, themselves, previously abused.
Upon leaving Egypt, materially enriched, still childless, and without her relative Lot, Sarah may feel more alone than ever. She is desperate and unwilling to wait passively until God provides her with a child. Sarah decides to use her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, one of the reminders of her victimization in Egypt, as a surrogate to provide her with a child. (Here is the precursor to what Lot’s daughters will do). Just as Lot became Abraham’s surrogate son, (perhaps Sarah’s as well), Sarah now wants to have her own surrogate child. Just as Abraham had earlier offered Sarah to Pharaoh, Sarah now offers Hagar to Abraham. Let us note that there are other examples of women in the Book of Genesis who initiate sexual activity on their own and through surrogates; their main goal is procreative. (Rachel and Leah, and even Potiphar’s wife who, midrashically, is seen as having had a prophetic dream about having a child with Joseph which is why she tries to seduce him). (Bereshit Rabbah, 85;2).
Sarah’s education about using separation to solve problems is long-lasting, Thus, when Hagar conceives, and becomes haughty towards Sarah [Gen 16:4], Sarah decides to send her away just as Abraham had sent Lot away. When Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar away, she tells him: [Gen 16: 5]; “Chamasi Alecha.” The wrong done to me is your fault!” (JPS translation). This bitter and angry cry is shocking. It was Sarah’s idea to give Hagar to Abraham as a concubine! How can she now blame Abraham for having obeyed Sarah’s express order to have a child with Hagar in order that Sarah could “build herself up?”
Sarah’s strong words here represent the first and only time that she expresses her innermost feelings about what Abraham did to her. Here, she finally allows her deep anger at Abraham’s prior behavior to emerge. Hagar the Egyptian, in a real sense, is part of the reward that Pharaoh gave Abraham for Sarah’s services. Hagar is a constant, living reminder to Sarah of her husband’s mistreatment.
In finally giving expression to her anger, Sarah goes even further, invoking God to judge between herself and her husband. This is the first biblical reference to God as “Judge”. Perhaps Sarah’s conceptualizing of God as Judge inspires in Abraham the idea of God as Supreme Judge of All the Earth, since he subsequently echoes Sarah’s words when arguing with God about Sodom [Gen 18:25]. In this quarrel between husband and wife, Sarah does not even mention Hagar. She refers to Abraham as perpetrator, herself as victim, and God as Judge.
From this heated exchange, we learn that all along Sarah may have been inwardly seething at Abraham’s behavior in Egypt. Perhaps Sarah’s barrenness is due to her unexpressed anger at her husband which may have caused her to stop sleeping with him.
Sarah forces Hagar to flee and she eventually exiles her forever. The first time is when Hagar is pregnant. Sarah “torments” her until Hagar flees. Later, after Yishmael’s problematic behavior unsettles Sarah, she exiles both mother and son from their home—and with God’s agreement. (God has an important but different future in store for Hagar and Yishmael). Here again, we see the ripple effect that Abraham’s behavior has had on his family. For the first time, Abraham expresses pain about the loss of a relationship; he sees this separation as “very wrong.” Nonetheless, Abraham listens to God and ever God’s obedient servant, he sends Hagar and Yishmael away.
Of course, God does not instruct Abraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away with nothing to sustain them. But, having heard the word of God, Abraham does not busy himself with giving his son and concubine proper provisions. He just sends them away. We see him blindly following God’s directive and not trying to help their desperate plight. This is the only time that the Torah tells us about Abraham’s inner turmoil regarding Ishmael. We learn nothing of his inner struggle, if he had one, when Sarah taken was taken by two Kings; when he separated from Lot; when he set out to sacrifice his son Isaac. And yet, even if Abraham was pained, despite his great wealth, he sent Hagar and Yishmael into the desert with meager provisions. He did not even provide them with enough water.
What kind of mother was Sarah? We may assume that she was a loving mother to her son Yitzhak. Observing his half-brother Yishmael’s troubling behavior, she worries about Isaac’s spiritual welfare; she sends Yishmael and Hagar away, fearing that Yishmael will have a negative influence over Yitzchak. After Sarah’s death, when Yitzhak takes his new wife, Rivka, into his tent, we are told that he was at last comforted over the loss of his mother. This confirms that a strong and positive relationship existed between them. Since Issac’s marriage to Rivka took place some time after Sarah’s death, this further indicates that Yitzhak bore a great love for his mother and that his mourning was an extended one. Parenthetically, the relationship between Abraham and Issac does not seem to resemble that between his future grandson Yaacov and his future great-grandson Yosef, which was a far more emotionally attached relationship.
Let us now focus on Abraham. God sees that Abraham is willing to serve God fully. Abraham’s courageous dialogue with God about God’s ways before the destruction of Sodom signifies the degree of intimacy that Abraham has achieved with God. Abraham is able to ask God to be accountable to the ideal of justice that Abraham has perceived within God. Abraham’s strong sense of of justice leads him to assume that the God he loves represents perfect, Divine Justice, and he holds God up to God’s own ideal. And God, in response to Abraham’s pleading and bargaining, agrees to lower the threshold of righteous men from fifty to ten.
However, God continues to ‘test” Abraham to see how far a human being is able to rise above his “human” limitations. Will Abraham be willing to sacrifice his son Yitzhak? Abraham has held God to the highest level of morality as the “Judge of all the Earth”—which was originally Sarah’s phrase. Now, God is testing Abraham. Can a human being surpass his humanity and enter angelic territory? And if so, is this something that God wants from humanity? Is this desirable in a God-loving human being? God tests Abraham to see if he can overcome his natural feelings for his son and actually kill him. We believe that Abraham attempts to surpass the limitations of being human—and in so doing, displeases God. Perhaps God does not want human beings to blur the lines between being human and being angels.
Angels pervade the stories of Abraham. Angels have no bodily needs, they do not have family or human attachments, don’t get emotionally involved, have no free will, and are at one with God’s will. Angels are not complex entities nor do they seem to be guided by concepts of morality. Angels can both rescue and destroy—all without exhibiting any emotion. In sending an angel as an intermediary to stop Abraham, perhaps God is instructing Abraham to remain human, not to trespass that boundary; God already has angels who blindly do God’s bidding. An angel can destroy a city without looking back or being turned into a pillar of salt. At the Akedah, the angel says, in effect, that now God sees that you were ready to abandon your humanity for God’s sake. But this is not what God really wants from you. God does not want you to murder innocent family members.
What makes Abraham interesting to God is his complicated humanity. Abraham’s ability to argue with God about the nature of justice e.g. the fate of sinful Sodom seems to please God. Abraham’s failure to argue with God when he is told to abandon Yishmael (without proper provisions) and to slaughter Yitzhak—sons who are totally innocent—contradicts his previous concern with justice, even for sinners.
After the Akedah, Abraham changes radically. God never again addresses Abraham directly. However, while Abraham’s direct connection to God seems to cease. Abraham’s relationships with others flourish. He becomes sensitive to the needs of others. He remarries, sires more children, provides for them during his lifetime, and takes great pains to arrange a proper marriage for Isaac.
However, after the Akedah, Sarah dies. According to midrash (See Rashi ad loc) [Gen 23:2], Sarah’s death may be a direct consequence of Isaac’s near sacrifice. She becomes the real sacrifice. Thus, we learn that those who dare to come too close to God may inadvertently harm and perhaps destroy the lives of their intimates. Sarah is connected to her son; his near death, at the hands of her own husband, kills her.
Abraham comes from another location, (according to Rashi, he was in Be’er Sheva), to bury Sarah in Chevron, where she died. They seem to have been living apart although the text is not explicit as to why. We suggest that the Akedah separated them. However, Abraham now sets about acquiring a proper burial place for her. He comes to “mourn” her. The word “to mourn her,” ‘l’bichota” is written in the Torah with a small ‘bet” which symbolizes, according to Midrash, a small act of mourning, perhaps because Sarah was old, and her death was not viewed by him as a tragedy. (See Rashi ad loc). The fact that they no longer seemed to live together certainly adds to this view.
On the other hand, there is another way to understand this. Abraham pays a lot of money for a burial plot for both her and for their covenantal descendents, thus acknowledging her as his true wife. He buries her ceremoniously, but afterwards he still weeps for her (lispod leSarah v’libkota). Abraham also now sets about finding a wife for Isaac. He wants to insure that his line with Sarah continues; this is a sign of respect and possibly even love for Sarah. But it may also have been a gesture that Abraham hoped would heal Isaac. Especially so because Abraham may have felt some guilt that his almost murder of Isaac may have resulted in his mother’s death. Finding him a wife may have been an attempt to heal a possible rift between father and son, an unintended consequence of the Akedah.
Now, let us briefly examine Lot’s fate. Just as the Akedah “kills” Sarah, so too, the destruction of Sodom, which includes the deaths of her two married daughters, “kills” Lot’s wife. She is unable to move forward without looking back. She becomes her salty tears.
As we have seen, Lot did not choose Abraham’s path. In fact, even after Sodom is destroyed, Lot refuses to go “up” to the mountains where Abraham resides. Perhaps Lot has had enough of Abraham’s “godly” ways; perhaps Lot does not wish to be judged as a sinner among tzaddikim. First, Lot chooses a small, out-of-the-way city. Finally, when the region is on fire, (even the plant life has been destroyed), Lot and his two daughters, who believe that they are the only survivors, flee to a cave.
And here, Lot’s daughters, in classic survivor-mode, decide they must procreate. They believe that there are no men left alive other than their father. They act like Sarah did with Hagar, when she used her as a surrogate in order to have a child. The sisters use their father. Everyone: Sarah, Lot, Lot’s daughters, has learned how to use someone else’s sexuality or procreative capacity from Abraham. But unlike Abraham, who did not take any initiative in changing his childless status and who almost killed his two sons, these sisters tried to ensure that life continues. They see destruction all around them; they witness the deaths of their mother, sisters, brothers-in-law, as well as their entire city. They act against death, instinctively and boldly.
Unlike Abraham, Lot’s unnamed daughters understand that to be human means to be rooted in this world. Lot’s daughters choose to fight against the death of humanity. In so doing, they wrest life from death. To do so, they use whatever means they can, and they do so, not only for themselves but ultimately for all humanity. Their father is the “sperm donor” just as Hagar was a “surrogate womb” for Sarah. Lot’s daughters are not ashamed of what they’ve done. In fact, the elder daughter emphasizes her son’s origin by naming him “Moab,” which means “from the father.”
Centuries later, the elder daughter’s descendant, Ruth the Moabite, becomes King David’s ancestor. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will arise from acts which may seem shocking, even incestuous. Just as Lot’s daughters’ decision to save humanity from what they thought would be extinction, Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law did something similar. She boldly tricked her father-in-law who had forced her into a limbo, childless state, into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute; in this way, she gave birth to twins, one of whom, Peretz, became the ancestor of Boaz, who later marries Ruth.
Choosing life, choosing motherhood, even by desperate or surrogate means, ensures that there is a next generation.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana the rabbis offer us what is perhaps a most subversive critique of the Akedah. After reading about the birth of Isaac, we hear about another childless woman. Centuries later, Hannah’s childlessness and the eventual birth of her son, the future prophet Samuel, illustrates another way of dedicating—not sacrificing—a child to God. Hannah, wishing to thank God for the great gift of her son, does not physically sacrifice Samuel but rather dedicates him to God by presenting him to Eli, the High Priest. She allows his to live in the tabernacle in Shiloh and be mentored by Eli for a life of future service to God. In a charming detail, we learn that Hannah visits him each year, bringing him new garments which she has made for him. Hannah thus demonstrates that there is another way to dedicate a child to God—by allowing him to live.
The rabbis show great wisdom in the way they handle Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Issac and Sarah’s grief about this event. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the Akedah, but we also hear the plaintive cries of the Shofar. A midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 32.15) teaches that the “tekiot” represent Sarah’s wails. We are therefore presented with two possible approaches to the Akedah. The Torah text appears to elevate Abraham’s act as expressing great devotion to God. However, hearing the Shofar’s wails as Sarah’s crying teaches us that there is another, equally valid way to approach The Akedah. We may praise Abraham, cry with Sarah, or do both.