A historical drama unfolds before our eyes in this week’s Torah portion. It is a dramatic confrontation whose impact has shaped Jewish history for thousands of years.
Sarah and Hagar, two women – two worlds – faced each other.
On the one hand Sarah, Avraham’s wife and the mistress of the household; on the other, Hagar, the defiant slave girl, Avraham’s concubine, chosen by Sarah as a surrogate mother.
Can you picture yourself in Sarah’s position? Would you be able to make the ultimate sacrifice as Sarah did, elevating her maid to the position of her husband’s concubine for the sake of providing him with an heir, as he so keenly desired?
But Hagar proved less than equal to the task. As soon as she was certain of her pregnancy, Hagar displayed the characteristic arrogance of those who achieve a sudden rise in status without a corresponding growth in dignity.
Of the two women, it was Sarah who emerged victorious from the conflict: she retained her dominant position while Hagar, humiliated, fled to the desert. It was there that Hagar learned through divine prophecy of her destiny to give birth to Yishmael, “v’hoo yihyeh pereh adam, yado bakol v’yad kol bo — and he shall be a savage creature; his hand shall be against every one, and every one’s hand shall be against him.” (Bereshit, 16:12)
This prophetic pronouncement established Yishmael’s propensity for violence and lawlessness and his descendants’ future history as a road map of an incessant war of terror without borders.
The savagery of Arab history, the Muslims’ centuries long, bloody incursions against their neighbors, is well documented. Was fourteenth century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun echoing the Biblical prophecy when he wrote in his Muqqadima (Introduction to History): “The Arabs are a savage nation… savagery has become their character and nature… it is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess… they are not concerned with laws. It is noteworthy how civilizations always collapsed in places the Arabs took over, and how such settlements were depopulated. The Yemen where the Arabs live is in ruins. The same applies to contemporary Syria.”
Was Susan Hatis Rolef, dovish editor of the Labor Party monthly SPECTRUM, doing the same when she wrote in the Jerusalem Post (August 13, 1990): “But we know, and we have known ever since modern Zionism began over a 100 years ago, that the other nation which inhabits this land has an extremely violent and brutal streak in it, which is part of its cultural heritage and is unlikely to change overnight.”
And yet, I believe, for Hagar the most painful aspect of the Divine revelation was the command to face reality – to return to the civilized world of Avraham’s household and peacefully submit to its laws, accepting Sarah’s rightful, dominant position. Hagar did so and Yishmael was born there, destined however to leave it early for the wilderness, choosing to live by the laws of violent physical force.
In the dramatic confrontation between the two women, Sarah and Hagar, a symbolic pre-enactment of history took place. The sons of Hagar have yet to learn to face the reality of their situation. They have yet to learn to rise above their impulsive nature of savagery and submit to the laws of civilization, where nations respect the possessions of others, and refrain from plundering what is not rightfully theirs. They have yet to acquire a set of values other than violence inherited from historical antecedents.
And the sons of Sarah – is it their destiny to painfully reassert their rights to Avraham’s legacy time and again – or perhaps there will come a time when their survival in this land will not be analogous with reiterated victory.