Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Parashat Lech Lecha
"Who's Your Momma?"

by Elana Architzel

Verse Per Verse
Well the world has been created, Heaven, Earth, animals, Eden, the whole shebang. The struggles of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, are trials we are usually pretty familiar with from the opening stories in Genesis. So God said to Noah "There’s gonna be a floody floody… you know how it goes". This all leads up to a man most of us learn about at an early age. Yes… you know his name well, Abraham. So, welcome to Parashat Lech-Lecha.
This particular story reminds me of my good old days at Jewish Day school reading the classic "Lech Lecha m'artzecha, mi'moladitcha, mi'beyt avicha." Many of us also know this parsha to deal with the slicing and dicing, circumcision. So I started to look deeper into the text and was not drawn to Avram but rather the ladies of this story Sarai and Hagar.
Avram, Sarai and their crew pack up and wander around town for a bit. This whole time, without children of their own. God has promised Avram an heir and a nation as plentiful as the stars, but so far no luck for Sarai. It is at this point in the tale I would like to pick up. Sarai and Avram are in their late 70’s and I am sure Sarai has tremendous feelings about not being able to conceive. I believe it is these feelings that lead her to her next action in Genesis 16:3 (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ) it says:

"After Abram had lived in Canaan for ten years, his wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian her slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife."

The UAHC version states:

"So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid Hagar the Egyptian-after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years-and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine."

Two things struck me about these differing translations. First: the translation of the words ishah lo ishah. Did Sarai initially intend for Abram to simply sleep with Hagar for the sole purpose of securing an heir, or, did she mean to include her fully in their family as a second wife? When I hear the word concubine used versus wife, it has an instant reaction for me. Concubine brings up feelings of a sort of whore, or just there for his pleasure, or almost used in a way. The word concubine comes from con meaning with and cubine meaning to lie with. Nowhere are there implications of this meaning wife. When most of us hear the term wife, we think of warm feelings; a family surrounded with love and happiness and bonding. The slight differentiation in translation brings a completely different tone to this section. We do not know what Sarai’s intention truly was in regard to Hagar and Avram, but future actions lead me to believe wife was not a term she expected Hagar to hold.
Second: the placement of Sarai being Avram’s wife versus Sarai, Avram’s wife. In one translation Sarai comes after Avram where in the latter she is mentioned before. In the version where Sarai comes before him, is the intention for us to believe she is the first and only wife in his eyes? Does this give Sarai an elevated status over Hagar from the start and if so, how can Hagar ever measure up?
Some animosity Sarai might hold for Hagar could be due to the fact that Hagar does get pregnant with Avram. The conception of a child seems like such a simple act; one I am sure Sarai and Avram have attempted for years without success. Lehavdeal, just the opposite, this seems to happen in an instant for Hagar. Genesis 16:4 (Kaplan)
"Avram came to her, and she conceived…..."
The thought of years of sex with Avram leading to nothing and what seems like one hot and heavy night with Hagar and poof, baby - must have really set Sarai off. To me, this in many ways explains her abuse and harsh treatment, vt’aneh Sarai, towards Hagar driving her out.
Does this story have some insight into a polygamist lifestyle? Is it asking us to question can one man and many women really coexist peacefully? We know many men in the Torah to take on more than one wife and in my opinion, they do not turn out too well. We know what happens with Jacob and his wives and children and yet time and time again, we see this sort of thing in the Torah. Is this our first glimpse into surrogate mothers and the difficulties that go along with that process on both sides? Was the intention for Hagar to give birth to a son, Ishmael and Sarai raise him as her own? Unfortunately, that question is never answered since Hagar and Ishmael are not welcomed to stay in camp.
What is also missing for me in this piece of the story is Avram’s involvement in this whole episode. He up and moved his family, just said this is what we’re doing and yet when it comes to Sarai and Hagar, gives Sarai free reign to dictate things. Very little respect and sympathy seems to be thrown Hagar’s way on both sides. Does Avram feel guilty for sexing it up with Hagar, her in turn giving him a son? What is his parental role with his son Ishmael when Hagar returns to camp and he is born? There seems to be little words to detail these inquiries.
For a man that many consider a tzadik, and a great leader, he seems lacking as a parental role model. Many times in history and in the modern world, those we look up most to, those that inspire, those that make great strives for mankind, cannot seem to pull it together at home. Maybe Avram is like Joan Crawford…no wire hangers Ishmael, there is no written text for us to know of their relationship. What we do know is that two great nations shall come from his seed and that has to speak for itself somehow.


  1. Threesomes are tough. Sarai's relationship with Abram, with him and Hagar, her feelings for Hagar, where Hagar fits in Abe and Sarai's marriage, not to mention Sarai's very challenging deal with Ishmael.

    The intensity of threesomes make everybody in them a bit crazy, on top of how nuts you need to be to be part of one.

    Sarai conflicts make Hillary Clinton's seem "cute."

  2. Who am I to add thoughts on the issue of threesomes, now that Aaron and Sharon have so eloquentlhy shared theirs...; )
    Abraham as Joan Crawford?? hmm, daddy dearest? What i DO like about that is that this makes the bigger than life mythic quality of this crazy story really shine. I often think of this abrahamic saga in terms of Hindu or Greek myths - these may be humans, but they are personifying god-like and bigger than life archetypes. somehow, that makes it more managable. And isn't Hollywood the modern pantheon of deities?

  3. Elana, you rock. The picture of marriage and family that Torah presents from the beginning is so troubling. The rabbis found this story disturbing, and even when they tried to rationalize it, they still left us with questions like "is this any way to be a family?" A great teacher of mine, Noam Zion, said that Torah is at its heart social criticism. It holds a mirror up to all our human foibles, bad judgements, inclinations, really throws it in our face and begs the questions of what's wrong with this picture.

    I'm also struck by how our story is chock full of good seed/bad seed issues- all emrging from the same seed, Abraham.

    Love and hugs, Judy

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