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The Wisdom of Sarah

Men and women are both created in “the image of God.” Both possess the inner soul that endows every human being with the ability to come close to God. Notwithstanding this equality, there are unique differences no doubt between men and women. One of these qualities is highlighted by the Torah’s account of our matriarch, Sarah.

In last week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, and again in this week’s parsha, Vayeira, we see Sarah acting in a way that at first blush seems cruel. When Hagar immediately becomes pregnant from Avraham, she ridicules Sarah. Sarah complains to Avraham but Avraham tells Sarah, “Your maidservant is in your hand; do to her as you want.” The Torah continues, “Sarai dealt harshly with her and she fled from her.” (Beresheet, 16:3-6) Later an angel tells Hagar to return and submit to Sarai’s domination. Hagar does so.

In this week’s parsha, after Sarah weans her son Yitzchak, she sees Yishmael, Hagar’s son with Avraham, mocking Yitzchak. Sarah tells Avraham, “Drive out this maidservant with her son, for the son of that maidservant shall not inherit with my son, Yitzchak.” We are told, “The matter greatly disturbed Avraham regarding his son. So God tells him, ‘Be not distressed. Whatever Sarah tells you heed her voice since through Yitzchak will your offspring be considered yours.’” (Beresheet 21:9-13)

In both narratives Sarah’s conduct is not what we would expect from a truly great person. On the contrary, she appears small and petty. How do we understand Sarah’s comments and behavior? Was she now angry at herself? After all, she had been the one to bring Hagar into such an intimate relation with Avraham. Maybe Avraham liked her more. Was she jealous of Hagar’s son, Yishmael? Perhaps Avraham liked him too more than he liked Yitzchak.

In order to understand why and what Sarah did, we need to first understand that Avraham and Sarah were equal partners on a philosophic mission, to bring the true ideas of God to the world. Both were teachers, par excel lance. Both were instrumental for intellectually making many converts to their new way of life as the Torah relates, “And the souls that they made in Haran.” (Beresheet 12:8)

Once God promised to build a special nation from Avraham, dedicated to preserving his philosophy and way of life, Avraham and Sarah together and at times individually had to use their minds and make decisions that would impact the future success of their mission and goal. In this regard, Sarah had an additional tool or faculty at her disposal, one that Avraham did not possess. This faculty is called by our Sages, “בינה יתרה,” “an extra understanding” or what we commonly call “woman’s intuition.”

After hearing Hagar’s words of ridicule, Sarah rightly intuited that Hagar had a false philosophy of righteousness. Becoming pregnant right away from Avraham was taken by Hagar as a sign of her higher level of righteousness. After all Sarah had been married to Avraham for a long time yet never conceived from him. She on the other hand became pregnant right away.  Hagar’s conclusion was that she must be more righteous than Sarah.

In truth that is a false determinant of goodness. It stems rather from a haughty, narcissistic self-assessment not from any proper concept of God’s justice. Sarah complained to Avraham to do something to correct this attitude and false notion, since he was the master of the correct philosophy. He tells Sarah to give her a task to perform; her submission will demonstrate that her idea is wrong. Why would she listen to a less righteous person? If Hagar believes she is more righteous she would not submit to Sarah’s directive. Our Sages say that Sarah gave Hagar a simple, minimal task to perform. This advice is exactly what the angel tells Hagar. “Return and submit to Sarah.” Hagar, you will gain by submitting to Sarah in two ways. You will be forced to recognize and work on your personality flaw which is a benefit to you and philosophically you still have much to gain from being in Sarah’s company.

However, the second incident, 13 years later, demonstrated to Sarah that Hagar had not perfected herself in this regard. Rather, she brought up her son, Yishmael with a similar character defect. Such a child could not be the heir to Avraham’s philosophy and way of life. The person to carry on after Avraham had to be free of any character defects. Only then can a person perceive truth completely and objectively. No emotion or psychological influence can be employed for perceiving God. Every emotion or personality trait not properly developed becomes an impediment or barrier to perceiving true ideas.

Sarah’s insight and intuition into the personalities of Hagar and her son, Yishmael, were critical in preserving Avraham’s philosophy of life and insuring the continuity of the mission of Avraham and Sarah. Viewed from this vantage point and objective, Sarah’s actions were heroic. Until much more recently, with the coming of Mohamed in the middle 600’s of the modern era, no person or group ever dared to claim to be the rightful descents and heirs to Avraham’s philosophy. Because of Sarah’s intuition, her בינה יתרה, her additional quality of wisdom, the Jewish nation has the only straight and unbroken legitimate claim to the philosophy and life style of Avraham and Sarah. We should all be forever grateful to our matriarch, Sarah

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan