A Random Walk With Rashi – Sarah Seethes While Isaac Teethes

Last week our study group ramped up to our current verse, Genesis 21:10, by reading the verses immediately preceding it. As compared to the very first verses of Chapter 21, which seemed and remain somewhat random and disjointed, the current sequence of verses is starting to provide a bit more focus and story line, though still no clarity in terms of the period of time over which this all takes place.

Genesis 21:8-9

The child grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned. Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking.

We first tried to better understand the relationships that might have existed between these folks – including between Sarah and Ishmael, as well as Sarah and Hagar – in order to better understand what the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac might have been like. The two boys were on the order of 13 years apart, most likely 15 and 2 years old, respectively.

Hagar and Sarah were themselves essentially co-equal in that they were both fully ‘wives’ of Abraham, in the Hebrew translation at least, and mothers of his sons, though clearly we know that Hagar is subservient to Sarah. Sarah, in turn, is not only on par with Abraham, but a bit in the driver’s seat at times. So too are their sons presumably co-equal sons of Abraham, though not necessarily considered the ‘step sons” of each other wife, and with Ishmael, as the older of the two, being the first in line to inherit Abraham’s estate.

So the relationship between Sarah and Hagar is one of a common bond at most, through family, though clearly having their differences and challenges – all in a way that seems to parallel and perhaps presage the relationship that has evolved from them, to and between Muslims, Jews and Christians to this day.

According to Wikipedia: “Hagar, was the mother of the prophet Ismā’īl (Ishmael) and is a revered woman in the Islamic faith. According to Muslim belief, she was the Egyptian handmaiden of Abraham’s first wife Sara (Sarah). Although not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is referenced and alluded to via the story of her husband. She eventually settled in the Desert of Paran with her son Ishmael. Hagar is honored as an especially important matriarch of monotheism, as it was through Ishmael that the prophet Muhammad would come.”

To us, she’s just Hagar.

Our religions each seem to share a common story, though in the retelling, the actors and scenes differ ever so slightly in order to each focus instead on our own respective cast of characters. With Ishmael, for instance, it seems that to the Muslim world, Abraham’s willingness to ‘sacrifice’ Ishmael came about when he was cast out to die in the desert, though to them the story resonates with many of the same themes that we will see in the upcoming binding of Isaac.

But as it turns out, looking back just a few verses was not enough. It made sense to go way, way back, in order to reread Chapter 16 of Genesis. That Chapter covers the sequence of events in which Sarai (not yet renamed Sarah) has not been able to conceive, and so decides to let Abram (later Abraham) proceed to have a son, Ishmael, with her servant Hagar.

As usual, the verse looks very different to us today than we might have recalled it, a bit like revisiting an old friend, given the passage of time since we last dissected it. It seems different also given the impact of reading it straight through, rather than a verse per week, and perhaps above all, reading it now with the benefit of some hindsight, having at least a better picture of how things continued to evolve.

We remember, upon re-reading, that although it was Sarah’s idea to let Abraham conceive a child with Hagar, Sarah almost immediately second-guessed her decision, upon sensing what she took as contempt by Hagar. Whether it was due to Sarah’s own self-perception or was actual and open contempt from Hagar, it was enough for Sarah to cause Hagar to flee into the desert, where she would eventually be visited by angels (three of them, no less) and assured that things would work out. The scene then closed with Hagar bearing Abram a son, and Abram naming him Ishmael.

Yet there is nothing in the story since to indicate that Sarah’s feelings have changed over the intervening 15 years. So it seems that Sarah may have been biting her lip for 15 years, perhaps even seething at times, as she watches Ishmael thrive, along with Hagar enjoying her life, and son, all the while less and less hopeful that she would ever have a son of her own. As much as she may have regretted the thought, she could do nothing to challenge Ishmael’s right to his inheritance, both because it would have left Abraham without any legitimate heir, and also, because it may well have come to pass, that if Abraham himself had died, Sarah would be left beholden to Ishmael.

But her son Isaac has now been born, and perhaps as importantly, has survived to the point of his being weaned, with a celebratory feast to boot. All bets are off. Sarah now seems to have an agenda.

So now, fully armed with this history, we focus back on our current verses, first noticing the manner in which the final words of Chapter 21 verses 8, 9 and 10 each end on a similar, if not identical note, as in ‘et Yitzchak’ (Isaac, ending verse 8); mitzachek (mocking, ending verse 9), and ‘em Yitzchak’ (with Isaac, ending verse 10). The fact that these three words are juxtasuposed in this way is clearly not a happenstance – they are here to tell us something.

We turn to Rashi, for current verse 9, who picks up on the single word mocking, telling us that:

MOCKING It connotes idolatry, as it says, “And they got up to sport.” Alternatively, it connotes sexual immorality, as you say, i.e., as the verse says, “to make sport of me.” Alternatively, it connotes murder, as in the verse, “Let the lads up and sport before us, etc.” . . .

Rashi finds three parallel uses of the word mitzachek, in other situations, and in each case, referring to one of the worst sins a person can commit – idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality. Ironically, each of Rashi’s comments refers to a verse that itself includes reference to “sport”, which on its face raises all the more eerie similarities with the current situation involving Sandusky, and his interplay between the world of sport and the underworld of horseplay.

Rashi doesn’t tell us which connotation he agrees with, if any.

Though we are inclined to think the worst, perhaps given the Sandusky scandal, Rashi’s harsh thoughts are tempered by others, such as Fox, who translates the word as simply “laughing”, or the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Plaut (z’”l), who passed away just this past week. In Plaut’s commentary, a footnote provides:

Some commentators have suggested that it [mocking] was sexual play that brought forth Sarah’s strong reaction. There is nothing, however, to substantiate this. The use of metzachek is an allusion to Yitzchak, i.e., Isaac. The word play seems to indicate that Sarah, seeing the children together, suddenly realizes their close affinity. It is then that she resolves to end the relationship by freeing Hagar and send her away.

If you would like yet another opinion, we might look to medieval commentator Ramban, who happens to take issue with nearly every comment Rashi makes in this particular instance.

To summarize a biography by the Jewish Theological Society, Ramban (also known as Nahmanides) was born in 1194 CE and lived in northern Spain:

A giant of medieval Jewish leadership and creativity, he is best known for his monumental Commentary on the Torah. Ramban was first and foremost a kabbalist—he believed that the deepest truths of the Torah are allusions to the inner mysteries of God. His Commentary is filled with references to “the way of truth” (derekh ha-emet)—a path of spiritual interpretation that is open to those who have learned to recognize the symbols and signs encoded in the sacred text.

Yet, above all else, the biography tells us that:

Ramban distinguishes himself in the respect given to his teachers and predecessors. In a poem found in the introduction to his Torah commentary, Ramban writes: ‘What shall I do; for my soul delights in Torah—it is like a consuming fire that burns from within . . . to walk in the footsteps of the pioneers, the lions among them, geniuses of the generations . . . I will place for the illumination of my face the lights of a pure candelabrum—the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo (Rashi), crown of beauty and glory . . . in Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, to him belongs the rights of the firstborn! In his words I will meditate and in their love I will rise . . .”

This time, however, not so much.

After repeating Rashi’s entire commentary regarding the word “mocking”, which even Ramban translates instead as “scoffing”, he proceeds to challenge nearly every conclusion Rashi made, suggesting that “Rashi writes all the dissenting opinions [of the meaning of metzachek] as if they were one”. He goes on later to state “But I say: Heaven forbid that there should be such a thing (idolatry) in the house of the righteous one (Abraham).” And he goes on, page after page, to challenge Rashi’s comments and provide his own. Clearly a hot topic of its time.

So who’s right? Rashi, Plaut, Ramban, or all of the above? You decide.

As with the Penn State situation (I can’t shake the similarities), the question of what actually occurred between Ishmael and Isaac is as much a question of what Sarah “saw”, or thought she saw occurring – or in modern terms, what did the assistant coach actually witness in the infamous shower scene?

Did she “see” something that she immediately knew was wrong, or that she might have just suspected might be wrong? In turn, did she know, or suspect, that what she saw was just an isolated event, or perhaps something that had been going on for some time? And did she stand to observe for some time, or did she immediately divert her glance in disbelief?

In our case, the Hebrew doesn’t provide the answer, e.g., as to whether this might be a verb, or a gerund – a one time thing, or an ongoing action. (And where else, it was suggested, do we get to use the word “gerund” in casual conversation).

Taken literally, the verse translates more accurately as “She saw that he was a mocker.”

So the actual meaning could be the difference between it occurring to her in a flash, on the one hand, that this is what Isaac is and what he had been doing all along, or on the other hand, that she simply saw him do this one thing, at this very moment.

In either case, it was enough that she was taken aback, and prompted into taking immediate action that would forever alter the course of her family, and ours.

Finally, we turn our attention to Genesis 21:10.

Genesis 21:10:

So she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slave woman, and her son, for the son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.”

You know the routine – our eyes hone in on two occurrences of the word ‘slave woman’ in the very same verse. Coincidence? I think not. What sayeth Rashi regarding the matter? Alas, we will have to wait until study group this week to find out.

What we do know, in advance of that discussion, is that the JPS Commentary provides what seems to be useful background, though as my father would say, hopefully we won’t be bothered by the facts. According to the JPS:

The legal position of Ishmael is quite clear. Sarah had undertaken to recognize as her own the male offspring of the union of Abraham with Hagar, a match that she herself had initiated and imposed on her husband (Genesis 16:2). Abraham, for his part, undoubtedly recognized Ishmael as his legitimate son, a fact repeatedly attested by a variety of earlier texts, and affirmed here as well as later on.  . . .

The laws of Hammurabi (par. 170f) and of the still earlier Lipit-Ishtar (par. 25) implicitly make inheritance rights a legal consequence of the father’s acceptance of the infant as his legitimate son. There is no doubt that Ishmael was entitled to a share of Abraham’s estate. The key to Sarah’s demand lies in a clause in the laws of Lipit-Ishtar where it is stipulated that the father may grant freedom to the slave woman and the children she had borne him, in which case they forfeit their share of the paternal property. Sarah is asking Abraham to exercise that legal right.

Wow. I’m not sure what is more surprising here – the fact that having offspring with a slave woman was common enough to have generated corresponding laws and rules on the subject, including with respect to inheritance, or that Sarah was educated and confident enough to remind Abraham and invoke her legal rights in that regard, or perhaps simply, that the laws of Lipit-Ishtar ever existed and I knew nothing of it.

I’m probably least surprised by the final thought. All this time, I only knew of Ishtar as a bad Dustin Hoffman movie – and even then, I was proud of myself for that.

Finally, and before delving into Rashi for this verse, we permitted ourselves to skip ahead for a moment, to Genesis 25.

Genesis 25:1

Abraham proceeded and took a wife whose name was Keturah.

Rashi – This is Hagar, but she is called Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful, i.e., pleasing, as incense (ketoreh), and because she bound up her entrance, in that she did not have relations with any man from the day she separated from Abraham.

As an aside, Abraham proceeded to have six more sons with Hagar – er, Keturah – some would say as a safety net in the event Isaac himself fell short in some manner.

So it seems that Hagar waited patiently, silently and in celibacy for Abraham to return to her, after the full life of Sarah. One feels, and would almost like to think, that there was a legitimate love between Abraham and Hagar, with Sarah being the politically correct wife and mother, and while we’re on it, lets throw in Abimelech as the true father of Isaac.

Our blessings might never feel the same … G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob, G-d of Abimelech, G-d of Ishmael, G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebecca, G-d of Leah, G-d of Rachel, G-d of Hagar, G-d of anyone I may have missed, or whose name is not known …. Great G-d almighty.

(Photo: Wikipedia)