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A Tale of Two Loves
How the Difficult Relationship between Sarah and her maid Hagar Captures the Timeless Love - Drama of humanity
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

The Sunday school teacher asks, "Now, Melvin, tell me honestly, do you say prayers before eating?"

"No sir," little Melvin replies, "I don't have to. My mom is a good cook."

A tale of two women

This week's Torah portion shares the dramatic and charged story of the Sarai-Hagar relationship.

Here is how it goes (1): 

"Now Sarai [her name will later be changed to Sarah], Abram's wife [his name will be changed to Abraham], had borne him no children.

"She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, 'See now, G-d has restrained me from bearing; please consort with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.'

"Abram heeded the voice of Sarai.

"So Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maidservant -- after ten years of Abram's dwelling in the Land of Canaan -- and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 

"He consorted with Hagar, and she conceived. When she realized she was pregnant, she looked at her mistress with contempt.

"Sarai said to Abram, 'The outrage against me is due to you! It was I who gave my maidservant into your bosom, and when she saw that she had conceived, I lost my esteem in her eyes. Let G-d judge between me and you!' 

"Abram replied to Sarai, 'Your maidservant is in your hand; do with her as you see fit.' Sarai afflicted her, so she fled from her.

"An angel of G-d encountered her by a spring in the desert...and he said, 'Hagar, maid of Sarai! From where are you coming, and where are you going?'

"She said, 'I am running away from my mistress, Sarai.'

"The angel of G-d said to her, 'return to your mistress and submit yourself to her.'

"And an angel of G-d said to her, 'I will greatly increase your offspring and they will not be counted for abundance.'

"And an angel of G-d said to her, 'You are pregnant, and will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael [meaning "G-d listened"], for G-d has heard your prayers...'

Hagar obeys. She returns to her master. "Hagar bore Abram a son," the Bible concludes the episode, "and Abram called the name of his son that Hagar bore him Ishmael."

Who is the victim?

Like most biblical tales, this one, too, is not easy to grasp. Which of the two woman in the story is to gain our sympathy, and which our disgust? Who is the pure soul and who is the villain? The Bible, as is so often the case in its stories, is ambiguous. Apparently, it wishes to remind us that in the landscape of human emotions few things are black or white.

The fact that an angel of G-d appears to Hagar following her escape and addresses her with profound sensitivity and compassion would only demonstrate how deeply G-d is affected by Hagar's plight. With the exception of one other woman in the Torah -- Rebecca -- Hagar is the only woman to whom G-d appears. That says something about this person.

Yet, astonishingly, the divine angel addresses this abused woman as "Hagar, Sarai's maidservant" and then enjoins her to return to her mistress's subjugation. Why?

And what was Sarah's position in all of this? Initially, she is the one who envisions and implements Hagar's relationship with her husband. Abram is clearly reluctant to make the move. "Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar...and gave her to her husband as a wife." Abram, it seems, is acting merely on Sarai's requests. Clearly, Sarai possessed deep kinship with her longtime maid; she forfeited her position to her. A subtle reading of the verses tells us that Sarai trusted Hagar. 

Yet at the end, it seems, everything is reversed. Sarai is infuriated with Hagar and with Abram. Her methodology is incongruous with anything we would expect from Abram's longtime partner, who, along with him, taught the world ethical monotheism and excelled in their love of humanity and their hospitality toward strangers. Ultimately, the couple so well known for their hospitality to strangers, drive Hagar out of their home, and Abram gives not a protest!

The redundancy

One more point should be addressed. The Bible seems to go out of its way to emphasize again and again that Sarai was Abram's wife and Hagar was her maidservant. Although the Torah made these facts clear at the onset of the story, for some reason it feels compelled to stress it frequently. "So Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maidservant, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife." Don't we know by now who Sarai and Hagar are?

Even when G-d's angel encounters Hagar at the spring, he addresses her with these words: "Hagar, maid of Sarai! From where are you coming, and where are you going?" Why must he add insult to injury and proclaim her as the "maid of Sarai"? Hagar's response is no less astonishing: "She said, 'I am running away from my mistress, Sarai.'" Why would she define Sarai as her mistress at this point when she was searching to establish her independence?

One more final and important point deserves our attention. The Bible is not merely a book of historical tales about our patriarchs and matriarchs and the ancient Hebrews. Far too few fragments of their lives are recorded in the Bible to justify it as a biography of any sort. The Torah, which means "teaching," only captured those moments of their lives that contain timeless lessons. What, then, is the message to us encapsulated in this Sarai-Hagar episode?

A metaphor

The Kabbalah teaches that a true understanding of the Bible must follow the supposition that all of its tales, episodes and dramas are not only stories of the ancient past; they are also metaphors and parables employing physical imagery to capture the inner theater of the human soul.

Nachmanides, one of the greatest traditional biblical scholars, wrote this in his commentary on the book of Genesis: "The Torah discusses the physical reality, but it alludes to the universe of the spirit (2)." This means that all of the Bible's characters and all of their interactions serve as metaphors for dynamics that make up each of our own stories. Each story of the Bible is essentially our own personal story transpiring every day in the inner recesses of our psyches.

The Sarai-Hagar drama is no exception. On the surface, it is a tale about two women: a mistress and her maid. When the maid gains power and prestige, she infuriates her mistress, who than entices her husband into allowing her to rid her home of this human threat. A closer reading of the text, though, demands an appreciation of more subtle dynamics transpiring in this struggle, which the traditional commentators offer in abundance.

On yet a deeper more mystical level, the two women represent two dimensions existing in each of us. Every person, female and male, possesses both an inner "Sarai" and an inner "Hagar." Each of our marriages and relationships, too, can be experienced with our inner "Hagar" or with our inner "Sarai." It is this "layer" of the story that I wish to focus on.

On maids and mistresses

What is the basic difference between a mistress and a maid?

A mistress is fortunate enough to choose her own labor of love that excites her fancy and evokes her passion. A maid, on the other hand, is compelled to engage in labor merely for the side benefits that come with it, such as financial compensation and the like.

This basic difference between Sarai and Hagar is also expressed in their very names. In Hebrew, the name Sarai or Sarah (as she will be called later on in Genesis) means "my princess," or "the princess." The name Hagar, in ancient Aramaic, means "reward." How Hagar received her unusual name is an interesting story in and of itself (3): 

As we recall at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, when Abram and his beautiful wife Sarai journeyed from Canaan to Egypt to obtain food at a time of famine, Sarai was taken to Pharaoh's palace to be enjoyed and violated by the king. Yet before he could lay his finger on Sarai, Pharaoh and his family were struck with serious illness, so he set Sarai free. When Pharaoh observed the greatness and saintliness of the woman, and felt regret for snatching her, he gave her his daughter as a gift. "Better that my daughter serve as a maidservant in the household of Sarai, rather than as a mistress in another household," Pharaoh reasoned.

We can safely assume that this young girl was spiritually sensitive and her father felt that the pagan and promiscuous culture of Egypt was not conducive for this sweet girl. She would not do well in a morally depraved society. 

In any case, when Pharaoh gave his daughter to Sarai, he told her: "This is a reward for you." Thus, the young girl became known as "Hagar," which means "a reward."

A tale of two loves

In the teachings of the Kabbalah, Sarai and Hagar serve as a metaphor for two models of living.

Sarai, the princess, represents a life lived for its own sake, while Hagar, the maidservant, embodies a life lived for the rewards and benefits that come with it. Sarai lives in order to live; Hagar lives in order to gain. This is not good or bad; it is just two distinct aspects integral to the human condition.

Let us examine these two dimensions as they play themselves out in love and relationships.

There is the person who says, "I love you because I need you" or "I love you because you're beautiful." In other words, I cherish you because of the rewards (the "Hagar") I gain from you.

"To be loved for what one truly is, is the great exception," Goethe said. The majority of people love in others that which they receive from them. I love the part of you that gives me fulfilliment and benefits. I love my version of you, not you.

A story:

One of the spiritual greats of the 20th century, Rabbi Israel Lipkin, known as Rabbi Israel Salanter, once observed a man eating a piece of chicken with great fervor. "What's the excitement all about"? asked the rabbi.

"I love this chicken," replied the man.

"I highly doubt you love the chicken," the rabbi told him. "This chicken was slaughtered, plucked, sliced and then cooked for your sake. Is that how you treat all those you love?

"You don't love the chicken; you love yourself -- your gullet, your taste buds and your abdomen. You cherish the chicken for being able to serve your esophagus so proficiently." 

Reciprocal love

Your love toward another person may not be that different from your love of chicken or cheesecake. You may love your spouse because of what you receive in return. Your spouse grants you companionship and bestows spice, quality and flavor on your daily existence. You enjoy your spouse's physical and emotional qualities; you cherish your partners looks, their food, wisdom and kindness.

You have to be a moron not to cherish this human being who is ready to put up with and even love a schlimazel like yourself.

This form of reciprocal love is not bad at all. It makes, in fact, the world go round. You can stay married and live a lovely life with this "Hagar"-model of relationships. If all marriages required altruistic, selfless affection, it might spell the end of the human race as we know it. We are self-oriented creatures and we must feel that our relationships are based on a give-and-take dynamic. 

We must acknowledge, however, that though this love is profoundly beneficial, it is also conditional and can be temporary. What happens when some of your spouse's beloved qualities wane, or when they no longer appeal to you, or when you find somebody who seems to profess superior qualities?

Often this marks the end of a romance. Why should I be here for you if you can't be here for me any longer?" This is a good question, one that has caused and continues to cause the death of many a marriage.

In addition, though reciprocal love may be powerful and fruitful, it does not capture the full majesty the human spirit is capable of. Reciprocal love satisfies the basic human ego, his or her need for self-preservation and self-gratification. Yet it fails to satisfy the higher soul of man created in the image of G-d.

Unconditional love

The Torah and the Kabbalah, therefore, address another form of love, or the "Sarai" model of love, one that is not reciprocal, but unconditional, or essential. In it, I love you not because of a particular "because," an individual quality or many qualities that I cherish in you. Rather, I love the very "you;" not the "you" that benefits me, but the very core of your being. It is born from the recognition that we share an essential bond.

It is not that I love you because you are beautiful, but rather, you are beautiful because I love you. It is not that I love you because I need you, but rather I need you because I love you.

This does not mean one should not cherish and appreciate the fine qualities of their spouse. It means that your love is not limited or defined by their particular lovable qualities. Say, for example, you are blessed with a beautiful and talented child. You certainly appreciate these qualities in your child and you mention them to him or her. Yet your love to this child is not dependent on or limited to these characteristics. You may have other children who lack these gifts, yet you still love them with equal passion. Why? Because you feel that you are essentially and eternally one with them.

In fact, one often observes that the love of parents toward children, who, because of their physical or mental state can't reciprocate the affection and give back in return, seems stronger than their love toward other children who give back much to their parents. Why?

The Kabbalah explains it in a profoundly moving way. It is not that a parent loves one child more than another. You love each of your children with the same infinite passion. It is, rather, that with children who manifest qualities that engender appreciation, the essential parent-love relationship that transcends any quality of the child is somewhat eclipsed by the love born from the appreciation of their qualities.

With a child who lacks this ability to give back in any way, and who lacks any manifestation of qualities that make it worthwhile to love them, what emerges is the eternal, boundless and unconditional love stemming from an essential connection of the parent to the child. I may never get anything from you in return, but I still love you, just as I love myself, because you and I are intrinsically one.

Can a marriage reach such a pure space? Yes. Can it commence with this type of love? Usually not. (If yes, you could have married anybody and everybody.) In the beginning of a relationship, we must focus on the mutual benefits involved, while romance and infatuation, of course, assist in the drama of the melding of two strangers.

Yet, if we work on ourselves and allow our souls to emerge in the relationship, we can, following a long journey, reach a space of pure altruistic love where we come to love our spouse in the same inseparable way we love ourselves and our children. We reach the point where we recognize our shared essential and immutable bond that can never be severed. Over time, there is a point where each partner feels a part of the other, where each partner can no longer visualize life without the other at his or her side.

A nurse once shared this story:

It was a busy morning, approx. 8:30 A.M. when an elderly gentleman, in his 80's, arrived to have sutures removed from his thumb.  He stated that he was in a hurry as he had an appointment at 9:00 A.M.  I took his vital signs and had him take a seat, knowing it would be over  an hour before someone would be able to see him. While taking care of his wound, we began to engage in conversation. I  asked him if he had a doctor's appointment this morning, as he was in such a hurry. The gentleman told me no, that he needed to go to the nursing home to  eat breakfast with his wife. I then inquired as to her health. He told me that she had been there  for awhile and that she was a victim of Alzheimer Disease.

As we talked, and I finished dressing his wound, I asked if she would be  worried if he was a bit late. e replied that she no longer knew who he  was, that she had not recognized him in five years now.  I was surprised and asked him, "And you are still going every morning, even through she doesn't know who you are?"

He smiled as he patted my hand and said, "She doesn't know me, but I still know who she  is."

I had to hold back tears as he left, I had goose bumps on my arms, and thought, "That is the kind of love I want in my life."

True love is neither physical, nor romantic. True love is an acceptance of all that is, has been, will be...  And that my friends, says it all.

You and G-d

These two models of bonding -- the Hagar-model and the Sarai-model -- exist also in our "marriage" between our souls and G-d.

A relationship with G-d in the Hagar-model means that you serve Him as a paid "maid" because of the rewards (the "Hagar") you might receive. Your primary focus in living a moral and spiritual lifestyle is what you can get out of G-d as a result. "If I am a good person, G-d will reward me; if I am a lousy person, G-d will be angry at me, and that's not good."

Many religious communities base their entire educational foundation on this ethos of reward and punishment. "If you serve the Lord and follow His instructions, you created your ticket to paradise," the youngsters are taught. "If not -- you will end up in the eternal barbecue."

On a more sophisticated level, you may foster a loyalty and devotion to G-d because of your own mental, emotional and spiritual benefits. Faith breeds optimism, hope, serenity, a sense of purpose, etc. It can liberate you from fear, insecurity and anxiety. So you enter into a marriage with G-d as a good and loyal "maid": The pay is great and the benefits well worth it.

Is this bad? By no means! For many of us, the only way to be motivated and inspired to live a moral and loving life is by focusing on our self-gain, on how it will enhance the quality of our days and the depth of our lives.

Take your ego along

A personal story:

I was once invited to present a lecture at a high-profile dinner about living a spiritual life. Totally uninterested in attending the dinner or discussing this topic, I considered declining. The only reason I wanted to accept the invitation was because a very influential person was scheduled to attend the dinner and I longed to impress him.

So I phoned a mentor and asked him if I should decline the invitation, since my "spiritual lecture" would be contaminated by an absolutely egotistical motive. By accepting the invitation, I reasoned, I would flatter my ego but betray my soul and my authenticity. I would be just one more New York-based con artist. Big deal.

My mentor advised me to go and speak. "If your ego would compel you to rob banks, you should say no to it. But if your ego, for the time being, is compelling you to give speeches about spiritual matters and inspire people to increase acts of goodness and kindness, so be it; take along the ego for your life's ride."

I followed his advice, not begrudgingly, I hasten to add. Of course, you guessed it. The famous guy never showed up, which I guess turned it into a win-win situation.

Truth of a poor man

The same holds true about most of our relationships in life. Few of us are capable of a consistently altruistic relationship with man or with G-d. The quest for self-gratification is essential to the human condition, and to ignore it can spell the end of living a fulfilling and fruitful life. 

A wealthy man once came to Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi and lamented that the charity he was dispersing to poor people was colored with ulterior motives; it was not being done with truthfulness.

To which the Rebbe responded: "Yes, that might be true; but the poor man is using your money to feed his family with truthfulness."

Yet, despite the fruitfulness of this form of relationship with the moral truths of existence, one based on self-benefit, we must be aware of its limited quality. We must be sensitive to the truth that it is conditional, external and therefore temporary. It is a love defined by the ego, and thus limited by the ego; it does not capture the majestic love the human soul is capable of achieving.

Ask not...

The Kabbalah thus addresses a deeper type of relationship with G-d, known as the "Sarai"-like model. "Ask not what G-d can do for you; but what you can do for Him." On this level, you choose to enter into a relationship with G-d not because of what He can do for you, but because of what you can do for Him. The "Sarai" in us represents that dimension of the soul that recognizes its inherent and essential connection with G-d. With this part of my soul I don't serve G-d because I need him, but rather because He needs me, or better put, because we are one.

Yet how many people can live their lives consistently on such a level? Very few. If we were to postpone our marriage to G-d until we managed to develop this idealism, we might never bear a single "child" in our life; we might never produce even a single good deed.

So Sarai tells Abram, the man in the Bible who serves as the paradigm of love: 'See now, G-d has restrained me from bearing; please consort with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.'

On a metaphoric level, what Sarai is saying that if Abram insists on building a relationship only with the most perfect, idealistic human being, they may never bring children into the world. If you wait until you're spiritually flawless and pure to begin the labor of changing the world, you may never bear any fruits, produce any results or saturate G-d's world with goodness. Often you must engage your ego, your self-centered personality, in order to reap great accomplishments. Let your ego generate actions, as long as they are positive and productive ones.

"So Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maidservant -- after ten years of Abram's dwelling in the Land of Canaan -- and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife." Sarai herself acknowledges that the road to idealism must at times lead through the ego. Not always can your relationships operate on the "Sarai-wife" paradigm; sometimes, for the sake of the children, it must operate on the "Hagar-maid" paradigm.

The challenge

Yet here is the potential pitfall.

"He consorted with Hagar, and she conceived. When she realized she was pregnant, she looked at her mistress with contempt."

All of the above is nice and dandy as long as you always remember that there is a higher model for love; that your present paradigm of life is flawed, albeit not wrong. You must maintain the knowledge that though you often engage in the Hagar-like relationship, there is something far greater and deeper you ought to strive for.

The problem begins when your ego becomes the harbinger of truth, when you begin to believe that you have reached the pinnacle of love. Then, when your ego becomes slighted, or when you feel that your self-interest is not being served, you may drop the entire relationship. It becomes all about you; it's my way or no way.

We see this trend transpiring often in the field of education. Some parents develop the following attitude: As long as my children are giving me the nachas, the pleasure and delight I anticipated from them, I love them with all my heart. But the moment my children's behavior doesn't match up to my expectations, when they fail to give me the comfort and joy I wanted from them, I grow angry and frustrated. That is because initially I did not love

them for who they were, but rather for what they did for me. So when they are giving me pain and headaches rather than joy and serenity, my heart swells up with feelings of negativity toward them.

This is when you know that your "Hagar"-like relationship has crossed its boundaries. Relationships based on self-interest are critical, indispensable and therefore profoundly valuable. But this remains true only as long as they recognize their inferiority to the

"Sarai"-like relationship; when they always look up to deeper growth and greater heights. Then, living a good life for ulterior motives will most likely elevate you to reach a space of profound idealism, where you learn to love purely. A self-motivated relationship, if worked on consistently, will lead you to a selfless relationship.

But when your self-motivated relationship becomes the final destination, when you lose focus of horizons extending far beyond your present vision, then, when you feel that your spouse is not serving you the way she used to, your love may wane and disappear. 

The outrage

"So Sarai said to Abram, 'The outrage against me is due to you! It was I who gave my maidservant into your bosom, and when she saw that she had conceived, I lost my esteem in her eyes. Let G-d judge between me and you!'"

These are strong words. Their meaning, though, is clear. Something has been profoundly distorted. If our relationship to each other and to our future children becomes consumed completely by the Hagar-like relationship, it will eat at our foundation. And only G-d can judge the profound subtlety of the difference between a truth-based relationship and a self-based relationship.

"Abram replied to Sarai, 'Your maidservant is in your hand; do with her as you see fit.' Sarai afflicted her, so she fled from her." 

At this point in our life, our higher consciousness, or the Sarai within us, must remind our egos of its limitations. "Sarai" must remind "Hagar" that she functions best when subjected to the authority of Sarai. Free, uninhibited reign can't be bestowed upon the ego; it is too vulnerable and would be akin to giving a child permission to leave the house whenever he wanted. For the ego to be productive, it must be controlled.

Yet our egos are not always ready to listen. Rather than confronting their inherent vulnerability, they flee the scene. They hide from the truth.

G-d encounters the ego

"An angel of G-d encountered her by a spring in the desert...and he said, 'Hagar, maid of Sarai! From where are you coming, and where are you going?'

"She said, 'I am running away from my mistress, Sarai.' "The angel of G-d said to her, 'return to your mistress and submit yourself to her.' "And an angel of G-d said to her, 'I will greatly increase your offspring and they will not be counted for abundance.'"

Hagar may need help, but G-d still loves her. G-d does not loathe and despise the human ego. G-d does not believe that we must crush our individual ambitions and obliterate any vestige of self. As long as our sense of selfhood recognizes its limitations, the ego is capable of achieving great things in life. "Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her.'" Continue your life, your love, your relationships, your marriage. But always have the courage to look up and see that love is infinite.

Then, the angel says, you will bear many children. You will produce actions and offspring that will make the world a brighter place (4).

E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.com


1) Genesis chapter 16.

2) Ramban beginning of Genesis.

3) Midrash Rabah Bereishis 45:1.

4) This essay is based on: Degel Machane Ephraim Parshas Lech; Shaar Hapsukim by the Arizal Parshas Lech; Tanya chapter 32; Sefer Haerchim Chabad under the entry of Ahavas Yisroel; Likkutei Sichos vol. 21 pp. 20-26. Sefer Halikkutim Dach Tzemach Tzedek under the entry of Sarah.

Posted on November 10, 2005
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