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Sarah and #metoo--1st day of Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 2:52 PM by Heidi Hoover
Note: This year we read Genesis 21 for the first day of Rosh Hashanah's Torah reading, about the birth of Isaac, and Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. In past years we have read Genesis 22, about the binding of Isaac--the Akeidah.

Also please note that in my interpretation here, Ishmael is a human being and a character in the story--I'm not considering him as the progenitor of Islam here--it's an analysis of these characters as people, and relating them as people to our situation today. I am not in any way impugning Islam here.

How many of you were surprised by today’s Torah reading and found it unexpected? How many people are used to hearing the reading of the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

The Akeidah and the reading we did today, about Isaac’s birth and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, are both traditional readings for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, depending on which tradition you’re used to. They share some themes that are appropriate to this season of the year, including trust, obedience, and near-death experiences. Both stories are difficult. Both involve Abraham endangering the life of one of his sons—in the Binding of Isaac, he directly threatens his son Isaac’s life because he nearly sacrifices him. In today’s reading of Genesis chapter 21, he indirectly threatens his son Ishmael’s life by sending him an Hagar into the wilderness where they almost die. In both cases, God saves the boy.

Of course, there are differences between the stories as well. In the Akeidah, Sarah is entirely absent. The Torah text gives no indication that she has any idea what Abraham is up to, even after the fact. In the story we read today, Sarah is deeply involved and is the one who demands that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out of the household.

Let me review today’s reading, which may not be as familiar as the Akeidah.

At the beginning of our passage, Abraham and Sarah’s son, whom God promised to them, is born. Sarah, who laughed at the absurdity of the idea when God told Abraham that she would have a son, laughs here again. This time her laughter seems triumphant, joyful. She names her son Yitzchak, Isaac, which means “he will laugh.”

Now Isaac was the first child born to Sarah by Abraham, but about 14 years earlier, convinced that she would not be able to get pregnant and give birth to an heir for Abraham, Sarah had given him her servant Hagar to be a surrogate mother for their child. At that time Hagar got pregnant and Ishmael was born. The relationship between Sarah and Hagar soured while Hagar was pregnant, because the power balance between them shifted. Sarah was Hagar’s mistress and Hagar was the servant, but her power grew when she was able to have a baby while Sarah was not. This was not in today’s Torah reading; it happened earlier, and I mention it so that we recognize that the relationship between the two women was likely tense, at best.

After Isaac’s birth, bris, and naming, the text jumps straight to the party for when he is weaned. It’s likely he is about five years old at this time, which would make Ishmael 18 or so. Then something happens. Sarah looks at Ishmael and sees him doing something she doesn’t like. She goes to Abraham and tells him she wants Ishmael and his mother out. Abraham is distressed because Ishmael is also his son, but God tells him to do what Sarah says, and that Ishmael too will become a great nation.

Abraham duly turns Hagar and Ishmael out. They run out of water and Hagar despairs. She lays Ishmael under a bush and goes away so she can’t hear him crying. Then an angel speaks to her, reassuring her that not only will they live, Ishmael’s descendants will be a great nation, and God shows her a well. She and Ishmael drink the water, they survive and live in the wilderness.

On the face of it, Sarah doesn’t look good in this story. Abraham doesn’t either. How could they turn a woman and her child out into the wilderness, for any reason? It seems wrong.

When we look at the reason Sarah wants them out, it hinges on one single word in the Hebrew: m’tzachek. At the weaning feast, Sarah looks over at Ishmael, and sees him “m’tzachek.” “M’tzachek” means “laughing.” Sometimes it is translated in other ways, as “playing,” or “making sport.” Sarah sees Ishmael laughing and wants him and his mother expelled from the household. She says, “…the son of this servant-woman will not share the inheritance with my son, not with Isaac.”

That seems like an extreme response to seeing her surrogate son laughing. Why would that lead her to take the drastic step of demanding they be thrown out? She must know that that is a very serious and life-threatening thing for them.

Our sages had that question. They concluded that there must be something dangerous, something not at all innocent, in Ishmael’s laughter. Which makes sense. Though the Torah does not communicate it, Sarah, though flawed, is not evil. Here are some possibilities our rabbis suggested, as summarized by the Jewish Women’s Archive:

In one view, Ishmael engaged in idolatry and Sarah saw him building pagan altars and trapping locusts, which he offered as sacrifices. According to a second opinion, Ishmael engaged in licentious sexual acts, and Sarah saw him “conquering the gardens” [a euphemism for raping women] and mistreating them. In yet a third exegetical notion, Ishmael engaged in bloodshed. Sarah saw him take a bow and arrows and shoot at Isaac [i.e., he was trying to kill him] (T Sotah [ed. Lieberman] 6:6). The three types of behavior depicted here are the three transgressions regarded by the Rabbis as cardinal, for which a person “should be killed rather than transgress” (see BT Sanhedrin 74a).[1]


For our purposes today, I would like to accept the second opinion, that when Sarah looked at Ishmael, she saw that he was engaged in mistreating women—sexually assaulting them.

If this is the case, it is understandable that she would not want him in the same household with her son, splitting the inheritance with him, and perhaps encouraging him to also violate women.

The #metoo movement seems like old news now, perhaps. The revelations about powerful men who have abused women have perhaps slowed down, though it was just this summer that the academic and professional Jewish world was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by Steven Cohen, the leading sociologist and demographer of American Jewry, which led to his stepping down from his position at Hebrew Union College. Other scandals and controversies, newer ones, are in the headlines.

But the problem of inappropriate sexual behavior has not been resolved. And the issues that arise in response to women’s speaking out are reflected in our Torah reading, when we accept the interpretation that Ishmael was engaging in sexual abuse of women.

First: Sarah, who is fairly powerful though she is a woman, which in her society limits her power, sees a man (remember, he’s about 18 years old) doing something bad to women who are less powerful than he is. I suggest they’re less powerful because even though Ishmael is the son of a surrogate, he is still Abraham’s older son, which likely gives him power in the household.

Sarah’s response is an attempt to exercise her power to remove Ishmael from the position of power he is in, that allows him to hurt women. And, as has happened to women in our time many, many times, the powerful man she tells the story to doesn’t believe it. She goes to Abraham, the head of the household, and tells him Ishmael and by extension his mother Hagar, must leave. Of course, that’s all the Torah tells us, and I’m imagining that Sarah would have told him more, if she saw Ishmael mistreating women.

Typically, powerful men who assault women are well respected. They have friends who can’t imagine they would behave in that way, partly because they’ve never witnessed that side of the man. So Abraham says (not in the text, the text says he is “grieved because it is his son.” But I imagine that if Sarah came to him and said, I saw Ishmael sexually assaulting women, he would say) “I can’t imagine him doing that. He is my son!”

Then God speaks to Abraham and tells him to do as Sarah says. Here, God is supporting Sarah, but in the least supportive way possible. As so often happens today, the whole responsibility is put upon women for what happens to men after they are exposed for their mistreatment of women. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says, but God doesn’t tell Abraham to believe Sarah, or that she is right in wanting to remove Ishmael from the women he is hurting.

Abraham acquiesces, and Hagar and Ishmael have to leave.

It is hard for them in the wilderness. They almost die. We don’t usually look at this as something Ishmael brought upon them with his behavior. Rather, we blame Sarah for insisting that they leave, though in the reading we’re engaging with today, her insistence was based on his misconduct. We ignore that and blame her.

When I was in high school, I became friends with a teacher. He wasn’t my teacher, and I don’t even remember how I started talking to him. But I did, and I would stay after school and talk to him for hours. I admired him and thought he was great. I was 16 or 17, and he was 33. After a while, he invited me to meet him elsewhere, and because I liked him—though I wasn’t attracted to him—I agreed. We met in the woods, at his karate studio when there was no one else there, and once he took me to lunch at a restaurant far out of town where no one would see us. A couple of times he kissed me, which was very uncomfortable for me, because I wasn’t interested in him that way—I valued the friendship. He was bigger than I, and he had a black belt in karate. I am only lucky that when I told him to stop, he did. I was alone with him in isolated places, and no one knew where I was. I was very, very lucky that his abuse of power and inappropriate behavior with a student was limited in my case.

I went off to college and had my feminist awakening, and realized how inappropriate his behavior had been. I visited my high school on a break. I spoke to my former guidance counselor, who had also been a teacher and to whom I felt close. The principal, who had been a teacher when I was there, was also present for the conversation. I told them what had happened with this other teacher.

The fact that I told them, the people in the leadership of the school, should have made it their responsibility. But they deflected that back onto me: “Well, Heidi,” they said, “you could take this to the school board. If you do that, he will probably lose his job, and you have to decide if you want to be responsible for that. If it makes you feel any better, he has not had more relationships with student girls the way he did with girls in your year.”

They communicated to me that it would be my responsibility if he lost his job for behaving in a completely inappropriate way with me. I would be the one who took away his livelihood—it would not be him who jeopardized his own job with his behavior.

This is not uncommon. Men use their power over women inappropriately, women report them, and are informed that if the men lose any of their power, prestige, or position, that is the fault of the women who have brought the charges.

I am not bashing men. There was a system in place that favored men over women in the Torah, and that system has changed somewhat, but in many ways is still in place today. The people to whom men are reported might be women who still privilege men’s experience over women. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this, but the guidance counselor and principal who cautioned me that I would be responsible for my former teacher’s losing his job if I went to the school board? They were both women, complicit in our system. And of course, while it is less common, women in power sometimes also abuse their position.

To go back to Ishmael and Hagar: They don’t die in the wilderness. Their expulsion is not a death sentence. This matters too.

Restorative justice is a relatively new approach to justice. It is based on giving those who cause harm an opportunity to understand what is wrong about what they have done and to meet with those they have harmed—if the harmed parties are willing—to determine what would constitute making amends, and then making those amends.

I’m not suggesting that what happens to Hagar and Ishmael in the Torah is restorative justice. But one principle of restorative justice can be seen to be at play: You are not defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done.

God looks at Ishmael and says, “You too shall be a great nation.” He is removed from the household in which he has abused women, but it does not end his life. He will become a great nation, somewhere else. We might hope that he has learned to treat women better. The message is that there can be t’shuvah. There can be repentance, even from very bad behavior.

Here my analysis breaks down a little. It’s not at all clear that Ishmael does any t’shuvah. We have no text at all about his life within his household, and certainly none about how he went on to treat women.

The takeaway I’m suggesting for today’s Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is that we should consider who we automatically believe and who we don’t. We should consider who has power in our communities and who doesn’t, and whose testimony we privilege or don’t based on how much power they have.

It is so hard, when there is an accusation against someone who is powerful or beloved, or both, to honestly investigate that accusation in an unbiased way. It is so hard to stand up to someone who even has limited power when they are being inappropriate.

During Mike, our daughter Shoshi, and my trip to Israel this summer, there was an incident that I am ashamed of.

We were in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, sitting at the bar because no tables were available when we came in. It became clear after a little while that almost all of the other patrons in the restaurant were part of the same tour group, a Christian group from Canada. The bartender, who was also our waiter, began talking to a single woman who, it turned out, was part of this Canadian Christian group.

The bartender offered her a free shot of alcohol. She said, “No, thank you, I don’t drink.” He continued to push the shot on her, at great length. He poured a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream, talking about how little alcohol was in it, that it was fine. She continued to refuse, giggling but clearly uncomfortable. The others in her group watched and laughed, but seemed uncomfortable too. Mike and I smiled, but we too were uncomfortable. No one said anything, though. It went on. Eventually the bartender determined who her pastor was—he was also in the restaurant—and said he would ask her pastor if he would give her permission to drink this shot of alcohol. I don’t know what the pastor said, but I know that the women left at some point in this whole episode, her food unfinished.

When we finished and left, I felt that I had done wrong. I had watched a woman be badgered and mistreated, pushed to do something she did not want to do. And I had done nothing. Why? Because I didn’t want the bartender to dislike me or spit in my food, because I hoped maybe he’d want to offer me a shot of alcohol.

Here was a person with very limited power, a person taking orders and serving drinks and food. But socially, he had the power in that restaurant, so that he harassed a woman (I do want to say that while he did harm, I don’t think he intended to do harm), but he harassed a woman and no one stepped in to stop him. This is the usual way things go in our society.

So let us question the most obvious narrative. When someone who is traditionally less powerful in society indicts someone who is powerful, let us listen rather than dismissing the claim. Let us recognize that whatever downfall that powerful person may experience is not the fault of the person who spoke against them, but their own fault for the behavior they’ve finally been called exposed for.

It is very hard to stand against the powerful in any situation, even if their relative power is small outside the specific situation. Let us be strong and do the best we can to stand up for the weak against the strong, when necessary.

Sarah is not necessarily the villain of our Torah reading today. One interpretation is that she is the hero of women who are so powerless they are not mentioned at all—they are the subjects of Ishmael’s “laughing” or “playing” without it being said at all.

It is hard to be the hero who stands up for harmed people that no one else even notices. That person is very rarely recognized as a hero, and often suffers consequences for taking a stand.

Let us resolve to not let power or affection influence our assessment of accusations of misconduct by people in power—whether it is power at the state or national level, or power at the community level, or power in our personal relationships. Let us recognize that this is not a simple matter, and let us recognize how hard it is to be able to live out this resolution.

Let us have empathy for Sarah in our Torah reading, and for the modern Sarahs who have been cast as villains when they have sought to protect others from predators.

May we increase in strength in standing against injustice and in striving to judge fairly, uninfluenced by power of the personal or professional kind, as our tradition commands.

Amen and Shanah Tovah u’Metukah. May you have a good and a sweet new year.

[1] Kadari, Tamar. "Hagar: Midrash and Aggadah." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 6, 2018) <>.