Parashat Vayera: It’s a Family Affair

Weekly D’var Torah Commentary 
Parashat Vayera | Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

If we read the Torah as a book of rules, the “do’s and don’ts” of living a Jewish life, it can sometimes feel distant, abstract, and hard to relate to in our modern world. But if we read the Torah as a story about human nature and behavior, the connections between our own lives and the text are astonishing. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, tells the story of the first Jewish family and details the difficult dynamics that have formed within it. While our matriarch and patriarch, Sarah and Abraham, are exemplars of morality and faith, the Torah is not shy about presenting their flaws and shortcomings.

Earlier in the Torah, we learn about some of the dysfunctional dynamics of this family. In Genesis 16:2, Abraham and his wife Sarah have difficulty becoming pregnant. Sarah, fearing that Abraham will never have a child, instructs him to consort with her maidservant, Hagar. After all, if Abraham does not have a child, there will be no one to benefit from God’s promises to Abraham, which include the inheritance of land, nationhood, and special relationship with God (Genesis 15). Even though Sarah suggested this arrangement, when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child, tension arises between the two women.

In this week’s Torah portion, three angels disguised as weary travelers arrive at Abraham’s tent and announce that Sarah will miraculously give birth to a son, even though she is well past her child-bearing years. Eventually, Isaac is born. When Isaac is old enough to be weaned, Abraham throws a huge celebration. In the ancient world, weaning was an important life-cycle marker; if a child lived long enough to be weaned, it was a sign of good health and vitality.

It seems that the party is going well until Sarah sees Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, playing and dancing in the corner. Immediately, she says to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, with Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). And although the text points out that this request distresses Abraham, for he loves his son Ishmael, he is instructed by God to heed the wishes of his wife, and he sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness.

In a creative interpretation of this text found in the Book of Jubilees, which was compiled between 135 and 105 BCE, the ancient Rabbis make an even stronger claim: Sarah is upset because she sees Abraham playing with both of his sons at this party. The fact that Abraham attends to each child – her own child, as well as the child of Hagar – triggers a fit of jealousy. In the text of the Torah, Abraham is despondent to send his beloved son Ishmael away to the wilderness. In this interpretation, the Rabbis claim that he is distraught to send Ishmael and Hagar away, implying although Hagar is Abraham’s concubine, he has a loving relationship with her.

This is not the most flattering story, to say the least. Sarah is presented as heartless and jealous. She erupts with anger and bitterness during what is supposed to be a joyous moment in the life of her family; she publicly humiliates Hagar, who is a member of her household; and she impulsively demands that Hagar and her young child be forced to fend for themselves in the desert. Abraham, though concerned for his son (and, according to the Rabbis, for his concubine) gives heed to Sarah’s extreme request. He could have argued with God and refused to obey God’s instruction to give in to Sarah’s demands. Instead, he is passive and submissive, and he silently banishes them with only a small loaf of bread and a jug of water.

Why is this disconcerting story included in the Torah? We learn about these characters not to emulate all of their actions, but rather to learn about the potential for all humans to act in ways that are not always righteous. This story teaches us that no matter how important we may be in our communities, and no matter how close we are to God, we all have the potential to behave unjustly.

Our holiest text contains accurate representations of family life and all of its challenges. We learn that the most important figures in our tradition are not perfect, but are flawed human beings who have ample room for improvement. Learning Torah helps us realize that we are not alone in confronting life’s challenges. Knowing that our ancestors experienced similar struggles to those that we face today helps to keep us humble and inspires us to improve. The radical honesty of the Torah allows us to be honest as well – with our communities, with those we love, and perhaps most importantly, with ourselves.

Deena Gottlieb is JCP’s Student Rabbi.