April 12, 2024
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Still Great, Despite the Mistake

With Avraham and Sarah still childless, Sarah decides to give her maidservant—Hagar—to Avraham as a wife. Hagar conceives from Avraham, and immediately upon becoming pregnant, the pasuk says, “And her mistress became light in her eyes” (16:4). Since she got pregnant before Sarah did, Hagar began to look at Sarah differently. The esteem she originally held Sarah in was now lowered. As Rashi says, Hagar said to herself, “This Sarah, her secrecy is not like her exposure [i.e. she is not what she appears to be]; she presents herself as if she were a righteous woman, but she is not a righteous woman, for she was not worthy of pregnancy all these years, while I conceived from the first relations.” Hagar found what she thought was a flaw in Sarah’s essence, and based on that her esteem for Sarah was lowered.

The question is, why would Hagar conclude that Sarah isn’t so great after all just because she hadn’t given birth yet? Who says that’s even a reflection of her spiritual stature? That’s quite a judgment Hagar is making!

Rav Nosson Wachtfogel (“Noam Hamussar”) elaborates that Hagar had a “kasha”—a wonderment, a question—on Sarah. If she’s truly great then why did I become pregnant before her? Ah! It must be that she isn’t as great as they say! Says Rav Wachtfogel, it is a common phenomenon that people have kashas on gedolim and in their mind’s eye that person becomes “refuted.” They see what seems to be a fault or flaw in the gadol’s behavior or character and conclude that they have now discovered the true essence of this person, and indeed they are not as great as they originally thought. A person can easily be swayed by something they saw externally and ignore the true essence of the person.

Another novelty we can add is that Hagar was perhaps completely off in her assessment of Sarah. The fact that a child was withheld from Sarah all this time and that Hagar conceived before her seemingly had nothing to do with Sarah’s spiritual status, and did not reflect whatsoever on Sarah’s essence and level of greatness. Moreover, Sarah was an exceptionally great person who even superseded Avraham in matters of prophecy; How could Hagar judge her just like that? Yet, we see from here what appears to be a human nature—that once we think we see a flaw in the people we once held to be great people (such as our sages, Torah leaders, rebbeim, etc), even if it’s our total misconception, their esteem might then be lowered in our eyes.

It happened to Sarah, and it could have potentially happened to Avraham. Earlier in our parsha, Lot’s shepards and Avraham’s shepherds are fighting. Avraham tells Lot, “Please let there be no strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are men who are brothers [i.e relatives]” (13:8). Avraham seems to say that since they are relatives they shouldn’t fight. Why is the fact that they are relatives a reason to cease fighting? Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shor (lived in 12th century) explains that what Avraham was intending to say to Lot was that since they are relatives, if people see them fighting with each other, they will think that if that’s how family treats each other then how are others supposed to treat each other—and thus people will say about us that they are evil people!

Avraham felt that these people would also consider him evil, and not just Lot. Rav Yaakov Galinsky (“Vehigadta”) points out a remarkable insight. If people indeed learn of their fight, wouldn’t they also know the reason for the quarrel, which was that Lot’s shepherds were engaging in theft and Avraham’s shepherds were simply rebuking them for it? Wouldn’t this then show the good side of Avraham and not that he is an argumentative and quarrelsome person!? Furthermore, why would they think negatively of Avraham—Avraham had a wide open house for people from all walks of life! He was such a giving and kind person, a magnanimous baal chesed, who treated his guests with so much favor and respect—he would bow to them and call them his master! He would feed people the best delicacies—tongue with mustard! And yet they would conclude that Avraham is doing something wrong and he is evil? Is this one instance that Avraham is involved in which seems to be negative, more compelling and should outweigh all the good that the great Avraham has done? Maybe they could consider that perhaps it’s they who are wrong in their assessment and judgment of Avraham.

Says Rav Galinsky, this is the way of the world. People latch on to that one improper thing they see in a person, and all the good things the person has done fades away from their consciousness.

We can explain further by adding that we perhaps see from here the same idea we see from Hagar. We can suggest that those (theoretical) people who would learn of the quarrel, in fact originally held Avraham in tremendous esteem. However, once they learned of what appeared to be something improper they now had a kasha on Avraham, and they refuted him. They felt like they discovered his true essence and that his real self is now exposed—Aha! He’s not great after all! Here too, even though they were the ones who were off in their assessment of Avraham’s actions (as Avraham side was not “fighting” per se but only was trying to help Lot’s side refrain from theft), they would have held onto their mistaken judgment, and as a result their original high esteem of the great Avraham would have been dramatically diminished.

Both Hagar and those theoretical critics of Avraham show us the nature of latching on to the minimal “faults” of a great person, letting them outweigh and ignore the vast good they do, and ultimately conclude that they are actually not so great—even if it’s we who are the ones that are erroneous in our assessment.

Chana, however, didn’t follow this nature. Chana was praying her heart out for a child, and since her voice couldn’t be heard, Eili the kohen gadol thought she was drunk: “Until when will you be drunk”? Eili said to her. Chana ultimately succeeded in convincing Eili that she wasn’t drunk and was just pouring out her soul to God, etc.

Rav Wachtfogel brings from one of the previous Ponovezher Rosh Yeshiva’s—Rav Asher Kalman Baron (HY”D) who remarked that Eili, who was such a great person—and who was the kohen gadol and should have had ruach hakodesh—made such a critical error to think Chana was drunk! Chana could have concluded: Hmm, Eili isn’t as great as they say after all! Nevertheless, we find that Chana didn’t come to such a conclusion but rather kept her faith in Eili and in his prominence and great stature, for when Eili guaranteed the fulfillment of her prayers, Chana had full trust in him.

We see from here that even though the great Eili was actually mistaken, Chana didn’t follow the nature of deflating his esteem in her eyes, but rather took the high road and kept her full belief in his lofty spiritual caliber.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work

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