July 19, 2024
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You Should Know Better Than to Listen to Me

In Parshat Lech Lecha there is an exchange between Avram and Sarai that seems inconsistent with what we know of them. Sarai suggests that Avram take her maid, Hagar, and try to have a child through Hagar. Avram follows Sarai’s suggestion and thereafter Hagar’s attitude toward Sarai changes. Sarai complains to Avram, but her statement is uncharacteristic: “And Sarai said to Avram, ‘My suffering is upon you! I gave my maidservant into your bosom, and she saw that she was pregnant, and I was degraded in her eyes. God will judge between me and you!’” (Bereishit 16:5)

The forgoing statements sounds as if it comes from a child or immature adult crying out in disappointment, “Why did you do what I asked you to do?” Such is not the Sarai we know. Also, what of Sarai’s declaration, “God will judge between me and you!” What is God to judge? No dispute seems to be present. We know that Sarai was a prophet on a higher level than Avram and we know that the Torah only records things that are of eternal relevance, so what are we to learn from these verses?

In hindsight, the idea of seeking a child through Hagar was not wise. Sarai, being in a state of great yearning, was not thinking properly. The yearning for a child can border on, or drive one to, the irrational. Avram was not in the same state of distress. He should have known better than to consent to the plan. Avram should have said no, but Avram’s nature is to do chesed. Avram wants to make Sarai’s life better and so he consented without thinking matters through. It was for that failure that Sarai faulted him. From here we are to learn an important lesson about chesed.

Chesed, as any parent learns, means at times saying “no.” Avram needed to learn that lesson. The judgment that Sarai speaks of is twofold. At one level it concerns the difference in opinion concerning Hagar’s post hoc status. As a note in Artscroll’s Stone Chumash points out, Avram thought that Hagar had the status of a wife. Sarai did not. We see that Hashem sides with Sarai, as the malach will declare to Hagar, “Hagar, handmaid of Sarai, why have you come here and where are you going?” Hagar was not, and is not, a wife but just a servant. There was, however, yet another judgment being leveled.

The other aspect of judgment flows from Sarai understanding that in serving Hashem, harsh-seeming actions must sometimes be taken. Tough love is sometimes chesed. Sarai knew this and Avram needed to realize this fact. Earlier in the parsha, Avram splits with Lot to maintain peace. There also Avram erred. Avram should have kept his nephew close and tried to change him. When Avram failed to do this, the consequences were Avram being forced to go to war and later the disintegration into sin of Lot’s family. Avraham would, ultimately, on Mount Moriah, learn that chesed often manifests itself in unlikely guises and in difficult acts. Indeed, it is interesting to note that in Parshat Vayera, the instruction to offer Yitzchak includes the same language, “Lech Lecha,” which inaugurates the instant parsha.

Parshat Lech Lecha teaches us of our obligation to intervene with others to prevent them from taking actions when their judgment might be impaired. Similarly, we are obligated to consider that at times our own powerful drives are more for what we want than for what is in our best interests. Nor can we allow popular ideas of chesed to move us. We want to make our spouses happy, to avoid strife with relatives and to protect the lives of our children (Sarai, Lot, Yitzchak). Yet, if such actions do not advance Hashem’s plan, then we must take the harder route even if it requires us to overcome our own nature. This is perhaps the additional meaning of the parsha opening and seemingly redundant phrase: “לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:” “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.”

The words “from your land” refers to the conventions of the society from which one emerges. The phrase “from your birthplace” refers from where one is at birth; that is to say, it refers to one’s natural inclinations. If we wish to develop, to improve ourselves, which may be, so to speak, the theme of this parsha, we need at times to put aside the mores of the surrounding society. For such mores may be twisted like those of Sedom where Lot chose to dwell. In addition, we may need to set aside our own natural predispositions. We need to move beyond where we were at birth toward the place where Hashem wants us to be. For example, Levi channeled his zealotry into the service of Hashem. His great-grandfather Avraham did the same thing when he overcame his natural inclination toward acts of seeming chesed and moved toward true chesed, when he was prepared to offer his son, his only son, the one he loves, Yitzchak.

If we learn to distinguish between true and false chesed, by following Hashem’s laws and teachings, then we will come closer to Hashem, just as by the end of the parsha our foreparents Avram and Sarai become Avraham and Sara and merit to see Hashem and be visited by angels.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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