There is an idea that in order for religion to remain relevant, religion should make the comfortable feel uncomfortable. The ability of Judaism to be self-aware, critical and iconoclastic is especially revealed in how the tradition shapes our ethics regarding the treatment of the stranger, the disempowered and the poor.
Of course, many of us are familiar with the Torah’s insistence to treat the stranger with compassion since we were strangers in Egypt. The Exodus is often invoked as a motive for social justice, by the small and great alike, including Dr. Martin Luther King. However, there is a narrative perhaps even more powerful and certainly more unsettling than the Exodus narrative. This is the narrative of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar in B’reishit (Genesis 16).
The story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar is unsettling because it really brings home the point of what it means to be an outsider. Our own tradition confronts us with our own failings and prejudices. We are forced to re-examine the characters of our beloved Patriarchs and Matriarchs and we are forced to acknowledge that even they didn’t always live up to the ethical standards that we hold dear.
The story of Hagar and Sarah is well-known. Abraham and Hagar fail to conceive a child and it is Sarah who takes the initiative to give her servant girl Hagar to her husband (Gen. 16:1-2):
וְשָׂרַי אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם, לֹא יָלְדָה לוֹ; וְלָהּ שִׁפְחָה מִצְרִית, וּשְׁמָהּ הָגָר.
וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל-אַבְרָם, הִנֵּה-נָא עֲצָרַנִי יְהוָה מִלֶּדֶת--בֹּא-נָא אֶל-שִׁפְחָתִי, אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה; וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם, לְקוֹל שָׂרָי.
“Sarai, the wife of Abram had not borne him children and she had an Egyptian maidservant and her name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, behold now, the Lord has stopped me from bearing. Come please to my maidservant [so that] maybe I will be built up through her. And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarai.” (translation mine)
The epithet used to describe Hagar pointedly identifies her both according to her “race” and her “class”. She is an Egyptian maidservant, a person of lower status than Abram and Sarai (whose name, in fact, means “princess”). If Hagar (whose name is based on haGer, “the stranger”) is to bear Abram’s child, then why does the text choose to emphasize her social inferiority?
Rashi states: “She was a daughter of Pharaoh when she saw miracles done for Sarah and she said, ‘better to be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house.’” (translation mine)
The notion that Hagar is more than a mere maidservant but actually a daughter of Pharaoh sheds new light on an ancient and oft repeated dynamic: the relationship between the powerful and powerless, between Israel and Egypt. Is it coincidence that generations later, Moshe himself is rescued from the Nile’s watery embrace by “Bat Paro”, Pharaoh’s daughter?
In the light of our modern sensibilities, Rashi’s explanation of Hagar’s presence and even good fortune, to dwell in the household of Sarai, may be presumptuous. Is this the excuse we use to justify labor malpractices? To justify the employment of underpaid immigrant workers? Arguing that they are “fortunate” to dwell in our households? That they are better of as servants in our households and factories than masters in their own?
Our sacred narrative challenges us to re-examine these assumptions. Maybe this is a case of middah k’neged middah (measure for measure), also known as poetic justice. After all, when our greatest spiritual leader was a mere infant, he becomes utterly dependent on the kindness of a daughter of Pharoah. Sarai “oppresses” Hagar and Hagar flees into the desert unknown (Gen. 16:6). Is this the kindness we should show the stranger among us?
The easiest compassion roused in our hearts is that which springs forth from our own traumas of oppression. This is why it is easy and perhaps even comfortable for us as the powerful and privileged to refer to the Exodus narrative as an ethical injunction on how to treat the stranger. After all, we were ourselves strangers in Egypt. But perhaps the most profound compassion comes from another, less expected, place. Perhaps it comes from a place of acknowledging that we too, can be the oppressors. As unsettling as this insight may be, it may provide us with real tools of respect and reconciliation: the awareness that we are all human and all part angel and part beast. The rest depends not only on the power dynamic in our lives, but thankfully also on our will to choose and do the right.