November 2, 2006
Letters to Mom
Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27)
Here we are again on the plains of Bethel. We're in the 10th month of our 10th year in Canaan. Sorry I haven't written. There were so many things happening, but none of them so important to justify my negligence. The famine, Pharaoh, Avimelech, the war -- they all came and went and I remained the same. I wanted to believe that this move to Canaan would open a new chapter in my life, but boy was I disappointed.
You remember the day of my wedding? Such joy! Such innocence! I thought it would be only a matter of time before I became a mother. But with every year that passed, the dream seemed more remote and unreachable. Everyone was celebrating motherhood and parenthood, the little voices of children filling their homes with joy and happiness. And me? Nothing. I felt alienated and rejected. I felt their furtive glances as I was passing by, as if I was carrying a curse, a terrible disease.
You were the only one who understood, but there was nothing you could do. God alone can count the tears I shed, day after day, year after year, praying, yearning for a child that will redeem me from my solitude, from my agony and my shame. Oh, was I glad to go when the Divine order came to leave Haran. Just go away and leave behind me all the pitying, mercy filled, hypocrite faces. Yes, it was difficult to go and leave you and Dad behind, but I did it not just to fulfill the Divine commandment and follow my husband, but also because I secretly hoped that the move will bring a change, a blessing. But this was not what God wanted.
Abram says that I am a righteous woman and that God enjoys my prayers and supplications. I appreciate that, but enough is enough, we've spent 10 years in Canaan and nada. I want to have a child. I want to have a child!
Sorry it's been a couple months since I last wrote you. We're at the Oaks of Mamre, and I've figured out a solution. It's painful, but I can live with it. I will have Abram marry my maidservant Hagar (remember, the Egyptian girl?). She will be the surrogate mother of my child. Don't try to dissuade me. I've made up my mind, and I know of several respectful families who have gone through this process successfully.
It's over; she's gone. We don't know where or when, but she has disappeared from Be'er Sheva. I should be happy, I should be celebrating, but I'm not. I feel terrible. I didn't mean it to happen like that. All I wanted was to have a child we could call our own, but things got out of hand.
This tricky, treacherous, no-good maid knew very well how to rub it in. "I'm tired," "I'm nauseated," "I feel so hungry," "I crave this" and "Sorry, I can't bend down to bring you that, Sarai." All very subtle; not the kind of things a man would notice.
Don't get me wrong, Ma, I love and respect Abram. But why is his quest of justice reserved only for foreigners? Sodom and Gomorra deserve justice, with all their sins. Meanwhile, I'm abused daily by this Hagar. Do I not deserve justice? These things pass right over his head.
That's why I blew up. Justice is all I want! He should give me the same treatment he gave Sodom. He stood up to defend those sinners, why not me? And all he said to me was: "Well, what do you want from me? She is your maid. Do whatever you want with her." And, believe me, I did just that; I didn't give her a free moment.
But now she's gone, and I feel miserable. It all swelled up in me -- all the anger and frustration, years of sterility, endless nights of crying and, worst of all, the notion that my husband doesn't understand me. So I took it all on her and I am not so sure I did the right thing.
P.S.: Last night I had a terrible dream, my descendants were persecuted by hers, tortured and expelled, and that voice kept echoing in my mind: "See what you've done. See what you've done!"
These letters were not unearthed in the hills of Canaan, but they offer a possible interpretation of the events in this week's parsha.
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, however, does suggest that Sarah should not have tortured Hagar, and that the persecution of Jews by Muslims in the 11th and 12th century is a direct consequence of that behavior. The message that no action goes unnoticed or unaccounted for and that communication is essential to a healthy family and society reverberates to this day.
We can only imagine how different things would be if the protagonists in the story would talk with one another, try to define the problems and solve them, instead of being swept away by emotions. How often do we channel anger and frustration at the wrong people? Did you ever interpret someone's action in a certain way and gave them no chance to explain before attacking? By telling us the story with all its intricate human relationships and the tragic outcome, the Torah teaches us an important lesson about our daily interaction with the people surrounding us. And this lesson is as applicable in American suburbia as it was at the hilltops of Canaan.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.