Vayeira: Failure of Empathy

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (artist unknown)

The story of Sarah and Hagar continues in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). When Ishmael is 14 and Sarah is 90, Sarah finally gives birth to a son of her own. She nurses her miraculous baby for several years, and then Abraham holds a drinking-feast to celebrate his weaning.

Then Sarah saw the son that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham metzacheik. And she said to Abraham: “Banish that slave and her son! Because the son of that slave must not inherit with my son, Yitzchak.” (Genesis 21:9-10)

metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = mocking, acting crazy, engaging in foreplay, making someone laugh. (The piel participle of the verb tzachak, צָחַק = laughed.)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = (Isaac in English) he laughs, he will laugh. (An imperfect kal form of the verb tzachak.)

Ishmael might be innocently entertaining his little half-brother by acting crazy.1 Or he might be amusing himself at Isaac’s expense. He might be engaging in sexual impropriety with a toddler. Or Isaac might not even be present; Ishmael might be mocking the whole idea of Isaac as Abraham’s heir, telling some of the men at the feast that he, Ishmael, is Abraham’s firstborn son, so of course he will inherit twice as large a share of Abraham’s possessions as Isaac.2

Ishmael Mocks Isaac, by Jan  Luyken, circa 1700

We cannot judge the morality of Ishmael’s action when the Torah does not tell us what he is doing.  Sarah does not discuss Ishmael’s behavior with Abraham; she simply orders him to get rid of the boy so that Isaac will inherit all the family property.

Sarah still bears a grudge against Hagar, too. When she demands that Abraham “banish that slave”, she may be testing him to see if he retains any fondness for his erstwhile lover. Apparently he does not. But he is attached to his son Ishmael.

And the matter was very bad in the eyes of Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes about the young man or about your slave. Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, because it is through Isaac your descendants will be identified. And the son of the slave, I will also make him a nation, because he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

By speaking as if Abraham also has reservations about driving out Hagar, God implies that he ought to be concerned about her. Without a new master, where will Hagar live, and how will she get food, water, and clothing?

But Abraham washed his hands of any responsibility for Hagar long before. Now he fails to choose the ethical action of providing for Hagar’s welfare after she leaves.

There are no laws in the Torah about freeing a foreign slave like Hagar, or the foreign slave’s child. With the sole exception of the concubine captured in battle,3 the Torah considers foreign slaves as property to be sold or inherited. Yet Abraham obeys God by doing exactly what Sarah demands: instead of selling the mother and child, he frees them by banishing them from his household.

Abraham Sends Away Hagar, by Gustave Dore, circa 1850

And Abraham got up early in the morning and took bread and a goat-skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He put them on her shoulder and with the boy, and he sent her away. And she went astray in the wilderness of Beersheba. (Genesis 212:14)

Sarah says nothing one way or the other about parting gifts for Hagar and Ishmael. It is Abraham’s decision to send them off with only a goat-skin of water and as much bread as they can carry on foot. He is a rich man; he could afford to give them several donkeys laden with food, water, clothing, and silver or trade goods. But he does not.

Abraham might assume Hagar would refill the goat-skin at every spring or cistern on the road south. It does not occur to him that as a woman protected only by a single adolescent boy, she might worry about being raped, and avoid the roadside places where trade caravans stop.

Since she takes a different route, Hagar gets lost in the wilderness.  She and her son drink the last of the water. Ishmael lies down under a bush, and Hagar sits a bow-shot away because she does not want to watch him die. They both cry in isolation.

And she went and she sat herself away from him, the distance of a bow-shot, because she said [to herself]: Don’t let me see the death of my boy! So she sat away from him, and she raised her voice and cried.  (Genesis 21:16)

Hagar can be excused for not following the trade road. She can be excused for not noticing the well when she is suffering from dehydration. But her decision to leave Ishmael to die alone is harder to excuse.

Like Abraham, she has not learned Cain’s lesson and acts as if she is not her own son’s keeper. She might find it painful to watch Ishmael die, but what about him? Ishmael would be comforted if his mother held his hand or said a few loving words as he faded away.

Hagar in the Desert, by Gheorghe Tattarescu, 1870

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the goat-skin with water and she gave a drink to the young man. And God was with the young man, and he grew big and he settled in the wilderness and he became an archer with a bow. (Genesis 21:19-20)


Why do Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar all make choices that betray a lack of empathy?


Sarah’s choice to use Hagar as a surrogate mother, then discard her and her son once she has her own child, is callous but understandable. Her original idea was that Hagar would remain her devoted slave after giving birth. But Hagar becomes self-important once she is pregnant, and Sarah blames Abraham for encouraging her. (See my post Lekh-Lekha: Belittlement.) Sarah does not adopt the baby after all.3

She feels estranged from both Hagar and Ishmael for fourteen years. It takes only a small incident at Isaac’s weaning feast to remind her that unless she gets rid of Ishmael, he will threaten her own son’s inheritance. She lacks empathy for Hagar and Ishmael, but in her society they are only slaves. At least she only tells her husband to banish them, not to sell them or punish them. And she places no limits on what supplies he can send with them.


Abraham’s lack of empathy is more puzzling. Even if he is not interested in Hagar, the Torah states “And the matter was very bad in the eyes of Abraham on account of his son.” He is attached to his son Ishmael. Rationally, he might assume that since God promised Ishmael would have descendants, his son would survive being sent out into the desert with inadequate supplies. But if he felt empathy for Ishmael, his natural reaction would be to give him ample food, water, and gifts upon saying goodbye.

In the years before this episode, Abraham was much more generous with his nephew Lot. He gave Lot first choice of pasture land, fought the armies of four kings to rescue his nephew when he was captured, and argued with God about God’s plan to wipe out Sodom, where Lot lived.4

The difference might be that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, never expressed any objection to Lot. Abraham is not really hen-pecked; in this week’s Torah portion he banishes Ishmael only after God has told him to do what Sarah says. When Sarah asked him to impregnate Hagar in last week’s portion, Abraham cooperated, but he expressed no reluctance.

In two earlier episodes Abraham passed off Sarah as his sister in order to scam two kings out of bride-prices for her.5 Sarah cooperated, but her feelings about it must have been complicated, and caused complications in their marriage.  Perhaps Abraham’s troubled relationship with Sarah causes an inner denial of his feelings about Ishmael.


And Hagar? She probably feels empathy for her son Ishmael when she believes he is dying, yet she leaves him alone and waits for his death at a distance.

Hagar expresses her empathy by sobbing.  Either she too self-centered to realize that she could comfort Ishmael at the end of his life, or she is not accustomed to overcoming her personal anguish to do the right thing. As a slave, she merely obeyed orders—except for the one occasion when she ran away from Sarah’s abuse, and God told her to go back.6

Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar all treat someone close to them callously. Sarah’s lack of empathy for her own son’s rival is an understandable fault. Hagar feels empathy for her son, but she is psychologically unequipped to do the right thing. Abraham is harder to excuse, since he goes out of his way to act on his empathy for his nephew Lot. His suppression of empathy for his son Ishmael leads to an ethical failure.

  1. One suggestion is that Ishmael got drunk at the drinking-feast. Pamela Tarkin Reis, Reading the Lines: A fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 2002, pp. 75-76.
  2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 103.
  3. Jacob adopts Joseph’s first two sons for inheritance purposes in Genesis 48:5-12 through a declaration followed by holding them on his knees. Earlier in Jacob’s life, his wife Rachel tells him: Here is my slave, Bilhah. Come into her and she will give birth on my knees and I will be built up, even I, through her.” (Genesis 30:3) But the Torah never reports that Sarah holds Ishmael on her knees.
  4. Genesis 13:5-12, 14:11-16, and 18:20-32.
  5. See my posts Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.
  6. Genesis 16:6-9.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s