It is not coincidental that while Sarah is the direct object of several verbs toward the beginning of the story — Abraham takes her from the land of Haran and pleads with her to claim she is his sister when they arrive in Egypt; Pharaoh takes her into his house and afterward sends her away — she never appears in these opening chapters as the subject of an active verb even once. She is only the subject of verbs of being: she is barren, she is of pleasant appearance. It is clear that she has no role in the drama, no raison d’etre.
In Genesis 13-15, Abraham is described as “traveling” and “building.” He calls out, he speaks, he fights, he enters covenants with man and God. And through all of this, Sarah’s name doesn’t appear, not even once. This is the profound and wrenching trial of Sarah — looking in the mirror each morning for a decade and seeing the reflection of a ghost.
In fact, nothing short of this desperation, born of existential alarm, could have led her to push Hagar upon an unwilling Abraham. In his commentary on the Torah, the 15th-century Spanish scholar Don Yitzchak Abravanel describes Sarah’s mindset at the time. She had concluded that God had rejected her as the mother of the nation that her husband would produce. She had become fully resigned to the fact that she would be eclipsed, pushed aside, reduced to the status of a shadow wife. But she held out hope that she might yet avoid utter humiliation and debasement, and so she pushed her handmaiden Hagar upon Abraham. “Perhaps I will be built up through her,” Sarah thought to herself. It was a desperate lunge for a lifeboat. These are the trials of Sarah.
It is only when we fully absorb the exact nature of Sarah’s plight that we can fully appreciate the Torah’s description of what happens next. Unable to refuse Sarah’s insistent and desperate requests, Abraham takes Hagar, not as his wife’s maidservant — for Sarah herself recognized that this would be unseemly for Abraham — but rather, as Sarah insisted, as a “wife.”
When Hagar becomes pregnant, almost instantly it seems, Sarah becomes “light in Hagar’s eyes” (Genesis 16:4). Sarah’s most terrible fear is realized. She is seen as light, inconsequential, possessing no weight, no gravitas. And Abraham could not fix the situation, as much as he presumably wanted to, for Hagar too was now a full-fledged “wife,” not someone he could require to behave as a servant.
A victim of her own design, and shorn of even the last tatters of her sense of personhood, Sarah teeters on the edge of the abyss. She begins to torment Hagar, driven by the terrifying specter of falling into oblivion. These are the trials of Sarah.
Even when things get better for Sarah — and they, of course, dramatically do when she becomes pregnant with Isaac — the imprint of those decades never fades. The fear of lightness, of inconsequence, of being consigned to oblivion, never leave her.
Sarah’s story becomes a cautionary tale for us — a tale about the vital need every human being has to feel a sense of weight and gravitas, which is of course the literal meaning of kavod. It becomes a story that reminds each of us that there is absolutely no more important kindness that we can do for another human being than to bestow this kind of kavod. The opportunities to do so present themselves many times daily. We just need to see them and take them and, by doing so, save both the Sarahs and the Hagars of our world.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, “Kavod and the Importance of Feeling Important”, The Jewish Journal (31 October – 6 November 2014), 41.