In this Torah portion, there are three major topics - the visit of the angels bringing the promise of a child for Sarah, Abraham pleading with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah and God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Amongst these key subjects, there is the story of Hagar - begun in last week’s sedra (16:1-16) and ending in this week’s sedra with God’s promise to Hagar that her son Ishmael will be the start of a great nation (21:18). A while ago I went to a shiur given by Sandy Littman from the London School of Jewish Studies. She entitled her shiur ‘The Other Woman’. The other woman who Judaism sees as Abraham’s concubine and who Islam sees as Abraham’s wife tracing the Muslim lineage back to Hagar and Ishmael.
Sandy focuses on the biblical injunction re how we treat ‘the stranger in our midst’ and cites two medieval commentators: the Ramban - Nahmanides (1194-1270) and the Radak - David Kimhi (1160–1235), to show that Abraham and Sarah behaved badly in this regard: ‘But Abram said to Sarai: ‘Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes’. And Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face’ (16:6). The Ramban says that because Sarah afflicted Hagar and because Abraham let her do so, God heard Hagar’s affliction and gave her a son who would be a wild-ass of a man and would afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kinds of difficulties.
The Radak says that it would have been better for Sarah to have extended her hand to Hagar rather than afflict her which is not a trait of compassion and good nature. The Radak considers that the story of Sarah and Hagar is told in the Torah so that we can learn from it good qualities and distance ourselves from bad ones.
I don’t think that Sarah and Abraham necessarily did the wrong thing. Maybe there are times when separation is a better option than confrontation. But what is sad is the result of the separation. Just like in families today with cousins not talking because their parents are not talking. The split-up between Hagar and Sarah leads to the estrangement of their descendants. Perhaps the world would be a better place if Isaac and Ishmael had had the opportunity to get to know each other.