Jewish Law in Our Times

by Simon M. Jackson, Adv., Legal Advisor to Torah MiTzion

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1 - Hagar – The First Foreign Worker in Israel?

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read how “when Hagar saw that she had conceived (to Avraham), her mistress was despised in her eyes… whereupon Sarai dealt harshly with her and she fled from before her” (Bereshit 16:4-6).

Hagar, who was still a slave, clearly behaved in a disrespectful and ungrateful manner towards her mistress, Sarai. Indeed, it is likely that few women would have borne the insolence of Hagar. This is especially true against the background that Sarai was the one who selflessly offered Hagar to her husband in the first place to be his wife and not merely his concubine, as was the norm in the surrounding society in those days (see Ramban 16:2). Who would condemn Sarai for her behavior?

“And Sarai dealt harshly with her”

The Hebrew verb employed by the Torah to describe Sarai’s actions towards Hagar is “vate’aneha” (v. 6). Inui in the Torah and the Hebrew language in general denotes harsh treatment, anguish and distress. It may be physical in nature- as in “God afflicted you and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna…” (Devarim 8:2); involve dishonor - as in “And he (Shechem) lay with her (Dinah) and afflicted her”; or emotional - for example, “And she (Delilah) lulled him (Shimshon) to sleep on her knees and had the seven locks of his head shaved off, thus beginning to afflict him” (Shoftim 16:19).

In a similar vein, Hashem prophesies to Avram that his descendants will be “strangers in a land that is not theirs and shall serve them (the Egyptians); and they shall afflict them four hundred years” (Bereshit 15:13). Aside from the physical hardship involved, Chazal (Sotah 11b) emphasize the mental anguish caused to the Israelites: “all their labors that they performed with rigor (Shemot 1:14) - This teaches that the Egyptians would substitute men’s work to be given to the women (e.g. to chop wood and draw water), and women’s work to e given to the men (e.g. to knead dough and bake bread)” - labor to which they were unaccustomed.

A literal reading of the pasuk would seem to imply that Hagar left of her own free will: “I flee from the face of my mistress, Sarai” (v. 8). However, the angel who appears to Hagar in the wilderness tells Hagar how she will bear a son and she shall call his name “Yishmael” (lit. “God will hear”) “because Hashem has heard your affliction” (16:11). “The use of this word clearly indicates the Divine disapproval of Sarai’s treatment of Hagar. In ancient Israel, the servant is quite other than the ‘helot’ in Greece or the ‘slave’ in Rome. Underlying the Hagar narrative is the assumption that fair and friendly treatment should be shown even to an alient bondwoman - cf. the position of Eliezer in Avraham’s household” (Herz Chumash Commentary to this verse).

Indeed, the majority of commentators, starting with Rav Saadia Gaon in the 9th century, regarded Hagar’s flight as the inevitable consequence of Sarai’s maltreatment of her, rather than a free-willed and voluntary act on Hagar’s part. The Ramban writing in the 13th century notes the far-reaching ramifications of Sarai’s act:

“Sarah our mother sinned in dealing harshly with her handmaid, and Avraham too by allowing her to do so. God heard her affliction and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person who would bring suffering (inui = affliction) on Avraham and Sarah.”

In other words, the Ramban considers that Yishmael’s persecution of the Jews throughout the generations is the punishment to fit the crime of the sin of his original expulsion!

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, leader of German Orthodoxy in the 19th century, sees in the act of Hagar an expression of the significant role attributed by the Torah to human rights. He sees Hagar’s flight as an expression of human dignity and freedom, which no amount of affliction can diminish:

Le’anei implies an attempt to make someone feel their dependence. Sarah’s whole intention depended on Hagar - even as Avraham’s wife and mother of his child - remaining her slave, so that the child could be treated as Sarah’s child and Hagar’s influence on it completely countered and excluded… But she forgot that what she wished was an impossible thing. A woman who had become a wife to Avraham and a mother to his child could not, on the other hand, be a slave. Avraham’s proximity and Avraham’s spirit would break the feelings of slavery, would awaken the feeling of the equality of all human beings, would arouse the urge of freedom and break all chains” (16:6).

Expulsion - “for a Proper Purpose”

The story that begins with Hagar’s flight from Avraham’s household ends some 17 years later with her forced expulsion, together with her child, Yishmael: “And Sarah said to Avraham: Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Yitzchak” (21:10).

While it is true that this course is “very grievous” (v. 11) in Avraham’s eyes, at the end of the day Avraham is the one to carry out the expulsion, sending away Hagar to the wilderness, with some bread and a bottle of water (only), which were quickly spent (v.15). Yet who better than Avraham to appreciate the difficulty of leaving one’s natural home? This is underscored by the fact that Hashem makes very clear to Avraham the difficulty of his mission: “You are required to leave (a) your country; (b) your birthplace; (c) your father’s house; (d) to the land that I will show you” (12:1). One’s home, after all, consists not just of a physical building, but of family, close friendships, childhood memories, deep sentiments, cultural background and roots.

The extent of the violation of an expelled person’s rights and by consequence the justification for the expulsion can clearly vary from case to case. A person who is expelled from his own home but allowed to remain within the borders of the State is not the same as a person who is extradited from the State itself. However, expulsion is, equally clearly, a highly traumatic event, entailing as it does a violation of a person’s dignity and freedom, as well as his property and freedom of movement, and a person’s right to decide for himself where he wants to live. Such violations can only be justified if they are performed “for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required” (s. 8, Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, 5752-1992).

At the end of the day, most of the commentators are inclined to justify Avraham’s expulsion of Yishmael, not least because Hashem expressly commands him to overcome his natural sense of grief and to listen to Sarah his wife, for the “proper purpose” that “Yitzchak will be your heir” (v. 12).

Perhaps the choice of the story of Hagar as the Keriat HaTorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is meant to impress upon us that Hashem judges us by the way we treat others, especially those who are less fortunate and privileged than ourselves in society. If we are unforgiving of the faults of others, how can we expect Hashem to act beyond the letter of the law when judging us? If we treat others badly, why should Hashem treat us any better?

May foreign workers, illegally residing in Israel, be forcibly returned to their country of origin? May terrorists be deported from Israel, together with their families and all their partners in crime, whether as a punishment or as a deterrent? Such questions lend of no easy answers. But clearly, in a “Jewish and democratic State,” Jewish legal sources need to be examined in the process of reaching the fair and proper conclusion on the subject. We will continue to examine these sources in our next column.


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Jewish Law in our Times > Workers' Rights

Entered By:

moshe, 10/15/2006 8:53:40 PM