Sunday, October 28, 2012

The green-eyed monster / Parshat Vayera

When my son, Jonah, was a toddler, he became interested in chess because his older brother, Danny, played chess. Jonah was too young to understand the complicated moves assigned to each piece, let alone strategy, so Danny would set up the board and Jonah would move any piece he wanted wherever he wanted, and remove Danny’s pieces from the board at will; Danny could remove Jonah’s pieces only if Jonah agreed. Jonah loved this game, and Danny delighted in watching Jonah’s pleasure. Danny called the game, “Jonah Chess.” It seemed absurd and pointless to me until I watched them play and heard their laughter. Then I came to appreciate the time and attention Danny lavished on his younger brother, and the patience and love he exhibited. “Jonah Chess” is a family classic. We don’t play it any more, but we do talk about it now and then.

Sarah wants to banish Hagar and her son, Ishmael, from the family encampment, and prevent Ishmael from inheriting from his father Abraham. Sarah, who brought Hagar into Abraham’s tent for the express purpose of producing a son for Abraham, now regrets that decision. She demands:

“Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance of my son Isaac.”

Sarah claims to be protecting Isaac’s inheritance. Really? As the only son by Abraham’s wife -- for Hagar is his concubine -- there is no question that Isaac will inherit from his father.

In an effort to justify Sarah, generations of commentators have pointed to this verse:

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing (m’tzacheik). (Genesis 21:9)

Commentators have attributed nefarious actions to Ishmael, ranging from taunting to abuse. Yet the word m’tzecheik means “play” or “laugh.” Strikingly, it is the very same root -- tzadi/chet/kuf -- as Isaac’s name, Yitzhak. Perhaps the text is simply saying that the two brothers were playing. Or more, that they were “Isaac-ing” around. Playing “Isaac Chess.” Perhaps Ishmael’s “crime” was that he was an excellent big brother to Isaac, and Sarah was overcome with jealousy that she now shared Isaac’s time, attention, love and devotion with a big brother.

Certainly the Torah provides ample evidence that Sarah’s motivations had more to do with jealousy than Isaac’s inheritance or Abraham’s welfare. We read last week in parshat Lech Lecha that Sarai (before her name was changed to Sarah) gave her maidservant Hagar to Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham) in the hopes that Hagar would produce a son that Sarai would adopt as her own. The pain of infertility is intense and Sarai is desperate. But no sooner is Hagar pregnant, than Sarai is overcome with anger and resentment.

[Avram] cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!” (Genesis 16:4-6)

Sarai’s jealousy is palpable.

Now years later, Sarah has a son of her own. Isaac is playing with Ishmael, who is “Isaac-ing around” with him, playing games that delight the young Isaac, much as Danny played with Jonah and so many older brothers play with their younger brothers. Jonah was thrilled with Danny’s attention. Imagine how much Isaac must enjoy the attention and playful affection of his older brother.

Hagar received Abraham’s attention and now Ishmael receives Isaac’s attention. Sarah feels like a fifth wheel. Sensing that she has lost the love and attention of both her husband and son to this maidservant and her son, Sarah contrives to rid herself of both interlopers.

How much of what we do, how many of the decisions we make, and how often are our opinions of others, driven more by jealousy than anything else. We repress that we are motivated by jealousy. It feels unseemly. We don’t want to know. We prefer to believe loftier things, such as a heritage or the well-being of others, motivate us. We spin narratives, like Sarah, to explain our motives and behaviors. Then we, like Sarah, come to believe our own stories. When we do this, we are prisoners of our jealousy, letting it control our decisions and actions, not just our feelings. By honestly and courageously facing that jealousy, and accepting that it is a universal human experience -- not a character defect -- we can rise above our shame or self-delusion. We can wrest control, and commit to more worthy motivations.

And who knows, when we defang the green-eyed monster, refusing to give it power over our lives, the jealousy might just dissipate.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

(Special thanks to Leslie Glassberg whose wonderful company and conversation gave rise to this d’var Torah.)

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading your post, i am a muslim and i am sick and tired of the christians trying to demonize Hagar ( peace be upon her) and Ishmael( peace be upon him), i hold strong reverence for Sarah( peace be upon her) and Isaac (peace be upon him) but these completely biased christian beliefs are so much heartbreaking , it was so refreshing and heart warming to read your post:-)