The hero of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella, Michael Kohlhaas, had one shortcoming — in his all-consuming quest for justice, what began as a true quest for justice on his behalf ends with him becoming a terrorist, thief and mass murderer.
In the second part of this week’s parashah, we find Abraham deeply discontented. He is old of age and without child and had come to realise that he will leave this world without a biological successor — “seeing I go hence childless” (15:2). Sarah blames herself: “God had restrained me from bearing” (16:2) and is therefore prepared to make an extreme sacrifice, offering to Abraham “consort, now, with my handmaid”.
Abraham listens to her and soon Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, is bearing a child. This changes all relationships. Hagar, as the heir-bearer, gains status within the household.
All Sarah has left is Abraham’s original love for her. Now Hagar and Abraham are together preparing for the birth of their child, while Sarah is watching from outside, feeling ousted in her own home.
Sarah’s reaction is harsh. She exploits her power as Hagar’s mistress, tormenting her, making it unbearable for her, until the unfortunate handmaid in desperation runs away. The Ramban, Nachmanides (1194-1270), does not mince his words: “Indeed, our matriarch Sarah had sinned in this oppression”.
Ecclesiastics advises one to “not be excessively righteous”. Our sages (Kohelet Rabbah 7,16) give reason for this, explaining that an over-righteous act may, sometimes, lead to acts of cruelty. As in the case of Michael Kohlhaas, so with Sarah, the very selfless act of goodness later brings about terrible cruelty.
A true achievement of a virtuous life is not through sudden heroic action, but rather living with the ongoing consequences of those acts. For Sarah, allowing Abraham to consort with Hagar, difficult as it had been, was easy in comparison to the challenge of feeling superfluous in her own home where she had recently been mistress. Sarah’s understanding that she might not be able to bear the consequence of her act should have prevented her from offering Hagar to Abraham.
With everything, even righteousness, moderation is required.