Was our founding matriarch the world’s first divorce attorney? Maybe not, but the biblical record is intriguing.

The Talmud (Megilla 14a) identifies Sarah as the first of seven biblical prophetesses, proving this from a verse in this week’s Torah portion: “She perceived with the Holy Spirit, as it says (Gen. 21:12), ‘In all that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.'” But what command of Sarah is it that receives this divine imprimatur?

Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid, along with her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (v. 10)

So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave to Hagar, putting on her shoulder; and along with the boy, he sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. (v. 14)


No word on the cat.

The two terms used here are, respectively, garash (drive out) and shalach (send away). Though the subject of this passage is supposedly Hagar’s son (probably Ishmael, though he is not named; Midrashic sources deduce his age to be 17 or 27), these verbs refer directly to her, while the boy is thrown in with the preposition et. In biblical Hebrew, garash and shalach are the terms used for divorce (cf. Lev. 21:7, Deut. 24:1), and this is exactly what seems to be happening between Abraham and Hagar–at Sarah’s behest!

But don’t take my wordiness for it. In the Midrash (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 29), Judah b. Tema states: “Sarah said to Abraham, ‘Write a bill of divorce (get gerushin) for the handmaid, and send away this handmaid.” In the Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan), “He sent her away” is rendered “He dismissed her with a bill (gitta).”

This changes the tenor of the line, Sarah’s final words and last appearance (alive) in Scripture. What could have been vindictive and vicious is instead virtuous: Sarah, a woman who has been abducted twice by foreign rulers and hid her marriage for years to safeguard her family, wants Hagar to be free and clear. This fits in with the Midrashic view of Sarah (Gen. Rabba 39:14, 84:4) as a “maker of souls” who ministers to the women drawn in by Abraham’s preaching. She must have heard some pretty horrific stories over the years, and it makes sense that she did not want to make a sad situation worse.

Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987

Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987

As God confirms, it is time for Ishmael to leave his father’s house, and his mother needs to go with him (as we see a few verses later, when she finds him a wife from her homeland, Egypt). But Sarah orders Abraham to do it with a get, unambiguously. Hagar will not be an aguna, a woman chained to a man who refuses to release her from the bonds of marriage.

The sad fact is that in the Ancient Near East, there were many options for men who wanted to dispose of inconvenient wives. In Esther 2:14, we see that Ahasuerus maintains a harem for his “used” girls, should he ever want to invite them back. That’s quite a few centuries after Abraham, but his own brother had both a wife and a concubine, as we see in the next chapter of Genesis. Concubines, of course, could be taken and dismissed practically at will, without documents of marriage or divorce. A darker possibility would be to sell Hagar back into slavery, an option so real that the Torah expressly forbids doing so with a Hebrew handmaiden (Ex. 21:8) or a war bride (Deut. 21:14). So, while divorcing Hagar may seem cruel, it does appear to be the least bad option.

One cannot help but think of this in light of the recent case of get extortion in New York. I have no sympathy for a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get; it is spousal abuse, plain and simple. However, that does not justify kidnapping, racketeering and torture. The idea that a good aim and rabbinical approval somehow justifies outrageous felonies makes me wonder: what does this mean for all those good men embezzling funds for their yeshivot? Are they too entitled to hazard pay, in the tens of thousands, for their aggressively illegal “righteousness”?

However, I understand the psychological need to justify the criminality: it keeps one’s mind off the real plight of agunot, which is not only a social problem, but a theological one. If our Torah truly cares for the oppressed, how can it be rendered powerless in the face of this exquisite cruelty?

Are there halakhic solutions out there? I believe that there are, but more importantly, I believe that there must be. Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber outlines many of them in his excellent piece, “No Agunah Left Behind.” We can quibble over which halakhic mechanisms to employ, but not the pressing need for action–not violence, not crime, but true advocacy, initiative and bravery.

Finally, let us consider this. According to the Midrash (Tanhuma, Hayei Sara 4), the final verses of Proverbs are Abraham’s eulogy of Sarah. In that context, we find (31:26), “She has opened her mouth in wisdom and the law of compassion (torat hesed) is upon her tongue.” Torat hesed–what a revolutionary concept!

Isn’t it time we started listening to Mother Sarah’s voice?