Lech Lecha – Mistreatment of Foreign Workers

ויאמר אברם אל שרי: הנה שפחתך בידך, עשי לה הטוב בעינייך. ותענה שרי, ותברח מפניה

(בראשית טז, ו)

The Attorney General decided yesterday to close the investigation of Nili Priel, wife of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, for lack of evidence concerning her employment of an illegal Filipina foreign worker. The authorities were apparently unable to track down the woman, who was employed as a cleaner by the Baraks. And Barak himself? He was not involved in the hiring of the maid, so it was decided not to summon him for investigation. (Once again, some would comment, Barak disappeared).

In this week’s parasha, Sarah (still called Sarai) and Avraham (still called Avram) are unsuccessful in bearing children. Sarah comes up with a brilliant idea: give her Egyptian maid, Hagar, to Avraham so that she can bear a child for her. What belongs to the maid, according to Halacha, belongs to her mistress. Avraham agrees, Hagar is now pregnant, and everyone is happy. But things begin to go wrong. Succeeding where her mistress has failed, the lowly Egyptian maid starts to disrespect Sarah, who goes to Avraham to complain. What does Avraham reply?

And Avram said said to Sarai: your maid is in your hand, do to her that which is good in your eyes. And Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face.

(Bereshit 16, 6)

Avraham disappears. He refuses to get himself involved in the mix and let’s Sarah deal harshly with Hagar. The result: the pregnant “foreign worker” runs away to the desert to fend for herself. The angel of God saves her by finding water for her and giving her promises of generations to come if she goes back and bears the son for Avraham. How are we do understand this behaviour on Avraham’s part? Why does he remain silent and passive in face of this evident maltreatment of the woman he made pregnant, sending her and his unborn son to certain death in the wilderness?

R. David Kimhi (Radak), a 13th century rabbi and commentator, says Sarah sinned a double sin: a moral sin, and behaviour that does not agree with basic rules of mercy. He is somewhat more lenient on Avraham, utilising the age-old excuse of “שלום בית”, literally “household peace”. But he stresses that this entire story comes to teach us what is wrong behaviour we should learn to avoid.

Ramban, a contemporary of Radak, is less lenient: Sarah sinned by dealing harshly with Hagar, and Avraham sinned by not intervening. One does not torture and deport workers that were hired in the first place to help you out. The fact that Hagar was pregnant, and from Avraham himself (!), adds to the gravity of the sin. Looking the other way and saying “it is none of my concern”, is unacceptable behaviour. And such behaviour does not go unpunished. Ramban writes that as a result of these sins, God listened to Hagar’s prayer and gave her a son whose descendants would torment the descendants of Avraham and Sarah for generations to come. Can anyone living in our day and age argue about the accurateness of this prophecy?

Barak, like Avraham, prefers to look the other way. He was not involved in his wife’s decision to hire (and, presumably, fire) the illegal maid, so it’s not his problem. Avraham’s legacy teaches us that this is wrong behaviour that will not go unpunished. But perhaps Barak can still redeem himself. In the ongoing debate about the decision to deport families of illegal foreign workers he has expressed the view that this decision is wrong for moral, Jewish and humane reasons. Perhaps by opposing this policy Barak can prove he has learnt from Avraham’s mistake.

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2 thoughts on “Lech Lecha – Mistreatment of Foreign Workers

  1. A week ago I took the family and students of Tal’s to the scenery road of Nahal HaBsor where presumably this biblical story took place.
    As the tour guide I told this story, but my interpretation is different:
    The moral problem is not Abraham’s, it is all about God and his laws. God allows the possession of slaves, and lowest form of slavery is a foreign one. A foreign slave was seen as property. (Hebrew slaves were a completely different story). In that respect, Abraham saw no difference between Hagar and a Vacuum cleaner: “The maid is broken again? Well Sarah, do whatever you think best”.
    It appears the Jewish morality is not universal after all and there is a small amendment to Hillel’s golden rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow…unless he is a gentile and then do what you like”
    As for Barak – I don’t like him, but the connection here is faint.

  2. Pingback: Torah Thoughts « Nafka Mina

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