A Love Triangle For The Ages


Candlelighting, Readings:

Candlelighting: 5:31 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 12:1-17:27

Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16

Havdalah: 6:31 p.m.

Can a man love two women?

In a pagan world, God has promised Abraham a child, to “make of you a great nation.” Sarah realizes that she and Abraham have grown too old to bear children, so Sarah offers Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, saying, “Perhaps through my handmaid I will be able to build” [Genesis 16:2].

Influenced by the zeitgeist of her day, Sarah considers Hagar as an object, inanimate, for utility, rather than a woman. Sarah does not take into account that Abraham and Hagar might develop feelings for one another, that Hagar could turn the straight line between Sarah and Abraham into a triangle, changing the dimensions of Abraham’s heart, especially if Hagar is carrying Abraham’s heirloom child.   

As Hagar’s belly rises, Abraham is torn between the two women. He watches Sarah, forlorn, become his mate in ideas exclusively, and Hagar, the seeming redeemer of God’s promise, sensual but burdened by an advancing pregnancy. He wants to comfort both. Can he?

This begs the question: Can two women love the same man? In Tanach, a woman’s need for a child is primal, but it competes with her need for her man’s love. It is unbearable for Sarah to have been ‘skipped’ and for Hagar to become pregnant. Living in a culture of sealed hierarchies, Sarah never imagined she would be jealous of her handmaid.

Moreover, while she is propagating a philosophy that speaks of women being more than an object but created in God’s image just as a man [Gen. 1:27], somehow this religion she is peddling is withholding her maternal impulse.

Sarah’s painful surprise, that not only is Hagar pregnant but Abraham also has feelings for her, makes it clear that the primary woman, almost always, cannot tolerate the secondary woman. 

Hagar, too, is caught by surprise. She never thought she could be invited by her mistress to have relations with the master. “After she conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes” [Gen. 16:4]. Hagar cannot shed her social boundaries quick enough, and her meteoric social rise within the household is matched only by Sarah’s pain. 

With one woman pitted against the other, Abraham must find peace. As with most love triangles, the woman of the house uses her ace card, “our relationship will end if you continue this,” and the man has to choose between his home versus his unanchored love.

In parshat Vayeira, Sarah at last becomes pregnant, giving birth to Isaac. Still wanting to be rid of Hagar, Sarah never quite tells Abraham that Hagar is their primary problem. Instead, she recruits Isaac as the reason for throwing out Ishmael, along with his mother: “Cast out [Hagar] and her son [Ishmael], for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son,” [Gen. 21:9-13].

So resistant is Abraham to Sarah’s scheme, Abraham finds it so “grievous” [21:11], that God has to intervene in man’s affairs [Gen. 21:12]. Sarah is aware that when she throws Hagar out of the house, Hagar has no social protection. In Sarah’s religious zeal to shape their religious future, and in her love-triangle torment, she forgets that God is the God of Hagar, too.

With this final act, expelling Hagar from their home, Sarah demonstrates that she continues to underestimate the power of the love that her husband has for the other woman. In this narrative, it seems that each love cannot be consummated unless the other woman is gone forever; monogamy, as social policy, should have been adopted right then and there.

What about the children of these two women?

Often, the second woman pines for the love that the primary woman receives. Her children respond to her shame and inferiority that triangulates their mother.

Ironically, the Midrash tells us, after Sarah dies, Sarah’s son brings Hagar (renamed Keturah) back home [Gen. 25:10]. Isaac seems to understand that his father cannot be whole without Hagar’s love [Midrash Rabba Bereshit 24:62]. In this way, Isaac guarantees that Abraham will find comfort in his final years. There is a momentary sense of this triangle’s story coming full circle.

Yet, despite profound love, time — the element humans cannot control — has a way of creating nuance within the players’ hearts. While Hagar must have satisfied Abraham, she never seems to fill Sarah’s void for Isaac (or for all the medieval commentators). It is not until Isaac brings Rebecca back to his mother’s tent that his conflicted home is whole again.

Having observed his parents’ isolation from one another and his mother’s extreme action, it is no surprise that Isaac is the one patriarch who does not attempt to resolve his marital difficulties by taking an additional wife or concubine as a resolution, choosing instead to live with only one woman, Rebecca, and the bonding that that brings. 

Temima Goldberg Shulman is founder and director of The Midrasha in Manhattan, helping Israelis re-engage with their Jewish identity.