We read in Parashat Lekh-Lekha the story of Avraham’s marriage to Sara’s maidservant, Hagar. This marriage was initiated by Sara, who said to her husband, “Behold, the Lord has prevented me from giving birth; please come to my maidservant, so maybe I can be built through her” (16:2). Sure enough, Hagar conceived immediately upon marrying Avraham, and she then began treating Sara disrespectfully, taking advantage of her new status of importance in the home.
Rav Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sidlikov (grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov), in Degel Machaneh Efrayim, finds within this sequence of events an allusion to the common phenomenon of compromises made when an ideal vision seems unattainable. Like Sara, we often find that our dreams and aspirations go unfulfilled, and as time passes, we begin to despair. Just as Sara concluded that her desire to bear a child will never be realized, and she therefore decided upon the next best option – “mothering” a child via her maidservant – we, too, sometimes feel compelled to lower our ambitions and settle upon a less-than-ideal but realistic goal in place of our ideal vision. And, as in the case of Sara and Hagar, this plan is very often successful, and we succeed in fulfilling the modest goal which we set for ourselves in place of the ideal standard which we concluded was beyond our reach. (The Degel Machaneh Efrayim speaks specifically about the lofty goal of serving God “li-shmah,” with purely sincere motives, and Chazal’s famous teaching encouraging us to adhere to the lower standard of “she-lo li-shmah” when the ideal standard of “li-shmah” is impractical.)
However, the Degel Machaneh Efrayim warns that just as Hagar disrespected Sara after conceiving, similarly, we might be tempted to look with disdain at the ideal aspirations which we felt compelled to eschew. We might feel the need to mock and ridicule those who continue striving for those ideal standards, comfortable as we now feel with our more relaxed standards. The story of Hagar’s belittling Sara symbolically represents the scorn with which we might view lofty ambitions which we found unattainable. The Degel Machaneh Efrayim here teaches that even when we find it necessary to make compromises, we should never lose respect for the ideal standard, and we should never lose our desire to one day be worthy and capable of achieving it. Rather than look with disdain upon those who aspire to those standards – or upon ourselves for having initially harbored such aspirations – we should respect this level of ambition and determination, and always retain our desire to one day realize them.
We might add two other implications of this parallel between the story of Hagar and the ever-present tension between ambition and realism. First, it teaches us that when we find an ideal goal unattainable, we should explore the next best option or options before despairing altogether. Seeing that she was unable to conceive, and concluding that she would never bear a child, Sara did not simply give up. Instead, she found an alternative which, while falling far short from the realization of her dream, still allowed for partially fulfilling it. Very often, even when we cannot achieve our goals completely, there is a way to achieve them at a lower standard, which is far preferable to eschewing them altogether.
Secondly, it cannot be overlooked that Sara was ultimately incorrect in concluding that she could never bear a child: some fourteen years after having Hagar marry Avraham, Sara miraculously conceived and bore a child. Of course, Sara had no way of knowing that a miracle would be performed that would enable her to conceive as an elderly, post-menopausal woman. Nevertheless, this story perhaps reminds us to think long and hard before giving up on a dream. Before concluding that our aspirations lie beyond our grasp, and need to modified to accommodate our realities and our limitations, we should first ascertain that this is indeed the case, that the ideal standard is truly beyond our reach, and that we are not perceiving it as such merely for the sake of convenience. Sometimes, our ideal goals are practical, even if they appear impractical. Before making compromises to accommodate our realities, we must first double check to ensure that such comprises are necessary, and determine whether our highest ambitions are, in fact, within the limitations of reality.