There are times in our lives when we have the opportunity to generously share what we have with others. These are the times when we become “givers.”

And there are other times when we may need to learn how to accept gifts offered to us by others. These are the times when we become “takers.”

But whether giving or taking, there’s a right way to do it. Here are three ways you might react to an opportunity to give:

1) You say “no” and deny yourself the opportunity to give.

2) You offer the gift, but with a heart so heavy that though you may be going through the motions of giving, you aren’t really giving of yourself.

3) You give so wholeheartedly that you are not merely giving the gift, but also a part of yourself. In fact, in the process, you actuallyFrom a deeply moving episode in Sarah’s life, we learn how to be selfless givers give up your old self and transform yourself into something bigger and better.

From a deeply moving episode in Sarah’s life, we learn how to be selfless givers.

Sarah had been married for several years and was growing older, yet she had not been blessed with a child. Here’s how the text reads:

Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had not borne to him, and she had an Egyptian handmaid named Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the L‑rd has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid; perhaps I will be built up from her." And Abram hearkened to Sarai's voice. So Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, at the end of ten years of Abram's dwelling in the land of Canaan, and she gave her to Abram her husband for a wife.

And he came to Hagar, and she conceived, and she saw that she was pregnant, and her mistress became unimportant in her eyes. And Sarai said to Abram, "May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom, and she saw that she had become pregnant, and I became unimportant in her eyes. May the L‑rd judge between me and you!" And Abram said to Sarai, "Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes." And Sarai humbled her, and she fled from before her. (Genesis 16:1-6)

(Subsequently, an angel found Hagar in the desert. The angel told her to return to her mistress and that she would give birth to Yishmael, a wild man.)

This enigmatic episode with Hagar requires some explanation. As the years passed her by, Sarah desperately yearned for a child that she could call her own. But her primal, deep-seated desire went unanswered; she was unable to give birth to a child.

According to the Midrash (Rabba 45:1), “Rav Yehudah said: The Torah emphasizes that ‘she had borne him no child’—she bore no children to Abraham but would have borne had she been married to another.”

Other commentaries take a differing view that Sarah herself could not have children. In either case, though, it is clear that Sarah’s shared destiny with Abraham prevented her from having a child.

The Malbim (16:1) explains:

It was G‑d’s plan that Ishmael be born before Isaac and that he be born to Hagar rather than to Sarah. Like silver from which all impurities are removed before it is put to its ultimate use, all but the holiest of spiritual forces had to be removed from Abraham before he could beget Isaac. And though Sarah could have given birth with another husband, she was restrained from conceiving with Abraham until he had reached a state of complete spirituality. Therefore Abraham married the Egyptian, Hagar. Into Ishmael went any spiritual impurities that were in Abraham’s makeup. Thus purified at an advanced age, when any subtle negativity was clarified and birth could only be a heavenly gift, Abraham and Sarah produced Isaac.

Sarah needed to wait to give birth to Yitzchak, Isaac, until her husband experienced complete spiritual transformation. And so, restraining her emotions, restraining theSarah needed to wait until her husband experienced complete spiritual transformation natural repulsion that a woman would feel, Sarah selflessly told Abraham to marry her maid.

Sarah was aware that she and Abraham were on a sacred, essential mission to spread the ideals of monotheism and morality to all mankind. This was a mission that was so innate and central to Sarah’s life that she was willing to put aside her own feelings and sacrifice the intimacy of her married life to allow her husband to take her handmaid.

Sarah realized that they would need someone who would continue their life’s work after them. Only a child who was raised with their values, infused with their ideals, whom they could call their own, could successfully accomplish this.

Originally Hagar was an Egyptian princess. Her father, the Egyptian king, gifted her to Sarah as her personal handmaid. Hagar perceived Sarah’s greatness and the loftiness of her way of life, and she preferred to become a maid in the home of Abraham and Sarah rather than live a life of royalty in the decadent Egyptian society.

When Hagar became pregnant, however, she had a change of heart and became arrogant, openly disrespecting Sarah. Rashi (Ibid. 16:4) explains Hagar’s change of demeanor once she became pregnant:

Her mistress was lowered in her esteem—Hagar would boast to the ladies who came to visit, “Sarah is not the same inwardly as she appears to be outwardly. She cannot be as righteous as she seems, for so many years passed without her having children, whereas I conceived after one union.”

At that point, Sarah needed to act. Not to protect her ego, but to ensure that the ideals that she sacrificed everything for would materialize. If Hagar would no longer defer to Sarah, there would be no chance of raising her child as Sarah’s own, as Sarah had envisioned. Hagar’s child would not carry on Abraham and Sarah’s traditions.

R’ Hirsch explains:

Then Sarah “humbled her”—the cognate verb “v’ta’aneha” means “to answer” or “to be dependent.” It was basic to Sarah’s plan that Hagar remained dependent on her so that the child could be raised by Sarah and treated as if he were hers. Therefore, she constantly brought this dependent condition home to Hagar’s mind.

Sarah never changed her behavior. It was Hagar who changed her attitude. Previously, Hagar felt that whatever was asked of her was not difficult or degrading, sinceHagar’s child would not carry on Abraham and Sarah’s traditions it was being done in the service of the righteous Sarah. However, when her outlook changed and she no longer admired Sarah, then every request from Sarah became a burden.

This explains Sarah’s reaction to Hagar, her ensuing discussion with Abraham, and why he told her to do whatever she felt was necessary. Sarah needed to remind Hagar of her dependent state in order for her plan to work. This also gives us a better understanding of Sarah’s selfless act of giving for her husband and their ideals.

Let’s take a look at the situation from Abraham’s perspective.

We can imagine that as the years passed, Abraham, too, longed for a child. Beyond his natural, primal desire to be a father, he yearned to have a child to continue his life’s work.

As the years swiftly progressed, it became painstakingly clear that Abraham would not have a child with Sarah. And yet, despite his obvious disappointment, at a time when it was common to have more than one wife or concubine, Abraham waited until Sarah herself suggested that he have a child with Hagar. Only at that point did he “listen to the voice of Sarah.”

Rashi (Ibid. 16:2) explains, “Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah—to the voice of prophecy within her.” No doubt, Abraham wanted a child of his own. But he realized what an act of self-sacrifice this was on Sarah’s part and waited for her to initiate it.

But there’s more to learn from Abraham’s behavior.

When an individual is being offered something extremely precious, he can accept it because he wants or needs it. Alternatively, he can take the gift not for his own sake, but for the sake of the giver. He realizes how huge the sacrifice is, but knows how important it is for her to be doing this.

At this level, the taker is not only a taker but also a giver. He demonstrates howDespite Abraham’s own deep longing for children, he acted only with Sarah’s permission precious the individual is to him by not taking the gift for his own sake, but only for the sake of the giver.

This was the deeply loving and giving relationship between Abraham and Sarah. Even after Sarah suggested that Abraham marry Hagar, Abraham waited until Sarah actually “took Hagar and gave her to him.”

What does this mean? In the words of Ramban (Ibid 16:2):

The Torah does not simply say, “and he did so,” rather it emphasizes that “he heeded the voice of Sarah.” This indicates that despite Abraham’s own deep longing for children, he acted only with Sarah’s permission. Even now, his intention was not that he be built up from Hagar or that his offspring be from her. He acted only to carry out Sarah’s wishes that she be built up through Hagar, that she find satisfaction in her handmaid’s children, or that she should merit her own children because of her unselfish act. Similarly the verse states that “Sarah took Hagar” to give her to Abraham. Abraham did not rush to do this until Sarah actually took Hagar and gave her to him.

From this trying episode in the life of Abraham and Sarah, we learn that the basis of a great relationship is selflessness and sensitivity.

Sarah teaches us that the act of giving can be so profound and done so wholeheartedly that in the process we give a part of ourselves.

Abraham teaches us that the act of taking can be done so altruistically that the taker‘s only intention is to grant the giver the opportunity to give.

So who really is the taker and the giver? Perhaps the ideal is that both the taker and the giver become true givers.

Let’s Review:

  • After many years of childlessness, Sarah told Abraham to have a child with her handmaid, Hagar.
  • Physically, Sarah may have been able to have a child, but Abraham needed to undergo a spiritual purification process before Isaac was born, which involved first fathering Ishmael.
  • Sarah selflessly gave Hagar to Abraham in marriage, planning to raise Hagar’s child with their values and ideals. She envisioned that the child would continue their teachings.
  • Hagar became disrespectful to Sarah after becoming pregnant. Sarah needed to humble her and remind her of her dependent state in order for the plan—that she sacrificed so much for—to work.
  • Though Abraham desperately yearned for a child, he only married Hagar once Sarah suggested it and after she actually “gave” Hagar to him. His intention was only to fulfill Sarah’s wish.
  • The foundation of Abraham and Sarah’s marriage was sensitivity and selflessness. Sarah selflessly gave so much for the sake of their ideals; Abraham selflessly took from Sarah—not for his own sake, but to fulfill her wish.

How about you—have you experienced such a level of altruistic giving and selfless taking?