When three “men” show up at Avraham’s tent-step while he’s recuperating from circumcision (Bereishit 18:1), one of their tasks is to foretell the birth of Yitzchak, which will occur a year later. Considering the prominent role Sarah will play in that event, coupled with the fact that does not yet seem to know that she will be Avraham’s biological as well as ideological partner in building God’s nation, it is only natural that they would want her present to hear the momentous news.
Indeed, this is how some commentaries explain the question the “men” ask Avraham before making their announcement: “Where is Sarah, your wife?” (18:9). Once they have established that she is within earshot, “here, in the tent” (ibid.), they can proceed. (See Ohr Hachaim’s explicit statement of this perspective, as well as Bechor Shor and Seforno.)
What’s it to us?
Of course, one might argue that (1) this is such a minor, practical detail that it doesn’t seem worth including in the text of the Torah; and (2) if they are indeed angels, surely they were privy to the knowledge of Sarah’s whereabouts; why the need to ask?
Digging deeper, we might then suggest that the reason to ask – and more to the point, the reason to include their question and Avraham’s response in the Torah – is that there is something the Torah wishes to highlight to the reader, about the question and/or the response. Perhaps the “men” wanted to make a point to Avraham – and the Torah, in turn, brings it to the reader’s attention – or perhaps it is a detail that is significant solely for our benefit, that would have meant nothing special to Avraham.
What might be so significant about Sarah’s whereabouts? A lot! A survey of commentaries and midrashic traditions reveals a wide range of ideas (many more than can be discussed here).
Basic Etiquette (“The Way of the World”)
On one level, we might suggest that the above is not as practical as we thought; perhaps the Torah wishes to convey the importance of sharing information directly with affected parties – rather than, for instance, giving medical information to a woman’s husband without her.
Along similar lines, two midrashic suggestions offered in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a) seem to suggest that asking about Sarah was a matter of simple propriety – and intended to teach readers the importance of such propriety:
Rabbi Yosi b’Rabbi Chanina said: In order to send her the cup of blessing.
It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yose: Why are the letters “א – י – ו” in “אליו” dotted? The Torah taught derech eretz, that a person should inquire after his host.
The Torah contains dots over the word for “they said to him” when they asked Avraham where Sarah was; these dots call attention to the letters איו, which translates as “where is he?” Rashi explains (see his comments on the Gemara and on Bereishit 18:9, as well as Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 48:15) that this indicates they asked her about him as well as asking him about her. Thus, the message here is to teach the value of basic manners toward one’s host and hostess.
Sending her the “cup of blessing” – while the cup and its significance clearly need further explanation – also seems, on the most basic level, to be a matter of graciously including one’s hostess in proceedings.
A Personal Trait
A more well-known explanation offered by the Gemara and echoed by Rashi is that the question of Sarah’s whereabouts was intended to highlight her modesty in remaining apart from the company, and/or (perhaps thereby) to endear her to her husband. It is worth considering these interpretations alongside each other: the idea that they wanted to make sure she was present and the idea that they were highlighting, as a positive, the fact of her absence.
Women in Tents
Any analysis of the midrashic comment on Sarah’s modesty would be remiss to not include another midrashic tradition, which contrasts this characteristic of hers with a heroine much later in Tanach: Yael, who is known not for simply being “in the tent” but for what she did in her tent – “And she took a tent peg…and pierced the peg into [Sisera’s] temple…” (Shoftim 4:21).
Devorah praises Yael for killing this enemy general, saying she is to be “blessed more than women in tents” (ibid. 5:24).
Who are these women in tents, and why is Yael blessed above them? According to a view in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 48:15, Devorah is alluding to Sarah (and perhaps other foremothers described as being in tents), and her point is that while Sarah’s role within the tent – as a homemaker, raising a family committed to God and the mission of the Jewish people – was obviously a crucial one, it would have all been for nothing if Yael hadn’t stepped up to save the Jewish people from the threat posed by Sisera.