Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah

Most of the stories in Genesis focus on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We learn little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

This week however we read of the death of the first matriarch, Sarah.  “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”  (Genesis 23:1-2)

Sarah’s life appears to be defined only by the few episodes in which she accompanies her husband Abraham.   She joins Abraham on his God ordained journey to the land of Israel.  She laughs at the thought of giving birth to a child at the age of 90 (Genesis 18).  Miraculously she does give birth to this child and he is named, “Laughter—Isaac.”  Abraham and Sarah celebrate the birth of this hoped for, prayed for, and longed for child.  Sarah proclaims: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.  Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!  Yet I have a born a son in his old age.”  (Genesis 21:6-7)

In the following chapter, God appears to Abraham and commands him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Curiously Sarah is nowhere mentioned in this extraordinary tale.  How can Isaac’s mother be absent from one of the most significant events in her son’s life?  I cannot imagine that she was silent, that she did not participate in some way in this formative event. 

The rabbis of old notice her absence.  They suggest that the reason the Torah states that Abraham got up early in the morning to fulfill God’s command is that he woke up while Sarah was still sleeping.  They suggest that Sarah never would have allowed Abraham to try to sacrifice her only son, the son of her old age.  Abraham was therefore left to sneaking out of the house before dawn in order to fulfill God’s request.

The ancient rabbis also notice the proximity of the binding of Isaac to this week’s Torah portion. They ask why did Sarah die in the chapter following the Akedah?  They suggest that she died of a heart attack after she discovered what her overzealous husband almost did to her only son.  Thus she died of a broken heart. 

Both of these ancient midrashic attempts recognize that we must discover what all of our heroes did in the Torah, even if their actions are not explicitly mentioned.  This is the meaning of midrash.  Our tradition refuses to accept the Torah as literal.  Our stories are sometimes mere outlines.  Who could imagine an absent Jewish mother?  How could Sarah not have a voice in this episode?  She has waited 90 years for a child.  Wouldn’t she therefore be especially overprotective of her son?

More recently feminists, of whom I consider myself, have added different interpretations about Sarah’s role.  One suggests that God appeared to both Abraham and Sarah and separately commanded them to sacrifice their son Isaac.  Thus God tested both Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham said, “Yes, of course.”  Sarah said, “No way.”  Is it possible that Sarah’s answer was the correct answer to God’s test?  When Sarah woke up she realized that God had also appeared to Abraham and that he had now left to do God’s bidding.

Sarah prayed with all her might and an angel responded to her plea, calling to Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy…“  (Genesis 22:12)  A ram appeared, caught in the thicket by its horns.  So Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it in place of his son.  Sarah died, having expended all of her life, and sacrificing herself in place of her son.  To be honest, this makes more sense to me.

Whether ancient or modern the Jewish genius has always been to write ourselves and our experiences into the stories found in the Torah.  Our Torah is a living book because we continue to interpret and reinterpret its words and verses depending on our circumstances and experiences.

I can only imagine a God who calls to both men and women.  A God who only speaks to men is not part of my faith.  All, men and women, young and old, must continue to hear God’s voice wherever they may stand. I believe that Sarah did as well as Abraham.

That is our Judaism.  That is what we believe.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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