Sarah, a matriarch whose multifaceted life gives us all something to live up to.

The Matriarch Sarah is the only woman for whom a sidra, the weekly torah reading, is named.  The first wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, she is the also the first of the four biblical matriarchs. What do we know about her? No genealogy is given for her when we first meet her as the wife of Avram living in Ur of the Chaldees, although Avram does at a later point say she is his half-sister. (Gen 20:12). Her name when we first meet her is “Sarai” which may be a name derived from the goddess Ishtar who was also called “Sarrat”, and although scholars also suggest it may be a name meaning priestess of that pagan cult, we tend to assume her name comes from the Hebrew for prince or leader –S.R.R.  making Sarah a princess of our people.

The first thing we know about Sarah is that she is unable to conceive a child, and so when she does so at the age of 90, her husband being one hundred years of age, this is clearly because of divine intervention and both parents laugh in disbelief when God tells them. Abraham asks God to give Ishmael the role of heir (Gen 17:17-19) but God is very clear – the covenant with Abraham will be passed down through a son he shall have with Sarah. She is an important and necessary figure in the divine covenant and as proof of this her name is to be changed along with Avram’s and she too is blessed in similar language to the blessing given to Abraham.

The change of names must catch our attention. When Abraham’s name is changed it is to clearly alter his destiny. God tells him “your name will no longer be called Avram (exalted father) but your name shall be Avraham because I have given to you the fatherhood of a multitude of nations”. The letter ‘hei’ has been added to Avram’s name – and this letter, with the numeric value of 5 which is the magical number for protection, is also a letter which symbolically denotes the name of God.

Sarah’s name change is rather different. God speaks not to her but to Abraham, saying “You shall not call her name Sarai, because her name is Sarah. And I will bless her and also give you a son with her. And I will bless her….”

Sarah is already her name – there is no change except that now Abraham will call her by her name. There is no added letter to her name – instead one could argue that part of her name has been taken away, the yod (numerical value ten, symbolically used for the name of God) has transmuted into the letter hei. It has been halved, and one half given to Avram in order to fit him for the role he is to take on. You could say that Sarah is diminished in order to enrich her husband.  Some of her divine spark is taken in order to build him up. She is the woman whose descendants will gain the eternal covenant. She has a special relationship with God – the only woman in torah to whom God talks directly – it is through the merit of Sarah that Abraham is able to achieve his destiny.

Another way of reading what happens to Sarah’s name is that the yod is turned into a hei by the addition of the letter dalet – when a scribe writes the letter hei in a torah scroll, it is by the combination of a yod and a dalet. So while at the same time as creating two hei letters from the yod, one could reason that Sarah had the letter dalet added to her name. The letter dalet is an ideogram for a doorway, as the Hebrew word delet reminds us. So knowing that she is Sarah means that Abraham begins to understand that she is the doorway and the gatekeeper to a deeper spirituality, a way to connect with God not just for himself but for the generations to come. Sarah emerges as liminal, as the connector between two worlds, a woman who transcends experienced reality.

Sarah’s relationship with God is defined by the phrase we use in liturgy – “pokeid Sarah”.  The verb p.k.d has a number of meanings: to attend to, to visit, to muster, to remember, to account, to command.   God remembers Sarah’s desire for a child, God visits Sarah to announce that she will have a child, God appoints Sarah to be the matriarch of peoples, God pays attention to her and tells Abraham to do the same.

Abraham and Sarah were said to have been noticeably hospitable, open and inclusive. Sarah’s tent was said to be open on all sides to welcome desert travellers needing a warm welcome. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) tells us also that as long as she lived the Shechinah hovered over her tent, her challah dough was blessed and her Sabbath lights lasted the entire week until the next Shabbat.

She was also a notable prophet – the Talmud (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:1) tells us that her prophecy was greater than that of Abraham , and that God was referring to her prophetic power when telling Abraham “whatever she tells you, do as she says” (BT Sanhedrin). It also lists her among the seven women prophets (BT Megillah 14a)

Sarah lived to the age of 127, and the way the bible describes this implies she lived a number of different lives in these years. She was a woman of great complexity, a woman of great strength who was destined to become the progenitor and matriarch of many peoples.  It took time for this to be revealed – she is a woman both hidden in the tent and open to the world; a wife who travelled with her husband wherever he went at some real inconvenience to herself and a wife who was living in a different city from him when she died. Her relationship with Isaac was a strong bond – she ensured his protection when she saw that Ishmael was assuming a position of power that might damage him, and he was comforted for her death by the love of his wife Rebecca, a touching phrase which tells us a great deal about the bond between them.

Sarah’s relationship with Isaac is at the core of the text. The covenant of blessing is destined to be the given to the child of both Abraham and Sarah, but Abraham is clearly fond of both boys, even suggesting to God that rather than have another child, Ishmael could take the role. So it is Sarah who must protect Isaac, who must shape and form him ready to take on his destiny. It is Sarah who engineers the removal of Ishmael from the scene, and who having protected her son from a potential rival retires from the fray.

But her protective action did not end the danger. God appears to ask Abraham to offer up Isaac on a specific mountain and Abraham does not argue but takes the boy on the journey, prepares him for his fate and is ready to slice the knife into him as a bound offering to God, only stopped by the urgent cry of an angel of God at the very last moment.

Because of the story of the death of Sarah being reported in bible immediately after this terrible text of the binding of Isaac, the midrash links the two, saying that Satan tricked Sarah into believing that Abraham had indeed killed their only son, and the soul of Sarah flew out of her body in her deep distress as she wished to live no longer. Another somewhat less believable version is that she died of happiness when she realised that she had been tricked and her son was still alive. (Pirkei d’R.Eliezer 32/ Ginzburg Legends of the Jews)

Either way, her life ends much sooner than that of Abraham who goes on to marry Keturah and have more sons, but who has become irrelevant to the purpose of the biblical narrative after that moment on Mount Moriah – except to buy the land in Hebron for her final resting place, the Cave of Machpela which will become the family mausoleum to this day.

The text moves on to focus on Isaac, son of Sarah and Abraham. Isaac will marry Rebecca and he will love her till his death. The love of his mother has made him who he is, a strong but unobtrusive figure perfectly placed between his famous father and his famous son, providing stability and warmth and entrenching the place of the covenant of blessing into the family firmly and steadfastly. The legacy of Sarah provided many things in rabbinic tradition – land properly bought within Israel, many converts to the one God, hospitality, steadfastness, divine merit, but for me her best legacy is Isaac. Often misunderstood and seen as less important than his colourful father and sons, he is a man who has shown himself to be so well loved that he can overcome the trauma of near filicide to build a relationship of love and trust with wife and sons, and to put down roots and live alongside the other tribes. That, I am sure, is the inheritance he got from Sarah. That, and the covenant of blessing which is usually – wrongly – ascribed to Abraham alone. but which was given to him only because of the merit of Sarah. I used to have a fridge magnet that said “behind every successful man is an exhausted woman” – certainly the aphorism that most fits our first and most wondrous matriarch.

Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu, a flawed and powerful matriarch

The death of Sarah so soon after the binding of Isaac by his father, is ascribed in the midrash as the result of the shock Sarah experienced when she became aware that Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice their son Isaac in order to demonstrate to God his total loyalty, and that God had been prepared to test Abraham with such an ordeal.

God had said to Abraham: take your son, your only one, whom you love…” but the truth is that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, though he was Sarah’s, HER only one. Abraham still of course, had Ishmael.

sarah

Isaac was her miracle child, born to her after years of infertility had merged into menopause, prophesied to her by God, a boy whose name meant laughter, but whose life in the event seemed to have had very little joy in it.

Isaac was the boy who was born to fulfil the promise of huge numbers of descendants. In procuring a son, any son, for Abraham, Sarah had tried to make sure that promise was fulfilled, but in the process had given herself a life with very little laughter and a great deal of unhappiness. She had given her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, but the son born from that union had then had to leave the family as she understood that he presented a danger to Isaac and to his inheritance. Then too, the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was clearly not all it might have been.  We know that Abraham was not with Sarah when she died, and more than that, that they had separate households in separate cities. The Midrash also suggests that love had died between them before the Akedah, when it allows us read that famous command from God as “Take your son, the only one you love, take Isaac…”

Sarah lived for 127 years, and the content of her life was the launch pad for much of later Jewish history.  Her death gives us a stake in the future too, for the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite to buy her gravesite provide us not only with an insight into such transactions, but give documentary credibility to the attachment of the Jewish people to the land.  Many is the scriptural literalist who points to this passage and declares – “see we bought this land all this time ago, it is ours.”

It seems to me horribly appropriate that it should have been for Sarah that the land was purchased and the transaction so scrupulously recorded, for it is Sarah who took matters into her own hands when she procured a son for her husband via her handmaid Hagar, and set up a chain of painful rejection and destruction that has never quite been dealt with by any of the protagonists or by their descendents.

It was Sarah who couldn’t wait; who caused the birth of Ishmael and who had him sent away to what she assumed would be his death. It was Sarah whose sad and ironic laughter prefigured the lack of any real laughter in Isaac’s life.

Sarah is a figure who comes from nowhere – her genealogy is not given (exceptional in the biblical context) except for the defensive statement by Abraham that she is his sister.  She is however included in the covenant promise  given to Abraham – it will be her child with him, not Hagar’s to whom the covenant will apply. She is beautiful enough to be wanted by Kings, yet her barrenness makes her beauty somehow irrelevant, and her beauty is seen by Abraham mainly as a threat to his own life should anyone more powerful than him desire her.

Her life is full of journeying, her relationships full of misplaced love, manipulation and pain.

Sarah’s death leaves unfinished and painful circumstances. There is a great hole in the life of her son, who does not meet her again after the terrifying experience with his father, and who later takes his own bride into his mother’s tent, (not his father’s), to be comforted for the loss of his mother. Her husband also mourns her, but having honourably buried her, swiftly remarries, fathering children who will be the ancestors of the surrounding tribes with which Israel will have to deal.  Intriguingly, Keturah, the second wife of Abraham, is equated in the Midrash with Hagar, the repudiated handmaid of Sarah, a way no doubt of dealing with the discomfort of the rabbis with the behaviour of Sarah and Abraham towards this innocent Egyptian maid, yet a resolution which essentially betrays Sarah.

Sarah’s death is too soon, despite her 127 years of full life. She bequeathed a series of family behaviours that took generations to deal with, if not to fully conclude.  Her son was left emotionally disabled by his upbringing, her grandchildren spent years unable to see past their own senses of injustice and betrayal.

Yet for all of this Sarah was a matriarch, she ordered and she sorted and she gave unquestioning loyalty to Abraham and to his perceived destiny.  She travelled with him, leaving her home and her background just as surely as Abraham had done.  She nourished and cared for him, she understood prophesy and indeed is seen as a prophet in her own right, her gifts in that field considered to be greater even than Abraham’s. She heard God’s voice and she spoke with God and she even had the confidence to laugh at God.

The rabbis say that Sarah’s death is announced in such a way (“The lives of Sarah were..and Sarah died”) to bring home the lesson that her life was fully lived and that that was the important thing about her – her death was inevitable but it was her life that counted.  As we remember the stories about her, the bold actions she took on behalf of those she loved, the meddling in history and the protecting of her own, we can begin to understand her and to some extent understand the choices she made. She was matriarch, wife, part of the chain of the covenant; she loved fiercely and maybe acted on that love unwisely. She was sometimes a problem for herself and for those around her, but her life remains a story worth telling from which we can learn. Sarah Imeinu, a brilliant and determined woman whose life was full and complex and left its mark on her descendants, and whose death has also impacted on our history up to the present time.

(image an embroidery of Sarah’s tent on Torah binder by Caroline Ingram)