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.

Sarah: blinded by her outward appearance we miss the person within

Deception and beauty, the bible is fascinated by the interaction of the two.

When Avram, having left Canaan because of the famine, arrived in Egypt he feared that the beauty of his wife Sarai would mean that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her for themselves, and so he asks her to lie, to say that she is his sister “that it will be well with me for your sake, and so my soul may live because of you”. And certainly his fear is grounded, because the Egyptians see Sarai’s exceptional beauty,“ki yafah hi me’od”. The princes of Pharaoh see her, sing her praises to him, and she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Pharoah gives a great deal of wealth to Abram as dowry, but God intervenes, plagues Pharaoh and his house on account of Sarai, until Pharaoh understands that he has taken Avram’s wife and arranges for her to go back to him, and for Avram and Sarai to go on their way with their accumulated gains.

This is the first of three wife-sister deception narratives in Genesis, the others being with Sarah and Abimelech and with Rebecca and Abimelech.  The repeated retelling seems to imply that these are not historical reportage, but a motif to give us a deeper understanding of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Any number of questions emerge from even a cursory reading of this text. We already know that Avram married Sarai (Gen 11:29) yet surprisingly her ancestry is not given, while that of Milcah, who married Nahor Abram’s brother is given her full background. Immediately we are told that Sarai is barren, she had no child – an enormous economic disbenefit for any wife in that society and that she went with her father in Law Terach, with her husband and with Lot the son of Abram’s dead brother, from Ur Kasdim towards Canaan, leaving behind Nahor and Milcah. (Gen 11:29-31)

Sarai’s great beauty is only told to us in the following chapter – which seem surprising if it were really so extraordinary. Her passivity – travelling with the family including the heir apparent Lot – leaving Ur Kasdim to go to Canaan but settling in Haran in the interim – seems to be the expected role of women, yet clearly the family did well, making great wealth, and the plural form is used – “all the wealth THEY had gathered, and the souls THEY had made” from which the midrash develops the idea of Avram and Sarai as the great models of inclusivity and openness, who between them had converted both men and women to the one God of Judaism.

So maybe Sarai was not so passive, but was a valued working partner in the relationship. And yet, as soon as they come near to Egypt she is prevailed upon not only to lie about her relationship to Avram, but essentially to become adulterous in order both to protect his life and increase his wealth.  She does not speak, she does not seem to object, and while one can see what is in the deal for Avram it is not so clear what is in it for her – except maybe that as a widow captured after her husband’s death she may be even more unprotected and powerless than as the sister of a living and wealthy man.

She doesn’t even seem to speak to Pharaoh, who, plagued by God, realises all by himself that the cause of his troubles is that he has taken the wife of another man into his household. Clearly at the beginning if she has bought Avram’s reasoning that this will save his life it is important that she keep the secret, but what about later when it is obvious that something is deeply wrong?  She is returned, as passive as ever, into the safekeeping of Avram her husband, and they are sent on their way, greatly enriched by the whole adventure.

Yet this story, with its overtones of sexual trafficking for gain cannot be left here – there is the repeated retelling with some alterations with a different king Abimelech, and then later with her daughter in law Rebecca and Abimelech. And there is the persistent motif of great beauty and deception.

Others are described in bible in almost the same words as having extraordinary beauty, the most prominent being Sarah’s daughter in law Rebecca, described as being tovat mar’eh me’od (24:16 and 26:7), Rebecca’s daughter in law Rachel about whom we hear “V’einei Leah rakot; v’Rachel hay’ta y’fat to’ar, vi’fat mareh” – The eyes of Leah were soft/ weak,  and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. (Gen 29:17, and her older son Joseph who is “y’fei to’ar vi’fei mar’eh” (Gen 39:6)

Three matriarchs and the favoured son Joseph all described in bible in terms of their exceptional beauty. And all of them recorded in bible as deceiving in ways that change the narrative profoundly. Sarah and Rebecca are the objects of the their husband’s deception in the wife-sister narratives, but Rebecca goes on to deceive her blind husband in order to gain the major blessing for her favourite son Jacob, when he intends and expects to give it to Esau.

Rachel deceives her father and husband about having taken the household gods when they left Haran, an act that will bring about her early death. And her elder son Joseph, also described as beautiful, deceives his brothers who come to buy food, putting them through a horrible ordeal as they contemplated their father’s devastated reactions.

It is strange that on the whole we don’t know much about the physical appearance of the main characters in the narrative. What does Avram look like? We are not told. Likewise Isaac and Jacob, though we are aware of the physicality of Ishmael and Esau who are earthy,  athletic and skilful hunters.

It seems that only ‘outsiders’ and women are worthy of comment about their appearance. And then, as now, such comment serves to objectify, to limit in some way, to categorise. We no longer see the person, nor do we see their abilities or potential, we see the colour, the gender, the beauty (or lack of) and we make a judgement.

Later on in the narrative we will be able to see Sarah a little better – we will see her as the strong and independently minded woman trying to give her husband his much desired heir, however problematic that intervention is. We will see her as the woman who is visited by God, who laughs on hearing God’s voice telling her and her husband that she too will bear a child, and who speaks directly to God’s challenge to her, albeit to dissemble rather than be upfront with her views. We will see her as the mother determined to protect her child even if it means asking her husband to disown his older child – and ensuring that he does. We will see that her name is changed by God along with that of her husband. We will see that she lives away from her husband after the Akedah until her death when he has to travel to organise her funeral.

Sarah is the matriarch to match Abraham’s role – the promise of the heir who would receive God’s blessing is clearly as much to her as to him – it is Isaac son of Sarah who will inherit the blessing and take on the chain of tradition. She saves Abraham’s life at least twice, she helps him to increase his wealth, she directs the family life.

What is her beauty? The deception of Sarah’s beauty seems to be not so much what she does, but that it hides the strong and independent character within, the personal connection with God that she develops, the innovative and formative life that she lives. Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery, unlike Abraham’s, but their descendants are as much hers as his.

Proverbs tells us “charm deceives and beauty fades” when describing the perfect woman (Eshet Chayil) (31:30) and we should read the narrative of lech lecha with this in mind – if we only see the outward passivity and the blinding beauty that Abraham fears Pharaoh will see, then we miss what is important about Sarah.

Yet plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those who only see the outward appearance and the gender will layer on their own perceptions, their own beliefs about what they see, and will miss the gold that lies within.

Lech Lecha – leave the idolatry, an instruction we need to hear again and again

What happened before God told Avram “Lech Lecha: Leave, go out from your country and your family and from the house of your ancestors into the land I will show you….”. The text before has given us the genealogy so that we know that Terach was the father of Avram, Nahor and Haran. That Haran had died young in Ur Kasdim, leaving a son, Lot, and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah. That Avram and Nahor had married: Avram married Sarai and Nahor had married Milcah his niece. Sarai was childless, (Milcah we know from later in the book had eight sons (Gen 22))

Terach took Avram his son, and Lot his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law; and they left Ur Kasdim, to go into the land of Canaan; they came to a place rather confusingly called Haran, and they stayed there, and Terach died there.

Why had Terach left Ur Kasdim? Why did he not take all of his family with him? We cannot know, and the question sits tantalisingly as we read the genealogy that details the ten generations after Noah who himself is the tenth generation from Adam. Had God spoken to Terach and told him to leave? Was there some family issue? Maybe this is why we are told of Sarai’s infertility here, a condition which is all the more painful when we later find that her sister in law was producing son after son? Maybe after the death of one of his three sons he just had to leave and start again, taking the surviving grandchild with him, away from the place his father had died in so as to give him a better start. Maybe something happened and he had to leave the area with his less rooted and established descendants. But what? And whatever it was, why did Nahor and Milcah stay?

The book of Joshua gives us the peg on which the midrash can hang a back story: “Joshua said to all the people, thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel. Your ancestors dwelled in old times beyond the River, even Terach the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed and gave him Isaac”. (Joshua 24:2).

So the catalyst for Terach leaving with Avram, Sarai and Lot may have been something to with idolatry:- either that it was an established family practise that God needed to get them away from (presupposing that God had chosen Terach and Avram for the covenant) or that the family did something that challenged the idolatrous practise in Ur Kasdim, and so needed to leave to save their lives.

Hence we have the stories (found in Genesis Rabbah 38.13), of a young Abraham, having destroyed the idols in his father’s shop, telling his father that a woman had wanted to make an offering to the idols, but that the idols had argued over which one should eat first, and one idol had taken a stick and smashed the others. Terach’s response that they are only statues with no understanding elicits Abraham’s stinging rebuke to his father – “why are you worshiping them then”?

It is a powerful story, and often mistakenly found in books of bible stories as if of the same status, but it is really an indicator of the rabbinic dislike of idolatry rather than a likely explanation for why this branch of the family left their land and travelled south (in stages) towards Canaan.

Much of Judaism, from bible onwards, can be read as a polemic against idolatry and for the one-ness of the divinity. There is a constant suspicion of foreign influencers who will bring in the foreign practises of ‘avodah zarah’ (strange worship). What is very clear is that the battle was a continuing one, from which we can see that while worshiping YHVH/Adonai was something that the Israelites were well able to do, worshiping ONLY YHVH/Adonai was much harder. The prevalence of the rightness of having a multiplicity of gods for a multiplicity of purposes was deeply rooted in the psyche of the ancient world, and the Israelites were no exception. And this has remained true today. While we may look at the statues of Greek or Roman gods in the museums of the world and feel no resonance with them, we are not so different from the people who worshiped them sincerely. We too fall into the habit of not being true to the One God, we idolise all sorts of people or ways of being, or objects. We idolise ‘celebrities’ be they in the popular entertainment industry or writers/artists/scientists. We idolise the marketplace, or money and the people who own it. We idolise the products of the fashion industry, fantasise about unlikely and unrealistic situations, really believe that if we were thinner or prettier or more powerful in some way our life would be transformed. Sometimes we make a fetish of political positions, be they left wing or right wing, and we idolise religious leaders too – and that is possibly the most dangerous of all.

I have watched with mounting horror as a Jewish idolisation of Judaism – or at least of a particular interpretation of Judaism – has grown exponentially in my lifetime. It has become something not to help us to survive and to grow and to create security and goodness in the world, but a way of living to be fetishized and followed in cumulative minutiae. Somehow the texts and traditions have become distorted by increasingly narrow and strict interpretations that have managed to cloak themselves in the language of authenticity and normative usage. Somehow there is an idolisation of certain rabbinic leaders, who are treated as more than human, given powers that no rabbinic tradition would authorise or approve, a fetishisation that does not even disappear when they di e- indeed the death is not recognised in some way, the rabbi elevated instead to a kind of Elijah figure or even a messianic figure. Somehow the chumrah (the extra stringency that the very pious took on for themselves) has become the norm in many Jewish communities. And yet the more usual (and I would say authentic) Jewish tradition fights against this tendency, with, for example, the words of R. Isaac recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) “do you think that what the Torah prohibits is not sufficient for you, that you take upon yourselves additional prohibitions?” Or the Babylonian Talmud discussing the Nazirite (Nazir 19a) which says “if the one who deprived himself only of wine is called a sinner then how much more so someone who deprives himself of all things”.

The word “orthodox” was brought into Judaism as a response to the “Progressive” or Reform Judaism that developed as a result of the enlightenment. The idea that Judaism has an orthodoxy is essentially an idea from outside of Judaism. It has always been a tradition that recorded debates rather than the results of debates, ideas to steer rather than rulings to stifle. In the ‘orthodox world’ today there are a multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings, activities, beliefs, which shelter under the title of ‘orthodox Judaism’ merely to differentiate itself from a different and more open multiplicity of different interpretations, customs, teachings activities and beliefs sheltering under the rather less powerful ‘non-orthodox’ label. Indeed so diverse has orthodox Judaism grown, that the umbrella term is no longer enough. Now we have ‘ultra orthodox’, ‘hassidic’, ‘observant’, ‘traditional’ ,’modern orthodox’…. Each of which sees itself as the true and sometimes the only heir to Judaism. And each of which is vying for authority and authenticity by multiplying rulings, prohibitions designed to keep adherents away from the modern world, and concentrating power in the hands of the leadership.

Now I am not saying that we progressive Jews don’t also fall prey to idolatry – we tend to idolise social justice and tikkun olam over prayer, ritual and a deep relationship with God. We tend to fetishize universalism at the cost of a particular Jewish identity and lifestyle. Our Jewishness tends towards the culture and cuisine of our people and less towards studying and adopting its texts and scholarship. We all have a problem with idolatry – in that way we are just like our ancestors from biblical times onwards. So we need to return to the beginning. Lech Lecha – go, leave behind the lazy habits and the comfortable assumptions and following what others do, and go back to finding what God wants from us. Don’t leave that journey for others to tell you about, don’t fall into the common culture of everyone else, worshiping what we know to be false. Break the idols we have become dependent upon and leave them behind.