Chayei Sarah: Sarah Imeinu was not the rabbinic paradigm of a perfect woman, but a real woman.

Chayei Sarah – Domestic Abuse in Judaism

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is on 25th November, days after we will have read the parasha detailing the death and burial arrangements for the first biblical matriarch, Sarah Imeinu.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” It includes such acts as intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide);   sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber- harassment);     human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation);     female genital mutilation; and  child marriage.

Sarah is introduced to us as the wife of Abraham. Whether she was his niece, his half-sister, or any other relation to him is unclear – but we are not told directly of her antecedents, simply that he takes her for a wife (Genesis 11:29) around the same time that Abraham’s brother Nahor also takes a wife, after the death of Haran their other brother.  The second thing we know about Sarah is that she is unable to conceive a child.

It is not very promising stuff. Here is a vulnerable woman who is married into a “patriarchal family” with a husband ten years older than her, and who is unable to do the one thing expected of her – to produce an heir.  This is a particular trauma given that her husband has been promised to have innumerable descendants – it is almost as though they are being set up against each other, with no possibility of resolution.

Taken yet again from her settled place she and her husband travel to Canaan, and because of the severe famine there ,onward to Egypt, where she is described as her husband’s sister in order to protect his life. The consequence is that she is taken into the harem of Pharaoh, and while we have many midrashim designed to protect her purity and good name, we have no idea what happened to her there – only that Pharaoh gave her back along with material compensation to her husband, after a series of events which he rightly understood to be divine warnings.

After ten years of living in the land, with no sign of a child to fulfil the divine promise, Sarah does what many a female figure in bible will do after her – intervene in order to bring about that which is expected to happen. In this case she hands over her Egyptian maid to her husband in order for him to have a child. While there are those who might see this as a wonderful wifely and unselfish gift, the clear light of day shows otherwise. Ten years of marriage with no child – this becomes grounds for divorce (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) – and would leave a woman without family to take her in, unprotected socially and economically. Sarah uses another woman to give her husband the child he desires so much, and in so doing causes greater anguish for Hagar, for Ishmael, for Abraham and for herself. One could argue that the pain this intervention caused resonates to this day.

After the birth of Ishmael the relationship between the two women breaks down completely. Sarah mistreats Hagar, Hagar runs away from home but returns – she has nowhere else.  Ishmael and Hagar are banished causing pain to them both and to Abraham who will not know the outcome of their story, Isaac inherits family trauma he cannot begin to understand.

The birth of Isaac is told in quasi miraculous terms. Abraham and Sarah are old, she is clearly post-menopausal. When God tells Abraham there will be another child he laughs, reminds God he is 100 years old and Sarah 90, and pleads for Ishmael to be his heir, only to be told that the promised  child and heir to the covenant will indeed be Sarah’s, though Ishmael will be looked after too.

When God tells Sarah, she too laughs, and she is more direct with God – after she is so old would she have such pleasure?  she asks. And her husband is too old too, she reminds God. (Genesis 18:12)

God then does something extraordinary. His report back to Abraham Sarah’s inner narrative voice, but he alters it. Instead of the clear message that Sarah has given up hope of such pleasure because her husband is too old, God transposes the person – telling Abraham that Sarah laughed because she feels herself to be too old.

This transposition is the origin of the rabbinic idea of Shalom Bayit – of marital harmony, the telling of small innocent lies in order to keep the peace. The idea that somehow the woman has to disproportionally protect the feeling of the man has become embedded into what might otherwise be a laudable aim. And sadly, Shalom Bayit has become the carpet under which domestic abuse has been brushed all too often down the generations.

Sarah has become the paradigm for the ideal woman for rabbinic Judaism in other ways too – when the visitors arrive o announce the birth of Isaac, Sarah is hidden away inside the tent, her husband facing the world. It is he who hurries around being hospitable, she who bakes the bread for the visitors.   Later we will be told that when Isaac marries Rebecca he takes her to his mother’s tent and is comforted and the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) will teach “Three miraculous phenomena that occurred in the tent during Sarah’s lifetime returned when Isaac married Rebecca: the Shabbat candles remained lit from one Friday to the next, the challah dough was blessed and was always sufficient for the family and guests, and the Divine cloud hovered over the tent.”  The rabbinic tradition generally understand this as showing that Rebecca was, like Sarah, a good and faithful homemaker, their role limited to baking and cleaning and preparing the home.  At least one contemporary – and female – commentator, has a different, and in my view more likely view of the meaning. Tamara Frankiel suggests that the midrash is commenting on the intrinsic holiness of the first two matriarchs, such that the wherewithal for Shabbat and the divine presence were always on hand, rather than that the two women were particularly devoted to housework. She comments also that the description of the tent here is a parallel to the later Temple where the ner tamid was always burning, the 12 loaves of showbread always fresh and present in front of the Ark of the Covenant.  (The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism).

The roles ascribed by the rabbinic tradition to Sarah and the other matriarchs – maternal, wifely, home making, providing the resources of hospitable giving while not actually being present when guests come – these are not the roles given in the biblical texts. And the male gaze through which we generally see these women who clearly have confidence and agency in their own lives when seen in bible, has layered both them and the expectations of subsequent generations with an impossible and also undesirable aura.

Sarah does not put herself down when contemplating a child, she is realistic about her chances, the idea of an unexpected pleasure long forgotten, the changes age has wrought to her, and to her husband. She does nothing towards Shalom Bayit here – it is the rabbinic extension of God’s comments which brings us this view of her as a woman who would subjugate herself for her husband’s feelings. Equally there is nothing in the text to suggest she is subjugating herself when presenting Hagar to her husband in order for him to get a child – if anything the power is all hers, as we see in her response when there is a dilution of that power relationship.  When she takes charge of Hagar once more, even God tells Abraham to listen to her voice and do what she says, something that remarkably has little traction in the male world of traditional rabbinic texts.

Women in the Jewish community are as likely to be the victims of domestic abuse as women in the wider community – about one in four will experience it. Women in the Jewish community are increasingly being constrained and lectured about “Tzniut”, seemingly understood about women’s bodies and actions only, although most certainly in its earlier meanings tzniut is about humility for both men and women.

Women in the Jewish community are at a disability according to halachah – unable to initiate the religious divorce document of Gittin for example. Increasingly the halachah is being reworked to push women out of the public space, to try to remove and hide women’s voices from the discourse, to push some cultural attitudes as if they are legal ones.  And so often Sarah Imeinu is cited – the perfect female paradigm in the minds of the rabbinic tradition, but actually a real woman who develops her own agency and power, who sees the frailties of her husband, who intervenes in history and who laughs disbelievingly at God.

As we mark the day that reminds us of how women have become so vulnerable to male violence that there needs to be an international policy to try to shape a different world, let’s take a moment to see the real Sarah Imeinu, the woman who originally belongs to no man in bible, who marries Abraham and helps him in his life’s work, travelling with him and sharing his destiny, working as part of a team, and subservient to no one.

 

Image courtesy of Rahel Jaskow – Rosh HaShanah : the sign on the right welcoming the men to synagogue,the one on the left telling women where their separate entrance is, telling them to leave as soon as the shofar service is finished (even though the services will continue in the synagogue), that they should go straight home and not loiter in public places………….

Chayei Sara: Sara imeinu non era colei alla quale i rabbini insistono che le donne dovrebbero somigliare, ma forse dovremmo tutti provare ad essere più simili a lei e dare forma ai nostri destini.

Pubblicato da rav Sylvia Rothschild, il 20 novembre 2019

Chayei Sara – Abusi domestici nell’ebraismo

 

La Giornata internazionale per l’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne sarà il 25 novembre, qualche giorno dopo che avremo letto la parashà che illustra in dettaglio la morte e le disposizioni di sepoltura per la prima matriarca biblica, Sara imeinu.

La Dichiarazione sull’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne emessa dall’Assemblea generale delle Nazioni Unite nel 1993, definisce la violenza contro le donne come: “qualsiasi atto di violenza di genere che provochi, o rischi di provocare, danno o sofferenza fisica, sessuale o psicologica alle donne, comprese le minacce di tali atti, la coercizione o la privazione arbitraria della libertà, che si verifichino nella vita pubblica o privata”. Ciò include atti quali violenza del partner nell’intimità (percosse, abusi psicologici, stupro maritale, femminicidio), violenza e molestie sessuali (stupri, atti sessuali forzati, profferte sessuali indesiderate, abusi sessuali su minori, matrimonio forzato, molestie stradali, stalking, cyber-molestie), tratta di esseri umani (schiavitù, sfruttamento sessuale), mutilazione genitale femminile e matrimonio infantile.

Sara ci viene presentata come la moglie di Abramo. Se fosse sua nipote, la sua sorellastra o se avesse qualsiasi altra relazione con lui non è chiaro, niente ci viene detto direttamente dei suoi antecedenti, ma semplicemente che lui la prende per moglie (Genesi 11:29) nello stesso periodo in cui anche Nahor, fratello di Abramo, prende moglie, dopo la morte di Haran, l’altro loro fratello. La seconda cosa che sappiamo di Sara è che non è in grado di concepire un bambino.

 

Non è materiale molto promettente. Ecco una donna vulnerabile che è sposata in una “famiglia patriarcale” con un marito di dieci anni più grande di lei, e che non è in grado di fare l’unica cosa che ci si aspetta da lei: produrre un erede. Questo è un trauma specifico, dato che a suo marito è stato promesso di avere innumerevoli discendenti: è quasi come se fossero stati messi l’uno contro l’altro, senza possibilità di soluzione.

 

Allontanata ancora una volta dal posto dov’era stabilita, lei e suo marito viaggiano verso Canaan e, per la grave carestia lì presente, di nuovo verso l’Egitto, dove viene presentata, per proteggere la sua vita, come sorella di suo marito. La conseguenza è che viene portata nell’harem del Faraone e mentre abbiamo molti midrashim progettati per proteggere la sua purezza e il suo buon nome, non abbiamo idea di cosa lì le sia successo, solo che il Faraone la ha rimandata indietro unitamente a una compensazione materiale per suo marito, dopo una serie di eventi da lui giustamente intesi come avvertimenti divini.

 

Dopo dieci anni di vita nella terra, senza alcun segno di un bambino che mantenga la promessa divina, Sara fa ciò che molte figure femminili nella Bibbia faranno dopo di lei: interverranno per realizzare ciò che dovrebbe accadere. In questo caso, consegna la sua cameriera egiziana a suo marito per avere un figlio. Mentre c’è chi potrebbe vedere ciò come un dono meraviglioso e disinteressato, la chiara luce del giorno mostra il contrario. Dieci anni di matrimonio senza figli: questo diverrebbe motivo di divorzio (Mishnah Yevamot 6:6) e potrebbe lasciare una donna senza una famiglia ad accoglierla, non protetta socialmente ed economicamente. Sara usa un’altra donna per dare a suo marito il figlio tanto desiderato, e così facendo provoca maggiore angoscia per Hagar, per Ismaele, per Abramo e per se stessa. Si potrebbe sostenere che il dolore causato da questo intervento risuona fino ai giorni nostri.

 

Dopo la nascita di Ismaele il rapporto tra le due donne si interrompe completamente. Sara maltratta Hagar, Hagar scappa di casa ma torna: non ha nessun altro. Ismaele e Hagar sono banditi causando dolore a entrambi e ad Abramo, che non conoscerà l’esito della loro storia, Isacco eredita un trauma familiare che non può iniziare a capire.

 

La nascita di Isacco è raccontata in termini quasi miracolosi. Abramo e Sara sono vecchi, lei è chiaramente in post-menopausa. Quando Dio dice ad Abramo che ci sarà un altro bambino egli ride, ricorda a Dio che ha cento anni e Sara novanta e supplica perché il suo erede sia Ismaele, solo per sentirsi dire che il figlio promesso ed erede dell’alleanza sarà davvero di Sara, anche se di Ismaele si avrà comunque cura.

 

Quando Dio parla a Sara, anche lei ride, è più diretta con Dio e gli chiede: adesso che è così anziana avrebbe tale piacere? E anche suo marito è troppo vecchio, ricorda a Dio. (Genesi 18:12)

 

Dio quindi fa qualcosa di straordinario. Riporta ad Abramo la voce narrativa interiore di Sara, ma alterandola. Invece del chiaro messaggio che Sara ha rinunciato alla speranza di tale gioia perché suo marito è troppo vecchio, Dio traspone la persona, dicendo ad Abramo che Sara ha riso perché lei si sente troppo vecchia.

 

Questa trasposizione è l’origine dell’idea rabbinica di Shalom Bayit di armonia coniugale, il racconto di piccole bugie innocenti per mantenere la pace. L’idea che in qualche modo la donna debba proteggere in modo sproporzionato il sentimento dell’uomo si è radicata in quello che altrimenti potrebbe essere un obiettivo lodevole. E purtroppo, Shalom Bayit è diventato il tappeto sotto cui gli abusi domestici sono stati spazzati via troppo spesso lungo le generazioni.

 

Sara è diventata il paradigma della donna ideale per l’ebraismo rabbinico anche in altri modi: quando i visitatori arrivano o annunciano la nascita di Isacco, Sara è nascosta nella tenda, suo marito affronta il mondo. Lui si affretta a essere ospitale, lei cuoce il pane per i visitatori. Più tardi ci verrà detto che quando Isacco sposa Rebecca la porterà nella tenda di sua madre e verrà  confortata e il midrash (Bereishit Rabbà 60:16) insegnerà: “Tre fenomeni miracolosi verificatesi nella tenda, durante la vita di Sara, tornarono quando Isacco sposò Rebecca: le candele di Shabbat rimasero accese da un venerdì all’altro, l’impasto della Challà fu benedetto e fu sempre sufficiente per la famiglia e gli ospiti, e la nuvola divina si librò sopra la tenda”. La tradizione rabbinica generalmente lo interpreta mostrando che Rebecca fu, come Sara, una buona e fedele casalinga, il loro ruolo è limitato alla cottura, alla pulizia e alla preparazione della casa. Almeno un commentatore contemporaneo, e femminile, ha una visione diversa e, a mio avviso, più probabile del significato. Tamara Frankiel suggerisce che il midrash stia commentando l’intrinseca santità delle prime due matriarche, in modo tale che il necessario per Shabbat e la presenza divina fossero sempre a portata di mano, piuttosto che le due donne fossero particolarmente dedite alle faccende domestiche. Commenta anche che la descrizione della tenda qui è parallela al successivo Tempio, dove il ner tamid bruciava costantemente, i dodici pani dell’offerta erano sempre freschi e presenti davanti all’Arca dell’Alleanza. (La voce di Sara: spiritualità femminile ed ebraismo tradizionale).

 

I ruoli attribuiti dalla tradizione rabbinica a Sara e alle altre matriarche: materno, coniugale, casalingo, fornire le risorse dell’ospitalità ma non realmente presenti quando gli ospiti arrivano, non sono ruoli assegnati nei testi biblici. E lo sguardo maschile attraverso il quale generalmente vediamo queste donne, che godono chiaramente di fiducia e libero arbitrio nella propria vita se viste nella Bibbia, ha stratificato sia loro che le aspettative delle generazioni successive con un’aura impossibile e anche indesiderabile.

 

Sara non si mortifica quando prende in considerazione l’idea di avere un bambino, è realista riguardo alle proprie possibilità, all’idea di un piacere inaspettato dimenticato da tempo, ai cambiamenti che l’età ha portato a lei e a suo marito. Non fa nulla per la Shalom Bayit, è l’estensione rabbinica dei commenti di Dio che ci porta questa visione di lei come di donna che si soggiogherebbe per i sentimenti di suo marito. Allo stesso modo non c’è nulla nel testo che suggerisca che si soggioghi quando presenta Hagar a suo marito per fargli avere un figlio: semmai il potere è tutto in mano sua, come vediamo dalla sua reazione quando c’è un indebolimento di quella forte relazione. Quando si prende di nuovo carico di Hagar, anche Dio dice ad Abramo di ascoltare la sua voce e fare ciò che dice, qualcosa che ha straordinariamente poca popolarità nel mondo maschile dei testi rabbinici tradizionali.

 

Le donne nella comunità ebraica hanno le stesse probabilità di essere vittime di abusi domestici delle donne nella comunità più ampia, circa una su quattro li sperimenterà. Le donne nella comunità ebraica sono sempre più costrette a tenere conferenze sulla “Tzniut“, apparentemente intesa solo riguardo i corpi e le azioni delle donne, anche se certamente, nei suoi primi significati, la tzniut riguardava l’umiltà sia per gli uomini che per le donne.

 

Secondo l’halachà, le donne nella comunità ebraica sono incapaci: incapaci, per esempio, di intraprendere il documento di divorzio religioso di Gittin. Sempre più la halachà viene rielaborata per spingere le donne fuori dallo spazio pubblico, per cercare di rimuovere e nascondere le voci delle donne dal discorso, per sostenere alcuni atteggiamenti culturali come se fossero legali. E così, spesso, viene citata Sara imeinu: il paradigma femminile perfetto nelle menti della tradizione rabbinica, ma in realtà una vera donna che sviluppa il proprio agire e il proprio potere, che vede le fragilità di suo marito, che interviene nella storia e che ride incredula di Dio.

 

Mentre segniamo il giorno che ci ricorda come le donne siano diventate tanto vulnerabili alla violenza maschile da dover esserci una politica internazionale per cercare di plasmare un mondo diverso, prendiamoci un momento per vedere la vera Sara imeinu. La donna che non appartiene in origine a nessun uomo nella Bibbia, che sposa Abramo e lo aiuta nel lavoro della sua vita, viaggiando con lui e condividendo il suo destino, lavorando come parte di una squadra e non servendo nessuno.

 

Immagine gentilmente concessa da Rahel Jaskow – Rosh HaShanà: il cartello sulla destra accoglie gli uomini in sinagoga, quello a sinistra dice alle donne dove si trovano i loro ingressi separati, dicendo loro di andarsene non appena il servizio di shofar è terminato (anche se il servizio continuerà nella sinagoga) e che dovrebbero andare dritte a casa e non bighellonare nei luoghi pubblici ………….

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

 

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: confronting the reality of death, make preparations, do the work

death pic

Confronting the reality of death is always hard, and for Abraham this is no exception. The text that begins with the phrase “the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah, and Sarah died…” is the introduction to a protracted negotiation for her burial place.

In the twenty verses of the narrative, only three touch on Abraham’s emotional state “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ In the story as first presented we see that he seems to quickly move from mourning and weeping to making the practical arrangements so that the body of his wife can be buried and removed from before him.

Sarah’s is the first documented burial in bible – up until now the narrative has dispassionately informed us of the death of individuals without much more detail. Yet clearly this burial he is arranging is not an unknown rite. The children of Heth recognise his need and open the negotiations with the offer that he may take his choice from their sepulchres, telling him that no one would withhold their own plot from him should he want to use it. So clearly there was already a well- established proactive structure in place of prepared graves by the time Sarah died, not surprising given the need to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead. Yet our foundational family did not seem to have made this provision. Was it because as an immigrant family they had not got a sense of ‘owning’ the land they had come to? Or because they had not quite struck roots in the land of Canaan and were still travelling? It is odd that Sarah died in Hebron when Abraham was clearly in Be’er sheva. Were they living separately? The midrash tells of Sarah’s death being caused by her horror that her husband would be prepared to sacrifice their son so had she left Abraham in order to strike out alone? Was any previous plan to have a grave left behind in the tangle of confusion that this relationship trauma had caused, and Sarah’s new place of abode forced Abraham into making new arrangements?

It does seem odd that they had not made plans for their deaths. They were a long way from the graves of their ancestors, (and indeed Terach the father of Abraham had also died in Haran away from his homeland of Ur Chasdim) so they would have had to innovate in their new lives in the new country. Were they hoping for some guidance in the moment? Were they wondering if they would be staying in the land or moving onwards again? What was behind the need for Abraham to have to negotiate for a family plot while in the grief of immediate bereavement? If as a Jewish community we have learned one thing, we have learned of the importance of community support in times of death and bereavement. The chevra kadisha (holy fellowship) which is appointed by every Jewish community to care for the dead, goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Hamnuna (3rd Century CE). The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 27b) tells us This also said Rav Judah as reporting Rav: When a person dies in town, all the townspeople are forbidden from doing work. R. Hamnuna once came to Daru-matha, he heard the sound of the funerary-bugle [and] seeing some people carrying on their work, he said: Let the people be under the shammetha [ban]! Is there not a person dead in town? They told him that there was an Association (chevra kadisha) in the town. If so, said he to them, it is allowed you [to work].”

It provides a fascinating insight into the way the whole community was responsible for taking these practical arrangements from the mourners, and for arranging the dignified care and disposal of the body of the dead. This mitzvah took over from the need to work for everyone in town. There was a notifying sound when someone had died so that everyone would know of the death, and clearly in some places that R.Hamnuna knew, this sound was the prompt to everyone to down tools and go to help. Yet in Daru-matha they were even more organised, having deputed the responsibility to a group of skilled volunteers, much as we do to this day.

This leaves time for the mourner to use more than the 15 percent of time that Abraham was able to give in the narrative, to their grief. They can focus entirely on their loss, on the person they loved, on evaluating and processing and making sense of what has happened. And here Abraham has something very powerful to teach us.

We are told וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ:

Abraham came ‘lispod´ for Sarah and livkotah’

Lispod is the word we use for giving the hesped – for speaking of the dead and telling the story of their life, from where they had come and how the journey had been, assessing and evaluating the real life that was lived, rather than eulogising or praising the person- at least not paying fulsome tribute unrealistically or without the fuller context of the way they lived their life. ‘Hesped’ means to cause to cry – in other words to really understand who we have lost and so to really feel the cost and pain of the death. Only after Abraham has done this, comprehended the full meaning of the life of Sarah, and thus the full extent of his loss, does he cry/mourn.

Sometimes when people die we like only to say good things about them – even unrealistic and unbelievable good things, instead of focussing on who they were, on why they had the damage or the pain or the anger they carried, on how they did or did not deal with the hurts and disappointments every life brings. There is a tendency to quote another midrashic gloss taken from the names of three sidrot in the book of Leviticus – “Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor – After death speak holiness”. And this is a good maxim, but it is not the way of true mourning if we think the holiness /kedoshim means to tell ‘white lies’ or gloss over the reality of the complexity of every lived life.

To truly speak holiness of the dead is to recognise them in their full humanity. To see the flaws as well as the wonders, the spectrum of attributes they held and the way they allowed themselves to be. We need to see the fights they fought, the pain they felt, the love they gave, the achievements they realised, the relationships they worked on, the memories they embodied, the losses and the gains. Whatever the story behind the separation of Sarah and Abraham at her death and the lack of dignified burial space planned for earlier, Abraham teaches us something very powerful. See the person who died, give them their full rights as full human beings who lived fully human lives, and only then cry for yourself and for the loss of them. Confront the reality of them and their deaths, and go on to live your life in the light of that understanding.hevra kadisha(images from Czech republic: Hevra Kadisha building in Prague)

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)

Chayei Sarah

I cannot read the story of Sarah, her life and death and subsequent burial arrangements, without sadness. I want to ask about her – who was this woman? She had been moved from her homeland without the experience of hearing God’s command to support her. She had been infertile in a time when fertility meant status and her husband was expecting myriad descendants.  Twice she had had to pretend that her husband was not her husband in order for him to survive (and consequently be taken into the harem of Abimelech king of G’rar, and also into that of the Pharaoh). She had taken matters into her own hands by offering her maidservant Hagar to her husband in order for him to bear a son, and was humiliated and embittered by the experience, causing her eventually to send Ishmael away from the family.  The longed for child she finally bore in old age, Isaac, was traumatised by his experiences with his father on a mountain top, and was not present either at her death or her funeral arrangements.  Poor Sarah. Living apart from her husband in Kiryat Arba Hebron while he was in Beer Sheva, a woman one might say who loved too much for her own good.

But it is her last days and her burial arrangements that have extended into our own times, and some of the bitterness and humiliation and tragedy still stalk us. Why was she living in Kiryat Arba, the City of the Four, rather than with her husband and son?  Who were the Four to which the name refers? And why is she to be buried in this cave in Hebron belonging to Ephron the Hittite? A cave whose name, Machpelah, means ‘doubled’?

It is almost as if the idea of plurality is embedded in this text – Kiryat Arba meaning “the city of the four”, Machpelah meaning ‘doubled’ or ‘a couple’, Hevron meaning ”joined/or the place of friendship/relationship”.

The loneliness of the woman living away from her family, somehow estranged from the events that had happened within it, is mirrored with the words to do with ‘two’ or ‘couple’ or even ‘twice coupled’. It is as if we are looking at parallel universes, at the individual and the communal, at being alone and isolated – and at having friends and connections.

Sarah dies alone, without her husband or son, in a place called ‘friendship’. It is a painful and horrible irony. Her husband buries her alone, in a cave called ‘couple’, and goes on to remarry a woman called Keturah (fragrant), though his two sons come and bury him with his first wife in Machpelah when his time comes. As if, after death, everything comes right and husband and wife are reunited. But we know, of course, that we should be putting things right before death comes to us, that behaving well in life is a far greater act than making atonement after the event.

Hevron today is a tragic place; a catastrophe doubled and doubled again, a place not of friendship but of tears and fearfulness. One can almost hear the cries of our mother Sarah who lies at the centre of a town filled with anxiety, where everyone feels alone and isolated, afraid of each other, afraid of what they themselves might do. There is no plurality there at all, just different communities each wishing the others didn’t exist.

I spent a day there a few years ago and was horrified at what I saw, tearful and shaken at how this town I had remembered in the 1980’s as bustling and thriving had become empty and watchful. The tension in the air was palpable, the tension in the people horribly clear. Shuhada Street, a main thoroughfare which led down to what had been the central market area is, in army parlance, ‘sterilised’, meaning it is closed to Palestinians – even those whose front doors open onto it.

The isolation of Sarah, and the tragic events in her life that led up to it, can be felt today in Hevron. All the missed connections, the lack of understanding of human feelings and needs that seem to underpin her life can be felt in modern Hevron.

The support that Sarah gave to Abraham was given at enormous personal expense to – and distortion of -herself, and ultimately they were driven apart by her giving more than she could, and him taking without apparently appreciating what it was that he received. While he mourned her death he did not celebrate her life, he did not seem to know her, or to understand what motivated her or to appreciate her. He was focussed on his religious belief – leave the land they knew to go to another place, offer his son to God on a mountain – to the exclusion of his wife.

“What if” is not usually a productive game to play, but given that it was to be the son of Abraham AND Sarah who was to inherit the promise and the covenant, what if Abraham had worked together with Sarah to share the burden? What if he had understood the price she paid for him to become the wealthy and powerful patriarch he did? What if he had supported her too, so that she did not suffer at the hands of Hagar and retaliate against Ishmael?

And what if Hevron could finally become a place of friendship rather than antagonism, where both parties could share the space and the place, where both could worship at the ancestral graves, where both could live lives of fulfilment and peace, thinking about the needs and feelings of the other and appreciating their difference?

Sarah’s final days and her burial could be a lesson to us in so many ways, the plurality of the names of Machpelah and Kiryat Arba, the relationship and sense of connection implicit in the name Hevron. And the stark reminder that all of us are mortal, that sometimes it is too late to make up again, that then we can only mourn.