Parashat Pinchas: #Girlpower; Or: The real stars of the sidra are the five women siblings who transform society and create justice.

‘Va’tikrav’nah b’not Zelophehad’ – the daughters of Zelophehad approached …. so begins one of the most intriguing stories to take place in the wilderness, a story where the bones of the developing society are laid bare for us to see, a rare narrative of the evolution of the legal code, and of the organising principles of our ancestral community.  And how much richer and more rewarding a text than we might imagine – it begins with this proactive and dynamic move – the daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard of up until now, a man who is distinguished at this point only through his death – approach Moses and demand what they see to be their, and their father’s right – inheritance of land for them, and continuation of name and memory for  him.

The very first word on the story is unusual – the feminine plural form of any verb is a rarity in biblical Hebrew grammar, which defaults into the masculine with even a hint of testosterone, however many women there are involved.  And this is an active verb – the action of drawing close to another, used routinely in the search for God with the ritual of korbanut – of offering something precious to God as a sacrifice.  The verb one might expect – of simply coming to speak to Moses, is rejected in favour of injecting a sense of closeness – even of implying relationship.  These are no supplicant outsiders, but people whose perception of themselves is of being at the core of the community, who are able to treat Moses with proper respect but without needing to beg.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are clearly of interest to the biblical narrator – not only are all their names recorded, but in the book of Joshua they appear again – and once again all the names are listed – to demand that what God had commanded Moses here in the wilderness was honoured once the people reached the land.  They obviously made a huge impression in their determination to inherit the land of their father, and in their determination to work together – five women, siblings, jointly fighting for their principles and their rights.  Given the terrible sibling stories in the bible – the first murder is fratricide and takes place in the very first generation to be born into the world – the relationships each of the patriarchs had with this brothers and the behaviour of Joseph’s older brothers towards him – you might think that it wasn’t even possible to get along with, let alone work with, your peer generation relatives!  There is a vestige of a hint that sisters might get along as long as they weren’t interested in the same man, in the midrash on Leah and Rachel, but actively co-operating with each other for joint good – that is unique I think to these five women.  Small wonder they are remembered with such particular definiteness.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah break the mould of sibling relationships – but they break other moulds too.  Up until this point no-one has come along with their own interpretation of Torah – God has simply given out commandments, either at reaching a new geographical place or during a social crisis.  At no point has anyone so much as solicited a legal opinion from God on a matter God has not yet discussed, let alone come up with their own innovation.  This is something entirely new in the narrative – for someone to come to Moses with a principled resolve based on what they understand to be the right thing to do, and a clear vision of what a Godly society should do.

Rather than merely following rules which have been transmitted to them, these women are willing to innovate, to change the world in accordance with their own principles.  As other women have done before them:– Sarah persuading Abraham to have a son by Hagar, Rebecca disguising the young goat as venison so as to claim the birthright blessing for her favourite son Jacob – the daughters of Zelophehad have taken matters into their own hands and changed the course of history.  This is a radical shift in the development of the Jewish people.  While one can make the case that since Eve in the Garden of Eden, men have tended to follow the rules which are laid down (or at best to interpret them within a narrow focus), women have brought about disjunction and change, this is the first time that the women’s behaviour has been given the imprimatur of God – ‘ Kein b’not Zelophehad dovrot – the daughters of Zelophehad speak right’  – there is divine approval for the different model of approaching the world, that of creating something new that is not connected with what was already in place, of breaking new ground because one is driven to do so by a sense of justice, of the absolute rightness of the new action.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story designed to remind us to stand up for rights, even if they are not yet perceived to be rights;  it is a story to remind us that all things might be possible, even with a God who seems to have it all sorted out already, even in a wilderness where the right might seem to be too abstract or too unfulfillable to be relevant.

The daughters of Zelophehad did groundbreaking work, which emerged from their confidence in themselves and the justness of their cause, from their supportive relationship with each other, from the need to link the past with the future and identify themselves within that future.  They established a legal presence and right for themselves and for all women in the future – the right to control their own economic provision.  We know that later on the right was constrained to daughters who married within their own tribe, that while they achieved economic power for women they were still kept away from the more potent power of the time – that of religious decision making – at least within the public and recorded sphere, but that should not change how we view this radical model of behaviour – you  still have to stand up and claim your rights and responsibilities even if you don’t immediately or easily achieve them – you need to challenge even God if necessary, to battle for what you believe to be important, to make your mark upon the world by fighting to make the world a better place.

The world hasn’t changed since the days of Machlah, Noa, Hogla, Milcah and Tirzah – it still seems that generally speaking men tend to operate by following or implementing the rules  and that women work by transforming them.  You only have to look at the impact women have had on the rabbinate to see that generality in action!   The question we need to be asking ourselves is not ‘why is the world so unfair’ but ‘in what way will I change the world because of what I believe in, because of my own faithfully held principles?’

(Adapted from the sermon for my daughter’s batmitzvah parashat Pinchas 2000 – a true disciple of the b’not zelophechad school of women fighting for social justice. Dedicated to the formidable Charlotte Fischer)

 

The minor daughter sold to another man:parashat mishpatim asserts her rights.

 

“And if a man sell his [minor] daughter to be a maidservant (le’amah) she shall not leave as the male servants do. If she does not please her master who should be espoused to her/ who is not espoused to her, then he shall let her be redeemed.  He has no power to sell her on to a foreign people for he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouses her to his son then he will treat her as he would treat a daughter. And if he takes another wife [having married her himself] he must not diminish her food, clothing allowance or conjugal rights. And if he fails to provide her with these, then she shall be able to leave freely, without any money to be paid” (Exodus 21:7-11)

Sometimes in bible we are taken aback at the worldview of the text, a perspective that is so far from ours as to seem it comes from a completely different universe.  One response has been to effectively excise some texts from the biblical canon, never going to far as to physically remove them perhaps, but certainly to ensure that they are not read or brought forward to support our current system of beliefs or actions.

At first reading the fate of a minor daughter seems to be that she is powerless and of use only insofar as money can be made from her. It appears that the daughter is an asset to be leveraged for the benefit of the father or the family. And this must have seemed to be reasonable to some, for otherwise why would we find in the Babylonian wisdom literature the maxim – “The strong man lives off what is paid for his arms (strength), but the weak man lives off what is paid for his children” which is surely warning people not to sell their children for profit.

Bible however is a subtle text and we cannot simply read the first half of the verse without the conditions required in the second half and the following verses on the subject. It begins with the presumption that a man may sell his daughter to be a maidservant   (AMAH ).  Immediately we note that this must be a minor daughter over whom the father has authority, which already limits the possibility for him to take this action. Then we see that while the word ‘AMAH’ is used and is posited against the male servants (AVADIM) the word that is NOT used is ‘SHIFCHA’ a word which is more servile in its usage. AMAH can be used of a free woman when speaking to a social superior; SHIFCHA is not used in this way. So she is being sold not as a slave but as an AMAH, a status that Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah are also described as having, and as Ruth and Hannah, Abigail and Michal will also  describe themselves later in bible.

After this introductory phrase that must have been familiar to the original audience for the biblical text, that a many might sell his daughter to another, comes a set of conditions that make clear that whatever the girl is being sold for, her rights are clearly stated and they are tightly drawn and powerfully asserted.

First – she is not someone who is sold as a male slave for whom the sabbatical year of jubilee year will end the contract being made and from this we can clearly deduce that while the context of the narrative is the rights of the Hebrew slave, the rights of this minor girl are different. Something else is happening here and the contract is quite different.

The first clue is the expectation that she is being sold into the household of a man who will later expect to marry her and raise her status accordingly. What is she doing in his household? She is learning the business of becoming a wife and director of the household, something that for whatever reason she does not have access to in her own parental home.

The text then goes on. If the master of the house does not wish to marry her at the appropriate time of her maturity, then he must arrange that she is redeemed from the contract. Rabbinic law assumes that someone in her family will act as go’el and pay out the remaining debt her father has incurred.

The master of the house is expressly forbidden from passing her on to another family – she is not property to be sold on, she is not to be given in prostitution. The bible is absolutely clear – if he does not marry her then he has broken the original contract and so he now has no legal power or ability to direct her future.

The one curiosity here is that there is a kerei ketiv – that is the text is written in one way but understood differently. The negative LO (Lamed Alef) is written, but the text is read as if the word were LO (Lamed Vav). As written it would read “Her master who has not become espoused to her”, as read it is “Her master who has become espoused to her”.  It seems that the Masoretic text cannot imagine that her master did not begin by arranging the engagement, the first part of the marital contract, and instead they think he must have changed his mind once she grew up and was unwilling to go through with it. I think this underlines just how deeply the assumption was that the contract between the father of the girl and the master of the house was that she was being given up early to be married in the future – either because the father was too poor to offer a dowry at the time it would be needed, or too poor even to support her while she grew up. It may even have been done in order to settle the girl’s future in times of political unrest. We know that the Jewish marriage ceremonies which are nowadays done either in one day or at least very closely together were originally separated into the two ceremonies of betrothal and subsequent marriage and that these could take place years apart from each other, the ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ continuing to live in their respective homes after the betrothal for many years before the actual marriage took place and the couple came together as a new family.

Bible gives the possibility that should she not marry the father of the house, then she might marry the son of the house – something which may have delayed her future status but not otherwise significantly alter it. And if she did marry the son rather than the father, her rights as a full member of the family are once again asserted. She is to be treated in every way as a daughter of the house.

The passage then lays down the rights of the girl should she subsequently find that her husband takes another wife – something that might damage her status in the home and leave her marginalised and potentially poorer than before he did so. Thus bible clarifies that the rights of the wife to food, clothing and sex are absolute, and that nothing and nobody can diminish these rights.

It ends with the clear statement about the limits of the contract even if the man has broken it by espousing the girl to his son and therefore lost all rights of ‘ownership’ or privilege.

Should the girl find that she is not being given the full status of married woman, that she is not given the food, clothing and sex that are her rights, then she is free to go – the man has broken his contract and has no hold over her whatsoever – she does not need to be redeemed by a goel or even pay any remaining debt incurred by her father and by her own maintenance in the household – she is a free woman in every way

This passage, which on first reading appears to say that a minor girl can be treated as a chattel to be sold at the whim of her father to a man who would then establish his own ownership is nothing of the sort. The bible actually stops a man selling his daughter as a slave for the purposes of prostitution, and in this first and only legislation in the ancient near east to discuss the rights of a girl who is sold, the girl is protected by some quite draconian legislation, her rights and the obligations to her spelled out beyond the possibility that someone might try to reinterpret what is happening.  Interestingly any obligation of the girl is not mentioned. While we assume she will work to pay for her maintenance, this is not specified. The text is interested only in protecting her and putting boundaries around what the men in her life may think they are able to do with her.

While it would be nice to think that she would be consulted in the betrothal as Rebecca was (albeit without seeing Isaac) we must be grateful for what we get in the world view in which bible was formed. We have here the basis for the rights of all wives – to food, clothing and a home/ sexual relations. Rabbinic law took the text from here in order to provide a basic minimum for every woman who threw her lot in with a man in marriage, and thus protected women in a world which was otherwise potentially disrespectful and without care for her needs.

The unknown AMAH of Mishpatim is the beneficiary of quite phenomenally forward thinking law. Her personhood was respected far more than the mores of the time. There might even be a case to say that a girl from a poor family who might otherwise only be able to look forward to a life of hardship and work either married to a man too poor to offer her much or not able to provide a dowry in order to be married at all, would in this way be able to jump out of her impoverished setting into one of economic security.  One cannot help but think of the women from less economically thriving countries offering themselves in marriage on the internet to men from wealthier countries in order to better their own standard of living.

I cannot say I am thrilled by this passage, but we must be aware of the context of the narrative and the legal codes it comes to replace. The sale of minors was common throughout Assyria and Babylonia and there are documents to suggest it was also in practise in Syria and Palestine. And we see in the book of Kings (2K 4:1) that children might be seized into slavery by their dead parents’ creditors. Nuzi documents show that sale into a conditional slavery was practised, whereby the girl would always be married but not to the master of the house, rather to another slave. The genius of the biblical amendment was that the girl was to be raised in status and treated properly for her whole life, and that she would be freed if certain conditions were not met.

The minor daughter of a man who needed to be free of the economic burden she represented was vulnerable. To this day in some societies daughters are perceived as less valuable, less giving of status to the family, and as people who will never be as economically worthy as sons. It remains true of course that women’s work is not valued in the same way that work done by men is and sadly many women have bought into this viewpoint so even high flying career women will see an increasing gap between their remuneration and that of their male colleagues.

It would be wonderful for this perception to be erased. There is no intellectual or scientifically validated case for it to be held, and yet even in modernity it holds great power in society.  Bible cannot help us here, but it is something to hold on to – that bible restricts the rights of men over their vulnerable daughters and over the defenceless women in their household and it clearly and powerfully ascribes and asserts rights for those women, rights which Jewish legal codes have had to uphold even in highly patriarchal and paternalistic times and groups.

It looks to me from this text that God is aware of the problem humans seem to have with gendered power, and has set a model for dealing with it we could emulate. As the Orthodox Union just tried to curtail the rights of women in scholarship and leadership positions with a  responsum so out of touch and lacking respect for its own constituency, it is good to see that this ancient text gives a lead on the building of the status of women who may need such building, and does not try to either take advantage of them nor to diminish their place in the world.

 

To study further I recommend reading:

“Slavery in the Ancient Near East”. I Mendelsohn in “The biblical Archaeologist”  vol 9 number 4

Josef Fleischman in The Jewish Law Annual ed. Berachyahu Lifshitz. Taylor & Francis, 1 Sep 2000

http://www.jta.org/2017/02/02/top-headlines/ou-bars-women-from-serving-as-clergy-in-its-synagogues

 

 

 

Parashat Bo: amid the drama and death in Egypt God gives a glimmer of hope for feminism

When Moses wanted to warn of a plague that would affect every single family from the most powerful in the land to the most vulnerable and powerless, he chooses a telling analogy – he tells Pharaoh “and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 11:5)

What do we learn from this? We learn that the normative belief of Moses and of Pharaoh is that the lowest of the low in Egyptian society was the shifcha – the female servant – in particular the one whose job was the physical labour of grinding the corn on the millstones.

In human society this woman who worked behind the millstones, completely unseen, and the product of whose work was the most critical and basic foodstuff – she was at the very bottom of the pile, only above the animal herds.

Midrash notices her – in Pesikta Rabbati (ch 17) we have the question why she should also become a victim of the tenth plague, losing her firstborn child like the rest of non-Israelite society, and unsurprisingly it enters the realm of apologetics, and an explanation supporting this position is devised :“because the children of the slave women were also enslaving the Israelites, and they were happy about their misfortune”

Even in the world of slaves it seems, there is no compassion for fellow sufferers, the hierarchy and the need to enslave others, is assumed.

She seems to me to be a paradigm for women’s work through the ages. She is barely noticed, hidden behind the millstones, her gender and her status as servant both contributing to her concealment. She is the definition of what society has constructed as “worthless”, even while she is doing work that is not only of real value but that is utterly necessary for the society to continue – grinding the flour for the bread is the work on which all other factors build. Women’s work has always been valued as less-than. Be it home making or child rearing, tending to the sick and to the elderly, in service to others or even if it is innovative and creative, society values it less, sees it as inferior. And sadly girls absorb this world view early –gender stereotypes seem to be functioning in children as young as six years old[i]

Yet the biblical text views the shifcha – the bondmaid – in Hebrew society differently – they are not so hidden from view. It seems that the shifcha is the name of the maid given directly to the women by their menfolk in order to help them in their lives.  Hagar is introduced as a shifcha belonging to Sarah (Gen 16:1) though she is called an amah when she has Abraham’s child.  Zilpah and Bilhah are similarly introduced as Shifchot when given by their father to Leah and Rachel on their marriages to Jacob. The shifcha helps her mistress fulfil her work – in these cases she goes so far as to provide children with the husband of her mistress, functioning as a surrogate. It is a status both lowly and without personal identity or autonomy and yet at the same time the shifcha is in the heart of the family, bearing children who are recognised and who will inherit. Her function is to support and build the status of her mistress and in so doing she will herself grow in status.

In the Ten Commandments the status of the servants (admittedly av’decha v’amat’cha) means they also do no work on Shabbat.  Their power may be low and their vulnerability great, but God notices them and cares for them.

And this may explain the disappearance from the text of these women described by Moses as the very lowest of Egyptian society.  For in the very next chapter when the plague he is warning about comes to pass we read “And it came to pass at midnight, that the Eternal smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 12:29)

The shifcha who worked behind the mill has been replaced here by the captive in the dungeon. And we have to ask why. Is it that Moses got it wrong, that the shifcha was not quite at the bottom of the pile? Is it that the two groups, captives and maidservants, are essentially synonyms?

I don’t think Moses got it wrong, and I don’t think that the two groups fully equate – the imprisoned captive or the hard working servant woman. I have the feeling that God noticed when Moses issued his threat, God saw that these women who were unsung and uncared for but who worked for the society – in their case to feed them –did not deserve this total lack of respect that Pharaoh and Moses assumed. God didn’t buy into the idea that “women’s work” – the kind of work that creates and cooks the food, that ensures there is clean clothing and that the home is functioning and hygienic; the kind of work like cleaning offices when everyone else has gone home or visiting the sick or elderly and helping with their basic needs – God sees the value even when sometimes society doesn’t.

When Moses and Pharaoh demonstrate that they do not see the women because the society in which they lived do not see the women, God has a little extra lesson to give. The story is dramatic, the tenth plague particularly cruel and unfair leading us to much soul searching about what kind of a God could behave like this – but the glimmer of fairness and valuing of someone shows through as God subtly shifts from the warning to the action. And it makes me see a God working in a patriarchal context but refusing to be bound by it.

[i] Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389–391.

Toledot: there are more generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice – meet Mahalat bat Ishmael the fragrant bringer of hope

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו: ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶת־מַֽחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה:

“And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Isaac his father. So Esau went to Ishmael and he took Machalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot over his women/ in addition to his other wives, for a wife for himself.”

So ends the sidra of Toledot. It began with Isaac marrying Rebecca and pleading with God for her to have children. Having conceived twins who are struggling within her, Rebecca is informed that she will give birth to two nations who would be not be equal. The firstborn, Esau, was red and hairy. The second born was holding on to his brother’s heel so they named him Jacob (heel). Esau became a skilled hunter and was the favoured child of his father, but Jacob remained close to home and his mother. The bible recounts the story of Esau coming home famished after a hunting trip and selling his birthright blessing for some of the delicious red stew that Jacob had made.

The narrative continues with the story of a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine King Abimelech for support, having been told by God to not leave the land as his father had done. Isaac settled in Gerar, and for fear of being killed because of Rebecca’s beauty, he follows the example his parents had given and told Abimelech that Rebecca was not his wife but his sister. Abimelech however found the lie out, and in order not to attract punishment from God, warns the Philistines not to mistreat the couple.   Isaac grows wealthy and the Philistines begin to hate and envy him to the point where he is unsafe. Isaac moves his household away to Rechovot, and then has an encounter with God at Beersheva where he receives the covenant of blessing. Abimelech, understanding that Isaac is the heir to his father’s relationship with God seeks a peace treaty with him which is sealed with a feast.

Now we return our focus to the family. Esau married two Hittite women, Judith bat Be’eri and Basemat bat Elon, and Isaac and Rebecca are bitterly upset.

Now we come to the last phase of Isaac’s life. He is old, his sight is poor, he knows it is time to give the blessings to his sons. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare a dish of his game for him after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears, and, when Esau is gone, she instructs Jacob to bring her young goats in order for her to make a meal for Isaac that Jacob can take him and receive the blessing. Jacob does not think this will work- Esau is hairy, Jacob is not. Isaac on touching his son will understand the deception and may curse him. Rebecca responds by taking the curse upon herself, and demands that Jacob do as she has told him. She makes coverings from the skins of the goats and food from the flesh, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing and sends him to his father. The text is ambiguous as to whether Isaac recognises which of his sons is with him, but he goes with the flow, blessing Jacob with the special blessing. Esau returns, discovers his blessing is already given to his brother and in his distress asks his father for another. Isaac blesses him with abundance, but also with the hope that he will one day break the yoke of subservience to his brother. Esau’s fury is a danger to Jacob and so his mother arranges that he is sent to safety with her family under the pretext that this will keep him away from Canaanite women and help him to marry within the family group.  Esau hears this, understands that his first two choices of wife were not acceptable to his parents, and so he goes to Ishmael his uncle in order to marry Machalat, his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael.

Machalat is family. She is the daughter of Ishmael the beloved son of Abraham and of Hagar, whom God comforts when she and her son are near to death in the wilderness having been expelled from the camp. Hagar is the first person who is recorded as giving a name to God.   We are told that “she called the name of the Eternal who spoke to her, You are El Ro’ee (a God of seeing)” (Gen 16:13)  So Machalat is the grandchild of a woman who encountered God.

There are two biblical texts naming the wives of Esau, and they do not exactly coincide. One tells us the three wives are Yehudit bat Beeri, Basemat bat Elon and Mahalat bat Ishmael (Gen 26) whereas the second tells us they are Adah bat Elon, Basemat bat Ishmael and Oholivamah bat Anah (Gen 36).  The gemara resolves the problem by saying that Basemat/Machalat were the same woman, and whereas the name Basemat means fragrant, Machalat comes from the same root as forgiveness – mechilah – and that in marrying her all the sins of Esau were forgiven (JT Bikkurim 3:3)This would explain how, when the brothers meet up again years later, Esau is warm and welcoming, having given up the bitterness and anger caused by his brother’s betrayal, he too, having been forgiven, is able to forgive.

Basemat, whose name implies great sweetness, gives Esau a son and names him Re’u-El –friend of God. Is it accident that the name plays with and even seems to echo the name her grandmother gave to God – El-Roee? What is clear is that while Esau has many other children, only this son is named with a reference to God.

It feels like a hint – Hagar and Basemat were not destined to be part of the main thread of the narrative, but they were important nevertheless, they had their own very good relationship with God and their lives impact upon our history.

The bible may not be focussed on these women, or on this lateral branch of the family tree, but it considers them important enough for them and their descendants to be recorded. We know about Rebecca, her initial infertility and her later challenge to God once her difficult pregnancy was begun. We know how she took care to direct the narrative so that Jacob would become the link in the chain of tradition. We know about Sarah, her initial infertility and her derisive laughter in responding to God’s telling her that she would yet bear a child to be the link in the chain of tradition. But the bible reminds us there were other women who also had encounters with God, yet who did not go on to become matriarchs in our tradition.

Our historic commentators do not much notice these women, and if they choose to do so it is usually to make a point about the men they are connected with, and to be honest, they are not often kind to the women nor interested in them and their experience. But now we have a different set of lenses, modernity chooses to unpeel the layers of patriarchy and look again at the unvarnished text. Machalat the daughter of Ishmael appears to be a woman who, like her grandmother, knows God. Her marriage to Esau seems to change him, their son is a friend of God, the same God who appeared to abet Esau’s trauma. She brings forgiveness – mechilah – and she brings hope. Hope for the brothers who were destined to be in an unequal power relationship but whom we see later in life are both wealthy, settled family men. And in bringing the hope that transforms the relationship of brothers born to struggle against each other, surely she can be the touchstone for us in our generation when we know we are not forced or destined to hate each other. Machalat bat Ishmael, she brings the fragrance of hope and optimism. She deserves to be noticed.

 

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/56/dd/4b/56dd4b96809fb5e941fcbd8129daae88.jpg

 

Image is “Mahalat” [Yishmael’s daughter, Esav’s wife] by Siona Benjamin

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.

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)