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

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.