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.

Beshallach/ Shabbat Shira: the Song of Miriam

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal for God is highly exalted: the horse and its rider God has thrown into the sea.”

Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, is named for the Song at/of the Sea (Shirat haYam) and this name takes precedence over the usual format of the first important word giving the title to the week. Shirat haYam was the song of victory sung by the Israelite slaves after they had successfully crossed the Reed Sea, and the pursuing Egyptians had drowned there following the miraculous opening and then closing of the waves to allow the Israelites safe passage but not the heavily armed Egyptians.

Along with the poem in Deuteronomy (Ha’azinu) it bookends the story of Moses and the people of Israel as they leave Egyptian slavery and journey through the wilderness to arrive at the edge of the promised land, and tradition ascribes its authorship to Moses.

But tucked into the text a little way down we are introduced for the first time by name to Miriam, described as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron” and she takes a drum in her hand and leads the women in singing and dancing and drumming to celebrate the victory. And while apparently singing the same first line, Moses and the children of Israel sing “I will sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted” while Miriam sings “Sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted”. She uses the imperative version, whereas Moses and the Israelites use the personal pronoun.

The order of the text makes us read this as the song of Moses, but is there a clue in the wording of the text to tell us that this is the song of Miriam?

In the fragments of text found in Qumran (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) we find a tantalising addition. Just as in the biblical text we find that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron took a timbrel in her hand and led the women out with her with timbrels and dancing”, but then there is a break, and then the fragments of seven lines NOT found in the biblical text, followed by the narrative being picked up as the biblical verse 15:22 where Moses leads the Israelites away from the Reed Sea into the desert, and the people find no water until arriving at Marah they find undrinkably bitter (Marah) water.

Is the Qumran text a gloss on the biblical poem of Moses, answering the question of what Miriam might have sung and paralleling other songs of victory or was it the original text which took away words from Miriam and the women in order to give them to Moses and the Israelites? We know that women sang songs of victory after battles – Deborah is a prime example whose song is recorded (Judges 5), and Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34) comes out with timbrel and dancing on his return home. Unnamed women come out dancing and singing with their timbrels when David returns having defeated the Philistines (1Sam 18:6-7) celebrating his success and humiliating King Saul’s record. Hannah (1Sam:2) sings when she achieves her goal of a child, and the late book Judith has her sing in the final chapter, having beheaded Holofernes…

So why not Miriam and the women singing their song? Miriam the prophetess was also Miriam the musician and song leader. Her voice and her words deserve to be heard and to be recognised.

miriams timbrel

Whatever the reason for the biblical canon to contain just the remnant of her singing with the women, apparently echoing the words of Moses and the men, so that tradition could claim her as the song leader for the women only, I think there are enough clues left for us to give her the power and place she deserves.

The first place that Moses leads the Israelites to is called by the narrator “Marah” , after the bitter and undrinkable water found there and there is much murmuring against Moses until on God’s instructions he finds a tree whose wood will sweeten the water. Moses uses this as a teaching aid to remind the people that God is their healer, and then they move on to Elim where there are twelve good water sources and seventy palm trees. Is this a veiled reference to Miriam, whose name is impossible to translate with certainty but which is often understood as coming from “Mar – yam – bitter – water/sea”? Are the people murmuring because of Miriam and her treatment by Moses that he appropriated her rightful role? And are they pacified by the oasis of plenty represented by 12 springs and seventy palm trees and so forget their indignation?

But more intriguing I think is the possibility that Miriam’s name is not derived from bitterness MRH) but comes from a rarely used root MRR to mean a flow of water, drops of water or a watercourse. In which case her name would mean the flowing of water or the directing of water – something that would come to fruition not only in the midrashic idea that wherever Miriam was there was water for the Israelites in the desert (which comes from the drought that is the first reported event after her death), but from this text about the Reed Sea, which changed direction, flowed differently and intentionally while the Israelites crossed it. The name Miriam, introduced exactly here, is I think a clue to her purpose –  we are already explicitly told that she is a prophetess, she has real and intentional meaning and understanding – it is Miriam who causes the sea to part and the miraculous redemption of the fugitive people. Her name, hiding in full view, tells us exactly that.

So the Song here attributed to Moses yet called slightly confusingly Shirat HaYam , the Song of (or at) the Sea (a name first recorded in the 2nd Century in Talmud Yerushalmi), might actually have been Shirat MirYam, the song of Miriam. And how powerfully that simple change could have affected our understanding of our foundational texts and shaped the hearing of the voices of women in our tradition.

Drop by drop as we look again at the texts, we who see Miriam as a role model, who see ourselves reflected in her life as prophetess, sister, organiser, carer for children, provider of life giving water/nourishment, song leader, drummer and dancer , as well as a hard worker behind the scenes who protested injustice done to others and the arrogating of power to the male leadership – we need to take notice of the effect that the flow of water can have – it can wear away the hardest rock. Drop by determined drop we take up her mantle and raise our voices in song and in challenge and in prophecy, and hope that this time the words will not disappear from the canon.

(Photo of Miriam’s timbrel and the reeds in Egypt/water of the Reed Sea from an embroidered Torah Wimple made by Caroline and Naomi Ingram for the author)