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.

Parashat Vayera: Is anything too hard for God?

Parashat Vayera 2013     “Is anything too hard for God?”

The narrative tells of an encounter in the desert between three travelling men and Abraham, who welcomes them into his tent and gives them hospitality. At the end of the story we read the following conversation: (Genesis 18) “And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” and he said “There, in the tent” and He said “I will certainly return to you when the season comes around, and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the doorway of the tent which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself saying, “After I have grown old shall I have pleasure? My husband being old also?” And God said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh, saying “Shall I really bear a child, who am old?” “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?”  (Which is generally translated as “Is anything too hard for God?) At the set time I will return to you when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son”.

Then Sarah denied saying “I laughed not” for she was afraid. And God said “No, but you did laugh” (Gen 18:9-15)

This announcement of the forthcoming birth of Isaac is, in biblical terms, a long and complicated piece. We begin with the placing of Abraham and Sarah, he outside, serving the three men/angels who are visiting, she inside the tent and hidden. Suddenly the person speaking changes from the plural to the singular, presumably from the men/angels to God, and the person being spoken to is no longer defined. From the three men/angels speaking to Abraham since the beginning of the sidra, we have God saying, with no room for doubt, that Sarah will produce a son. There is no response from Abraham to this, indeed we are not told that God is speaking to him or even that he hears the remark, but there is a response from Sarah. She hears, and her response is to laugh and to question in rather earthy terms both her and her husband’s ability to produce a child. But in between God’s statement and Sarah’s response the Torah interjects. We are told that both Abraham and Sarah are old, and specifically that Sarah is post menopausal.

Now God speaks, asking Abraham why Sarah had laughed, and quite kindly translating her doubt about both her and Abraham’s potency into a questioning only of herself. And then God speaks again, with a rhetorical question whose answer can only be in the negative, a technique found repeatedly within this sidra….”Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar? Is anything too hard for God?”

This question is then followed by a repetition that Sarah shall give birth, and the whole scene is concluded with a conversation between Sarah and God – she denies laughing and Torah tells us it is because she is afraid. God tells her, quite kindly I always feel, that her denial is untrue. She did laugh.  There is so much in this one interaction, but I should like to focus on God’s question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” 

It is a difficult question to translate and yet so critical to much theological thought. The root of the verb yipalei, peh.lamed.alef, is not really about something being too hard, more about being ‘hidden’, or ‘covered’, ‘beyond’, or even ‘separate’, although one commentator suggests that one could read it as ‘great’, so the question could be read as “is anything beyond God?” or “is anything hidden from God?” or “is anything separate or covered from God?” Or even “is anything greater than God?”

Rather like the meaning of this verbal root, the question asked by God is difficult, hard to unravel. For the God we have speaking here in Vayera is the same God who must ask themself only a few verses after this event whether to hide what is to be done to Sodom from Abraham, the same God to whom Abraham asks “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?”, the God who is losing the negotiation to save Sodom and walks away from Abraham. This God of the Hebrew bible is not yet the all powerful being for whom nothing is too difficult, but the Creator of all, the unifier of all, who is coming to terms with exactly what has been created, for made in the image of the Creator it is complex, adaptive, learning, curious; not something to be easily known.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b) – in other words human beings have freedom of will, and the freedom also to impact upon God, and so while I am happy to live with the understanding that God is unknowable, that we cannot encompass what God is, or what God can do, I do so on the understanding also that God responds and reacts to us, self-limits divine action with regard to strict justice in order for us to continue in the world, limits what is possible for God in order to be in relationship with us.

For us to have freedom of will, for us to make choices in our lives, then God has to cede power. It seems a reasonable exchange in order to have a relationship with us.

So back to the question – is anything hidden from God? Well probably not, if we believe in the Creator of all, then it is reasonable to consider that nothing is covered up and beyond the gaze of God. Is anything too hard for God – well, again, probably not, for the same reasons as above. But is anything impossible for God? This is where I part company from what is sometimes taught as traditional Judaism – given the relationship within which we operate, given the freedom of will given to us as to the choices we make, and the ceding of power from God in order to make the relationship between Creator and Creation, then God makes some things impossible for God, a willing and loving self-limitation, and it means that as a consequence we have to take up the slack.

If God cannot dictate good in the world, only teach and hope that we will bring it about, then we should stop blaming God for everything that goes wrong and live as best we can in our imperfect world, doing what we can to perfect it.

There is a view attributed to the 4th Century BCE Athenian Agathon, that God cannot change the past, what is done is done; But I would add to that view it is also not for God to create the present or the future. That is in our hands to do and is not for God.

Sarah laughed and then denied that laughter when God asked Abraham about it. Traditional texts tell us that she laughed at the news that she, past the age of fertility, would bear a child. But I wonder if her laughter was not something more – God asks Abraham the rhetorical question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” but he does not say it to Sarah. For Sarah may know the answer is not as some may like it to be, and if some things are off-limits for God to intervene in, then the consequences for us are frightening.