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.