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Friday, November 13, 2009

Commentary on Hayyei Sarah

This week's parashah is Hayyei Sarah (Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18). Though the name of the parashah means "life of Sarah" it actually begins by recounting her death at the age of 127. Our matriarchs often get forgotten as compared to their husbands, and yet Sarah is the only one of all of our seven biblical patriarchs and matriarchs whose name is used in the title of a parashah.

Though this might seem strange at first, it is quite fitting. For if one looks at the character of Sarah as portrayed both in the Torah itself and in the midrash (rabbinic exegetical tales) written later on she surely deserves recognition.

Within the Torah Sarah is a character that is seen as strong, yet flexible. When she thinks that her son Isaac is being threatened by his brother Ishmael she immediately protects him by insisting that Abraham cast out Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Though her actions may be viewed by us as harsh and disproportionate to any actual threat, no one can claim that she was being passive.

Yet, the same Sarah (or Sarai, as she was in her earlier years)leaves her home and her family with her husband and follows him to an unknown land without ever seeming to question him. This may seem to us as the actions of a passive and subservient wife. Yet, the Sages do not view these actions as passive either. In fact, the Sages say that Sarah is actually to be more praised than Abraham because he went on the journey having spoken with God and knowing that God was with them. However, Sarah went on this journey because she had unwavering faith in God without ever hearing God's voice directly. We are even told by the Sages that Sarah's prophetic powers were greater than Abraham's because the Ruah Ha'Kodesh (Holy Spirit) rested upon her in a special way that it did not rest upon Abraham or anyone else, for that matter. This is symbolized by the midrash that states that the cloud of the Shekhinah (God's Divine Presence) hovered over the entrance to Sarah's tent, just as it was to later hover over the mishkan, the portable Sanctuary where worship took place during the Israelites' years of wandering in the desert. We read in the midrash : "All the years that Sarah was alive, there was a cloud [of the Shekhinah] at the entrance of her tent ...the doors of the tent stood wide open...there was blessing in the dough of the bread...there was a light burning from one Shabbat
eve to the next Shabbat eve." (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 60:10).

The midrash continues to tell us that the light went out, the doors closed and the cloud disappeared upon Sarah's death only to return when (in this week's parashah) Isaac brought his new bride Rebecca into "his mother's tent" where she comforted him following Sarah's death.

In this midrash it is clear that Sarah was seen as the model of hospitality, kindness, and blessing and had a special connection with the Divine. Our Sages remind us that when the angels/visitors came to Abraham to tell him of Isaac's birth, Abraham went to Sarah and asked her to prepare the meal, for he knew that it was because of her that the dough was blessed. Though Abraham carried on the conversation with the visitors it was Sarah's hospitality that provided these divine messengers with sustenance. In the rabbinic mind Sarah and Abraham's relationship was portrayed as a true partnership in which Sarah played a significant role. How tragic then that for years the Amidah, the central prayer of our liturgy, began by calling on God as simply the God of
Abraham and only within the last few decades within more liberal circles, as the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah. The midrash makes it clear that Sarah had a relationship with God separate from that of Abraham and unique in its own way.

Sarah's spirit and her strength can serve as a role model for us all, regardless of gender. The fact that the midrash portrays the Divine Presence as returning to Sarah's tent upon Rebecca's entry into the tent also shows us that Rivkah is the clear spiritual heir to Sarah's legacy. And so the tradition of the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah, may indeed be as old as the idea of God as the God of their male partners; it has only taken us this long to acknowledge this fact and rectify the situation. Let us hope that as time goes on more Jews realize this and more congregations outside of Reconstructionist, Reform and some Conservative ones, begin to include their names as well.

Naming God as such is not only about feminism or gender equality, but it is about acknowledging and paying attention to the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah within each of us, as well as the God of the other patriarchs and matriarchs. Rabbinic tradition attributes a specific middah (quality or personality trait) to each of our ancestors. If we stop and pay attention to the voices of all as they speak to us through prayer, meditation, study or simply living we discover these voices, these divine/human qualities within ourselves. Without paying attention to both the God of our Matriarchs and the God of our Patriarchs we are all diminished and our task of bringing the Divine into the world is left unfinished, just as Abraham's task of welcoming the Divine visitors would have been unfinished if Sarah had not been there to provide for their needs and to welcome and offer them blessings as well.

May we remember this as we remember the death and life of Sarah through this week's Torah reading.

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