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Friday, November 9, 2012

Hayei Sarah: The Legacy of Sarah and Rebecca


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 telling of her death at the age of 127. Our matriarchs,and other women in the Torah, often get forgotten as compared to their husbands and other men. For though many portions are named after a man, this is the only one named after a woman. And if only one woman were to have a parashah named after her, it is quite fitting that it be Sarah. Not only because she was one of the two first monotheists (and proto-Jews), but because looking at the character of Sarah as portrayed both in the Torah and the midrash (rabbinic exegetical tales) it is easy to se that she surely deserves recognition.

Within the Torah, Sarah is a character who is strong, yet flexible. When she thinks that her son Isaac is being threatened by his brother Ishmael (even though this may not have been the case) 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 known then, leaves her home and her family with her husband and follows him to an unknown land, guided by an unknown God without ever seeming to question him. This may seem to some the actions of a passive or subservient wife. Yet, the Sages do not view these actions as passive. 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, which it did not rest upon Abraham or anyone else. This is symbolized in the midrash which 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. "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 vanished when Sarah died, 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 her death.

In this midrash it is clear that Sarah was seen as a paradigm of hospitality, kindness, and blessing; she also had a special connection with the Divine. Our Sages remind us that when the angels/visitors came to Abraham to prophesy 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. How sad then that for years the Amidah, the central prayer of our daily liturgy, has b by begun by calling on God as simply the God of Abraham (Isaac and Jacob) and only within the last few decades, within more liberal circles, as the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah (Rebecca, Rachel and Leah). For the Sages made it clear that Sarah had a relationship with God separate from that of Abraham and unique in its own way. She was not merely connected to God through her husband.

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 the lineage and tradition continues. Rebecca 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. And if one's traditional practice does not allow for changing the liturgy, perhaps a way could be found in text study and commentary, or in writing kavvanot (introductory or intentional reading) to include the heritage of Sarah and the other matriarchs.

Remembering that God has a unique relationship with the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs is not only about feminism or gender equality, but it is about acknowledging and paying attention to the fact that the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah is within each of us. 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 living our lives, 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; our task of bringing the Divine into the world is incomplete, just as Abraham's task of welcoming the Divine visitors would have been unfinished if Sarah had not been there to provide for them.

As we remember the life and death of Sarah, as well as the welcoming of Rebecca into her tent in this week's parashah, let us remember this message. Let us reach outward and inward to connect with the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah. One God with many faces who touches each of our lives in a different way in each and every moment, bringing us together as one humanity, one world in the name of the Divine.

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