Parashat Chayyei Sarah 5778

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, 10 November 2017

As I sat to write this Thought of the Week I found myself remembering a Bat Mitzvah I officiated at a number of years ago. The student was an exceptional young woman who chanted her portion beautifully and led the service with a competence and confidence that bellied her young age. In her d’var torah she spoke eloquently about being the first woman in her family to have a Bat Mitvzah and what it meant to her to be entering into this tradition and to give voice to those women who went before her. I clearly remember questioning her as to why, given this, that she decided to read from the beginning of the parasha – dealing with Sarah’s death and burial place – rather than the later story of Rebekkah.

This wonderful student explained to me that she felt there was something very powerful about giving a voice to Sarah’s silence. Chayei Sarah – the life of Sarah, that begins with her death.

.א. וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
1 And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
,ב. וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה
2 And Sarah died

It is, of course, a distinctive phenomenon of the Torah that women are often absent. If they appear present physically then we find that their voices are often missing from the narrative. Indeed, when Abraham takes Sarah’s only child (the child of her old age she thought would never come) into the wilderness to sacrifice him, we hear nothing of her opinion. We know not if she had a chance even to have an opinion. This troubled the rabbis of old who saw her death, which came immediately after this most disturbing of events, as a reaction to trauma.

One way that feminist Torah scholars have tackled this is to write women back into the text, seeking to hear their voices in the subtext of the text. However, arguably even Rashi attempted this when he began his discussion on the portion by asking why the phrase that begins it would repeat the word ‘shana’ / year again and again:

.וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה

Literally this can be translated as “And this is the life of Sarah – one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah.” Rashi answers himself by explaining that each expression is a complete number, referring to a different part of her life. From this we are to understand more about her life than her death.

An examination of the woman reveals a person loved by her husband and son, a woman who was strong and caring, but also hard and jealous at times. In other words, like most of us, a complex individual who was a product of her childhood, her youth, her mid life and her old age.

One cannot open a newspaper or tune into the radio or a news site or browse social media without being struck by the stories of harassment and abuse women have experienced in all spheres of modern life. I am particularly struck by the dialogue and comments that have accompanied these stories. I am asked time and time again why women left it so long to speak up, why it would still affect them after all this time and worst of all whether it would not have been better to leave it where it was – as we now live in times when this would not be acceptable.

While I would like to think that everyone reading this does not think in this way and the conversations I have had are the exceptions, I do not feel I can write a commentary to a portion such as this and not mention it. The #metoo campaign revealed that there are very few spheres of life where women have not experienced some level of sexism, misogyny, harassment and abuse. Certainly, we can be glad that so many women now feel able to speak up but it is equally important to acknowledge that like Sarah women have felt silenced for too long. These experiences shape us – whether they happened in our young age, prime or old age they become formed into the way we perceive the world and interact with it. I for one would feel I have personally failed if my children are still saying “me too”.

As we write women back into our ancient scriptures, let us seize this opportunity to ensure their stories are told today so we do not look back and think how did we neglect to listen and change…

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