Parashat Chayyei Sarah 5781


11 November 2020 – 24 Heshvan 5781

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

 
25 years ago, the publication of Siddur Lev Chadash was a huge milestone. After two decades of Jewish feminism, the new prayer book of Liberal Judaism put gender equality at the top of the agenda. The main difference in this respect between the new siddur and Service of the Heart published in 1967 was the use of an inclusive translation of the Hebrew throughout. When it came to the language of God, for example, gone were the words ‘Lord’, ‘King’ and ‘Father’; replaced by ‘Eternal One’, ‘Sovereign’ and ‘Parent’.

The changes in the Hebrew were minimal by contrast, but one change was extremely significant. In the Avot, ‘Fathers’, the first paragraph of the T’fillah, the Central Prayer, in came the ‘Immahot’, the ‘Mothers’. So, after the traditional recitation of Elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzchak veilohei Ya’akov, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob’: Elohei Sarah, elohei Rivkah, elohei Racheil veilohei Leah, ‘God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel and God of Leah’ (Siddur Lev Chadash, LJ, 1995, p.97).

We should note the decision to add the Foremothers after the Forefathers, rather than list them by generation. The translation in the American Reconstructionist prayerbook published in 1994 also puts the Patriarchs first, but the Foremothers appear alongside the Forefathers, and with the omission of the word ‘and’, they stand in their own right (Kol Haneshamah. The Reconstructionist Press, 1994, pp. 90-91):

Significantly, in both versions Leah is mentioned after Rachel, although she was the elder sister and the first to bear a child (Va-yeitzei, Gen. 29:31-32).

Gender equality is a contemporary value. The Genesis narratives of our ancestors reflect a patriarchal culture, in which males and females were not treated equally, and married women’s lives were limited to their roles as wives and mothers. When Sarah couldn’t conceive, her maidservant, Hagar became her surrogate (Lech L’cha, Gen. 16:1-4). Similarly, when Jacob’s favourite wife Rachel was unable to conceive, her maidservant, Bilhah became her surrogate. Two of Jacob’s sons, Dan and Naphtali were the sons of Bilhah (Va-yeitzei, Gen. 30:1-8). Rachel’s older sister Leah, on the other hand, was fertile. However, when she stopped conceiving temporarily after bearing Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah, Leah made a similar arrangement with her maidservant, Zilpah, who mothered Jacob’s sons, Gad and Asher (30:9-13).

Since Bilhah and Zilpah mothered between them four of Jacob’s twelve sons, perhaps, we should also include them in the blessing of the Avot v’Immahot? The argument against would be that the blessing refers in each generation to the ‘God of … ‘ and there is no evidence that Bilhah and Zilpah had a relationship with God. But then, there is no evidence that Sarah, Rachel or Leah had a relationship with God, either. Indeed, we learn that Rachel hid her father Laban’s idols when Jacob’s household was leaving to go back home after his twenty-year exile (Gen. 31:19 and 30-35). Rebekah was the exception. We read that when she was pregnant and felt a struggle within her womb, ‘she went to enquire of the Eternal One – Va-teilech lidrosh Adonai – and the Eternal One responded explaining that ‘Two nations are in your womb … and the elder shall serve the younger’ (Tol’dot, Gen. 25:22-23). Armed with this knowledge, Rebekah took action to ensure that second-born twin, Jacob, would be heir to the blessing due to the firstborn son (Gen. 27:1ff.)

So, what about our first Matriarch, Sarah? This week’s parashah, Chayyei Sarah opens with her death (Gen. 23:1). Of course, Sarah’s role in ensuring the succession from Abraham to Isaac was crucial. Once she became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, she persuaded Abraham against his wishes to expel Hagar and Ishmael, the son Hagar had borne with Abraham (Va-yeira, Gen. 21:9-11). But reading of Sarah’s death, we are reminded that her life was focused around the imperative to bear a male heir. In everything else, she either followed Avram’s lead as her husband, or disappeared from the narrative altogether. And so, when Avram responded to God’s call and decided to leave his home, the text says simply, ‘Then Avram took Sarai his wife’ (Lech L’cha, Gen. 12:5). When their journey brought them into Egypt and Avram sensed danger, he told Sarai to pretend to be his sister (12:13). Even when the mysterious messengers came to the door of the tent and announced that Sarah would bear a son, it was Abraham who organised the hospitality, while Sarah listened in the background and laughed to herself at the prospect of becoming a mother at her great age (Va-yeira, Gen. 18:10-15).

Chayyei Sarah opens with the words ‘The life of Sarah was 127 years… And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, that is Hebron’ (Gen. 24:1-2). Towards the end of the parashah, having secured a wife for Isaac and after marrying again, we read of Abraham’s death at the age of 175 (25:7-8). There is nothing remarkable about the passing of our first Matriarch and Patriarch – except for two things; one implicit and one explicit. Sarah’s death is recorded immediately after the binding of Isaac (Va-yeira, Gen. 22). This juxtaposition should make us wonder about the connection between the two events. Was Sarah consulted, when Abraham went off to sacrifice Isaac? And then, when Abraham died, we read that ‘Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah’ (25:9). Sarah’s sole act of volition was to force the two brothers apart, but nevertheless, they remained brothers and shared the sacred duty of burying their father.

So, should the first blessing of the T’fillah reflect more closely what the Torah narratives tell us about our Foremothers and Forefathers? No. While our liturgy connects us to our inheritance, it is also an expression of our values as Liberal Jews today of all genders, committed to equality and inclusion.

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