I’ve been waiting for the Torah to come around again to share this sermon from the Holy Days. It examines Sarah’s journey through her life with Abraham, ending with the binding and near sacrifice of her son (which is our Torah portion this Shabbat). It seems particularly relevant with the wave of women coming forward to share their stories of surviving in this patriarchal world. It makes me ask if Sarah would have been a voice of #metoo. But a warning… this questions everything we’ve been taught about our Torah and Abraham. So be ready. 🙂
We read the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, every Rosh Hashanah morning. Our reader today, with amazing skill, read about God calling to Abraham, Abraham answering, and God asking him to take his beloved son (whom God calls Abraham’s only [or unique] son even though Ishmael is also Abraham’s son… ponder that for a moment and we will get back to it…) to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice to God.
So, Abraham, certainly not winning any awards as “father of the year,” does just that. He brings his son to Moriah to be sacrificed, as asked. Now, how old Isaac was at this time is unsure. There are theories — as young as two and as old as 36. The Torah does not suggest that father and son said much to each other during their journey except for Isaac asking, “Hey, dad! Where is the lamb for the offering?” So, it’s hard to know how mature Isaac was. For the moment, instead of imagining an Isaac that is an emerging adult, let’s imagine him as a boy old enough to ask questions, but not old enough to resist his father’s bidding.
For those of you who were here last night, you heard my sermon about children feeling like their parents are as powerful as any king or queen. Think of Isaac’s vision of Abraham here. Most likely, to Isaac, Abraham was the sun or the moon, as important as any king. But Abraham’s father figure is God himself, and almost like a small child, Abraham is blinded by the celestial light.
So you heard the rest of the story: Abraham builds an alter, binds Isaac, and lifts his hand with a knife to sacrifice him. Again, the Torah says nothing about Isaac. Did he resist? Was he afraid? Was he simply too young to question his father? But an extension of God calls out to Abraham to stop. The parental figure, this “Avinu Malkeinu,” must restrain his child Abraham, because, maybe, his child didn’t fully understand the directions given or perhaps the Father regretted his words, not realizing the extent of power he held over his spiritual son.
We can explain these events and preserve a fully positive vision of Abraham with the many commentaries that provide such support. But I’m wondering if our patriarchal authors, in recording this story, didn’t want us to examine closer WHY Abraham was willing to do such a thing, and whether or not Sarah… a woman with her own flaws for sure, should actually be the one considered the true parent of the Jewish people.
For those of you who read the Red Tent with me (which is the feminist point of view of Jacob’s family, told through the eyes of Dinah), I’m playing with the same theme. What would the Abraham story be, if told from the perspective of Sarah?
Now, to understand the mental state of Sarah and perhaps excuse some of her quirks, we have to reach back to when she first has a real role in the Torah. We first get to know of her when she (who was named Sarai back then) and Abraham (who was Avram) are suffering from a great famine and enter Egypt — the Torah’s favorite place for tragedies. Avram, commenting on how beautiful his wife is, decides he should tell the Pharoah that Sarai is only his sister so that the Pharoah doesn’t kill him in order to have Sarai for himself. In fact, the Pharoah does want Sarai, and in return not only did Avram get to keep breathing, but he also got sheep and oxen and he-asses and she-asses and men-servants and maid-servants and camels, including Hagar who will soon have a starring role in our story. Nice trade. But according to the text, God steps in. God plagues the Pharoah and his house, and once the truth is known, Avram and Sarai head off, now wealthy in cattle, silver and gold.
Okay, ladies. Tell me… If during hard times, your husband decided to let another man have you so that he (and okay, both of you) got to live and become rich, what would you say? Even if it was royalty? There is no comment about how Sarai felt about all of this just as later in the Torah Isaac seems oddly quiet. But we know that according to the Torah, God didn’t approve of Avram’s actions and stood by the side of Sarai. And Sarai is barely mentioned as we continue with Avram’s story. Was she well? Did she change? Did she suffer from a little PTSD from her husband pimping her out to the Pharoah? We don’t know. The Torah is silent.
What we do know is that Sarai is barren and asks Avram to have a child with her handmaiden, Hagar. What follows does not make Sarai look good as she becomes full of rage and jealousy for the handmaiden and the boy. But when a woman had a child through a handmaiden at that time, that child belonged to her. This is a notion that may seem insane to us now, but Sarai felt robbed. Ishamael remained Hagar’s son. Sarai didn’t name him, she didn’t raise him, she didn’t care for him. She allowed her husband this blessing but the return never came. How could Sarai not feel burned, watching Avram’s excitement for his new child? How could she not still remember the heart ache of being given so easily away and feel the pain of the reality of her lack of child? What reason did Sarai have to trust Avram that she, the barren older wife, would remain in any position with him when she knew he could give her away, because he had done it before?
And guess what? As they traveled south to Gerar, Abraham (not Avram anymore, now fully blessed by God as Sarah was) offers Sarah to King Avimelech. He does it again! Claiming she was only his sister… again! And once again God intervened. According to the Torah, the King never touched her, but interestingly, it is after she is given to the King that she conceives Isaac and not before. We wouldn’t be thinking critically if we didn’t ask, is Isaac even Abraham’s son??
Regardless of who the baby-daddy was, we have to ask why is it that Sarah couldn’t be compassionate with Hagar and Ishmael still, even now with her own baby. But I ask, how damaged was Sarah? Twice given away? The website Healthy Place states that when emotionally abused, one could show signs such as confusion, anxiety, aggression, low self esteem, emotional instability, and lack of trust. Well, that would explain a lot.
But I also wonder if Sarah was unsure if Isaac was actually Abraham’s son. Perhaps she felt she needed to send Ishamel away knowing that HE was truly Abraham’s only child? And did Abraham suspect it as well? Is that why he was willing to sacrifice Isaac? And did God call Isaac Abraham’s ONLY son because God was trying to convince him otherwise, whether it was true or not?
And what happened after the attempt to sacrifice Isaac? Can you imagine the tale Isaac must have told his mother when he returned home? Well, Sarah and Abraham lived in separate places… Abraham in Beer-Sheva and Sarah in Hebron 26 miles away. Why? Did Sarah hate Abraham for what he did and demand that they separate? Did she stand up for her son in a way she couldn’t for herself? And where did Isaac live when his parents split? We don’t hear of him again until after Sarah’s death when he is with his father in search of a bride. But I’ll put my money on Isaac choosing to live with mom.
So, Reflecting on all of this, I believe that Sarah should be considered equally, if not more than Abraham, the parent of our generations. Now, make no mistake, the Torah tells no other version than the one in which Abraham is a prophet of God, and my midrash here is nothing but one that would be rejected by most. But as critical readers and thinkers, we must question everything. Yes, we can still love Abraham, because all of our Biblical ancestors were flawed and made many mistakes. This is why we can love them… because they truly are our parents and aunts and uncles and cousins — human — in some ways strong and in some ways quite weak. The same can be said for Sarah. But I would love to be able to hear this tale told again through her eyes and see how our understanding of Biblical history might change. Sarah is the loving parent of Isaac who protected him even when she couldn’t stand up for herself and separated them both from Abraham’s misguided ways. She intervened, as God did, to protect her son from an unhealthy father/son relationship as long as she could. She is our mother, and she is worthy to have her name placed at least beside if not before her husband’s.
And so, I offer you a feminist version of the first paragraph of our Amidah… Baruchah At Shechina, Eloheinu veilohei imoteinu… Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei rachel, V’elohei Leah. Blessed is Shechinah, God of our Mothers… God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, God of Leah. And by the way, let’s add Zilpah and Bilhah who may have been handmaidens, but were also the mothers of the tribes of Israel.
May Sarah and all the women who identify with her, women who find themselves feeling like they could be given away, like they cannot find stability within themselves or around themselves, find peace and place themselves and their names beside if not before their husbands’. And may they find storytellers to tell their stories through their eyes, even if other versions of their histories keep them oddly silent.
Join Cool Shul for upcoming events:
Havdalula (Havdalah and dinner at Lula’s!_
Social Action Committee (meets November 15)
Possible Adult B’nei-Mitzvah class (email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, for info)