Thinking about Sarah ~ Hayyei Sarah ~ 25 Heshvan 5780 / 23 November 2019
Nov 28th 2019

In this week’s parashah, we read at the beginning of chapter 24, “Abraham was old, advanced in years, and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.”

Commentators go in all directions with this verse. Rashi looked to gematria and said that the word had the same numerical value as “ben”, so he understood this verse to mean that God blessed Abraham with a little boy or a son. It’s a nice reading, but I have a daughter so it doesn’t work for me. 

In the Talmud, in “Bava Batra”, Rabbi Meir said that God’s blessing to Abraham was davka that he did nothave a daughter. Sorry Rabbi Meir, but I can’t relate to that either.

In the same Gemara, Rabbi Yehuda followed Rabbi Meir and said: On the contrary, the blessing was that hehada daughter. 

The Gemara continued: Others say: Abraham had a daughter and her name was Bakkol. 

I would like to take it in a different direction this morning.

In my understanding, when we read “And God blessed Abraham bakol” I think it meant that Avraham was blessed by having his wife Sarah at his side. She was his everything. 

The entire first chapter of this week’s parashah, of Hayyei Sarah, detailed how Abraham obtained land and a burial place for Sarah. The chapter ends with “and after, he buried Sarah his wife in the Cave of Mahpelah.”

Until our parashah, Abraham had Sarah as his life partner at his side, bakol, through all he did. More than that, he was blessed that she stayed with him through all that he did. I am not sure all women would. 

What do we know about Abraham? 

In Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, we read: “Our father Abraham, alav hashalom, underwent ten tests, and he stood by them all, with his wife.”

What are the ten tests?

There are a few different lists floating around, by different commentators, but this is the one from Rambam.

1. God told him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.

2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encountered a famine.

3. The Egyptians seized Sarah, and brought her to Pharaoh.

4. Abraham faced incredible odds in the battle of the kings.

5. He married Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.

6. God told him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.

7. The king of Gerar captured Sarah, intending to take her for himself.

8. God tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.

9. He became estranged from his son, Ishmael.

10. God told him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.

Sarah was with Abraham during all of these tests or trials.

She too experienced all of these trials in her own way--backwards and in heels maybe. 

Already back in Chapter 11 of Bereisheet, at the end of Parashat Noah, we read that Sarah and Abraham were together: “Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai.”

Sarah was a part of Abraham’s life during every one of his divine tests. 

He was never told to leave his wife behind. Sarah went with him. 

She experienced everything he experienced in her own way, as an ezer knegdo, a help mate, as a partner. 

A few examples:

Sarah put her faith in Abraham and God. She too, left her family and homeland for the Land of Israel. She left behind everything and everyone she knew—for her husband. While God never actually said lekhi lakh (the feminine form of lekh lekha, translated as “leave”), she was included in the command. As Abraham is never explicitly told to leave behind Sarah, once can assume that she too had to pack up and pick up. 

Sarah’s faith in God was tested once more, when the new land was dry as a bone and she was forced into exile to Egypt. She too encountered a famine. This was most definitely a trial for her, especially if the women were the ones that cooked and baked. How was she able to put bread on the table?

When Sarah’s husband, fearing for his life, declared her to be his sister and Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s palace, what did she do? She went along with it without a peep. She knew her place and her role. As Tikvah Freymer Kensky wrote, “Sarah participated in an act of hesed toward Abraham, a benevolence toward her husband beyond normal wifely duties.”

Had I been Sarah, or had you been Sarah, perhaps you would have reached out to the closest divorce lawyer, especially since this happened twice! Abraham was blessed that the righteous Sarah stood by him during this ordeal.

Sarah was left at home while Abraham battled against the kings in Genesis 14. She paid bills and dealt with deliveries and whatever else she had to do to keep her home operating. 

Then there is Sarah’s experience with Hagar. I can’t even imagine what that was like for her. 

Their names are important. Abraham is the exalted father, Sarah is the princess and Hagar-she is the ger, the stranger or the outsider. Hagar was the slave in Sarah’s home. But since Hagar had the first child, Sarah does not treat her well. And since we all care about justice and not oppressing the slave, we often get angry at Sarah and castigate her for being insensitive to the plight of someone she should have compassion for.

So maybe this test Sarah failed? 

I used to think that. I used to think this was one of those areas where we learn what not to do. 

Childless, Sarah became a sister-wife to Hagar, her much younger maidservant. Just imagine how painful that must have been for Sarah. The deep jealousy. As moderns, it is not hard to imagine why she eventually lashed out. A few weeks ago at Limmud, I sat in a session where Rabbi Tina Grimberg of Darchei Noam looked at this scene from that perspective, the perspective of a woman who loves her husband, who has been chosen by God to be the mother of a people, yet could not conceive. 

When the pain became too much and Sarah exiled Hagar and Ishmael from her home, where she was the matriarch, ensuring Isaac, her son, would continue the family legacy, did she pass her test? 

I am not sure. 

But she did what was required for her husband to fulfill his divine mission. 

Abraham was blessed bakol, with everything, because he had Sarah. 

She was the person behind the person.

She was the woman behind the man.

She was his wind beneath his wings.

She was blessed to be his kol, his everything. 

Without Sarah at his side, there is no way that Abraham could have accomplished all that he did. 

Sarah is gifted an entire parsahah in the Torah so we can remember how important her life was to Abraham’s life. 

Sarah was strong and wise and connected and involved and she could laugh and she could cry and she had integrity and she knew how to love and she was able to connect with God. 

And at the same time, she did not need the limelight.

She made a few mistakes, some of them huge. But she supported her life partner. I don’t know if there was romance between Abraham and Sarah like we find with Isaac and Rebecca, but there was trust, faith and determination. She for sure increased his well-being and his sense of shlaymoot. 

To those of you in the room who have a Sarah guiding you, supporting you, cheering you on and accepting you for who you are—you are fortunate. You are blessed. 

And to those of you are that Sarah.

I honour you and support you and admire you. 

Are you a Sarah? Do you have a Sarah? 

How can you teach others to be like Sarah? 

Shabbat shalom.