Patriarchs and Matriarchs
The central prayer of Jewish prayers, the Amidah, begins by identifying to whom one is praying: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. This identification serves not only to say who God is, but also to specify who the Jews are: the descendants of those patriarchs. At the same time, the Jews are also descendants of the matriarchs, and here’s the rub: though God’s promises are recorded in the Torah as given to the men, they would not have been achieved without the women.
The beginning of Parashat Lekh L’kha consists of God’s call to Abraham and promise to him: he will be the ancestor of a great nation. (Genesis 12:2) The reader recalls, however, that in the last chapter, his wife Sarah is noted as being barren. Already, a tension arises: is a great nation going to come from a barren woman? The answer to the puzzle lies in Egypt-appropriately, since Egypt is known in the Torah and elsewhere as a fertile land.
Abraham and Sarah journey to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan; Abraham begs Sarah to pose as his sister and not reveal that she is his wife, lest the Egyptians kill him in order to take her. She is then taken into Pharaoh’s house and Abraham receives, in effect a bride-price. Meir of Rothenberg (1215-1293, Germany) imagines an additional statement, unrecorded in the Torah, from Abraham to Sarah:
If you watch yourself, that you remain undefiled from any contact with Pharaoh, then God will certainly grant you a child.
In other words, God will be faithful to the promise in parallel to Sarah’s fidelity to Abraham. Yet the Torah itself does not cast Sarah as entirely passive. She returns from Egypt, and seeing that she is still barren, gives Abraham her maid, Hagar – her Egyptian maid – in order that he father a child through her. (Genesis 16) What would be seen in modern times as infidelity on Abraham’s part is fidelity on Sarah’s part – fidelity to God’s promise. A midrash sees a close connection between Egypt and Sarah’s virtuousness there:
Rabi Shimon bar Yohai said: Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh saw what had happened to Sarah in his house, he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah, saying, “It is better that my daughter be a maidservant in that house than a mistress in another. (Genesis Rabbah 45:1)
Sarah eventually receives a conception announcement from God and gives birth to Isaac (Genesis 21.) By that time, it has become clear that she is much more than an inert onlooker to the drama between her husband and God. She intervenes – to her detriment – to ensure a son for Abraham – Ishmael. Is it a stretch to suppose that this intervention was what persuaded God to open her womb? In bringing another woman into her husband’s tent, she looked beyond her own needs and set the foundation of the nation that was to come. Sarah was not merely the mother of Isaac; she opened the door to his birth by persuading God, as it were, to fulfill His promise.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi