As a psychologist and a writer, I believe in the power of story. For who are we but the stories we tell ourselves? And so I was drawn to write a book about some of our founding stories, the Genesis stories.
This week we read the parasha of Lech Lecha and in the spirit of JWOW I want to look at it from a woman’s perspective.
A poem by Merle Feld ‘We all stood together’ sets the scene for unnarrated experiences of many of the women in the Torah.
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
Of what he saw
Of what he heard
Of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
Of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
One of my own
Or one for a friend
Always holding a baby
So my hands are never free
To write things down . . .
My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
We could re-create holy time
(Poem extract published with permission of the author, Merle Feld)
This poem lands us in the world of an alternative perspective on Lech lecha – through the eyes of Sarah. And that leads us to a theme bubbling beneath the surface – of absence that’s very present – Sarah’s yearning for a child that is not fulfilled for many years.
This theme begins as we read of the flow of generations who lived long lives and had many children; Shelah lived 433 years and had many sons and daughters, Peleg lived 239 years and had many sons and daughters . . .
There’s an almost feverish repetition of people with many children – which comes abruptly to a stop. “Sarai was barren, she had no child.”
Avivah Zornberg, wonderful Torah scholar and award-winning author comments on this description. “Against the flow…rich with a sense of the power of generation, of the multiple birthing, the realized consequences of potentialities inherent in each lifespan. . . is set the central absence of Abraham and Sarai’s life.”
We know that for women in biblical times the issue of having a child was especially significant. Child bearing was seen as the major role of the woman in ancient society. A woman who failed to produce children was seen as not fulfilling her destined role in life. Infertility was seen as the woman’s problem, there’s almost no reference in the bible to infertile men.
If the rasion d’etere of a woman in her own eyes was to bear children then her inability to do so led to a major feeling of inadequacy and meaninglessness. As the infertile Rachel cries out “give me children or else I die.”
Then there’s a spiritual aspect to infertility. When Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham she says “take my servant-girl as a wife, perhaps I will be built up from her.” The Torah suggests that having children builds some sort of house, a dynasty, a line. When a couple is infertile the line stops.
There were also legal and economic consequences of infertility. The state of barrenness included within it reduced status within the husband’s house. Many societies including the ancient Hebrew allowed men to take a second wife to bear children, in which case there would almost inevitably be some shifting of status within the family.
And finally there was a theological component to infertility. Fertility was seen as dependant on the blessing of God. Infertility was seen as an absence of that blessing, or even as a sign of God’s curse.
So for Sarah “Eyn la vlad” – “She has no child” –the consequences are enormous – the resounding negation cruelly confirms that what was expected as part of the natural thrust of existence is not.
The journey to motherhood for Sarah is long and convoluted. When Abraham says to God “You have given me no children – Eliezer will be my heir,” God assures him that “One born from your own body will inherit what is yours” and takes him outside for that special moment showing him that his children will be as many as the stars of the sky. Yes, God promises Abraham a child but the promise is not made to Sarah.
And so, as the years pass and Sarah does not fall pregnant, she gives Hagar to her husband. It seems Sarah had lost hope that she would be the mother of Abraham’s child. Perhaps she felt forgotten by God. Or she felt the covenant about the child was not made with her.
Sarah wanted a child so much she was willing for her husband to have a child with another woman. Or maybe Sarah believed the physical continuation of Abraham’s line was more important than her exclusive relationship with him. And so the complex and painful triangle of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar develops. As Naomi Rosenblatt writes, “How carefully we need to weigh the consequences of our well-intentioned acts. We like to imagine we are equal to any commitment we take on…but sometimes our altruistic impulses collide with our human limitations. Sarah makes the critical error of underestimating her susceptibility to that most agonizing of human emotions – jealousy.”
Hagar does indeed become pregnant and have a son, and Sarah remains childless.
It is only later, midway through the next parashah, that we read “Vehashem pakad et Sarah – And God remembered Sarah.” Tikva Frymer-Kensky, theologian, author and professor of Hebrew Bible writes “I’d like to suggest that the sentence “And God remembered Sarah” can be read as a sort of chapter heading for the entire story.” Starting with the Merle Field poem we come full circle back to the revitalized, dare I say fertile, world of women’s Torah commentary.
Frymer-Kensky continues “What does it mean that God remembered Sarah? First of all, it means that God had forgotten her. For me this sentence represents a profound moment in Torah. Sarah was indeed forgotten. Sarah was not directly addressed by God with the words Lech lecha. Sarah was not spoken to by the messengers of God that visited her family tent. Sarah was always assumed to be present but never directly addressed. This forgetting will happen again and again, throughout the Bible and throughout history.”
Then Frymer-Kensky does something interesting – she links God’s remembering of Sarah with the current blossoming of women’s reading and commentary on the text. “I want to suggest a reading of this sentence… to be fulfilled in the studying and interpreting of the text by women in the future. In this sentence God is taking responsibility for having forgotten Sarah and is promising to remember her. …If we can hear in these words God’s intention to do teshuva with women, we can see our struggles with the text and our reinterpretation of it as holy work. By writing our own midrashim and by living our own integrated lives, we are aiding God in the fulfilment of the Torah’s words by truly and fully remembering Sarah.”
And with that fascinating thought, I wish us all fertility and generativity at whatever stage of life we happen to find ourselves.