The Sacrifice Of Sarah

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Special To The Jewish Week

By Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut

Abraham and Sarah seem to have been living apart when she died in Hebron, although the text is not explicit as to why. Apparently, the Akeidah (the near-sacrifice of Isaac) separated them. Abraham “came to mourn for Sarah” [Gen. 23:2], arriving from somewhere else, to bury her.

Our founding ancestors are both admirable and flawed. Many praise Abraham for his blind obedience to God – but few blame him for pretending that Sarah is his sister and therefore available to both Pharaoh and Avimelech. This deception is viewed as justified, because it saves Abraham’s life. And many blame Sarah for her cruelty towards

Abraham separates himself from others, and separates family members from each other. He “adopts” Lot away from Lot’s grandfather, and eventually Abraham separates from Lot, too. Perhaps Abraham’s “adoption” of Lot was also a lesson to Sarah about the option to parent through surrogate arrangements.

When we meet Sarah, she is portrayed as an obedient wife, childless, without intimates, except for Abraham and Lot. She seems to acquiesce in being sexually used in Egypt. However, there is a possible hint of revolt on her part. The Midrash emphasizes that the first time Abraham offers his wife to another man (Pharaoh), he uses the term “na,” (“please”). The second time, when he sends her to Avimelech (see Rashi), Abraham omits “na,” perhaps indicating that he had to order Sarah to go
to Abimelech.

Upon leaving Egypt, still childless, Sarah may feel more alone than ever. Desperate and unwilling to wait passively, Sarah decides to use Hagar, one of the reminders of her victimization in Egypt, as a surrogate to provide her with a child. Just as Lot became Abraham’s surrogate son, Sarah now wants to have her own surrogate child. Just as Abraham had earlier offered Sarah to Pharaoh, Sarah now offers Hagar to Abraham.

When Hagar conceives, and becomes haughty towards Sarah [Gen 16:4], Sarah decides to send her away, echoing Abraham and Lot’s separation. Sarah exclaims, when asking Abraham to send Hagar away, she exclaims, “Chamasi Alecha” [Gen. 16:5], “The wrong done to me is your fault!”

Sarah’s strong words here represent the first and only time that she expresses her innermost feelings about what Abraham did to her. Here, she finally allows her deep anger at Abraham’s prior behavior to emerge. Hagar, in a real sense, is part of the reward that Pharaoh gave Abraham after Abraham misrepresented Sarah. Hagar is a constant, living reminder
to Sarah of her husband’s mistreatment.

In finally expressing her anger, Sarah goes even further, invoking God to judge between herself and her husband. This is the first biblical reference to God as “Judge.” In this quarrel between husband and wife, Sarah does not even mention Hagar. She refers to Abraham as perpetrator, herself as victim, and God as Judge.

From this heated exchange, we learn that all along Sarah may have been inwardly seething at Abraham’s behavior in Egypt.

With the exiling of Hagar, we again see the ripple effect that Abraham’s behavior has had on his family. For the first time, Abraham expresses pain about the loss of a relationship. Nonetheless, Abraham listens to God and sends Hagar and Ishmael away.

After the Akeidah, Sarah dies. According to Midrash, Sarah died from shock upon learning of Isaac’s experience. Sarah becomes the real sacrifice; her son’s near-death, at the hands of her own husband, kills her.

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah the rabbis offer us what is perhaps a most subversive critique of the Akeidah. After reading about the birth of Isaac, we hear about another childless woman. Centuries later, Hannah illustrates another way of “sacrificing” a child. Hannah dedicates her son, the future prophet Shmuel, to a life of service to God. She illustrates another way of dedicating – not sacrificing – a child to God, by allowing him to live.

The rabbis show great wisdom in the way they handle Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and Sarah’s grief about this event. On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read the story of the Akeidah, but we also hear the plaintive cries of the shofar, representing Sarah’s wails [Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 32.15].

Thus, we may praise Abraham, cry with Sarah, or do both.

Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut are the co-authors of “Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.” An expanded essay by the authors on this subject, together with other of their Devri Torah may be found at the website of Women of the Wall.

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