Sarah’s Majesty

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

The first two portions of the Book of B’reishit (Genesis) span a period of about 2,000 years. During that time, there are a total of six women mentioned by name: Eve (the first woman), Ada and Zila (Lemech’s wives), Na’amah (Noah’s wife), Milkah (Abraham’s niece), and Sarah.

Of those women, most are mentioned scarcely as a footnote, other than two: Eve — with her single day in the biblical spotlight — and Sarah. When it comes to Sarah, however, the Torah slows down and Sarah’s life story spans four portions: she is introduced in Parshat Noach as Abraham’s wife; her life, travels and experiences with Abraham take up Parshat Lech Lecha and Parshat Vayeira — this week’s portion; and then her passing and burial consumes the earlier part of Parshat Chayei Sarah.

Last week we discussed Sarah’s extraordinary beauty. This week, I would like to focus on her character and her influence.

We have previously alluded to the contrast between Sarah and Eve with respect to the role that G-d expected each to play in her marriage here. Adam was punished for obeying his wife, Eve when she told him to partake of the forbidden fruit. In contrast, Abraham is encouraged to obey Sarah in all of her commands; and conversely, Sarah is not necessarily as obedient to Abraham as he is to her.

Indeed, the following biblical episodes give us a glimpse as to who in fact wore the pants in the first Jewish family.

The very first recorded conversation between Abraham and Sarah takes place in last week’s Parshah, in which Abraham turns to Sarah and says: “Behold now I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will slay me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, in order that he will do good with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.”[1]

Note how deferentially Abraham speaks to her, and in an age of intense patriarchy yet! He begins by acknowledging her great beauty; then he explains the reason behind his request; then he respectfully requests — using the Hebrew word “Na” for “please” — that she refer to herself as his sister.

Many commentaries say that Sarah did not accede to Abraham’s request, however. Initially, she remained silent, and did not contradict Abraham when he called her his sister. However, when Pharaoh ultimately took her to be his wife, but then returned her to Abraham the next morning, Pharaoh berated him: “What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to myself for a wife? And now, here is your wife; take [her] and go.”[2]

How did Pharaoh learn that Sarah was in fact Abraham’s wife and not his sister? And why, by the way, was Pharaoh smitten with a plague as punishment for taking an unmarried woman to wife? Surely that was his prerogative as king in that ancient culture?

Commentaries explain that Sarah actually told Pharaoh that she was Abraham’s wife several times, but he either did not believe her, or he decided to make her his wife nonetheless. For this he was punished, whereupon he quickly decided that Sarah was telling the truth, and that she should be safely returned to her husband.

So despite Abraham’s express request, Sarah made her own decision as to how she would present herself.

Later in the Parshah, devastated by her life-long state of infertility, Sarah tells Abraham: “Behold, the Lord has held me back from childbirth; please come unto my maidservant; perhaps I will be built up from her.” “And Abram listened to Sarai’s voice.”[3]

It would be far too simple to attribute Abraham’s ready compliance to the fact that he was a guy — as in “Wouldn’t every guy jump at the opportunity to impregnate his wife’s handmaid?” Um, no. And particularly not in the case of Abraham. He was, at that point, 86 years old, with he and Sarah having recently celebrated their 60th anniversary. Sarah had just a few years before won the award for the most beautiful trophy wife, whom even Pharaoh could not resist. Hagar, conversely, was a mere servant girl in Sarah’s employ. And Abraham himself was one regarding whom G-d attests in this week’s Parshah: “I love him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.”[4] This is not the kind of man who was itching to take Hagar to bed, and was just awaiting his wife’s consent.

But he listened to her nonetheless, and without question. He might have said: “Are you sure, Sarai? And if you are convinced that you will not bear children on your own, should we not seek a woman with comparable lineage? Perhaps someone from the line of Shem, as opposed to an Egyptian girl from the line of Ham?” Or, he might have said: “Sarai, have faith, and trust that G-d will bless us with children!”

Instead, he obeyed her…“and he came unto Hagar, and she conceived.”[5]

When Hagar was impregnated and began to mistreat her mistress, Sarah challenged Abraham, perhaps wondering whether Abraham’s loyalty to her had shifted, now that he had an heir on the way. But “Abram said to Sarai, ‘Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes.’ And Sarai afflicted her, and she fled from before her.”[6] Even then – even when it came to his own unborn child – Abraham completely deferred to Sarah.

Finally, in this week’s Parshah, Sarah puts Abraham’s commitment to her to the ultimate test. After finding that Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael, born to Hagar, is mistreating her own son Isaac, she says: “Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.”[7]

Here, Abraham’s resolve waivers. He has listened to Sarah in every respect throughout their marriage, obeying her in all — “but the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son.”[8]

And it is here, in the face of this difficult decision that no parent should ever have to make, that Sarah receives the most powerful endorsement of all: that of G-d Himself. “And G-d said to Abraham, ‘Don’t be upset concerning the lad and your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.”[9]

This last phrase, is highly significant — particularly coming from G-d, Who had previously said to Adam twenty generations earlier: “Because you listened to your wife . . . cursed be the ground for your sake.”[10] This contrary directive for Abraham to listen to Sarah is not viewed as being limited to the particular context of sending away Ishmael; it is seen as G-d’s policy statement with respect to the entirety of Abraham and Sarah’s relationship — and not only theirs, but the relationship between every Jewish woman and her husband.

The Torah states that: “A woman of valor is the crown of her husband.”[11]

There are many mystical and hermeneutical interpretations of this verse; but at a fairly simple level, the Midrash says that “this means that she is the master over her husband, as it says ‘whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.’”[12] In other words, G-d’s command that Abraham listen to Sarah, the first Jewish woman, was a commandment intended to echo throughout the ages, illustrating the appropriate dynamic for any man fortunate enough to be married to woman of valor.

In this way, says the Zohar, Sarah was the first to begin to repair the spiritual destruction caused by Adam and Eve, and to restore the rightful role of the feminine.

Sarah’s power and mastery was reflected even in her name, and particularly when her name was changed by G-d from “Sarai” to “Sarah.” From one perspective, “Sarai,” with the possessive suffix “yud” at the end of her name, means “my princess” — for me, but not for others. This perhaps suggested that the respect and deference that Abraham had for his wife was unique to their specific relationship, and was not necessarily reflective of a new norm. But then G-d changed her name to “Sarah,” without any qualifying suffix, denoting that she would be a princess over all, and lending a more eternal and enduring quality to her majesty.[13]

Another perspective is that “Sarai” (with a yud) meant that she is a princess, but her authority flows “from me,” from Abraham – “it is my authority.” On the other hand, “Sarah,” to which her name was changed, alludes to her graduation from one who previously received her authority from her husband, to one who was herself an independent source of authority.[14]

If so, this suggests that Sarah in fact broke the mold that had been set by Adam and Eve on the very first day of creation. The source of Eve’s existence flowed from Adam: “G-d built the side that He had taken from Man into a woman.”[15] Later that same day, G-d cursed Eve, promising that “he will rule over you,”[16]and cursed Adam for listening to his wife.[17] This cemented into place a highly patriarchal dynamic.

Now, however, Sarah – an already majestic woman – has her name changed to signal a further shift in the source of her authority, from her husband to something more innate; and G-d subsequently formalizes and approves this shift by expressly commanding Abraham:

“Listen to your wife.”

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Genesis, 12:11-13.

[2] Genesis, 12:18-19.

[3] Genesis, 16:2.

[4] Genesis, 18:19.

[5] Genesis, 16:4.

[6] Genesis, 16:6.

[7] Genesis, 21:9-10.

[8] Genesis, 21:11.

[9] Genesis, 21:12.

[10] Genesis, 3:17.

[11] Proverbs, 31:10.

[12] Genesis Rabba, 47:1.

[13] See Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 13a.

[14] See Genesis Rabba, 47:1 in Chidushei HaRaDal.

[15] Genesis, 2:22.

[16] Genesis, 3:16.

[17] Genesis, 3:17.