PARSHAT LECH LECHA
“Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12:5)
In our daily prayers, three times a day, we mention our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We pray to attain merit based on their good deeds. Traditionally, our foremothers are not mentioned. Today, many non-Orthodox synagogues including mine have made a deliberate choice to include the names Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. I will admit that it is controversial to change the wording of our ancient liturgy, set in place by the Rabbis of the Talmud, to reflect modern sensitivities. But I believe it is important to remember that we flourish based on the merit of our mothers as well as our fathers.
This week we introduce the first couple, the father and mother of our people, Abraham and Sarah. (When we first meet them, their names are Abram and Sarai. God will change their names.) The deeds of Abraham are clear from the stories told in the book of Genesis. The deeds of Sarah are more hidden; we need to dig deeper into Rabbinic Midrash (ancient legends.)
For example, the Torah speaks of Abraham travelling to the Holy Land with the people he acquired, as mentioned in the opening quote. This teaches that Abraham converted many people to belief in one God Who demands ethical behavior. The Midrash teaches that Abraham converted the men. But it also teaches that Sarah converted the women. A large group of women became followers of Sarah after studying with her, and were led to embrace her beliefs. They were the first teaching couple that helped transform the world in which they lived.
Usually, the Bible is not concerned with appearance. But the Torah does teach that Sarah was a beautiful woman. Later, when the Torah speaks of her death at the age of 127, the Midrash teaches that at the age of 100 she had the beauty of a 20-year-old and the innocence of a 7-year-old. It reminds us of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” More and more, as I work in a senior community, I see the beauty of older people.
According to a Midrash, Abraham worries about his wife’s beauty, especially when they flee to Egypt. He tells his wife to hide in a box until they are safely across the border. The border guards demand to know what is in the box, ask if it is valuable, and demand that Abraham pay taxes on the value. “Is it precious cloths?” “Is it gold?” “Is it jewels?” Abrham is honest and says that what is in the box is more valuable than any of these. Finally, the border guards open the box and Sarah’s beauty could be seen throughout Egypt. That is when Pharaoh tries to take her into his harem.
Physical beauty is important but spiritual beauty is more important. “Grace is deceptive, beauty is vain; It is for her fear of the LORD That a woman is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Sarah was known for her piety. In fact, later in the Torah, dealing with the difficult family issues of Hagar and Ishmael, God tells Abraham regarding Sarah, “Listen to her voice.” Often women have deeper insights into human relationships than we men do. After listening to Sarah, Abraham had to make the difficult decision to remove Hagar and Ishmael from his household. Sometimes action must be taken that is not kind but is necessary.
In our daily prayers we remember not simply our fathers but our mothers. We exist as a people due to the spiritual leadership of our first mother, Sarah. As we begin reading the cycle of stories of Abraham our father, it is worthy also to remember our mother, Sarah.